ESPN: The Diamondbacks could be this year’s Washington Nationals

Mar 4, 2020, 9:46 AM
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)...
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Last decade, only one MLB team who was among the top five favorites entering the season on entering the season ended up winning the World Series. Only two of the champions won 90 games the year before.

The Washington Nationals last year were the ninth-favorite and coming off an 82-80 season. Even though they lost outfielder Bryce Harper, they went on to win the World Series.

This trend led ESPN to ask a question: Who could be this season’s Nationals?

David Schoenfield listed the Arizona Diamondbacks as the third-most likely team to have a “road to the World Series” among those that won fewer than 90 games the year before.

The writer listed four elements that can help predict a championship: a healthy rotation, at least one MVP candidate, a big free agent signing and, a less tangible one — if last year was “just a bad season.”

Schoenfield lists three teams per category in each section. The D-backs are only named in one, but we can rattle through the whole list.

“Keep the rotation healthy”

Schoenfield wrote that looking at the number of games a team’s top four starters pitches can be telling.

The Nationals got 123 starts from their top four of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, according to Schoenfield. Over the last decade, only the 2017 Houston Astros’ pitchers had fewer than 100 starts (98) — and they added Justin Verlander in the middle of the season.

The D-backs were ranked by Schoenfield as the No. 2 team in this category, behind the New York Mets.

Coming off an 85-win season, the rotation figures to be the strength of the team. Madison Bumgarner joins Robbie Ray, Zac Gallen, Luke Weaver, Mike Leake and Merrill Kelly. …

Maybe the ceiling is somewhat limited — although I love Gallen, and Ray’s stuff remains tantalizing — but this rotation has a very high floor.

Arizona is certainly hoping that group can live up to its potential. Bumgarner is a World Series MVP, Ray is a former All-Star and Gallen and Weaver impressed in their first year with the D-backs. If those four can stay healthy and live up to expectations, the D-backs could be in conversation as an unexpectedly strong rotation.

But there is also a distinct possibility that Bumgarner begins regressing with age, Ray struggles to get deep into games, and Gallen and Weaver take a step back this year. If that’s the case, the bullpen would also likely get fatigued.

“Have an MVP candidate … or two”

Despite Ketel Marte’s breakout year, Schoenfield didn’t list Arizona as one of the three teams in the MVP category.

That’s because the teams he did list have two such candidates.

The first was the Los Angeles Angels with Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon. The second was the San Diego Padres with Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado. The third was the Colorado Rockies with Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story.

Last year, the Nationals had Rendon, who finished third in National League MVP voting, and Juan Soto, who finished ninth.

To become part of this group, the Diamondbacks would need a second player to join Marte in the elite ranks.

Eduardo Escobar has potential to do so. He had 35 home runs and 118 RBIs last year, both of which were team-highs, but he hit .269. Starling Marte is less likely, but as a career .287 hitter who has broken the 20 home run mark the last two years, he’s going to be an upgrade over Adam Jones and Jarrod Dyson.

Ideally, the D-backs could get by with having one MVP candidate and a whole bunch of hitters who are consistent contributors. That seems more likely than Escobar or Christian Walker adding 30 points to his batting average or Starling Marte playing like a combination of his 2016 season (.311 BA, 47 steals) and 2019 season (23 home runs, 82 RBI).

“Sign a big free agent”

Again, the D-backs didn’t crack the top three despite qualifying for this category by signing Madison Bumgarner.

The Angels led the list with Rendon. The Philadelphia Phillies were No. 2 because they added Zack Wheeler, and the Chicago White Sox were No. 3 because they added several role players in Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnacion, Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez.

Other Diamondbacks signings include Kole Calhoun, Stephen Vogt, Junior Guerra and Hector Rondon.

If this category expanded to include trades, Arizona might fit. The Starling Marte trade gives them a boost in the outfield and allowed Ketel Marte to move back to second base full-time.

“Hey, we just had a bad season”

This category refers to the Nationals winning 82 games in 2018 but their talent level was, on paper, much better. They were projected to win 90 games. Schoenfield thinks the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox or Rockies could see that same resurgence.

The Diamondbacks don’t qualify here. By going 85-77 and finishing second in the National League West after trading Paul Goldschmidt and later Zack Greinke, they exceeded expectations.

Schoenfield’s conclusion

After all that, Schoenfield has the D-backs as the third-most likely team to replicate the Nationals’ 2019 run.

Ahead of them are the Mets and Angels.

Look, beating out the Dodgers in the NL West feels almost impossible — FanGraphs gives the odds at just 1.9% — and most of the projected standings have them third in the division behind the Padres. I like the depth in the rotation, however, and Ketel Marte was an MVP candidate a year ago. It’s a good defensive team, Starling Marte was a solid addition and Eduardo Escobar is coming off a 35-homer season.

The Diamondbacks need a lot of things to fall right to make the playoffs. The pitching rotation needs to live up to potential, the bullpen needs to be much better and the offense could use more consistency from its stars.

If those things happen, Arizona could be a team that makes postseason noise and tries to replicate the Nationals’ 2019 World Series run.

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ESPN: The Diamondbacks could be this year’s Washington Nationals