February Diamondbacks Reflections

Arizona Diamondbacks
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arizonadiamondbacksGenerally speaking, when a team enjoys a productive offseason, you should predict good things for that team in the following season. Conversely, a team’s poor offseason will lead to pessimism for the upcoming campaign.

Seemingly simple enough, it doesn’t always work that way. Last winter, the Detroit Tigers acquired Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, and Edgar Renteria without relinquishing any players that significantly helped them win 88 games in 2007. Conventional wisdom had them improving on that 88-win total in 2009, and my 87-win prediction for them was among the most conservative around. Ultimately, even that 87-win prediction was 13 victories too many as the Tigers became one of baseball’s biggest disappointments in 2008.

What happened? Willis was a disaster, Renteria merely average, and Cabrera, while still very good, wasn’t as great as he had been the previous three seasons. That still doesn’t explain why the team got worse: Most of the offense was on the wrong side of 30 and very little was done to improve the shoddy defense and thin pitching staff.

In 2009, we may see the converse of this phenomenon. The Arizona Diamondbacks have made a flurry of poor offseason moves, but probably remain the favorites in a bleak NL West despite them.

Who They Lost

OF Adam Dunn, LHP Randy Johnson, 2B Orlando Hudson, 2B David Eckstein, RHP Juan Cruz, RHP Brandon Lyon

Adam Dunn posted an on base percentage 41 points higher than any other Diamondback and finished second in slugging only to leadoff hitter Stephen Drew. Even though he only played 44 games with the Snakes, Dunn’s bat will be missed. The fact that the club wound up relinquishing Micah Owings and two mid-level prospects for two months of Dunn makes the lack of draft pick compensation after his departure that much more painful.

Like Dunn, Randy Johnson was not offered arbitration by the Diamondbacks, so Arizona received no compensatory draft picks after he signed with the rival Giants. Who knows what to expect from the 45-year old Big Unit in 2009, but the D-backs must replace his 184 innings and sub-4.00 ERA from last season.

Orlando Hudson’s defense has been in decline and his offensive value is mostly a desert mirage, but his departure still cripples the Diamondbacks. Juan Cruz is a strikeout stud and one of the most underrated relievers in baseball, but the slim possibility of receiving two compensatory draft picks for him makes his departure tolerable. Conversely, Brandon Lyon got overpaid by the Tigers and his departure is one of the easier pills to swallow for D-backs fans this offseason.

Overall, The Diamondbacks did not lose any one player whose loss will cripple them, but they lost several solid-to-good players that were difficult to replace due to Arizona’s depleted farm system and lack of available funds.

Who They Added

RHP Jon Garland, RHP Tom Gordon, 2B Felipe Lopez

For some reason, the Diamondbacks’ main pitching targets this winter were Jon Garland and Randy Wolf. That’s kind of odd, since the two are polar-opposite pitchers. Garland is an innings-eating right-hander who pitches to contact while Wolf is a bat-missing southpaw who has surpassed 140 innings pitched just once in the past five years.

Neither of these pitchers is much of a prize, but the D-backs managed to get the worse fit at the higher price. The D-backs play in an extreme hitter’s park and have a lousy infield defense, which means that many of Garland’s balls in play are going to turn into hits and home runs. Wolf wouldn’t make 32 starts, but the D-backs have Yusmeiro Petit, Billy Buckner, and Cesar Valdez on the 40-man roster, and each of those pitchers could have provided Garland-level-or-better pitching whenever Wolf wasn’t healthy.

The D-backs will either pay Garland $8.75 million for 2009 or $16.25 million over two years. The Dodgers will pay Wolf $5 million if he pitches fewer than 170 innings, but could pay him as much as $8 million if he reaches the 200 plateau. Frankly, it would be very difficult for the D-backs to get a better value from Garland than the Dodgers do from Wolf.

A strict team policy of no performance incentives was part of the reason the Diamondbacks could not come to terms with Wolf. They got around that with Tom Gordon by offering him roster bonuses instead. He makes a base salary of just $500,000 that can bump over $2 million if he remains on the 25-man roster all year. While Gordon isn’t likely to be a difference maker this year coming off elbow issues at 41 years old, he represents a low-risk addition, with the worst consequence being that a player like Juan Gutierrez gets bumped off the 25-man roster and claimed off waivers.

Unfortunately, the consequences of the Felipe Lopez signing are far direr. Lopez registered as 14 plays below the average second baseman defensively on John Dewan’s +/- scale, which was tied for the third-worst mark among major league second basemen last year. That is quite a feat, since he did not even play enough defensive innings at second to qualify for a fielding title. Infield defense is of paramount importance for a team with Jon Garland and Brandon Webb, and Lopez will make a poor infield defense worse.

Moreover, The D-backs will be counting on Lopez to lead off when he owns a career on base percentage of .330 and went 8-for-16 in stolen base attempts last year. Even during his one seemingly-good season in 2005, his road OPS was just .771. The D-backs would be better off installing Augie Ojeda as the starter at second base for defensive purposes, and that is a pretty dreary diagnosis.

Why They Are Still Favored to Win the West

Part of the reason that the D-backs are still seen as the team to beat in the NL West despite a lackluster offseason is that the division was terrible last year and none of the teams made a blockbuster addition in the offseason. Unless the Dodgers sign Manny Ramirez, there is no team that is a lock to win more games than it loses.

Youth is the other main factor. The average age of Arizona’s eight projected starting position players is 26 and the average of their five-man rotation is 29. Many Diamondbacks players will fare better in 2009 than they did in 2008 and relatively few key Diamondbacks have a history of durability issues this year.

There are reasons to doubt them, however. While the Padres and Rockies did not acquire any big-name players, they are also young teams and are due better luck than they endured in 2008. While Brandon Webb and Dan Haren have been dependable workhorses throughout their young careers, if either of them should miss a significant amount of time, the D-backs would be done (Arizona went 43-52 when someone not named Webb or Haren took the mound in the first inning). While the D-backs finished second in the division last year and have spent more time in first place over the past two years than any other National League team, they rank third in the division in wins since May, wins since June, wins since July, and wins since August.

So the Arizona Diamondbacks orchestrated a terrible offseason, but they are still favored to win the West. But even though they are favored to win the West, they likely will not pull it off.

Josh Byrnes and company could have made things much less complicated by simply having a productive offseason to begin with.

You can read more of Keith’s Diamondbacks analysis at FutureBacks.com.

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