Scoring runs is not something that one thinks should be a problem for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Not with hitter-friendly Chase Field as their home and that hot desert weather that’s conducive for getting hitters in a good groove. But that’s exactly what’s been the problem for the D-Backs so far in 2018 and it stands to prove costly in an NL West race that nobody has yet taken hold of.
Arizona ranks 13th in the 15-team National League in scoring runs. They still do okay at hitting the long ball and taking their walks, where they rank in the middle of the league. But when it comes to the basics of simply getting hits and driving the ball in the gaps, the Diamondbacks have been woeful. They’re the worst NL team in batting average and barely better when it comes to hitting doubles.
The most obvious symptom of the problems is Paul Goldschmidt. So far in ‘18, Goldschmidt’s stat line is a modest .344 on-base percentage/.429 slugging. Those numbers are respectable for a common ordinary yokel. But, if I might paraphrase Old Man Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, Paul Goldschmidt is no common, ordinary yokel. He is a sharp, ambitious first baseman who’s finished in the top 3 of the NL MVP voting three times in the last five years, including last season.
A positive view of Arizona’s offensive problems says that if your biggest worry is Goldschmidt, that’s a good spot to be in. Taking a narrow view of his individual season, I’d agree. He’s the likeliest player in the majors to go on a summer tear. But a broader view shows us that players like Daniel Descalco are highly unlikely to keep producing stat lines of .354/.514. Players returning to career norms is likely to have an overall neutral effect on the Diamondbacks.
The only clear spot for improvement will be when A.J. Pollock, who was tearing it up for forty games, slugging .620, comes back from the disabled ist. Although it’s fair to wonder how fast he’ll regain after his power when the injury he incurred was a broken thumb.
Arizona has stayed atop a mediocre NL West through good bullpen work. The staff ERA is third overall and the bullpen specifically is second. When you break down the pitching staff individual, there’s reasonable hope for certain pitchers to do better work going forward, notably Zack Godley. But overall, it’s tough to see how the Diamondbacks do any better than third in the league in ERA.
That means the offense has to hit and it means both that Goldschmidt has to step it up and he’s got to get some help. I don’t see where that help is coming from. Last year, the front office acquired J.D. Martinez in a trade deadline move. Martinez went to Boston in the offseason and there’s no way to replace that kind of production.
That’s why it’s hard for me to be optimistic about Diamondback chances moving forward. They’re 32-29, tied with the Rockies right now and the Dodgers and Giants close behind. Los Angeles is just starting to roll and San Francisco has Madison Bumgarner back. Oddsmakers still have Arizona at a short 2-1 price to win the division, marginally behind LA, the 7-5 favorite. That’s a bad bet.
The consensus in the National League playoff race is that we know the five teams that will qualify, and all that’s left is for the three NL Central contenders (St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati) to sort out who plays in the wild-card game and who advances directly to the Division Series.
I won’t dispute that, but let’s at least keep an eye on the Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks, who still have a puncher’s chance of running down a wild-card spot. The purpose of today’s MLB coverage will be to assess what kind of chance—if any—we should give the Nats or D-Backs of making it to October.
Let’s begin by noting that Cincinnati is the only team either one has a reasonable chance to catch. It’s the Reds who hold down the last wild-card sport, with Arizona six games back and Washington 6 ½ off the pace. But not only are the Reds the closest team to the playoff border, they also have the most potential vulnerability, thanks to injuries in the pitching staff. Any comeback effort at this stage of the game is going to require a vulnerable leader and Cincinnati might be that.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Arizona and Washington have schedules that make the first part of September opportunity time. Here’s who they play…
*The Diamondbacks have seven games against now-lowly San Francisco and three more against last-place Toronto. September 8 is a good benchmark point for Arizona—that’s when they begin a stretch of playing the Los Angeles Dodgers seven times in eleven games and if Arizona hasn’t made a real cut into their six-game deficit by the 8th, it’s probably not going to happen.
*The Nationals have an even juicier schedule, living on a diet of Mets, Phillies and Marlins between now and September 15. Here again, if that lead isn’t narrowed to 2-3 games by mid-September, you have to assume Washington missed their chance.
In either case, a significant move by either contender with two weeks still to play would up the pressure on the Reds, a team dealing with the burden of losing three straight playoff games at home to San Francisco last year, any one of which closes out a Division Series win.
