Five Questions: Arizona Diamondbacks

The 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Championship with veteran players acquired from other organizations and a sprinkling of homegrown players. Two years later, ten D-Back farmhands made their major league debut (a total exceded only by the Mets and the Reds) as Arizona fought to climb back into the pennant race after seeing their two pitching aces succumb to injuries.

Several players emerged out of a lightly regarded farm system to play key roles in the second half of the season. With payroll already trimmed (and more cost cutting around the corner), 2004 figures to be bring more trial by fire, unless of course the Snakes make an unexpected run at the division title. Arizona is in full-blown rebuilding mode, and that has caught most observers by surprise.

1) Will Brandon Webb prove that 2003 was no fluke?

My gut feeling is yes. Brandon Webb‘s heavy sinker has been compared to Kevin Brown‘s. Webb outdid him last year, posting the highest groundball-to-flyball ratio in the National League (and second highest in the majors) among starting pitchers according to The Bill James Handbook (p.337).

Reports have it that Webb is working on a cut fastball to complement his sinker. He’s always going to be somewhat dependent on his interior defense, but he’s well-suited (relative to other pitchers) to extra-base friendly Bank One Ballpark. The table below charts Webb’s progress from high A to the majors; note that Webb has improved his overall numbers despite facing ever tougher hitters.

Year Age Level/Team IP H/9 W/9 K/9 HR/9 ERA HB
2001 22.1 A+, Lancaster 162.3 9.6 2.4 8.8 0.5 3.99 27
2002-03 23.2 AA/AAA, 177.0 8.3 3.7 7.3 0.2 3.46 17
2003 24.1 NL, Arizona 180.7 7.0 3.4 8.6 0.6 2.84 13
 
2003 NL starters 9.2 3.2 6.4 1.1 4.41 7
2004 25.1 NL, Arizona 172.0 7.6 3.5 8.6 0.4 3.35

Notes: The row shaded pink is Baseball Primer’s ZiPS projections; The NL starters row (shaded grey) is based on data for all pitchers when making starts; The HB row is hit batsmen – for NL starters it represents how many batters were hit per 180.7 innings

Webb’s strengths are an above average strikeout rate and an ability to keep the ball in the yard. He was so good at preventing hits on balls in play, that we should expect some regression towards the mean; I suspect ZiPS is a little optimistic about his ERA for 2004. Nevertheless, the Snakes have one of the better 1-2 punches at the top of their rotation in the National League with Randy Johnson and Brandon Webb.

2) What will Richie Sexson’s arrival mean for the Diamondbacks’ offense?

We’ll compare the offensive production of Richie Sexson to that of Arizona’s first basemen in 2003, as well as what we might expect in 2004. To answer the second part, we’ll need to consider what alternatives the Diamondbacks might have pursued if not for the acquisition of Sexson. One such alternative was to move Shea Hillenbrand back to third and try Lyle Overbay again. Another was to move Hillenbrand to first against lefthanders (i.e. platoon Overbay) and slot Matt Kata in at third. Since Hillenbrand wouild be in the lineup either way, we can limit our 2004 analysis to Kata/Overbay versus Sexson. The tools I’ve chosen to help us are (1) ZiPS, and (2) Tangotiger’s Custom Linear Weights derived from David Smyth’s Base Runs.

  Player Year AB H 2B 3B HR W K SB CS CLwts
Sexson 2003 606 165 28 2 45 98 151 1 3 +26.3
Arizona(1B) 2003 618 161 35 0 13 66 113 1 0 -17.8
Sexson 2004 604 176 34 2 41 87 151 1 3 +29.9
   
Overbay 2004 470 140 34 0 11 52 88 1 1 +3.7
Kata 2004 516 142 28 7 9 31 81 6 5 -16.0

Notes: The rows shaded pink are ZiPS projections; Lyle Overbay’s 2004 projection is based on Miller Park (Milwaukee) as his home park; CLwts is calculated using only data in the table and in an environment of 5 runs per game – it represents runs above or below an average hitter.

First base production for the Diamondbacks last year was abysmal; Sexson represents a gain of almost 48 runs (2004 projection). If we compare Sexson with the projections for Matt Kata and Lyle Overbay, the gain diminishes. Mixing two parts Overbay and one part Kata and adding a few runs to make up for the park difference (Milwaukee and Arizona), we end up with something near +1 run for the alternative group. Based on this, the acquisition of Sexson improves the team runs scored outlook by approximately 29 runs.

3) How will the battle for bullpen slots shake out?

As with most teams, there’s lots of competition for the last few spots in the Arizona bullpen. Two of the four lefties in camp have come down with injuries, which means that Stephen Randolph might be the lone lefty reliever coming out of camp. Re-tread Jim Parque has a shot at joining him, but is also auditioning for one of the two open slots in the rotation. Other southpaws Casey Fossum and Shane Nance haven’t pitched this spring and won’t be ready for opening day. Righthander Brandon Lyon will be out for at least four months after recent elbow surgery.

Matt Mantei is the incumbent closer, signed several years ago to a long-term contract that will pay him $7 million this season. He’s had his health troubles and sometimes relies too much on raw stuff, but you have to like the strikeout rates he’s put up over the years. If Arizona is out of the playoff hunt, the odds are he’ll be dealt to a contender in July.

