MLB Coverage: Arizona Leads Up Darkhorse Teams Out West

The Arizona Diamondbacks lived through a disappointing 2012 season, after winning the NL West the year before. The D-Backs struggled with injuries early, often teased throughout the summer, but never quite put together a sustained run at either San Francisco or Los Angeles. It’s the defending champion Giants and the free-spending Dodgers sucking up all the media air in the NL West in the spring of 2013. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage today will see if Arizona should be considered in the group of contenders, and we’ll also check on two more potential darkhorses out west, the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners.

Any sort of bounceback for the Diamondbacks has to be built around starting pitching. That’s true, to a large degree with anyone, but this team has the potential for really good starting four. Ian Kennedy slipped after his 20-win season of 2011, but that was to be expected. In a way, I think the D-Backs can be almost as heartened as his 15-win, 4.02 ERA year of last year—it’s not spectacular, but it’s sustainable and steady. And Arizona has a pitcher more than capable of being a true #1 for the long haul in Trevor Cahill. Only 25-years-old, Cahill already has four straight years as a good starting pitcher under his belt and it’s easy to envision him making the leap to Cy Young contender. Wade Miley doesn’t have the quite the same track record, but he’s only 25 and put up a good year in 2012.

The depth in the rotation will rely on the health of a proven veteran and the development of two young arms. We know Brandon McCarthy can pitch. The question is whether he’ll stay healthy. Actually, maybe that’s not even a question either, given that McCarthy is 30 and has never made more than 25 starts in a season, and has often missed huge chunks of a season. If manager Kirk Gibson is counting on anything more than 15-20 starts from McCarthy, the skipper is being optimistic. At least McCarthy is effective when he does take the mound. The other two candidates for the rotation are 23-year-olds Patrick Corbin and Randall Delgado. Each has pitched well enough to make you think they can develop into a higher-end starter and can certainly be back-end pitchers this year.

Arizona is going to be fine in the bullpen. The tandem of David Hernandez in the eighth and J.J. Putz in the ninth is already solid and now they’ve brought in Health Bell. As bad as Bell was in Miami last year, with a 5.09 ERA, that was an aberration in a lousy situation. Brad Ziegler is another steady under-the-radar arm in the setup crew. Gibson has both depth and quality in his pen.

We’re left with the question then, of whether Arizona can score enough runs to support this staff, especially in the wake of Justin Upton being sent on his way. It’s an offense that has a lot of decent parts individually, but I question how well they’ll all function as a unit. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on Martin Prado, the third baseman who came over from Atlanta in the Upton deal, to really get on base a lot. Prado is the only one in the lineup who’s even hinted at being a steady table-setter. Unless we include centerfielder Adam Eaton, who had a .382 OBP in cup-of-coffee stint last year. Eaton might well come through, but that’s a big burden to put on a kid if you have hopes of contending.

Arizona has the power in the lineup—Paul Goldschmidt is only 25 and the first baseman has already established himself as a bona fide offensive star and Miguel Montero has his moments at catcher. Others, like Jason Kubel and Cody Ross at the outfield spots, have the pop, but aren’t good at keeping themselves on the base paths consistently. It can add up to long droughts when the home runs aren’t popping.

If you believe Aaron Hill can repeat his 2012 season, you’ll feel a lot better. He had the best year of his career and his first good year since 2009. Good for him, but I need to see more before thinking anything other than “one-year wonder.”

Overall, there’s more to like here than not. I have my concerns about the offense, but I’m not blind to its potential and the ability they’ll have to be really good if Kubel and Ross can get hot in unison. And no matter what, I expect the pitching to keep them in games  and the bullpen to hold leads.

Arizona’s Over/Under win number in Las Vegas is only posted at 82. I think that’s much too low. I see this team going into the high 80s on the strength of the pitching and Goldschmidt, and could potentially go higher if everything else clicks. It’s an easy Over pick for me.

