The Arizona Diamondbacks were among the biggest surprises of Major League Baseball last season when they won 93 games and advanced to the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Halfway through the 2018 season, the D-backs are on pace for 94 victories, as well as their first back-to-back trips to the playoffs since 2001-02.
The D-backs shut out the Marlins 4-0 on Thursday to improve to 47-34 this season and maintain a narrow lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in the National League West division. But with the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants breathing down their necks, the Snakes might need some help in order to maintain that lead for the rest of the year.
Fortunately, help is on the way. The D-backs had a pair of starting pitchers return to the rotation this week, and center fielder A.J. Pollock, the team's best hitter in the first month of the season, should soon return from a thumb injury.
Will their returns be enough to keep the D-backs atop the NL West for another 81 games, or will they need to make some additions to their roster in order to do so? Here are three big questions for the D-backs heading into the second half of the 2018 season.
1. What moves will they make?
The Diamondbacks were active before last season's trade deadline, and they might be again this year. ESPN's Buster Olney reported Sunday that the D-backs are likely to be "among the most aggressive" in the trade market in order to boost their chances of winning their division this year.
That could include the acquisition of Baltimore Orioles slugger Manny Machado, a three-time All-Star Game selection who is among the American League leaders in batting average, home runs and RBIs. He could boost a D-backs batting order that has hit well in June (thanks largely to the resurgence of perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt) but is still last in the National League in batting average and second to last in on-base percentage this season. Adding Machado before the July 31 deadline, along with the return of Pollock, would certainly help the D-backs remain atop the NL West.
2. What will the rotation look like?
This isn't necessarily a bad situation for a team to be in, but it will require some tough choices. The returns of Robbie Ray and Shelby Miller from injury essentially give the D-backs six options for a five-man starting pitcher rotation. Miller, who missed over a full year of action after undergoing Tommy John surgery, was shaky in his return Monday, while Ray, a 2017 All-Star selection, was sharp in his first game back after suffering an oblique injury in late April.
The D-backs' current rotation includes Zack Greinke, Patrick Corbin, Zack Godley and Clay Buchholz, the latter of whom was placed on the disabled list Monday with an oblique injury but could return as soon as next week. Six-man rotations are rare in MLB, meaning that once Buchholz is healthy, one of these men will likely find themselves in the bullpen or back in the minors. Who will be the odd man out?
3. Will the bullpen hold up?
Perhaps the No. 1 reason the D-backs lead the NL West is the exceptional play of their relief pitchers, as the bullpen's 2.51 ERA through 81 games is the best in all of baseball. In particular, the three-man trio of setup men Yoshihisa Hirano and Archie Bradley and closer Brad Boxberger have been outstanding for most of the season, though Boxberger has struggled in recent weeks.
Is it realistic for the bullpen to keep up this pace for the rest of the season? Probably not. But if the three men mentioned above, as well as long reliever T.J. McFarland and left-handed specialist Andrew Chafin, can be even 90 percent as effective the rest of the way, they will significantly boost the D-backs' chances of advancing to the playoffs for the second straight season.