5 Diamondbacks questions entering what would be Opening Day
With spring training called to a premature halt due to the coronavirus, questions remain about the Arizona Diamondbacks on what was initially supposed to be Opening Day.
Here are five rotation, lineup and roster questions from the Arizona Sports desk with some attempts to answer them as spring training didn’t get to do so:
1. Is Mike Leake ready? If not, who is the fifth starter?
It was questionable whether Leake, who had a fracture in his non-throwing wrist, would be available for Opening Day.
With the start date pushed back, it seems much more likely he’ll be healthy and ready by the time the games begin.
If he’s not, Merrill Kelly would likely slot into the fifth starter spot. After an awful July and August, Kelly had a four-game stretch in September in which he gave up three runs in 27 innings pitched. He has expressed on multiple occasions that he’s more confident entering this season than he was his rookie year.
With Leake in the rotation, Kelly would likely have a bullpen role. The same can be said about Alex Young – after showing some promise last season, it would not be surprising to see him start the season on the major league roster in a reliever/spot-starter role.
Manager Torey Lovullo has said he hasn’t ruled out Young pitching out of the bullpen if a starting spot wasn’t available.
2. What does the back end of the bullpen look like?
Assuming Leake is healthy and Kelly and Young are in the bullpen, Yoan Lopez, Hector Rondon, Junior Guerra, Andrew Chafin, Archie Bradley seem like locks to fill out seven spots.
Kevin Ginkel and Stefan Crichton could fight for an eighth if the D-backs elect to use that many, which seems likely given the expanded roster limit of 26 players this season. Silvino Bracho underwent Tommy John surgery last March and was not expected to be ready for Opening Day.
Those are just the names, though. What will the back end look like?
This is the first year since 2017 that the closer spot wasn’t a big storyline in spring training. While Lovullo has done nothing publicly to confirm that Bradley will be the closer, he’s done little to dissuade the notion.
Bradley’s season ERA in 2019 got as high as 5.21 in June, but in July and August he had a 1.88 ERA and he only allowed one run in September.
The only person who could feasibly challenge him for the closing role is Rondon, who was a closer early in his MLB career but has no saves in two of his last three seasons. The D-backs’ other offseason relief addition, Guerra, is a former starting pitcher who has never been in a closer role.
If Bradley is the closer, and Rondon is given the eighth inning, which pitcher will step into the seventh?
It could be Guerra, though the D-backs could elect to use him more intermittently given his ability to pitch longer outings.
Lopez’s 2019 was a tale of two parts. Through July 2, he gave up just four earned runs and 19 hits in 32.2 innings pitched. In 28 innings the rest of the season, he gave up 19 earned runs and 33 hits. With more consistency, he could be a productive back-end pitcher.
3. Who is leading off?
The speedy Starling Marte has yet to play a full season as a primary leadoff hitter. Last year, he only started four games in the leadoff spot. The year before, 16 games. In 2017 he hit out of the one spot in 49 games, playing 77 total that season.
Yet he seems an obvious choice this year. Marte hit .295 last year and .305 against right-handed pitchers.
With him batting in front of (in no specific order) Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar and David Peralta around power hitters Christian Walker and Kole Calhoun, the D-backs undeniably have a more intriguing lineup than last year.
But Lovullo has said he’s considering breaking up the leadoff spot based on the pitcher. Starling Marte could see righties and Ketel Marte would get lefties.
Starling Marte hit .269 against left-handed pitchers last year and .237 the year before.
Ketel, on the other hand, hit .333 against southpaws last year.
While it’s not widespread, there is a movement of bucking the traditional speedster in the leadoff spot in favor of simply using one of the best hitters. Instead of being in a spot to drive home a runner and hoping there’s someone on base, they’re moved up to maximize their number of at-bats and just get on base.
Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto hit in the second or third spot for most of his career. In 2017, he played all 162 games batting from the third spot. In 2018, 131 of his 145 starts came from there.
Last year, he had zero starts from the third spot in the order. The bulk were from the second and 15 were as the leadoff batter.
The Chicago Cubs batted Anthony Rizzo as a lead-off hitter 14 times in 2017, 31 in 2018 and a dozen times last season.
Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon has hit at least 29 home runs in every season since 2016. George Springer of the Houston Astros has done the same in three of the four last seasons. Both hit primarily from the leadoff spot — granted, the lineups around them are as potent as any.
If Lovullo senses the D-backs would have trouble hitting lefties, getting Ketel Marte to the plate as early as possible would be ideal.
4. Who are the locks?
These are the certainties, the players who would seem to be guaranteed a roster spot.
Starting pitchers: Madison Bumgarner, Robbie Ray, Luke Weaver, Zac Gallen, Mike Leake
Bullpen: Archie Bradley, Andrew Chafin, Hector Rondon, Junior Guerra, Yoan Lopez
Catchers: Carson Kelly, Steven Vogt
Infield: Christian Walker, Ketel Marte, Nick Ahmed, Eduardo Escobar, Jake Lamb
Outfield: Kole Calhoun, Starling Marte, David Peralta
5. Who is vying for the final few spots?
That’s 20 spots, leaving six more open.
Kelly will almost certainly have a role as a spot-starter. It would be unsurprising to see Young in the bullpen as well. It’s a fair bet to say they’ll be on the Opening Day roster.
The D-backs would also surely consider Crichton and Ginkel.
Crichton, 28, had a 3.56 ERA in 28 appearances last year. Over 13 appearances in September, he only allowed runs in two games.
Ginkel, 26, had a 1.48 ERA in 25 games last year, all of which came in August and September.
In the field, Tim Locastro contributed enough last season that he looks like he’ll make the roster as the fourth outfielder, and his speed adds an element to the D-backs that others may not.
Josh Rojas’ versatility could earn him a spot, too. It’s something Lovullo has preached and Rojas encompasses with the ability to play infield and outfield.
For the final one or two roster spots, Arizona seems likely to consider Ildemaro Vargas, Jon Jay and Kevin Cron.
Vargas played 92 games in the big leagues last year, hitting .269. He has occasional appearances in the outfield, but he played second base far more than any other position.
Jay is a veteran and former D-back who is a career .285 hitter, though he hit .267 last year and .268 the season before. Lovullo raved about Jay in March, saying he was in shape and has a good locker room presence.
Cron, the 27-year-old power hitter, is looking for his first big league Opening Day experience. He hit 38 home runs and batted .331 in Triple-A last season, and at the big league level he had six home runs in 71 at-bats. He was optioned to Triple-A Reno on Thursday along with pitcher Taylor Clarke, but it isn’t clear how things could unfold once baseball activities ramp back up.
Oh, one more question: When will Opening Day be?
We’re sick of not having baseball.