Please check out the Hippeaux's weekly posts at SNY affiliate, It's About The Money.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #23: The Arizona Diamondbacks

With the combo of Manny and Big Papi forcefully divorced, and, to some extent, ravaged by the tides of time, it is logical to ask the question afresh, what is the most fearsome tandem in baseball?  Texeira & A-Rod would no doubt be the choice of a vocal minority.  But, good as they are, do they really match up to Pujols & Holliday, Mauer & Morneau, Utley & Howard, or, my personal favorite, Ryan Braun & Prince Fielder?  All have a legitimate claim, and not too far back of them are duos like Lance Berkman & Carlos Lee, Victor Martinez & Kevin Youkilis, and Derrek Lee & Aramis Ramirez.

I predict, however, assuming the D-Backs can retain their investments, within the next year or two, there will again be a clear answer to that question, as Justin Upton & Mark Reynolds develop into the premier run-producing duo of the twenty-teens.  In 2009 the pair broke out in a major way, combining for 70 HR, 188 RBI, 44 SB, and, just to keep their youth in perspective, 360 K.  Tremendous production, despite the fact that Upton missed a month in the middle of the season and both appeared weary down the stretch (706 September OPS for Upton, 610 for Reynolds).  But inconsistency is to be expected from a pair whose combined age is the same as Jamie Moyer's (47).

Upton, still only 22-years-old, seems (knock on wood) destined to become the toast of his generation, his career path thusfar comparing favorably to guys like Griffey, Mays, Aaron, and Bonds.  When I watch Upton, I can't help but see a young, right-handed Bonds: the upright stance, the short, lightning-quick stroke, and, perhaps most of all, the eery calm.  Reynolds's aspirations aren't quiet so high, but it is reasonable to expect his potential as a hitter falls somewhere between Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard, not too shabby in either case, and he has much more speed and, at least for now, plays a scarcer position than either of them.

The D-Backs will begin the season with high expectations.  It is reasonable to believe that this club is at least as good as the one that made the playoffs in 2007, as it is still filled with players who have not peaked.  That, combined with the fact that nobody in the NL West got significantly better this offseason, makes Arizona a darkhorse contender, albeit one that will need a fair number of good breaks.

Free Agents:

Eric Byrnes (34) OF
Tony Clark (38) 1B
Doug Davis (34) RHSP [Signed w/ Brewers]
Tom Gordon (42) RHRP
Yusmeiro Petit (25) RHP [Signed w/ Mariners]
Scott Schoenweis (36) LHRP
Doug Slaten (30) LHRP [Signed w/ Nationals]
Chad Tracy (30) 1B/3B/LF

Arbitration Eligible:

Edwin Jackson (26) RHSP

ETA 2010?:

Brandon Allen (24) 1B
Bryan Augenstein (23) RHSP
Cole Gillespie (26) OF
John Hester (26) C
Esmerling Vasquez (26) RHRP

Arizona has quietly been among the most active teams in the National League this winter, bringing in Edwin Jackson, Ian Kennedy, Adam LaRoche, Kelly Johnson, Bobby Howry, and Aaron Heilman.  None are superstars (although Jackson pitched like one for most of last season), but all help to improve Arizona's depth, which has a been a serious problem in recent years as the team has been stung be it's share of serious injuries (Brandon Webb, Chad Tracy, Conor Jackson, Eric Byrnes, etc.).

The D-Backs have done a tremendous job of drafting and developing young sluggers, leaving them with such abundance that they had to let go some solid prospects this offseason, including Trent Oeltjen and Josh Whitesell, who are probably future major-leaguers, but had no place to play in Arizona.  The Adam LaRoche signing was especially odd, in my view, because it seems to block the progress of guys like Brandon Allen, Cole Gillespie, and Gerardo Parra, all of whom are ready for major-league opporunities. However, the D-Backs front office may be asking A. J. Hinch to work the rookies in slowly and the versatility of Conor Jackson (1B/LF), Reynolds (3B/1B), and Parra (LF/CF) gives him some flexibility.

The biggest question for the D-Backs, in my opinion, lies in the starting rotation.  At the front, assuming Brandon Webb is fully healthy, Arizona ranks among the best in baseball, with a pair of Aces, Webb and Dan Haren.  The uber-durable Jackson seems a solid #3, even if he can't quite duplicate last year's dominance.  Behind him, however, the D-Backs are holding open auditions.

Ian Kennedy, acquired from the Yankees as part of the Granderson/Jackson megadeal is their top prospect.  Many will recall that Kennedy struggled mightily when the Yankees inserted him into their rotation for a brief spell at the beginning of 2008, but they very well may have pulled the plug too soon.  Kennedy is still only 25, and has a ridiculously low 1.95 ERA through his minor-league career, with more strikeouts than innings pitched.  Health has been something of a problem (only 26 starts in '08 and '09), but he will certainly face far less scrutiny in Arizona than he did at Yankee stadium, and has the high-risk, high-reward potential of becoming an Ace (think Rich Harden).

Behind Kennedy, the picking get very slim, very quickly.  23-year-old Bryan Augenstein looked like a phenom at AA (5-0, 0.99 ERA in 9 starts), but struggled when he moved up (2-5, 5.50 @ AAA).  Billy Buckner's future is probably in the bullpen.  And, Kevin Mulvey, who the D-Backs acquired from the Twins for Jon Rauch last September, though still only 25, has regressed slightly in each of his last two seasons at AAA.

The other big source of intrigue for the D-Backs lies in the development of Conor Jackson and Chris Young.  Way back in 2007, Young in 32 HR and stole 27 bases, but over the last two seasons his production has consistently declined, eventually prompting a brief demotion.  Similarly, a few years ago Jackson appeared to be developing into one of Arizona's most consistent producers, a kind of Mark Grace lite, but he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career and made only thirty appearances in 2009.  Jackson doesn't hit for much power (.451 SLG from '06-'08), though he plays power positions (1B/LF), so the D-Backs need him to hit for a high average and get on base.

Young, on the other hand, is one of Arizona's few power threats (besides Upton and Reynolds, obviously).  He will probably never hit much above .250 and strikes out in bunches, but his power/speed is Soriano-esque and his discipline is improving.  Upon his return to the big leagues in the last month of '09, Young hit 8 HR and posted an 859 OPS.  It's a small sample size, but Arizona hopes it is a sign of things to come.  If Jackson and Young fulfill their promise, they provide RBI opportunities and protection for Upton and Reynolds, and the D-Backs lineup becomes much more intimidating.

Arizona, not unlike their NL West rivals in L.A., S.F., and Colorado, have a team which looks pretty solid on paper, but will need to see progress from their youngsters and health from their veterans if they hope to still be playing meaningful games in September.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

2B Kelly Johnson (L)
LF Conor Jackson (R)
RF Justin Upton (R)
3B Mark Reynolds (R)
C Miguel Montero (L)
CF Chris Young (R)
1B Adam LaRoche (L)
SS Stephen Drew (L)
SP Dan Haren (R)

SP Brandon Webb (R)
SP Edwin Jackson (R)
SP Ian Kennedy (R)
SP Kevin Mulvey (R)

CL Chad Qualls (R)
SU Bobby Howry (R)
SU Juan Gutierrez (R)
MR Aaron Heilman (R)
MR Blaine Boyer (R)
LOOGY Clay Zavada (L)
SWING Billy Buckner (R)

C Chris Snyder (R)
1B Brandon Allen (L)
2B/SS Augie Ojeda (S)
2B/OF Ryan Roberts (R)
OF Gerardo Parra (L)

No comments: