With the Super Bowl now over and the start of Spring Training just days away, baseball season has unofficially started. The Diamondbacks made a lot of moves this offseason, signing Madison Bumgarner and Kole Calhoun then trading for Starling Marte. I believe that has pushed the floor of the team to about 84 wins overall, but a lot needs to go right for the team to get an additional six wins to put them in the Wild Card game and at least two more beyond that to host the game. When it comes down to a leadership standpoint, this team is not lacking for quality leaders in the front office, on the field, and in the locker room so I’m not too worried about the team under-performing expectations.
These are the necessary outcomes for the Diamondbacks to get to that 90 win total:
Ketel Marte’s 2019 is the new normal
Marte was poised for a breakout year at the plate in 2019 and he still exceeded expectations. Despite handling a position change from second base to center field, Marte put up career highs across the board en route to being voted the NL’s starting 2B in the All-Star Game and a 7 WAR season. With the acquisition of Starling Marte, Ketel is moving back to his natural 2B position. That should provide a bump in defense value if you’re going by Outs Above Average instead of DRS or UZR.
Moving forward, I do expect some regression in the bat as he over-performed his xwOBA in the 2019 season. Even if his bat regresses towards his 2019 mark of .370, that’s still the 88th percentile in MLB in that metric. From watching him play two full seasons, I can already tell that Marte is a very intelligent hitter who can grind out at-bats and make consistently loud contact to all fields without sacrificing contact ability or on-base skills. At the same time, I feel like he’s capable of improving his baserunning and defense to somewhat offset the potential drop-off at the plate.
Overall team defense is still excellent
One of the strengths of the D-backs over the Mike Hazen/Torey Lovullo regime has been overall team defense. Five members of the 2019 team won Gold Gloves and two other members of the 2020 team have won the award in previous seasons. On paper this year’s group appears to be a solid defensive team, but five of the starting eight defenders will be in their thirties, so a drop off in overall team defense is very possible. The defense will need to be great for at least one more year to help a pitching staff that isn’t necessarily high in overall upside collectively outside of a couple young starters.
Madison Bumgarner has a career year at 30
Bumgarner’s 2019 season was interesting to say the least. Finally healthy after injuries hampered him in 2017-18, Bumgarner’s overall stuff ticked up in both velocity and spin. That lead to an increase in strikeout rate to 24.1% while still being incredibly stingy with walks at a 5.1% rate. The problem was despite the uptick in stuff, Bumgarner surrendered a career-worst 30 long balls and overall batters didn’t have trouble hitting him as they did in years past. That will be an issue that GM Mike Hazen, manager Torey Lovullo, pitching coach Matt Herges, and pitching strategist Dan Haren will work on to solve and try to get the best of Bumgarner in 2020. If the Diamondbacks can help Bumgarner reduce the amount of quality contact allowed or turn more of those plays into more outs, I could see him having a career year.
Zac Gallen breaks out
Gallen is the X-Factor of the starting rotation, depending on how he develops in his first full season in the majors. Gallen offers the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the organization today due to his ability to command four pitches well and miss bats at a 28% clip. He also did a good job of jumping ahead of hitters early in the count with a 67% first pitch strike rate and quickly was able to get to 0-2 or 1-2. The one issue he has is putting hitters away when ahead, sometimes the at-bat will drag on too long to 2-2, then a full count and a missed opportunity. That’s something that will improve as Gallen fine tunes his command better and gains more experience at this level.
Daulton Varsho makes an immediate impact at the plate
For a season to go right, you need that one impact prospect who can provide a spark to the lineup. In 2011 it was Paul Goldschmidt and in 2017 it was Ketel Marte who provided that spark for the last two teams to make the playoffs. Even though Marte wasn’t on prospect lists going into 2017, you can make that argument since he was a former Top 50 prospect and started the year in AAA. The team only has one prospect who can provide that type of impact: Daulton Varsho.
The team isn’t necessarily hurting for offense at the three most likely positions Varsho would play (catcher, left, center), but they are one injury away from potentially needing him to play on at least a semi-regular basis. Varsho tore up the minors with his hitting, putting up at least a 120 wRC+ at each level and two of the three seasons over 150. Obviously that’s not the level of production I’d project for his MLB career, but seeing that he was not only able to make the jump from High A to AA but also improve his abilities at the plate lends hope that he’ll be an impact bat moving forward. There is an obvious learning curve for Varsho at the MLB level and it may take a couple years to develop the experience necessary to make adjustments, but I feel like his floor is being an above-average bat who can help the team sooner rather than later.
Archie Bradley leads the NL in saves
Ideally we want Bradley to cement the closer role and be the bullpen’s version of a stopper. He has the stuff and mentality to handle the 9th inning, but lacks the consistency or command to make those save opportunities routine instead of an adventure. Bradley’s stuff ticked up in the second half of 2019, leading to a jump in strikeout rate back up to 2017 levels and being very tough to square up. One issue he has is first batter efficiency, with 11 free passes in 66 chances and a success rate of only 67%. For Archie to be successful at closer, that number needs to improve. If Bradley can get that success rate over 75%, it will make closing out games a lot easier and probably gives Bradley the chance to put up 40+ saves on the year. If Bradley leads the league in saves, that will likely mean the D-backs’ win total will sit in the upper 80s/lower 90s.
If the Diamondbacks can get these things to go for them, I like their chances of not only competing for a wild card spot but actually hosting the game.