Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What The Heck? Snakes in the Grass Edition

Pop quiz: Name the top three offenses on the Senior Circuit. Nothing special, just the three NL teams who have scored the most runs so far this year. If you said the Reds and Cardinals, the NL Central’s two offensive juggernauts, well, that’s no surprise. Did you pick their division’s leader, Milwaukee? Wrong. The Rockies, led by Tulo and Carlos Gonzalez? Wrong again. One of the three NL East frontrunners? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have scored the third most runs in the National League. Think about that for a second. This was a team that finished eighth in the league in scoring last year, and then traded the guy who’s led them in home runs (Mark Reynolds) over each of the last three years in exchange for two relievers in order to solidify a bullpen that was statistically the worst in the league last year. A superlative like that generally requires some sort of qualifier, but I don’t think there’s any question that Diamondbacks relievers were unmatched in 2010 in their inability to hold what few leads their mediocre offense and unimpressive rotation could hand them. The Snakes’ bullpen won the triple crown by finishing last in ERA, FIP, and xFIP among all relief staffs. They were also the only team that received negative WAR from their bullpen. Just for good measure.

When new (to Arizona) GM Kevin Towers entered the team’s front office, he quickly and correctly diagnosed the necessity of a bullpen upgrade. Towers, a 15 year veteran of the San Diego GM position, spent both money and talent on improving his relief corps, and so far it’s paid off. Towers’ big acquisition of the offseason was new closer J.J. Putz, and unlike so many other expensive relievers who have faltered this season (see Soriano, Rafael, among others), Putz has been steady at the back end of the bullpen, with 18 saves and a 2.64 FIP that suggests he won’t be blowing more than his share of leads anytime soon. Towers inked Putz to a two-year deal with a team option for a third at only $10 million guaranteed, making Putz just the tenth most expensive relief signing of the offseason. This one’s looking like a real win for Towers. Also new to the bullpen are setup man David Hernandez, who has posted a sub-3 FIP in a setup role since coming over in exchange for Reynolds, and lefty specialist Joe Paterson, a Rule 5 pick stolen from the division rival Giants who has put up a 2.86 FIP against lefties this year.

The expectation was that these bullpen upgrades would come at the expense of an offense that lost not only Reynolds but also starting first baseman Adam LaRoche to the Nationals in free agency. To replace both starting corner infield positions, which produce a huge percentage of most teams’ offense, Towers spent a miniscule $6.45 million on two years of Geoff Blum and a year each of Melvin Mora and Xavier Nady. While that’s not exactly a trio of impact signings, the veterans do provide some value and stability. Well, they were expected to, anyway. Blum had knee surgery a week before Opening Day and hasn’t played a game yet, while Mora’s -0.6 WAR is the worst for any position player on the team.

To counteract this loss of production at the infield corners, several of the Diamondbacks have stepped up in a big way and carried the Diamondbacks offense to within half a game of the division lead at this point. Several D’Backs players are posting career-high offensive number, but as their young core enters their respective primes, that shouldn’t be a surprise and could certainly continue. Justin Upton (who, it’s easy to forget, won’t even be 24 until next month) currently stands at a career-best 134 wRC+, and is on pace to shatter the impressive 4.8 WAR he put up as a 21-year-old in 2009. When a team’s not getting production from the positions that would normally be big run producers, it becomes even more important to get offense from nontraditional positions. Shortstop Stephen Drew, in his age 28 season, is also posting a career-high 123 wRC+, and 27-year-old Miguel Montero is also on route to the best season of his career. Perhaps no player on the roster has been more surprising than Ryan Roberts, who has been extremely impressive with a wRC+ of 127 while splitting time between second, third, and left field. Roberts is something of a career minor leaguer and a journeyman, but his statistics over the past few years suggest the surprising utility man could continue making waves in the Snakes’ lineup. He should see much of the playing time at third going forward, as neither of the offseason signings charged with replacing Mark Reynolds have been doing much in that regard. In addition to their offensive contributions, each of these players have provided value on defense, and their contributions to this point total 8.9 WAR. Overall, the team’s defense has currently been 18.1 runs above average according to UZR, the second best glovework (behind Cincinnati) of any NL team.

Finally, though they’ve flown under the radar, the Arizona staff is led by possibly the most underrated pair of arms in baseball. On the whole, the Arizona’s staff hasn’t been particularly impressive, but things would be much worse without Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy. Both are limiting walks to career-low rates in the low twos, and striking out more than 7 batters per nine innings. Hudson’s ERA currently sits at 3.82 due to an ugly start to the campaign, but his ugly fantasy numbers hide a 2.61 FIP. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s 3.23 ERA may be slightly luck-aided, but his career-best 3.66 FIP suggest that he may be beginning to harness some of the promise that made him a top prospect in the Yankees organization before coming over as a centerpiece of the Granderson/Jackson/Scherzer trade before last season. While Hudson and Kennedy anchor the rotation, several of the pieces around the (Josh Collmenter and Zach Duke in particular) have been strong so far and likely won’t embarrass themselves in the lower slots in the rotation. They’ll certainly be able to outproduce Armando Galarraga, who inexplicably got eight starts before being unceremoniously jettisoned to the minors. With their improved rotation, the Diamondbaks have produced a 3.81 FIP over the last month, which is likely much more in line with what we can expect down the road than the 4.21 they’ve totaled over the full year.

This team can hit, they play strong defense, and both their rotation and bullpen are much improved from last year. So can they stay in it? My inclination is that they can. This team will likely play .500 ball, or possibly a little better. The NL West wasn’t good to begin the year, and with both Buster Posey and Jorge de la Rosa done for the year, the two contenders have taken some pretty big steps back. Though I wouldn’t expect the World Champs to roll over, this will likely continue to be a tight race all year. The Diamondbacks haven’t played meaningful September baseball since 2008. They haven’t been involved in the postseason since a year before that. Expect the former to change this year. As for the latter, we’ll have to see, but it’s a distinct possibility.

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