Making a Contender Out of the Diamondbacks

I’ll just be up front: some amount of bias will be present in this post. It’s unavoidable when you write a “sleeper team” post. I’m high on the Diamondbacks, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

Between radio hits and and my weekly chats here at FanGraphs, I’ve been asked plenty of times who my sleeper team is for 2016. Of course, it’s far too early to have any real idea what Opening Day rosters will look like four months from now, yet the questions remain. I did a spot for sports betting website BangTheBook recently and was read the World Series futures odds and asked to pick a potential breakout from the teams being given 60/1 odds or worse. Those teams are as follows:

  • Diamondbacks, 60/1
  • Reds, 60/1
  • Marlins, 60/1
  • Brewers, 60/1
  • Athletics, 60/1
  • Padres, 60/1
  • Braves, 100/1
  • Rockies 150/1
  • Phillies, 300/1

Let’s pretend that we have to place a bet on one of these teams. The Phillies, Rockies and Braves are pretty clearly the three worst teams in baseball with no real hopes or plans for immediate contention. They’re out. Likewise, the Brewers, Reds and Marlins are all in the midst of some sort of rebuild that has them essentially out of the conversation for 2016. Nix them. That leaves the A’s, Padres and D’backs as sort of fringy teams with some interesting pieces that don’t seem to be totally committed to a rebuild.

The Padres won 74 games last year, and were a 71-win team by BaseRuns. Take away Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Ian Kennedy and Joaquin Benoit and you’re currently looking at one of the worst rosters in baseball. Scratch them off. The A’s are interesting because they won only 68 games but BaseRuns saw them as an 80-win team. The Diamondbacks are more interesting, though, because BaseRuns pegged them as 80-win team and they actually won 79. Pythag saw them as better than .500.

It’s not a sexy pick, and I’m certainly not here to argue that the Dbacks are one of the best teams in baseball, but a complaint you often hear about bold predictions is that they aren’t bold enough. Well, by nearly any measure we have a true-talent .500 team here, a team whose most notable free agent departure is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and a team whose future World Series odds are being lumped in with the likes of the Reds and Brewers. To me, that’s the definition of a sleeper. And there’s reason to believe the team could get better.

Star power

The Royals have proved each of the last two seasons that you don’t necessarily need a perennial MVP candidate to be successful, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have one. It hurts even less to have two. Paul Goldschmidt might just be the best first baseman in baseball, and A.J. Pollock is arguably the best center fielder not named Trout or McCutchen.

Last year, Goldschmidt and Pollock combined to be worth 14 WAR according to our model, making them the most valuable pair of position player teammates in baseball by nearly a full win over Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista. Looking ahead, our depth charts have Goldschmidt projected for 5.5 WAR, with Pollock at 3.5. That’s quite a bit of regression from last year, but that’s what you get with player forecast models. Still, the pairing holds up. Steamer sees Goldschmidt and Pollock as the sixth-best one-two punch in baseball:

Top Projected 2016 Hitter Teammate Pairings
Team Player 1 WAR Player 2 WAR Total WAR
Angels Mike Trout 9.1 Andrelton Simmons 3.5 12.6
Cubs Kris Bryant 5.5 Anthony Rizzo 5.2 10.7
Nationals Bryce Harper 6.8 Anthony Rendon 3.6 10.4
Blue Jays Josh Donaldson 5.9 Jose Bautista 3.8 9.7
Pirates Andrew McCutchen 5.8 Starling Marte 3.8 9.6
Diamondbacks Paul Goldschmidt 5.5 A.J. Pollock 3.5 9.0
Marlins Giancarlo Stanton 5.8 Christian Yelich 3.0 8.8
Orioles Manny Machado 5.8 Adam Jones 3.0 8.8
Red Sox Mookie Betts 4.7 Xander Bogaerts 3.7 8.4
Giants Buster Posey 5.0 Brandon Belt 2.9 7.9
SOURCE: Steamer projections

Defense

You know about how good the Royals defense is. Last year, they accumulated 56 Defensive Runs Saved, and the next-best team had just 37. But the Royals didn’t lead the MLB in DRS. In fact, they weren’t even all that close. It hasn’t received quite the same fanfare, but the Diamondbacks have built a defensive juggernaut of their own, leading the MLB with 71 DRS. Ultimate Zone Rating didn’t like them quite as much, but still pegged them as a top-three defense. No matter way you slice the numbers, the Diamondbacks are the Royals of the National League, defensively speaking, and they might even be better.

