D-backs roundtable, Pt. 1: Breakout players, X factors and Ketel Marte
The abbreviated nature of the 2020 MLB season could change a lot. Who will perform well? Who won’t? In such a small sample size, that’s harder to predict.
We’re giving it a shot anyway.
Hosts, producers and other staff members at Arizona Sports give their thoughts on the Diamondbacks’ upcoming season, which gets underway Friday with a road game at the San Diego Padres.
What D-backs player do you think is best-positioned for a breakout/surprise season?
John Gambadoro, co-host of Burns & Gambo: Luke Weaver. He is 26 years old and coming off a forearm injury that limited him to just 12 starts. But in those 12 starts he went 4-3 with a 2.94 ERA. Now fully recovered and with 55 starts under his belt, Weaver is ready to make that jump into being a solid rotation starter. He is listed as the fourth starter but is capable of a breakout season that establishes himself as a key starter for years to come.
Vince Marotta, co-host of Bickley & Marotta: I’ll go with Ildemaro Vargas on this one. He was raking in spring training, something he continued in summer camp and with the DH living in the National League, he should get pretty regular opportunities. Over parts of four seasons in Triple-A, he’s hit .326. At age 29, he should be ready to get his shot.
Dave Burns, co-host of Burns & Gambo: The temptation here is to go with Ildemaro Vargas with the way he’s been hitting the ball the last couple of weeks. But I think Zac Gallen is going to the be the standout of the 2020 season. He had a mini-breakout last year and is poised for great things for years to come.
Doug Franz, co-host of Doug & Wolf: Carson Kelly.
Jordan Byrd, producer of Burns & Gambo: Zac Gallen. On a pitching staff headlined by Madison Bumgarner and Robbie Ray’s contract season, Gallen is poised to have a big year as the third man in the rotation. He has only started 15 games in his big league career but has been highly impressive in those outings with both the D-backs and the Marlins. I expect Gallen to rise to the occasion this season and push MadBum and Ray for the title of best arm on the staff.
Steve Zinsmeister, co-host of Ain’t No Fang podcast: Maybe you’d say Zac Gallen already broke out last year, but he only has 15 major league starts and 80 big league innings. With a shortened season, he’ll only get 10 to 12 more starts this year, but at least he no longer has to battle for a spot in the rotation. If all goes well, Gallen could be in this rotation through 2025, and possibly longer.
Cody Fincher, producer of Doug & Wolf: For me, it’s Robbie Ray. He’s made changes this offseason, specifically changes to his delivery and arm action to the plate, which will hopefully allow him to stay in the strike zone more often. Ray’s issue for the past few seasons is that he runs his pitch count too high by issuing too many walks and being unable to put guys away, so these changes should hopefully solve that problem. Lastly, Ray will be a free agent after this season so he is pitching for a contract. He should be very motivated to perform at a high level in the 10 to 12 starts he’ll make in 2020.
Derek Montilla, co-host of Ain’t No Fang podcast: Zac Gallen was the steal of last season for me last year. The D-backs acquired Gallen in a trade with the Miami Marlins for Jazz Chisholm, who was their top prospect at the time. In eight games with Arizona, Gallen continued the success he was having in Miami as a starter and put up a 2.89 ERA with a 1.260 WHIP and 53 strikeouts. The secret may already be out, but I think Gallen will continue his success and make a name for himself in 2020.
Matt Layman, ArizonaSports.com editor and writer: I’ll go with Luke Weaver. I was really impressed with what he did in 2019 in the limited time we saw him. He gave up three or fewer runs in all but one of his 12 starts, and between him and Carson Kelly, that Paul Goldschmidt trade doesn’t seem so bad. I think Weaver is the D-backs’ future ace.
Kellan Olson, ArizonaSports.com editor and writer: Carson Kelly was sneaky good last year and not a lot of people noticed. His .826 OPS last season was sixth among all catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, per Fangraphs. This year should be the start of him being the D-backs’ everyday catcher for a long time.
Kevin Zimmerman, ArizonaSports.com editor and writer: Ildemaro Vargas went under the radar last year, mostly because he was most often a pinch hitter behind a solid group of starting infielders. So we didn’t see an avenue for how he could break out, even though there were rumblings of big improvement this extended offseason. The dude slashed .269/.299/.413 last year, and maybe he’ll hit a wall as pitchers get a better grip on his tendencies with more playing time. But in theory, he should be more utilized for a sprint of a season.
Luke Lapinski, Arizona Sports host and reporter: Zac Gallen. Not necessarily a surprise, but he has the potential to be the most steady part of this rotation for years — and it starts this season.
Who is the biggest X factor for the Diamondbacks having a good season?
