Happy February, Snakepit.
It's the member formerly known as Preston returning after a long hiatus, and I need to start with an apology to Jim and the membership for being in general a not-great presence over the last year or so I was here. I could make some excuses, but I won't. I know better, but I needed a break and I took it. Now I'm back and hopefully won't wind up in similar ruts.
I'm trying to be optimistic for a new season. I'm excited about cheering on some of the new talent.
The Diamondbacks have a history of quick turnarounds. Despite just a quarter-century of existence, they are the only team to complete a worst-to-first run three times: in 1999, 2007, and 2011. They also went from losing 93 games to reaching the postseason in 2017. Last season was the sixth time in franchise history that they improved by at least 15 wins over the previous season. And the 2006-2007 turnaround, which was just 14 games, doesn’t count in that, so there have been seven seasons of rapid improvement in franchise history. (Of course, that also means there have been plenty of collapses, but let’s look at the optimistic side of things.)
We are all pretty familiar with how the Diamondbacks have turned things around. Instead of rehashing that, let’s look at three other turnarounds in recent history and see how that might influence an attempt to make a postseason run in 2023.
2008 Tampa Bay Rays
The 2008 Rays may be the poster-child for turnarounds helped by a new, young core. As a franchise, they had never won more than 70 games, and were coming off a 66 win season in 2007. Furthermore, the Yankees had won every division title from 1998-2006, and the Red Sox were the defending World Series champions. The opening day lineup featured a mixture of veterans (Carlos Pena, Cliff Floyd, old friend Eric Hinske) and youth (Carl Crawford, B. J. (Melvin) Upton). James Shields was the opening day starter and the leader of a young rotation that featured no pitchers older than 26. Eventual Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria (I wonder what he might be up to these days?) wouldn’t make his debut for another couple of weeks.
Apart from a few young players who would develop into stars, this wasn’t a team with star power. Akinori Iwamura led the team in plate appearances and the aforementioned Shields led in innings pitched. But no pitcher over 26 started a game all season; Shields made 33 starts, Andy Sonnanstine 32, Matt Garza 30, future Diamondback Edwin Jackson 31, Scott Kazmir 27, Jason Hammel 5, Jeff Niemann 2, and David Price and Mitch Talbot each made a single start. Carlos Pena paced the offense with 31 home runs and a 129 OPS+. Upton didn’t have much power, but got on base to a .383 clip. And the result was 97 wins, a division title, and the franchise’s first American League pennant.
2015 Texas Rangers
The Rangers had won back-to-back pennants in 2010 and 2011, and won 90 games in 2012 and 2013, but fell off a cliff in 2014. They had a veteran core with a few young players, and they had peak Yu Darvish, until he was injured and lost not only for the remainder of 2014, but also all of 2015. They finished in last place, but mostly ran it back in 2015. They did sign Yovani Gallardo, which proved to be a wise signing as he posted a career year, and signed Cole Hamels in-season to provide more rotation depth. The offense had Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder, so there was no shortage of star power, but it was Shin-Soo Choo who enjoyed a bounce-back season to lead the offense. Rougned Odor, who was playing in his second season at just 21, was another key contributor, as was late acquisition Mike Napoli.
The Rangers won the division, winning 88 games and holding off the resurgent Astros. Of course, the run came to an end when the Rangers blew a 2-0 lead in the ALDS after winning the first two games in Toronto.
But while the players were largely the same from 2014, the manager was not, as Jeff Banister had taken over from Ron Washington.
