Our extremely early 2017 standings projections have the Diamondbacks located a clear step behind the Giants and a couple of notches behind the Dodgers in the NL West, but with a 77-win projection, they’re firmly planted within striking distance. Even if the projections were on the money regarding the club’s true talent, a few wins of random overperformance and a couple of deadline deals could easily vault them into the Wild Card race. The Diamondbacks’ roster is respectable. No one expects them to produce a 95-win season, but you could imagine exciting games in September.
One thing about the club that’s particularly interesting going into the season is their starting rotation. The projections put them somewhere in the middle of the pack for 2017, and while you can definitely argue about precise rankings, you probably couldn’t find anyone willing to put them higher than eighth or lower than about 20th. Even if you don’t put much stock into the exact calculations, that generally passes the sniff test.
But allow me to transport you back in time about three years, to spring training of 2014. In this scenario, you’re a well-versed fan of the entire league and I tell you that, in three years time, the Diamondbacks’ rotation will consist of some combination of the following six pitchers:
Three years ago, Greinke was coming off his first season with the Dodgers, during which he recorded a 74 ERA- and 86 FIP-. That’s somewhere between well above average and great, which is basically a good way to describe Greinke’s career from 2008 through 2013. Would you have considered him an ace at that moment? Perhaps not, but you would be over the moon if he were your No. 2 starter. In 2014, Greinke was entering his age-30 season and, at that point, there was no real expectation that he would age particularly poorly. In fact, he pitched very well in 2014 and 2015, earning $200-plus million from the Diamondbacks entering 2016. Due to a big drop in strikeouts and a simultaneous spike in home-runs allowed, his first season in Arizona was viewed as a disappointment. Few are arguing that Greinke is done, but his stock took a hit after 2016.
At this point in time, Corbin wasn’t a highly ranked prospect by any of the major outlets, but he had been the 80th overall pick in 2009 and performed solidly in his 2012 foray into the majors. His breakout came a year later when he tossed over 200 innings with a 3.5 WAR. The Diamondbacks expected big things heading into 2014, but those dreams were dashed when he tore his UCL and had Tommy John Surgery in March. He missed the entire 2014 season, returning in 2015 to throw 85 very good innings. Corbin took on a full workload again in 2016, but he lost strikeouts and added walks and home runs, ending the year with a 118 ERA- and 116 FIP-. No one’s writing a baseball obituary for the 27-year-old lefty, but the promise of a post-TJS resurgence was tempered greatly.
Next, there’s Shelby Miller. Miller was a highly touted prospect in the Cardinals’ system, finding his way onto several top ten lists before 2012 and 2013. He followed those rankings with a very solid rookie campaign in 2013 in which he threw 173.1 innings and collected 2.4 WAR. Perhaps he didn’t quite have the look of an ace, but entering 2014, he was definitely one of the young pitchers on which everyone had an eye. He had a rough 2014, got traded to Atlanta and did very well in 2015, and then found himself as the centerpiece of a very lopsided trade before last year. While most people panned the trade when it happened, things looked even worse for Arizona when Miller only provided 101 rough innings for them in 2016. It’s hard to know exactly where the industry sees him entering 2017 given his up and down path.
Walker, like Miller, was a top-10 prospect in baseball on many lists going into 2014. He had been drafted 11th overall in 2010 and had a pretty solid run across two levels in the minors in 2013. Walker wasn’t necessarily a lock to contribute in 2014 at the major-league level, but we expected to see him at Safeco before long. He threw 38 good innings in 2014 and came back with a pretty good 2015 campaign in which a bit of a homer problem blemished an otherwise solid effort. But in 2016, Walker was somewhere between below average and bad across 134.1 innings and found himself on his way out of town in an offseason swap.
Bradley was another top prospect sitting somewhere in most people’s top 10s entering 2014. He was eligible for the lists again before 2015, this time finding himself somewhere just outside the top 10 on most rankings. His poor 2015 showing hurt his appeal a bit, but most people still seemed to buy into his potential entering last year. While his fielding-independent numbers were respectable, he allowed runs at a well above-average rate. Even in a tough run environment in Arizona, an ERA that starts with a 5 tends to sour some impressions.
Robbie Ray arrived in the public consciousness largely thanks to his inclusion in the Doug Fister trade that took place after the 2013 season. Ray was a borderline top-100 prospect entering 2014, but did not have a good run with the Tigers that year. He found himself involved in another deal that winter, but has improved his stock with a solid 2015 and huge strikeout rate jump in 2016. While he’s not showing up at the top of anyone’s future-ace list, his stock has probably gone up since 2014.
Based on what you know about all of these pitchers in 2017, you’re best impression is that this is a mid-level rotation. Greinke is good, but maybe on the decline. Corbin may or may not be the guy he was before Tommy John. Miller, Walker, and Bradley were all top prospects but have had significant growing pains during the MLB time. Ray is probably the only one of the group who looks better now than he did then, and he was almost certainly starting from the lowest point. Five of the six potential arms are coming off a 2016 that raises questions, but it wasn’t that long ago that this group would have been really exciting.
The Diamondbacks have assembled a group of pitchers who, relatively recently, would have been considered an emerging super rotation. That’s not to discount the warning signs of the last year or two, but we probably shouldn’t discount the possibility that these young pitchers do eventually find their footing. Greinke is going to be 33, but Corbin (27), Miller (26), Walker (24), Bradley (24), and Ray (25) all still have plenty of development left in their respective futures. It might seem like their failure to deliver results is a sign of missed expectations, but the thing about great prospects is that we hear about them really early because their talent distinguishes itself early. I knew who Taijuan Walker was when he was 18 years old, but just because he was really great for an 18-year-old doesn’t mean he should be a fully formed MLB pitcher at 23.
I wouldn’t say there’s any sort of clear strategy here. The Diamondbacks got Greinke and Miller coming off great years and Walker and Ray off down years. It’s not obvious that they targeted a specific profile, especially due to the changing regimes, but it does make them particularly exciting entering the season. This is a group that doesn’t look terribly impressive based on their actual track records, but the talent is there and they’re all young enough (aside from Greinke) that you wouldn’t be shocked to seem them take a step forward.
Learning to pitch at the major-league level is extremely difficult and not everyone can burst onto the scene like Felix Hernandez or Clayton Kershaw. It takes time for most good pitchers, and that means the Diamondbacks might be sitting on a gold mine. By the early raw projections, the club probably won’t make the playoffs as currently constructed. But if you take into account what we thought about these very young pitchers just a couple years ago, it’s easier to talk yourself into a surprising year from the Snakes.
Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.