Monday, March 2, 2009

The Arizona Diamondbacks' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

After previewing the six teams in the National League Central, I'm moving back to more familiar territory—the NL West. I've already covered the San Francisco Giants (and who am I kidding, I'll be writing more about them before the season starts anyway). I've also covered the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Those two teams figure to be the favorites heading into Opening Day for obvious and opposite reasons. So it seems to work nicely if I just keep moving down the list of contenders.

Which brings me to the Arizona Diamondbacks. They'd have to be considered either in the mix with LA and SF or a step behind. That in itself says volumes about the standard of competition in the Senior Circuit's left-most division.

And I thought the NL Central was in rough shape—almost every one of those teams would be a favorite out here.

Like I said, the Snakes will almost certainly finish no worse than third and could even compete for the division title if things break right. This despite the defections of Adam Dunn, Orland Hudson (to a division foe), Randy Johnson (to a division foe), Juan Cruz, and Brandon Lyon.

Here's how the roster should break out on Opening Day:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Chris Snyder
First base—Chad Tracy
Second base—Felipe Lopez
Third base—Mark Reynolds
Shortstop—Stephen Drew
Left field—Conor Jackson
Center field—Chris Young
Right field—Justin Upton

If all those young guys play up to or above expectation, the lineup could be pretty rugged. And let's not forget that Eric Byrnes is gonna be chomping at the bit to get on the field. If he can regain the form that garnered him his bloated contract, he could bump Jackson back to the infield, which would presumably shift Tracy to third and Reynolds to second. Arizona fans would mercifully be spared the slow strangulation of Felipe Lopez

But that presupposes a resurrection from Byrnes and I don't see that happening—I was never a believer to begin with though.

Starting rotation

Ace—Brandon Webb (R)
Second spot—Dan Haren (R)
Third spot—Doug Davis (L)
Fourth spot—Jon Garland (R)
Fifth spot—Max Scherzer (R)

Again, if everything goes well that's a fearsome rotation. Unfortunately, Spring Training has already gotten off to rocky start with Webb coming down with a ding. It's probably not serious, but that still doesn't bode well. Should any of the aforementioned run into trouble, Yusmeiro Petit is waiting in the wings. He's still only 24 and has shown some promise at times, but still not a contingency the Diamondbacks want to be forced into.


Closer—Jon Rauch (R)/Chad Qualls (R)
Set-up—Chad Qualls (R)/Jon Rauch (R)
Set-up—Tom Gordon (R)
Set-up—Scott Schoeneweis (L)
Set-up—Tony Pena (R)

On paper, there's good reason for Arizona fans to lay claim to preseason favorite status. In all honesty, that's the most complete picture in the NL West considering Arizona's most glaring weakness is its bullpen while LA lacks pitching and SF lacks hitting.

I say a lot of the warm fuzzies coming out of Diamondback camp is smoke and mirrors.

On offense, Chris Snyder is an adequate catcher, but he doesn't give Arizona a noticeable advantage. Chad Tracy's had trouble staying healthy of late, but there was once a time he was a reliable bet to threaten .300 while hitting 20+ home runs. And the Snakes would be better off finding a way to avoid Felipe Lopez at second—he's a tease and a really frustrating one at that.

A lot of people love Chris Young because he oozes athleticism. So does Mike Cameron and I say the two are a lot alike. Sure he hit 42 doubles and 22 homers while stealing 14 bases (along with 85 runs scored and 85 runs batted in). He also struck out 165 times in 625 at-bats while "hitting" .248 with an on-base percentage of .315 and an OPS of .758.

The kid is only 25 so I'd be dumb to write him off, but you could say I'm not a believer in anyone whose OBP is lower than a lot of averages in Major League Baseball.

Mark Reynolds fits in almost the exact same 25-year-old boat—.239 average, 28 doubles, 28 taters, 87 runs, 97 RBI, 11 stolen bases, a .320 OBP, a .779 OPS, and 204 whiffs in 539 ABs. Those last two numbers are CRAZY; that's almost a 40 percent K rate. Whoa.

Conor Jackson is nice, but 2008 saw him hit .300 with 31 doubles, 12 bombs, 87 runs, 75 RBI, 10 SBs, a .376 OBP, and an .823 OPS. That was probably very close to his peak so I doubt he's gonna suddenly add to those totals in vast quantities.

The real weapons are Stephen Drew and Justin Upton. Drew is farther along in his development, which is understandable considering he is 26 and Justin is 21. In '08, J.D.'s younger brother delighted the Arizona faithful by hitting .291 with 44 doubles, 11 triples, 21 homers, 91 runs, 67 RBI, a .333 OBP, and an. 836 OPS. All from shortstop and picking it clean at that position.

Upton missed a considerable amount of time so he only collected 356 ABs. In those chances, he hit .250 with 19 doubles, six triples, 15 HRs, 52 runs, 42 RBI, a .353 OBP, and an .816 OPS. B.J.'s younger brother did strike out 121 times so he's obviously got some holes to fix. Still, those numbers are pretty scary considering his extreme youth.

Either Drew or Upton or both could explode this year into something very special. If both of them make the leap, that might make the Snakes better than both the Giants and Dodgers.

The problem is the other guys and the pitching. Yeah, the pitching.

Brandon Webb is obviously one of the best in the business. But Dan Haren starting get torched a bit towards the end of the season and a lot of the damage was done by division opponents. Considering the offenses in the NL West, that can't be good news.

Doug Davis is okay as is Jon Garland, but both are defined by the team behind them rather than the other way around.

If Max Scherzer can take his place alongside Tim Lincecum and Chad Billingsley as he's supposed to, then all is gravy in Arizona. But what are the chances of all three becoming bona fide aces? Doesn't the law of averages dictate that one fails to deliver? Again, not good news since the other two have already established themselves.

And the bullpen is in even worse shape.

I don't know what the hell happened to Jon Rauch when he came over from the Washington Nationals, but something in the desert didn't agree with him as the wheels absolutely blew off his wagon. If Yusmeiro Petit's services aren't needed in the rotation, he'll help Chad Qualls settle the situation.

But Qualls isn't really a closer. If Rauch can't bounce back and Tony Pena can't finally justify all the closer-in-waiting talk, the Snakes will have an open inning at the end of games and that's a really bad idea.

Hey, there's always Tom Gordon. Maybe Flash will return to form. Maybe not.

Regardless, clubs that build their hopes on a series of best-case scenarios tend to find themselves staring up at a lot of teams in the standings come July and August.

I don't expect the baseball gods will be any kinder to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009.

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