2021 Seattle Mariners
The 2021 Mariners were not the team that finally broke through to the postseason for the first time since 2001; that would have to wait another year. They were also obscenely lucky, outperforming their Pythagorean by 14 wins to win 90 games and finish just outside the party. This with a pitching staff of no-names. Chris Flexen led the team in innings pitched and games started; Marco Gonzalez was the only other starter with an ERA+ over the water line. But their bullpen, also composed of no-names, was lights out. Drew Steckenrider and Paul Sewald got most of the saves, but Casey Sadler allowed just four runs in 40.1 innings, Kendall Graveman and Joe Smith also put in excellent contributions. The bullpen success enabled the Mariners to win a lot of close games, and they did, despite 2020 Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis being lost for the season in June due to a series of knee surgeries. The success of the bullpen wasn’t necessarily what would be expected on paper, but we all know that bullpens are volatile.
The Mariners followed it up by winning 90 games again in 2020, with the win total being (this time) supported by the underlying numbers. The offense was boosted by Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez as well as the addition of Eugenio Suarez, and the pitching staff was helped by the acquisitions of Robbie Ray and Luis Castillo, but also by solid seasons from two young pitchers, Logan Gilbert and George Kirby.
These three teams all used different methods to turn it around, but there is one clear similarity: players having career years. Sonnanstine is the big example; he was worth 1.4 bWAR in 2008 and worth -1.4 bWAR in the remainder of his career. Gallardo had been a serviceable pitcher, compiling 15.5 bWAR and an All Star selection with a 109 ERA+ over his first eight seasons, but he was worth 4.1 bWAR with a career-high ERA+ in 2015; he would be worth -0.5 bWAR over the remainder of his career. Only the 2021 Mariners didn’t have any obvious outlier seasons, but they got insanely lucky.
Basically, these three teams represent three paths to a quick turnaround. You can have a young core that performs as good as could possibly be expected. You can have veterans enjoying bounce-back years under a new manager. You can get insanely lucky.
Applications to 2023
The Diamondbacks have people in the clubhouse that were part of each of these teams. Evan Longoria was the star of the Rays’ young core in 2008; in 2023, he is the veteran leader who might mostly wind up playing DH and being a good clubhouse presence. Jeff Banister, at the helm of the Rangers for the 2015 turnaround, will also be in the dugout in 2023 for the Diamondbacks. Kyle Lewis joins the D-backs from the Mariners this season.
But the most important thing is not those characters, but the players who could enjoy breakout or bounce-back seasons.
Two of the top-five prospects in all of baseball should open the season with the Diamondbacks. Two more top-fifty prospects should be given every opportunity to do so. In addition, rules changes for the 2023 season should benefit the Diamondbacks, both because their young players are already accustomed to playing with a pitch clock, and because their speed should help them both cover more ground (as non-shifted fielders will need to do) and steal more bases. The Diamondbacks have more proven star power than did the 2008 Rays, with Ketel Marte, Christian Walker, and Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. Zac Gallen is a better starter than anyone on any of these teams. Zach Davies and Merrill Kelly are useful arms, and there is a full stable of high-upside prospects behind that trio. The bullpen remains a question mark, but as we all know, bullpens are a crapshoot.
I think the Diamondbacks have a decent shot at making a postseason run in 2023. There is a small margin for error, however. Corbin Carroll has to live up to his hype. Either Alek Thomas or Kyle Lewis has to bounce back to their expected ceilings as prospects. Ketel Marte has to recapture his form and health from 2018-2019. One of the young pitchers has to emerge as a Rookie of the Year candidate. And the bullpen has to come together to close out games. By WAA, the Diamondbacks had the worst bullpen in all of baseball last year, by far, while the starting rotation was merely average. I trust Brent Strom to get the most out of young pitchers like Ryne Nelson, Drey Jameson, and Brandon Pfaadt. I'm not going to predict a championship in 2023, but I don't think it's entirely out of the question, and I do think an increase of 10-15 wins is definitely possible, particularly with the more balanced schedule meaning fewer games against the Dodgers and Padres.
But whether there is a lot of winning or not, I do think Jake McCarthy's hair has a chance to be a highlight of the season, and he and Carroll could both steal 40+ bases with the new larger bases and pickoff rules. I think we'll enjoy watching this team. And I think I'll have a better year than I have in a long time.