Jose Valverde is Mantei’s heir apparent as closer. Built like an outside linebacker, Valverde has a killer splitter and an above-average fastball. He started 2003 in Tucson before joining the big club and posted a hits allowed rate of only 5.7 per 9 IP in 79.3 innings overall. If he can refine his control he’ll solidify his status as one of the best young relievers in baseball.

Mike Koplove is a submariner who has put up good K/W numbers and has kept the ball in the ballpark (only 6 homeruns allowed in 109.3 career innings). Oscar Villarreal has a starter’s repertoire and could end up in the rotation at some point this season. For now, he’ll find some work as a 6th or 7th inning bridge. These four righthanders have locked up a spot in the bullpen.

Former Padre Brandon Villafuerte also has a chance to stick, as does prospect Greg Aquino. Knuckleballer Steve Sparks is the favorite to win a spot in the rotation, but could mop up in April when a fifth starter isn’t needed. Edgar Gonzalez and Andrew Good have been sent to the minors, but will get some action with the big club this year. Brian Bruney is one of the top relief prospects in baseball according to Baseball America and could be this year’s version of Valverde. With righthanded reliever types coming out of their ears, Arizona could trade some of the surplus for an outfielder or a lefthanded reliever before opening day.

Just in: Arizona has dealt perennial prospect John Patterson to Montreal for lefthanded reliever Randy Choate.

4) Will Robbie Alomar rebound and clinch his place in Cooperstown?

After a sparkling 2001 season in Cleveland, Roberto Alomar was traded to New York in what was regarded as a coup for the Metropolitans. After all, Alomar was coming off a great year and had been one of the top dozen or so players in baseball for the past decade. His struggles over the past two seasons have taken a bit of the luster off a great career.

Enter Arizona General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr, who signed the veteran to a 1-year/$1 million contract for 2004 – a move with limited risk and a potentially substantial reward. I’m cautiously optimistic that Alomar will post significantly better numbers in Arizona: Bank One Ballpark, with a quick infield, good visibility and spacious power alleys, is an incomparably better park for hitting than Shea Stadium is.

Years Age PA $Walk $K K/W xbh/ab
1988-89 21 1313 .072 .122 1.70 .063
1989-90 22 1348 .073 .110 1.51 .060
1990-91 23 1365 .076 .116 1.53 .081
1991-92 24 1390 .101 .100 0.99 .086
1992-93 25 1354 .119 .089 0.75 .087
1993-94 26 1138 .111 .095 0.86 .097
1994-95 27 1032 .092 .084 0.91 .089
1995-96 28 1276 .099 .087 0.88 .102
1996-97 29 1168 .104 .093 0.90 .108
1997-98 30 1126 .085 .101 1.19 .090
1998-99 31 1351 .115 .123 1.07 .103
1999-00 32 1391 .116 .129 1.11 .109
2000-01 33 1374 .101 .112 1.11 .107
2001-02 34 1332 .098 .116 1.18 .090
2002-03 35 1253 .089 .128 1.44 .067

Notes: $Walk is non-intentional walks per opportunities; $K is strikouts per opportunity; K/W is $K divided by $Walk

The two-season overlap method allows us to discern the shape of a player’s career. The highlighted areas are estimated peak performance in a given category. Alomar’s power inched up to age 29, leveling off, and declining after age 33. There were two walk peaks (age 25 and 32) with a shallow valley in between, and strikeouts (avoided) peaked at age 27. All of the major batting skills are in decline, which suggests that we are witnessing the final stages of a great ballplayer’s career.

Alomar is certainly among the six or seven greatest second basemen of all-time and is therefore more than qualified for baseball’s highest individual honor. An attractive feature on his resume is his varied post-season success, which includes the second biggest homerun in Toronto Blue Jays history. But with the general incompetence of current Hall of Fame voters, Alomar will need to reach 3,000 hits to guarantee his spot among the immortals. He’ll need three more seasons as a regular to get the 300+ hits he needs to reach the magic milestone.

5) How do the Diamondbacks compare to expansion teams of the past?

To this point in their existence, the Diamondbacks have outdone every other expansion team on the field. They have the highest overall winning percentage (.534, Colorado is second at .484), the most winning seasons (five) and are one of two franchises to win a World Championship through six seasons. The Diamondbacks turned their backs on the traditional expansion franchise building model (prospect development) and hit the jackpot.

As the purse strings tighten, the D-Backs of the near future will have to rely much more on players graduating from the farm system. Entering 2003, the best player produced by the Diamondbacks farm system was either (according to taste) Byung-Hyun Kim or Vicente Padilla. Alex Cintron, Webb, Villarreal, and Valverde were among the unheralded prospects that pushed more established players to the bench or off the team in 2003. Was that a fluke or does it imply that the experts have underestimated the quality of the farm system? If Arizona can find a few more jewels, they may get through a painless rebuilding transition quicker than most of us think.

References & Resources
There aren’t many fan sites associated with the Diamondbacks: Probably the best of them is But it’s a Dry Heat (warning – the site is difficult on the eyes). AZ Central provides an overview of Diamondback news. This is the third preview I’ve written about the Diamonbacks. The second is fairly lengthy and can be found at Batter’s Box; the first was published in the spring of 2003 at Baseball Primer. I do not claim to be an expert on this team, but I followed them closely on MLB.TV last season and plan to do so again this year. They get very little attention from the blogging world even though they are a fascinating organization.

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