When I ran my annual Gold Gloves by the Numbers post last month, Goldschmidt graded out as MLB’s best defensive first baseman. Jake Lamb finished runner-up to Nolan Arenado. Nick Ahmed finished runner-up to Andrelton Simmons and Brandon Crawford. A.J. Pollock appeared in the top-three for center field. Jason Heyward was the only thing keeping Ender Inciarte from the top spot.

Across the board, the Diamondbacks are excellent defensively. Using the same average of DRS, UZR and FRAA I used for the Gold Gloves post, the D’backs infield was worth 23 runs saved last year, second in the MLB to the Giants. That’s +23, with -6 coming from the Yasmany Tomas third base experiment in limited playing time. Give that time to Lamb and the D’backs infield is right there with the Giants as the best in baseball. More of the same in the outfield, which DRS had pegged for 38 runs saved, second only to the Kevin Kiermaier-led Rays.

Like the Royals teams of the last couple years, the D’backs pitching isn’t an overwhelming strength, but an elite defense can go a long way in terms of run prevention.

Bouncebacks, breakouts and full seasons

I know, any team can count on bouncebacks and breakouts. But not every team had Patrick Corbin return from Tommy John surgery in July and look every bit as good as his 2013 All Star self. And not every team had David Peralta continue his incredible transformation from failed pitcher to independent league player to above-average starting left fielder:

And not every team has a Yasmany Tomas’s 70-grade raw power on the bench, waiting to be tapped into as a pure upside play. Or Archie Bradley, hoping to put his injury-riddled 2015 behind him and return to his top prospect status with a healthy shoulder in 2016.

Flexibility

Of course, the D’backs still have their holes, which is why they have 60/1 odds to win the World Series in the first place. Beyond Corbin, Robbie Ray — who was surprisingly great last year — is the only starter with real upside that the team can count on. Bradley has the upside, but isn’t yet proven. Rubby de la Rosa, Chase Anderson and Zachary Godley are more back-end/depth guys than they are legitimate pieces of a contender. So something needs to be done about the rotation.

The team has money to spend. Even after factoring in arbitrtation raises and minimum salaries, they’ve only got around $60 million committed, leaving them nearly $30 million shy of last year’s Opening Day payroll and nearly $60 million shy of 2014’s Opening Day payroll. They can’t be expected to return to that 2014 level, but there’s clearly a large amount of wiggle room here if the front office wants to make some splashes.

There really aren’t any holes on the position-player side of things, so they can take that $30 million+ and focus almost exclusively on the rotation. This is why I think Johnny Cueto makes a ton of sense for the Diamondbacks, and why they’d be right to spend the extra to get him. They’ve also been linked to Kenta Maeda, who requested to be posted earlier this week. Maeda doesn’t look like he’ll be an ace, but even if they miss out on Cueto, nabbing someone like Maeda would help fill out their rotation and would leave them plenty of room to go after a Mike Leake or a Scott Kazmir, giving them a formidable rotation to complement their great unit of position players. They also haven’t been shy in their pursuit of Aroldis Chapman, who should be traded anytime now, and Mark Melancon exists as a backup plan who could help solidify the back end of the bullpen.

* * *

The Diamondbacks may not be the most exciting sleeper, but they’ve already proven they can at least hang around .500, and we’ve seen the value of that in recent years. The fact that they play in the same division as the Dodgers makes a Wild Card their best bet, and the NL Central complicates that a bit, but they don’t need to add an unreasonable number of wins from last year’s total of 79 to potentially put themselves in the race. There’s still work to be done, and this certainly isn’t to call them a contender in the present tense, but the pieces are in place, financial flexibility leaves room for improvement, and at 60/1, I’ll take those odds.

We hoped you liked reading Making a Contender Out of the Diamondbacks by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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HappyFunBall
Guest
HappyFunBall

Is it worth noting that Steamer thinks Trout would be the 6th best 1-2 punch with a replacement player?

Robert
Guest
Robert

Is it a fun fact that makes reference to how good Mike Trout is?

Then yes, it is worth noting

t ball
Guest
t ball

I loved that Happy Fun Ball sketch back in the day. “Do no taunt Happy Fun Ball.”