RR preview - the Diamondbacks!

I thought I'd post my Diamondbacks preview now to invigorate the RR preview campaign and (more importantly) because I'm about to go on vacation.  This wasn't quite the labor of love as my Phillies preview because I don't live in Arizona, but hereitgoes:

2006.  76-86, tied for 4th in the NL West.  Like the Reds, the Diamondbacks started off hot.  But an 8-20 June tanked Arizona's playoff hopes, and they played under .500 for the rest of the season.  Mixed into the June malaise was the Jason Grimsley fiasco, when the Arizona reliever ratted out a number of former teammates to the FBI as part the PED witch hunt.  

But 2006 wasn't all bad news.  The highlights start with UK alum Brandon Webb winning the Cy Young after going 16-8 with a 3.10 ERA in 235 innings (with 178 strikeouts, 50 walks and inducing many a groundball).  Behind Webb, the pitching staff allowed 788 runs (6th in the NL), which is fine in its own right but doesn't give them credit for pitching in a hitter's park (Chase Field is the only park other than Coors higher than 1,000 feet above sea level).  In ERA+, Arizona was 4th in the league.  

Offensively, the team scored 773 runs (7th in the NL), getting mildly productive seasons from veterans like Luis Gonzalez, Chad Tracy and Eric Byrnes, but also introducing a slew of talented youngsters - SS Stephen Drew, RF Carlos Quentin, 1B Conor Jackson and CF Chris Young.  2B Orlando Hudson came over from Toronto and contributed with his bat and glove, hitting 287/354/454 with 87 runs, 15 HRs and 67 RBIs and collecting a Gold Glove.  

The Reds dropped 4 of 6 games to the Diamondbacks last year, with Webb dominating in both of his starts (one run in 17 innings).  The Reds prevented sweeps in both the home and road series by winning each finale by one run.  LLM won the home finale with a walk-off HR.  Other than that drama, I remember Lopez's inside-the-park HR in Arizona on a drive that struck a corner in Arizona's CF wall.  

2007.  I've been thinking that Arizona could contend in 2007, and a couple of recently released projections reinforce that notion.  Both The Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus have Arizona winning the NL West with 86 and 88 wins, respectively.  So why should a team that only won 76 games last year be expected to improve by ten or so wins?

First, their rotation looks to be very solid.  Anchored by Webb, the rotation will introduce lefties Randy Johnson and Doug Davis and a full season of Livan Hernandez.  Johnson had a rough 2006 (5.00 ERA) but should benefit from moving away from both New York and the AL.  The health of his back may determine his success in 2007.  Davis, who has given the Reds trouble in the past, is also coming off a rough year (4.91 ERA).  But he has three years going of at least 200 innings and career ERA of 4.35.  If he brings down his walks, he should bounce back.  It's worth noting that Johnson and Davis were both unlucky last year in that they underperformed their fielding independent ERAs by about half a run.  After Bowden traded him, Hernandez pitched well for Arizona (3.76 ERA, 69.3 IPs).  I don't know much about presumptive fifth starter Enrique Gonzalez, who gave Arizona 106.3 innings of 5.67 ERA last year.  But he's 24 and like Johnson and Davis was unlucky according to FIP (4.91).  With Johnson and Davis replacing Miguel Batista and Claudio Vargas (63 starts, about 4.70 ERA last year), a full season of Livan and improvement from a young fifth starter (and a capable sixth starter in Juan Cruz), I see this rotation as an improvement over last year's.  

Second, Arizona has done a nice job in developing young position players which are expected to contribute this year.  The youth of many key contributors makes predicting the Diamondbacks tricky (futile, if you prefer) - this is why I see them as a real wild card.  Drew is viewed as one of the top young SSs in the game, and his two-month introduction to big league pitching (316/357/517 in 225 PAs) did nothing to cool expectations.  Quentin took over RF after the Diamondbacks traded Shawn Green and hit 253/342/530 in 181 PAs.  PECOTA projects 285/377/486.  Jackson isn't a world-beater but gave Arizona steady production in his first full season, hitting 291/368/441.  PECTOA projects moderate improvement (294/380/486).  Chris Young, a ROY candidate, may be the most talented of the four - I've seen him compared to Eric the Red.  PECOTA projects 283/363/541 with 20 steals, which sounds very bullish but underscores his tremendous talent.  

The infusion of younger players should help the OF defense.  Arizona finished 10th in DER (defensive efficiency ratio, which measures the rate at which batted balls are converted into outs).  This is by no means a perfect measure of a team's defense because it doesn't account for the park or the type of balls given up by the pitching staff, among other things, but it gives us a start in assessing a team's defense.  Last year's OF from left to right was Gonzalez, Byrnes and Green.  This year it looks to be Byrnes, Young and Quentin, which is a considerable upgrade.

Arizona should get decent if unspectacular production from their other regulars.  Hudson may regress some, but Chad Tracy should rebound from his 794 OPS last year to something approaching his 912 OPS in 2005.  Eric Byrnes hit 26 HRs and stole 25 bases in 28 attempts last year, which isn't out of line with what he'd done previously.  Arizona may take a step back behind the plate, however.  Johnny Estrada, traded to Milwaukee for Davis, hit 302/328/444 last year.  Chris Snyder, a career 231/218/363 hitter, is listed first on the depth chart but 23 year-old Miguel Montero may be ready to start (projected 268/333/461).

Relief pitching is hard to predict, but from where I sit the Diamondbacks' bullpen looks respectable.  They return a number of relievers who gave them decent seasons last year, including their "closers." Randy Valverde and Jorge Julio saved 33 games between them, Julio with a 3.83 ERA and Valverde with an atricious 5.84 ERA (though he did have 69 Ks and 22 walks in 49.3 innings).  Brandon Medders, Juan Cruz and Brandon Lyon also return, and they all had high-3/low-4 ERAs in about 250 combined innings (Cruz started 15 games).  You can do worse.

Reds connections
There really isn't much connecting the Reds and Diamondbacks.  I don't see any former Reds on Arizona's depth chart and vice-versa; maybe I'm missing something.  McQracken and Womack enjoyed good years with Arizona before coming here, but thankfully they're gone.  

There isn't much history between the teams, but I do remember old buddy Ron Villone throwing a gem in 1999 - a one hitter over 8 innings - to beat Unit and the Snakes.    

Bill Hall All-Stars:  None, which isn't surprising given the youth of their roster.  

Tomo Ohka All-Stars:  No strong candidates, but it's only fitting that a former Brewer gets mentioned.  Doug Davis has a 3.43 ERA in 86.2 innings against the Reds (compared to a career ERA of 4.35).

2007 matchups
We play Arizona's home opener on April 9th in the first of a three-game set.  The Diamondbacks come to Cincinnati during the weekend of July 6th - 8th, the final games before the ASB.

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