The expectations among fans for this year's Arizona Diamondbacks are the highest they've been in years -- but the D-backs still have their share of detractors.
Several national outlets have predicted the D-backs won't improve much upon their 79-83 campaign of 2015. That includes Sports Illustrated's Cliff Corcoran, who says the Snakes will go just .500 (81-81) this year.
Are the detractors right, or will the D-backs break through and make the playoffs for the first time since 2011? Here are three questions and a prediction for Arizona's season, which begins Monday night at home against the Colorado Rockies.
1. Can the offense keep up without A.J.?
The D-backs’ 720 runs scored last season were the second-highest total in the National League. 111 of those runs were scored by All-Star center fielder A.J. Pollock, who was among the NL’s top 10 in that category, along with batting average, doubles and stolen bases.
So, yeah, the D-backs are going to miss Pollock, who suffered a fractured elbow in Friday’s exhibition game that will sideline him for an extended period of time. Arizona still has plenty of offensive power in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, outfielder David Peralta and others…but Pollock’s production is nearly irreplaceable.
The men who will be likely be called upon to try are infielder Chris Owings, who will likely move to center field, as well as Socrates Brito, who, according to one D-backs coach, has Rookie of the Year potential. The 23-year-old Brito hit .306 with seven RBI and four stolen bases during Spring Training. Can an Owings-Brito combination help minimize the impact of Pollock’s absence, for however long that might be?
2. Will the back end of the rotation deliver?
The D-backs got themselves a pair of pitching aces this offseason by signing Zack Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller -- but getting to the playoffs will require pitching depth beyond those two men. Enter southpaws Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray, along with right-hander Rubby De La Rosa, who will all be counted on to give the Diamondbacks a chance to win during the 60 percent of games in which Greinke and Miller will not pitch.
Corbin made a successful return from Tommy John surgery last season by posting a 3.60 ERA in 16 starts. Ray’s 3.52 ERA in 23 starts was even more impressive. De La Rosa’s 4.51 ERA was less than stellar, but his ability to eat up innings makes him a decent back-end-of-the-rotation guy.
Simply put: If the Corbin-Ray-De La Rosa trio can duplicate their numbers from last season (and Greinke and Miller keep doing their thing at the rotation’s front end), the D-backs should be in tremendous shape.
3. Will the bullpen continue to improve?
Last season, the D-backs’ ERA among relief pitchers was 3.56, the 13th-best mark among all 30 MLB teams. It was a significant improvement from its 3.92 ERA in 2014, the 23rd-best (eighth-worst) mark in baseball.
Arizona will need its bullpen to be at least as good this season in order to return to the playoffs. That begins with closer Brad Ziegler, who took over that role from the since-traded Addison Reed last season. Ziegler shined in that role, posting a 1.85 season ERA and making good on 30 of 32 save opportunities. Free-agent signee and two-time All-Star Tyler Clippard is an ideal set-up man, and left-handed specialist Andrew Chafin had a stellar 2015 campaign.
The D-backs will start the season with reliever Josh Collmenter on the disabled list. Young relievers Jake Barrett and Silvino Bracho will try to fill in adequately. Will the young arms out of the bullpen, along with the more experienced trio of Ziegler, Clippard and Chafin, help the D-backs sustain, or even improve upon, their bullpen success?
As we saw in 2001 with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, a World Series championship can be won by an outstanding one-two pitching punch. With Greinke and Miller, the D-backs have that now.
The only trick will be getting to the playoffs in the first place.
Despite ridiculous “expert” predictions that this they are only .500-caliber, these D-backs are a postseason team. Yes, it will be difficult to overcome both the Giants and Dodgers in the NL West, especially without Pollock. But the Snakes have enough offense and strength in the rotation and bullpen to, at the very least, earn one of the National League’s two Wild Card spots. In that scenario, you have to like the D-backs’ chances to advance if they’re able to send Greinke to the hill for that one-game playoff.
The Giants have won the World Series in each of the last three even-numbered years, and they seem poised for another run in 2016. There’s a good chance they’ll fend off the D-backs for the NL West crown – but the Snakes should end their five-year postseason drought by beating out the Dodgers for a Wild Card berth.
Let’s say the D-backs go 88-74, good for second in the NL West, before falling to the eventual NL-champion Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series.