Newness of D-backs’ regime offers chance to surprise in tough NL West
PHOENIX — The Arizona Diamondbacks enter the 2017 season as a bit of a mystery.
Sure people know what to expect from Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, Zack Greinke and many of the other key players, but when it comes to the style of baseball the D-backs will play or what kind of approach their front office will take, that all has really yet to be determined.
In time, everyone will get a feel for what kind of style a Torey Lovullo-led team will play and how a Mike Hazen-led front office will approach roster building, but at this point Arizona’s first-year skipper and general manager have the advantage of being able to take opponents a little by surprise.
“A little bit, sure, there’s an unknown factor,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said at Cactus League Media Day Tuesday. “You get a new manager, a lot of new staff, you wait and see how it’s going to play out.
“But usually in spring training you kind of get a pretty good feel of what they have.”
Bochy has been a big league manager for 22 seasons, with the last 10 coming in San Francisco. He has won three World Series, and the Giants have finished first or second in the NL West six of the last seven seasons.
Lovullo, who was hired by the Diamondbacks on Nov. 4, has all of 49 games as the interim manager of the Boston Red Sox in 2015 on his big league record.
“Torey managed a little bit in John (Farrell’s) absence,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts noted. “So there’s a little, but it’s a small sample and it’s a different league, he’s got different players. But there’s certain things we’ll probably learn from Torey going forward, but yeah, I’ve known Torey for a long time, so we wish him well.”
But not too well, probably.
In some ways, perhaps the idea that the team will play all that differently from before is a bit overblown. A manager can only make use of the players on the roster, and while there may be differences in how and when some are deployed, overall the talent is the talent.
Yasmany Tomas, for instance, is not going to become a leadoff hitter who is a terror on the basepaths, just as Chris Owings, Nick Ahmed or the team’s other middle infielders are not likely to bat cleanup and pile up the home runs.
To that end, it is up to Hazen and his staff — including Jared Porter and Amiel Sawdaye, both of whom serve as senior vice presidents and assistant GMs — to remake a roster that stumbled to a 69-93 record in 2016 after winning 79 games the year before.
“I think every time you have change in front office personnel there’s always some type of tweak in philosophy and how guys go about it, and everybody has their own different personality, obviously,” Padres GM A.J. Preller said. “With Mike and Amiel, they’ve been really successful in Boston. I expect they’re going to bring a lot of things that made them successful in Boston to Arizona and do a really good job over there.”
Since being named to his post on Oct. 16, Hazen has overseen an offseason where the most notable move was the deal that sent infielder Jean Segura as well as prospects Mitch Haniger and Zac Curtis to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for pitcher Taijuan Walker and infielder Ketel Marte.
Flashy? Not really. Big splash? Depends on your definition, though what the D-backs did this offseason pales in comparison to what transpired the previous year with a different regime in charge.
“Those guys have a great reputation and I think they’re being very smart about kind of being deliberate in implementing their changes in terms of organizational philosophy and personnel,” Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi said. “They’ve got a lot of talent there.
“They’ve made some trades so they’re trying to evolve the roster in the direction they want to take it in, but I think they’re going to be smart about not rushing into it also.”
Rising tide has lifted all boats
It may seem as though the NL West has hardly been competitive in recent years, with the Dodgers finishing first each of the last four seasons and in six of the previous nine with the Giants claiming the crown twice and Diamondbacks once.
The Padres have not finished first since 2006, their second of two straight division titles, while the Colorado Rockies have never in their history led the pack.
This next season, however, sets up to be more competitive than most.
Noting the Dodgers have won the division the last four years, Bochy praised what the Rockies did this offseason as well as the changes the Diamondbacks have made.
“This is going to be a tough division,” he said. “I think it’s probably the most balanced division.”
You can take a look at every team and find reasons for optimism. The Dodgers and Giants return much of the rosters that landed them in the postseason last year, whereas managerial changes for the D-backs and Rockies have given them a fresh look. The Padres were fairly quiet, but did work on their rotation.
“I think it’s always tough, it’s always a big challenge,” Preller said of the competition. “You have the Dodgers and Giants have been the class of the division for a while now, the Rockies keep adding to their club — looks like they’re going to be improved — and the D-backs, I would expect to have a bounce back year. They were kind of that team a year ago, they looked like an up-and-coming team, and they get A.J. Pollock back healthy and some other things.
“It’s going to be a tough division, no doubt.”
This time of year, every team professes a belief that it can contend. It’s part of the beauty of the sport, where every now and then a roster surprises and does some special things.
The challenge in the NL West will be coming out on top.
“The nice thing is there’s still a number of weeks here to figure this all out before the games start counting,” Rockies GM Jeff Bridich said. “But if you’re going to be the best you have to beat the best, and facing good competition, especially in-division, should make you stronger and should make us stronger, and that’s part of becoming a good Major League team and getting in the playoffs and being successful in the playoffs. It’s a good thing for us.”
If this season is anything like the previous campaigns, the road to the top runs through Hollywood.
“I think it’s going to be a really tough race,” Zaidi said. “The Giants get (Mark) Melancon, with some of their closer struggles last year and having one of the top guys in the game, they’re obviously a favorite in our division, and then the Rockies and Diamondbacks, both teams with a lot of good, young talent that gave us a lot of trouble at times last year.
“This division, I think, has continued to evolve and improve in our time here, it’s going to be another tough race this year, for sure.”
Just a bit outside
– On Trevor Bauer, who was once a top D-backs prospect who has put together an up-and-down big league career with the Cleveland Indians, Tribe skipper Terry Francona said fastball command is where the biggest development has come.
“I think he’s starting to understand the importance of locating your fastball, working ahead,” he said. “He may not admit it, but the more he pitches almost conventionally, the better he does. He may say it different, he may not want to admit that, but when he throws his fastball for strikes and works ahead, that’s normally when he has his success.”
Bauer made 28 starts for the Indians last season, and in 35 games overall went 12-8 with a 4.26 ERA with 168 strikeouts and 70 walks in 190 innings. He was 0-2 with a 5.27 ERA in five postseason appearances, four of which were starts.
Francona noted he does not really worry about how Bauer describes what he does, so long as he shows up on time, works hard and cares about the team.
“He tries to do those things,” the manager said. “Every once in a while we’ll give him a little reminder, which is OK, but nobody every questions, when he pitches, his desire to pitch, ever, which is a good thing.”
– Cubs manager Joe Maddon is known to be a big fan of the Arizona Cardinals, and like every other fan of the team, 2016 was not an easy one. The skipper, whose Cubs won the World Series, said his NFL team’s lack of success “killed me.”
“They just didn’t have their typical offensive year,” he said of a team that began the season with Super Bowl aspirations but finished with a 7-8-1 record. “I was in contact with Coach Arians, Coach Moore, Coach Pratt on a different occasion and it just never got off the ground, man. It just never wanted to flow freely for them.
“They’re so talented — they are SO talented. Sometimes you just run into one of those years. I think they need to get back on task offensively; their defense is outstanding, their skill people are unbelievable. But I just think they need to get their offense back on track, they’ll be fine.”
Maddon said he had been texting with Arians since randomly seeing him a couple nights before, and is hoping to make it to the coach’s charity golf tournament in late March.
“Not to the tournament, but to the cocktail party the evening before.”