San Diego: There’s no reason to be optimistic about Arizona’s NL West brethren  over in San Diego. There are only two worthwhile offensive players on this team, third baseman Chase Headley and left fielder Carlos Quentin. The latter has been dealing with knee issues, and in the case of Headley he’s out until early May. I will say this—when Headley is healthy, he’s as good as it gets in the National League at third base. He popped 31 home runs last year in the vast expanse of Petco Park. Put him in Yankee Stadium and he probably hits 50.

Otherwise the Padres are reliant on Yonder Alonso to muscle up a little more. The young first baseman is a decent hitter for average, but has shown no power and at a corner infield spot like this, it’s tough to get away with a singles hitter. Yes, I know Pete Rose pulled it off back in the day, but this Padre lineup around Alonso doesn’t exactly remind anyone of the Big Red Machine.

A pitcher-friendly park like Petco should have a great staff in it, but that’s not the case. Edinson Volquez may have had his first healthy full year since 2008, but the “ace” still had a 4.14 ERA. To apply the logic of Headley, if you put Volquez in the Bronx, he might well have an ERA close to 6 and his shakiness would be much more apparent. Clayton Richard’s ERA also hovers in the 4 neighborhood and the Padres are now filling out the rotation with retreads like Jason Marquis and Freddy Garcia.

I don’t see a lot of hope for this team and would go Under 74.5, and I can see 100 losses being in the cards. The bullpen has good depth, but there won’t be leads to protect and the relievers that pitch well will be on the trade market by July.

Seattle: We stay on the west coast, moving up north and into the American League. This is another offense that looks positively awful, although there are two key differences the Mariners have in contrast to the Padres. The first is negative—the M’s don’t have the excuse of having to hit in a huge park. The positive is that Seattle has no fewer than four players who could have breakout years and turn this entire story around.

The four are catcher Jesus Montero (23-years-old), first baseman Justin Smoak (27), second baseman Dustin Ackley (25), and third baseman Kyle Seagar (26). If you’re cup half-full, you look at the ages. If you’re cup half-empty you see that they’ve all had at least one, and in most cases multiple years of regular major league duty and have yet to show anything. Montero is the one that gets the big benefit of the doubt, whereas I’ve pretty much lost patience with Smoak. We’ll put Ackley and Seagar on the bubble.

Seattle will be better if left fielder Michael Morse can regain his 2011 form with Washington, when he hit for both average and power. Rightfielder Michael Saunders hit 19 home runs last year and Kendrys Morales hit for power, although the DH saw his OBP plummet after coming over from the Angels. Seattle also brought Raul Ibanez back home, but the 41-year-old’s postseason heroics in New York last October obscured the fact he’s been an offensive liability for the better part of two seasons.

The rotation has almost as many question marks, with the last spots being fought for by Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan and high-end spots being held by 31-year-olds Joe Saunders and Hisashi Iwakuma. The latter is a Japanese import who put up a 3.16 ERA in 16 starts. It was a nice showing, but the fact he’s your #2 starter based on that shows how many questions there are. Saunders pitched well for Baltimore down the stretch and in the playoffs, but has otherwise been inconsistent for a couple years. And if these pitchers can’t go deep into the games, don’t look for help from the bullpen. While closer Tom Wilhelmsen took advantage of his first real opportunity in the majors and saved 29 games with a 2.73 ERA, there’s no depth in front of him.

If nothing else, the rotation comes back to Felix Hernandez every fifth day. Since 2006, King Felix has taken the ball regularly and ranged from either “very good” to “Cy Young contender” to “should be in the MVP discussion if voters weren’t so biased against pitchers.” Every hope Seattle has comes back to Felix.

The win projection is at 78, and if the young hitters and pitchers all come together, that’s very easily doable. But that’s a lot to have go right—I count no fewer than 10 question marks in the everyday lineup and starting rotation. And then you have to hope a bullpen magically comes together. A 65-win season is also within “reach.” I’m not saying it will be that bad, but the possibility is enough to make me go Under 78.