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2021 MLB Season Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks

2020 diamondbacks

The Arizona Diamondbacks appear to have completely given up on the potential they showed during the 2019 season after suffering through an admittedly pretty terrible 2020 campaign. Most of their breakout stars on the offensive side of the ball fell off significantly in 2020, and while player performance this year should obviously be analyzed with a weighty grain of salt, seeing this many core players suffer production-wise is still cause for concern.

The Hitters

Ketel Marte transformed from “Cody Bellinger with greater positional versatility” to “Ender Inciarte with a worse glove.” Carson Kelly’s OPS+ dropped by forty points (111 to 71), and his Statcast figures reflected that dive in performance. David Peralta hit an even .300 on the year, but a too-low launch angle and a subpar-for-someone-with-a-.300-average .339 OBP depressed both his conventional numbers (106 OPS+) and his Statcast numbers (.292 xWOBA, compared to a league average of .321). All of that, combined with a roster that’s kind of shallow in terms of established major leaguers, produced an Arizona offense that could only muster an OPS+ of 87 in 2020.

On the positive side, Nick Ahmed is looking like exactly the guy that the Diamondbacks locked up on a super owner-friendly extension some time ago thanks to his slick defense and league-average bat. Former bit part and baseball Twitterverse meme god Tim Locastro slashed .290/.395/.464 in 2020 thanks in no small part to his particular set of skills, but his Baseball Savant profile advises cautious optimism regarding his 2021 performance.

Elsewhere on the diamond, Kole Calhoun hit the snot out of the ball on his way to a Joey Gallo-lite .226/.338/.526 triple slash, and Christian Walker looks like a steady regular at first base. There’s some potential here if everyone in Arizona’s core bounces back (which isn’t totally out of the realm of possibility given the bizarrenesses of the 2020 campaign), but playoff contention looks like a longshot in a top-heavy National League West—especially with DBacks ownership flat out refusing to spend money.

The Pitchers

lmao what a dork
Image courtesy of theherdnow.com.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: outside of Zac Gallen’s fantastic season and five outstanding starts from KBO legend Merrill Kelly, the Arizona rotation looked incredibly bleak. Opposing hitters absolutely torched MadBum during his first year in Phoenix, to the tune of a .613 xSLG and a .391 xWOBA against. His 6.48 ERA, compiled over 41 2/3 innings, actually outperformed his 7.13 FIP. Bumgarner’s Statcast profile would be embarrassing for Corey Oswalt, let alone a former Cy Young candidate who’s under contract for four more seasons and 79 million more dollars.

Aside from those three elephants in the room, Arizona’s 2021 rotation looks very unexciting. Luke Weaver’s 4.67 FIP was two runs better than his ERA, but a 4.67 FIP won’t light anyone’s hair on fire either (even disregarding Weaver’s not-great Statcast numbers). Merrill Kelly is ticketed for thoracic outlet surgery, and he might not be back for quite a while. Robbie Ray led the National League in walks, even though he was dealt to an American League team at the trade deadline. The back end of Arizona’s rotation is probably going to end up as a collection of swingmen and guys whose forwarding addresses are the redeye from Reno to Phoenix. It’s a motley crew, to be sure, and unless a whole bunch of unexpected breakouts happen, the DBacks rotation is probably not going to be what leads this team to a surprise playoff berth.

Elsewhere on the roster, Arizona’s relievers really don’t have much going on. Core pieces Archie Bradley, Junior Guerra and Héctor Rondón all jumped ship, and outside of Stefan Crichton‘s surprisingly excellent 191 ERA+ over his 26 innings, the DBacks ‘pen generally looked very bleak. Yoan López fell off hard, Kevin Ginkel couldn’t sustain the momentum from his quality 2019 campaign, and most of the rest of the staff looks like a white flag at this moment in time.

The Offseason

ken kendrick dbacks ownershipTo address their many, many roster concerns, Arizona’s front office has adopted what we’ll charitably call a “minimalist” approach. They’ve gone on a free agent reliever binge lately: Joakim Soria, Tyler Clippard, Ben Heller, Chris Devenski, and Ryan Buchter have all packed their bags and headed south since the start of the new year (those last three signed minor league contracts). Aside from those guys and a fistful of AAAA fliers, Arizona’s only signing of note has been Asdrúbal Cabrera, which is… probably a little less than the fans out in the desert were hoping for. This is a team that needs a serious shot in the arm if it hopes to make any kind of noise in 2021, and it looks like Ken Kendrick and Co. aren’t willing to make that happen.

Official projection systems are unexcited about the 2021 DBacks as well. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS thinks they’ll pretty much spin their wheels, and PECOTA sticks their record at 79-83, which feels right. The question now becomes one of how well the Diamondbacks deserve to do in light of their continued mistreatment of team staff; Arizona is one of the few MLB teams still cutting their employees’ pay. Maybe a 79-83 record is exactly what this team and its short-sighted, avaricious ownership deserves.

 

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