1. What can Arizona expect from Brandon Webb this season?
The answer to this question, more than any other, will decide the Diamondbacks’ season. If he returns to the form shown from 2006-08, when he won more games than any other pitcher in baseball, Arizona will likely have a 1-2-3 to reckon, with Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson following Webb in the rotation. But if he fails to recover, the Diamondbacks could be in for another 2009 season, where the pack of replacement-level pitchers who replaced Webb went 7-20, with a combined ERA of 6.11.
After a setback where his arm felt “stagnant,” at the time of this writing, Webb appears to be progressing again, and it’s hoped that he will miss only perhaps the first three weeks of the season. It would be too much for him to return to Cy Young level, particularly immediately. But odds are good that he’ll be significantly better than any alternatives Arizona might have—journeyman Rodrigo Lopez and rookie Kevin Mulvey are the most likely temporary replacements for Webb in the rotation.
2. Will the bullpen be more reliable?
It can hardly be much worse, let’s say. Arizona’s relief corps was mediocre; its OPS against in 2009 was .734, 12th-best in the NL. But things went downhill when the relievers needed to be at their most effective—in ‘Late and Close’ situations, the D-backs’ overall OPS against jumped by 30 points. This resulted in the team allowing 120 runs in the eighth inning, 25 percent more than any other team in the league.
Some of those involved are no longer with the Diamondbacks, e.g. Tony Peña, Jon Rauch and Scott Schoeneweis, Arizona replacing them by signing veterans Aaron Heilman and Bob Howry over the offseason. Neither man has been very impressive in spring, and it seems possible they will use Juan Gutierrez, who closed for the D-backs after Chad Qualls went on the DL late in 2009, as their main setup man. The LOOGY role is uncertain; Rule 5 pick Zach Kroenke might get it, but rookie Jordan Norberto is an alternative.
3. Is Arizona going to be the beneficiary of bounce-back seasons from its offense?
There are three everyday players on the team who need to return to better levels of production: left fielder/first baseman Conor Jackson, second baseman Kelly Johnson and center fielder Chris Young, and that’s probably my order of confidence in the trio. Jackson lost almost all of 2009 after catching valley fever in spring training. It’s a vicious, debilitating spore-born lung disease that sapped all his energy and then developed into pneumonia for good measure. He tore up the Dominican Winter League,and is having a good spring, so he could well prove a good sleeper pick for 2010.
Johnson was very solid in 2007-08 but was bad enough last season that the Braves non-tendered him. A BABIP of .247 last year was partly to blame, but a line-drive rate that dropped to 14 percent was also involved; that will need to improve if he is to return to form. Young’s main issue in 2009 was that he was an infield pop-up machine, with an IF/FB rate of 28 percent—the next-highest in the majors by a player with that many plate appearances was Yuniesky Betancourt‘s 22 percent. He did improve over the last month after a spell in Triple-A, but if Young is to live up to the perpetual Mike Cameron comparisons, he needs to start producing this season.
4. How will A.J. Hinch perform in his first full season as manager?
When Hinch was hired to replace Bob Melvin, 29 games into last season, it unleashed a firestorm of criticism, mostly because Hinch had no managerial experience at any level of the game. Arizona pitching coach Bryan Price, who left the team at that point, blasted the new manager, calling his hiring “a poor decision” and saying Hinch “doesn’t have any credibility between the lines as a manager.” Certainly this posed problems in 2009, with not everyone on board. “There wasn’t a rebellion period with A.J., but something similar to that,” said Brandon Webb.
However, that now seems to be behind the team—in part due to changes in personnel—with Webb commenting earlier in spring: “He had to earn our trust, and he did. I think he’s going over real well. We really like playing for him, his philosophies and stuff.” It’ll be interesting to see what difference those “philosophies” make: Before spring training, he seemed to be stressing fundamentals such as defense, which were definitely an Achilles’ heel for the Diamondbacks in 2009.
5. Is the back end of the rotation going to fall apart?
As noted above, last year, the No. 5 spot for the Diamondbacks bordered on the abysmal, and there are multiple uncertainties again this year, once you get past Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson. The team traded away Jon Garland (to the Dodgers, during a game against them) and lost Doug Davis to free agency. They also swapped Max Scherzer and reliever Daniel Schlereth in a three-way trade with the Yankees and Tigers, getting back Jackson and largely unproven No. 4 starter Ian Kennedy.
The result is a much less experienced rotation than in 2009. Both Kennedy and expected No. 5 Billy Buckner are young (25), and neither is a proven major league contributor. They have just 30 starts at the highest level between them, with a combined career ERA close to 6. Now, obviously you don’t need ace-like performances from that end of your rotation: In the NL, the No. 4 slot typically posts an ERA in the 4.35-5.15 range, with a No. 5 higher than 5.15. However, Jackson and Buckner are basically question marks: While they may surprise us (Kennedy was a first-round pick for the Yankees in 2006), they could also be little better than replacement level.