Five questions: Arizona Diamondbacks

Will the bullpen improve?

Yes – simply because there is almost no scope for it to get any worse. The Diamondbacks relief corps were historically bad in 2010: They could have had an ERA an entire run better and still would have ranked dead last in the majors. There’s no doubt this cost Arizona a large number of games; the team went 6-18 in contests which were tied at the end of the seventh, and 2-14 in those tied after eight innings.

Rebuilding the bullpen this winter thus became new GM Kevin Towers’ top priority. J.J.Putz was signed as a free agent to become the closer, and when slugger Mark Reynolds was traded to the Orioles, relievers David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio came back. If Putz can remain healthy, he should provide a much better foundation for the ninth—that’s no shoo-in, as his last fully fit season was 2007. However, when he pitched last year for the White Sox, Putz was excellent, with a 2.52 FIP.

At this point, there is no obvious eighth inning guy. Hernandez is one possibility, while another may be Juan Gutierrez, who took over from the ineffective Chad Qualls as closer, after the latter was traded to Tampa Bay. Aaron Heilman may also be a candidate, though that depends on what happens with regard to the rotation, which is a smooth segue into…

How does the back of the rotation shake down?

Changes to the starting pitching have been even more drastic, with Ian Kennedy the sole survivor of the 2010 Opening Day rotation. Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson were traded, Rodrigo Lopez signed with Atlanta and Kris Benson retired. Alongside Kennedy, Joe Saunders and Daniel Hudson went into spring training virtually guaranteed spots; Hudson was phenomenal after coming over with the White Sox, albeit assisted by a .212 BABIP.

But the last couple of spots were very much up for grabs, though there was no shortage of contenders for those roles. Zach Duke appeared to have the inside track on the No. 4 slot due to the $4.25 million free-agent contract he signed in the offseason, but a line drive off his pitching hand a couple weeks ago will keep him on the shelf until mid-May.

Barry Enright pitched solidly after being pulled up from Double-A last season, following the failure of “Operation Rescue” Dontrelle Willis. Though he has options left, Duke’s injury and his acceptable spring performance have earned him a place in the rotation. Enright will be joined by fifth starter Armando Galarraga, he of the not-quite-perfect game with the Tigers last year.

Heilman, who has wanted to start for some time, came into camp as an interesting dark horse and was promised a chance to try out for the rotation this spring. His early performances were promising but, with an overall spring ERA of 7.03, he’s lucky to be part of the revamped Arizona bullpen.

Can the offense survive the power cuts?

According to Towers, “Strikeouts are part of the game, but if you have four or five or six guys in your lineup, it’s hard to sustain any sort of rally.” Prior to last year, only the 1991 Tigers and 2001 Brewers had even a trio with 145 Ks each—the 2010 D-backs had five such players. Reynolds and Adam LaRoche combined for 383 whiffs, the most ever by two teammates, but they also hit 57 homers and drove in 185 runs. Will Arizona still be able to score without them?

It’s probably safe to say that their replacements on the corner infield, Melvin Mora and Yankees prospect Juan Miranda, will not match those power totals, and the team will need to make up the difference with small-ball tactics. This doesn’t mean the Diamondbacks will become the Mets, leading the league in stolen bases. Justin Upton and Chris Young should still be good for 25-30 homers each, with Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew providing above-average power from the middle infield.

It’s clear Towers prefers hitters who put the ball in play, and the team he has built tends, overall, to reflect this—despite some acquisitions that don’t quite fit the mold, such as Russell Branyan. While there is scope for improvement in some aspects of the Arizona game, they will struggle to match last year’s total of 713 runs. As well as improvement from the young players, beating that will take surprising performances from the older ones, like Mora and Xavier Nady.

How important is the draft?

The Diamondbacks are in what appears to be a unique position in history, possessing two of the first seven picks in the 2011 draft. They ‘earned’ the third spot as a result of their record, and were among the first teams to benefit from the new ‘failure to sign’ compensation picks, getting the No. 7 selection because they didn’t ink the sixth pick last year, Barret Loux. That looks likely to turn out a bonus, with this year’s talent generally regarded as much more impressive than in 2010.

Arizona fans are hoping the team has budgeted appropriately; it would be excruciating if they were unable to sign the best player available due to the signing of, say, Geoff Blum. Some caution will need to be exercised, as the seventh pick is unprotected—if the Diamondbacks don’t sign him, no further compensation is offered.

But it’s an unprecedented opportunity, and the upside would be something like the 2006 draft, where the No. 3 and No. 7 picks were Evan Longoria and Clayton Kershaw—with Tim Lincecum left on the board! Of course, the downside is 2001, with Dewon Brazelton and Chris Smith the picks in those slots. Still, even if it it’s no guarantee, it certainly is nice to have.

Can the team realistically hope to compete?

Probably not. The biggest turnaround by any team last year was the Padres’ 15-game swing, and if the Diamondbacks were to match that, they’d still be below .500. One-year acquisitions like Mora and Henry Blanco suggest the signing of veterans to teach the “right way” to play the game and set down a foundation upon which Arizona can build going forward.

While management is making the appropriate noises about competing, it’s probably more reasonable to suggest they are simply looking for improvement this season. As noted, reaching .500 would be an impressive achievement.

The farm system was left all but devoid of high-level prospects after the Dan Haren trade—I’m sure the team now wish it had kept Carlos Gonzalez—but it has improved since the 2009 draft, when the team had seven of the first 64 picks. The resulting strength is, however, still some way from helping Arizona, with pitcher Jarrod Parker the only blue-chip rookie even remotely likely to have much impact this year.

With a somewhat restricted payroll—the team have still to pay off $40 million in deferred salaries from the Colangelo era—2013 is a reasonable timetable for the D-backs to contend again, give or take a year.

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