After finishing with the worst record in baseball two years ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks were mired in utter disaster.
President of Baseball Operations Tony La Russa, with less than a year on the job, took advantage of his first offseason by cleaning house, firing overmatched general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson.
La Russa’s own guys — GM Dave Stewart and manager Chip Hale — led the team to a more upbeat 3rd place finish in the National League West, creating real reasons for optimism in the desert, not just mirages of years past.
Another aggressive offseason has Arizona bent on contending for a NL West crown, or at least a playoff spot occupied by the division rival Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants the past few seasons.
La Russa startled baseball this offseason when he lured away the jewel of this free agent class, pitcher Zack Greinke, from a division rival to a huge $205.6 million deal. He then paid another steep price to fully revamp his pitching staff by trading for Atlanta Braves All-Star starter Shelby Miller.
The Greinke signing was a huge coup even if he fails to replicate his 2015 numbers. Though the 32-year-old would seem to be a lock to not replicate his absurd 1.66 ERA in a new hitter-friendly park with lesser defense, he could allow a full run more per nine and still be an elite pitcher.
Greinke’s high strikeout (200) and innings (222-2/3) numbers plus low walk (40) numbers are not likely to fall off a cliff. And Grienke is one of the better hitting pitchers in the league, not quite Bumgarner-esque, but still good. He also flashes a slick mitt, winning two straight Gold Gloves with the Dodgers.
Miller brings his own good numbers after his first All-Star season, posting a more reasonable but solid 3.02 ERA, despite only winning 6 against 17 losses in 33 starts, with 171 strikeouts and 73 walks.
Ty Corbin, who has always had filthy stuff, is now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and could have a big year as a projected third starter. If all three remain healthy, Arizona’s rotation could stack up against and possibly even challenge the more talked-about Giants and Dodgers.
On offense, Arizona will play half their games at home in hitter-friendly Chase Field, and they happen to have a pair of the best two-way players in baseball, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, and center fielder A.J. Pollock.
Goldschmidt, 28, has quietly become a superstar and the best first baseman in the majors not named Miguel Cabrera. Over the past three seasons — since Goldschmidt’s first All-Star game in 2013 — he ranks third in batting average and third in OPS, just behind Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. That’s elite company.
Pollock, also 28, is coming of a breakout season when he almost posted a 20-40 season, smashing 20 home runs alongside 39 stolen bases.Pollock is one of the best offensive center fielders in baseball, leading his positing in runs scored (111), hits (192), and batting average (.315).
After those two, however, Arizona’s lineup looks to struggle. Cuban import Yasmany Tomas, 25, left a lot to be desired in his rookie season with 9 home runs, 48 RBI and a .273 average over 118 games. But the Diamondbacks will pay him handsomely him for the next five seasons, so they might as well give him a full-time job and see what he has.
On defense, buth Goldschmidt and Pollock have Gold Gloves, and shortstop Nick Ahmed can more than handle his own. But the rest of the defense will struggle to be as good as last season when they finished tied for sixth in MLB with 86 errors.
Stud outfielder Ender Inciarte was part of the huge treasure chest of players traded to the Braves for Miller, and his glove will be sorely missed. Tomas — hardly very good on defense — is projected fill his spot in right field. Pollock could be forced into a more taxing defensive role, covering for Tomas in right and David Peralta out in left field.
Fangraphs.com projects the Dodgers to win a conservative 92 games and end up as division Champions. At least 94 wins has been enough to win the division for the past five seasons. The Diamondbacks will need 12 to 12 more wins from last year to reach those numbers.
Canyon-sized holes on both offense and defense will hold them back, and 12 more wins will prove too hard a task. They’ll fall somewhere around their projected 79 wins and end up near a .500 ball club, as Goldschmidt’s playoff debut before a national audience will wait at least another year.