How the West will be won by the Arizona Diamondbacks
As of this day, July 26, there is a measly one-half game separation between the Diamondbacks and first place in the NL West. But to hear people talk, and people are talking, you'd think the distance between the Dodgers and D-backs was so wide Nick Wallenda might try to sky-walk across it for his next daring stunt.
The Dodgers have more talent than the D-backs, there's no denying that. And if given a blind choice, I'd want the talent and take my chances. But it's not the like the Dodgers are without flaws. Questions at second base, third base, catcher, bullpen, team chemistry and the great unknowns of whether Hanley Ramirez and rookie Yasiel Puig can keep their torrid streaks going are all legitimate concerns.
Of course, the D-backs are contending with major issues as well. Their hopes for the season hinge upon starting pitchers two through five turning a dismal summer around and the bullpen finally living up to preseason expectations. But beyond the obvious, I've noticed some additional key elements that aren't being discussed and could be the difference between playing in October and going fishing.
Protecting the Gold
First baseman Paul Goldschmidt ranks third in the Majors in RBI and is having an MVP-caliber season. And before long, teams are going to figure out he's the only Diamondbacks hitter worth fearing. Martin Prado is second on the team with 40 RBI, which is good for the 93rd-best total in Major League Baseball. Only three other teams in the game have a player with that few RBI being their second-best run producer. The dreaded Marlins and Padres, and believe it or not, the Dodgers. (Of course, the Dodgers have only had Puig and Ramirez in their lineup for a combined 91 games out of a possible 202.) And NO team in MLB has gotten fewer home runs from their second-best long ball producer (Goldschmidt 22, Prado 9). If the Diamondbacks don't find someone else in the lineup to scare the opposing team, pitchers are going to stop throwing to Goldschmidt. Goldy may want to ask Miami's Giancarlo Stanton how enjoyable it is to get pitched around every at-bat.
Finding a No. 2 starter
Sorry if the organization doesn't want the young man being labeled "ace," but that's exactly what Patrick Corbin is and must continue to be if the team has a shot and winning the West. And then there's the issue of finding him some help. The front office continues to hint that finding help for the bullpen is more important than landing a starting pitcher, but I can only hope that they're using a smokescreen to keep the media out of their business. If Ian Kennedy and Trevor Cahill were sports cars, I'm far from junking them for scrap metal, but I've given up hope that they are going to start winning races this season. The problem is that the trade market for no. 2 starters is undeniably weak. Jake Peavy makes too much money, I don't like rent-a-players like Ervin Santana and Josh Johnson for the D-backs and I have to retract my previous public suggestion of Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo, as concerns over his health and durability have rang alarm bells throughout baseball.
Beating up on the weak
During the grind of a 162-game schedule, it is nearly essential for division winners to take series over the weaker opponents. The Diamondbacks have failed in this area. This stat should wake you up: The best team in baseball is the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals are 18-18 this season against teams with .500 records or better. The Diamondbacks happen to be 19-18. However, where Arizona is just 34-31 against teams with losing records this year, St. Louis is 44-19. There's no room for charity within the sport. The weak and feeble must be knocked to the ground and trampled. The Padres are in town this weekend, and they have a noticeable limp. The D-backs can get out of the car and help them across the street, or they can run them over and drive away. Their choice.
Eric Chavez must stay healthy
Eric Chavez can't play every day. He's too old. He's too fragile. But when you manage the veteran's playing time effectively, he is still a very productive player. And he's going to need to be. For starters, he might be the only solution to our previously mentioned Goldschmidt concern. Secondly, the Diamondbacks have 14 interleague games left on the schedule, and there's not an easy win in the bunch. Eleven of the 14 games are against four of the best six teams in the American League (Texas, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Boston). And 13 of the 14 will be played against four of the top eight offenses in MLB (Boston-1, Baltimore-4, Tampa-6, Toronto-8). Ouch! The Diamondbacks are not going to be able to out-hit these teams, so they're going to require all hands on deck. Chavez needs to be in the lineup for as many of those 14 games as possible, and all six of the matchups that will require a DH.
Someone hand me the Lemon Pledge
Don't let the D-backs use your coffee table, they'll leave streaks everywhere. Just when you think the Diamondbacks are on a roll, they fall apart. And just when you think they're dead and buried, they come alive. Bottom line: this team needs to play more consistently. Through 102 games, the Diamondbacks have posted eight winning streaks of three games or more. But they've also suffered seven losing streaks of three games or more. That is an absurd example of hot and cold. I've had relationships like this, and they tend to not survive the year.
The season is not lost, Diamondback fans. But when you have the team in the fight with less talent, you can't afford to make mistakes. The Snakes are fortunate to have made this large a number of gaffes and still be in contention.
Chuck Powell, KTAR.com & ArizonaSports.com contributor
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