PITCHING CAUSING THE PROBLEMS
Both teams have been let down by their pitching, especially after the All-Star break. The Diamondbacks rank 10th in National League ERA over that timeframe, and have only closed 5 of 12 save chances. Heath Bell finally lost the closers’ job, and Brandon McCarthy has been a big disappointment, with a 5.13 ERA since the break.
Arizona also seen ace Trevor Cahill spend a sizeable chunk of time on the DL, and they weren’t able to keep the race close until he got back, something I was counting on as one who had picked them to win the NL West. Whatever happens in September, the D-Backs aren’t catching the Dodgers, where there’s a 9 ½ game gap.
Finally, Patrick Corbin, the rookie who made a run into Cy Young contention in the first half, has cooled off since. Corbin still has a respectable 3.99 ERA in seven post-All Star starts. It speaks well to his ability to continue as a quality starting pitcher in the major leagues. But it was a dropoff from where he was, and no one else on the rotation was able to pick up the slack.
The Diamondbacks struggling with pitching is disappointing, but not surprising. Washington, on the other hand…this is a big shock. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, after brilliant years in 2012, have been poor this season. Just since the break, Gonzalez’s ERA is 4.98, with Zimmerman at 5.87. Washington’s staff ERA is a stunning 12th in the National League in the second half, and they’ve coughed up a third of their save chances.
Each pitching staff has wasted some strong showings from their offense. Arizona, led by MVP-worthy first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, is third in the league in runs scored since the break, and the NL’s best in on-base percentage. Washington, since getting Bryce Harper, saw its own offense take off, and they rank 4th in the post-ASB period with the NL’s best slugging percentage.
A CLOSING PUSH?
If Arizona can make first cut into the deficit by September 8, and then hold serve through September 19, when their stretch against Los Angeles concludes, the D-Backs will have a shot. They get seven games in a row against the Rockies and Padres.
Washington has a tougher row to hoe after September 15. While a series with Miami provides some respite, the Braves and Cardinals are also on the docket. Ideally, you’d like to see them shave five games off the lead by 9/15 and then grind it out the rest of the way. A tall order to be sure, but the very premise of this entire conversation is a tall order for either team.
And if both the Diamondbacks and Nationals make a run at it, and go into the final weekend with a chance? Then they close the season with a head-to-head series in the desert, one of them guaranteed to pressure Cincinnati each day. It would make for an exciting finish, but there’s no time left to lose for the NL’s last two hopes of playoff race excitement.
Charlie Manuel was fired today as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. It’s an unfortunate move, but also hardly surprising, given how much the Phils have disappointed for two consecutive years. I don’t see it as Manuel’s fault—the organization shoved all its chips on the table with big contracts to veterans and those vets just couldn’t stay healthy consistently—but it’s hard to deny that it’s time for the Phils to take a new direction.
The new hire needs no introduction to anyone who watched baseball in the 1980s or early 1990s. Ryne Sandberg was one of the game’s great second baseman when he lead the Chicago Cubs into the National League Championship Series in both 1984and 1989, and if not for a guy with the last name of Jordan, “Ryno” would be the most beloved Chicago athlete of our lifetime. He’s been the third base coach for Manuel, and now we’ll see if this turns into a real shot at his first managerial job.
Philadelphia’s failure to catch fire is one of the reasons the National League playoff race remains devoid of major drama. Washington joins the list, and Arizona is fighting to keep from sliding off the ledge. As we sit here on August 16, the five playoff teams—Atlanta, Los Angeles and the NL Central’s Big Three—remain comfortable in their position with only the Diamondbacks even within six games.
Arizona has chances to make some hay in the week ahead. They have NL Central-leading Pittsburgh coming in for three games, and the Pirates are coming off a rough stretch where they were swept in Colorado and lost a couple crushing games in St. Louis. The Diamondbacks then host the Reds, who are currently the team most directly in front of Arizona, although a recent Cincy hot streak has tightened the NL Central race up enough that any of the three could vulnerable to an Arizona charge.
Los Angeles is 7 ½ games up in the NL West, with Atlanta still rolling right along at 14 ½ in front in the NL East. The best races remain in the American League, which TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage updated earlier this week.
The Arizona Diamondbacks stayed quietly lurking in the first month or so of the MLB season. The Dodgers got the offseason accolades, the Rockies got the blazing start and the Giants had the respect that comes with winning two World Series in three years. But Arizona kept plugging away and they’ve now been holding steady atop the National League West. Are the D-Backs there for the duration or are they just another flavor of the month that will pass?
AN MVP/CY YOUNG SWEEP?
Arizona has legitimate contenders for both major awards. Paul Goldschmidt is having a monster season at first base. With a .332 batting average and 15 home runs, he’s translated that into a .411/.610 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Goldschmidt became a stud immediately upon his arrival in the big leagues two years ago, and he’s now squarely in the middle of the MVP discussion.
Even Goldschmidt didn’t blaze on the scene like starting pitcher Patrick Corbin though. The rookie has made 12 starts in 2013 and merely compiled a 9-0 record and a 1.98 ERA. He’s sure to be a part of the All-Star festivities next month and at the forefront of the Cy Young debate.
OTHER KEY PLAYERS UNDERPEFORM
It’s a good thing that Goldschmidt and Corbin are electrifying the desert though, because several other players that manager Kirk Gibson needs to have come through are languishing. Miguel Montero, once of the bright young catchers in the majors, is hitting .199. Jason Kubel is having a poor year in left field, and Cody Ross is struggling on the opposite side of the outfield.
Martin Prado has been a disappointment at third base after coming over in the Justin Upton deal with Atlanta, and second baseman Aaron Hill has been hurt much of the year.
The starting pitching is an adventure on the nights Corbin doesn’t pitch. Ian Kennedy, two years removed from a 20-win season, has a 5.72 ERA in his twelve starts. Wade Miley has been shaky and Brandon McCarthy had been struggling along at 5.00 until he was put on the disabled list until the end of this month.
Right now, Trevor Cahill is the only other starting pitcher keeping things going, while Gibson has gotten a surprise year from shortstop Didi Gregorious, who’s put up a .386/.497 stat line. And Gerardo Parra has been a big part of the fourth-best offense in the league, at .375/.469.
THE BULLPEN MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
When you’re the ERA of your starting pitching ranks 10th in the National League, yet, the overall staff ERA is a solid sixth, it tells you something good about the bullpen. Gibson has an array of arms and they’re all good.
Matt Reynolds is the best, with a buck-71 ERA, while Brad Ziegler and Josh Collmenter are pitching very well. Tony Sipp, a part of some recent good bullpens in Cleveland, is getting it done in Arizona, and David Hernandez has quietly established himself as one of the NL’s better setup men, with a 2.73 ERA.
Heath Bell is handling the closer’s role, after being one of many disastrous veterans on the train wreck that was the 2012 Miami Marlins. Bell got a second lease on life in Phoenix, and he’s closed 11 of 13 save opportunities. Arizona will also get J.J. Putz back from the disabled list at the end of the month, giving Gibson yet another weapon.
Ideally, you want to see the starters take some of the burden off the relievers, because they’re all putting in a good workload right now. But with the depth on hand, Gibson should be able to balance out usage and ensure his relief corps can continue to pitch well.
WHERE’S IT ALL GOING?
I’ve never made any secret over the last two years that I really like this team. After a ’12 campaign were Arizona could never make a push every team it seemed like they moved to the perimeter of the race, Gibson has gotten his team in a good position this season.
I further think it unlikely that all the struggling players noted further up are going to continue that way. And while Corbin will likely come down to earth, at least a little bit, there’s no reason to assume Goldschmidt will. The first baseman has been building toward this kind of MVP-type year since he came to the majors.
If Arizona has to spend the year relying on Goldschmidt, Corbin and the bullpen, I would say that’s not sustainable. But I think what’s really happened is that package has kept the Diamondbacks going while other players—notably Kennedy in the rotation, Kubel in the lineup and Hill on the disabled list—got things worked out. I picked Arizona to win the NL West when the season began and feel even better about that selection today.
AROUND THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
NL East: The Washington Nationals are in an absolute free-fall right now, seven games out coming into Saturday. They can’t get any runners on base and the only team more inept offensively is the Miami Marlins. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage will have to do one of our closer looks at the Nats in the very near future to see if there’s any hope for keeping them as the pick to win the NL East.
NL Central: Johnny Cueto just can’t stay healthy. The Reds’ ace makes his second trip to the disabled list this season, and that’s music to the ears of fans in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, as this three-team horse race continues to show the Cards leading by a few lengths and the Reds/Pirates jostling for position.
NL West: I was never as high on the Dodgers as a lot of the media was, and consequently I’ve never been as down on them in their struggles. The electrifying debut of rightfielder Yasiel Puig has the potential to give this team a jolt, and they still do a good job getting a lot of runners on base. The 7 ½ game margin they face in the NL West is still manageable.
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.