Gambo: Torey Lovullo. For a season in which there are only 60 games, Lovullo’s ability to manage the bullpen, starters’ innings, the designated hitter and knowing when to pull the plug on players who are struggling will be the key to the season. There is no time to allow players to work through slumps with so few games.
Marotta: There are a lot of options here, but I’ll go with Madison Bumgarner. His stats over the last few years outside of home starts in San Francisco haven’t looked good. He’ll get the ball Opening Day and a return to his dominant (or respectable) self could set the tone for this 60-game sprint of a season.
Burns: Starling Marte or Robbie Ray. Both have very high ceilings on what they’re capable of in 2020. If either one of the them reach it, it could be a special season (if that’s the word) for the D-backs.
Doug: It’s always Robbie Ray.
Byrd: Archie Bradley. The 60-game season is going to be a wild sprint and the margins between winning and losing will be razor thin. Bradley has now been given the reins to be the D-backs closer and will be called upon in some very high leverage situations with the stakes even higher in this condensed season. The performance of The Beard in those ninth-inning moments could be the difference between a D-backs Wild Card spot and sitting at home in October.
Zinsmeister: It feels like we’ve been talking about the possibility of Robbie Ray being traded for years. Now that he’s in his final year of his contract, he knows he has to perform, and with teams losing a ton of money due to the pandemic he may need to impress even more to get a big pay day in the offseason. If he’s as good as he’s been in summer camp, he’ll be the D-backs’ best pitcher in 2020.
Fincher: The biggest X factor for the D-backs is David Peralta, and more importantly, his health. When healthy, Peralta provides a big spark to the lineup. Peralta only played in 99 games last year due to injuries, and eventually had season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in August. In 2018, Peralta played in 146 games and hit .293 with 30 home runs, 87 RBIs and had an .868 OPS. Along with Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar and a healthy Peralta, the D-backs should have a formidable middle of the order.
Montilla: Robbie Ray in the final year of his contract will be the X factor. Nobody has more to lose or gain in this 60-game season than Ray. If he does become a free agent, he could be very valuable on an open market during an offseason that doesn’t have many options so he needs to have the season of his life. I think that drive and determination will lead to Ray putting up some of the best numbers of his career.
Layman: To me, it’s the whole bullpen. That’s a pretty vague answer, but it’s really going to come down to whether Bradley is a successful closer for the full season, whether the returning pieces look like their old selves and whether the new players like Junior Guerra and Hector Rondon are able to make the most of an opportunity. The D-backs have been hit-or-miss with bullpen acquisitions over the last few years. This year, they need to hit.
Olson: Starling Marte. His average line the last six full MLB seasons: 16 homers, 62 RBIs, 30 doubles and 34 steals with a .290 batting average and .804 OPS. Marte strikes out too much and isn’t elite enough to be your first or second-best hitter, but he’s an awesome complementary piece in the order to go around Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar and David Peralta. That is a great middle of the order if those four hit the way they did last year, or even better.
Zimmerman: I think there is potential for Robbie Ray to have a big year and for Madison Bumgarner to hold it down despite down numbers from the last few years. Let’s say that between them, they hold up as just average starters. Zac Gallen and/or Luke Weaver — two guys I could have picked for a breakout year — will determine if this team can remain a Wild Card contender.
Lapinski: Health. Always a big deal, but especially this year, when a player missing four weeks means they’re missing half the season. And specifically for a team like the D-backs — who may not be able to catch LA for the division but should be a wild card team — there’s really no margin for error.
Will Ketel Marte be better, the same or worse than his near-MVP-caliber 2019 season?
Gambo: Marte will continue to establish himself as a legitimate MVP candidate. He is the real deal. I expect his numbers to continue to be great especially since the D-backs have surrounded him with so much talent, making it more difficult for opposing teams to pitch around him.
Marotta: I’ll be optimistic and say he can improve on his numbers from last year, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that he’ll get to focus on playing one position (mostly) on defense this year after splitting last year between center and second base. If that defensive security leads to increased comfort at the plate, look out.
Burns: Will be about the same I think. Maybe a tick or two below given the MVP numbers he put up last year. He’s good but I don’t know if he’s going to be a legit MVP candidate every single season. Need to see more before I put that on him.
Byrd: I think we are going to see a similar Ketel Marte this year as we saw last season. Finishing fourth in the MVP last year means that Marte will likely need to win the award this season to surpass his 2019 performance. He’s entirely capable of that but with the shorter schedule and the move back to second base, the slightest slump could derail a player’s award hopes for the season. Marte will be great this year, but it will be hard to top last season.
Zinsmeister: I highly doubt Ketel Marte can repeat what he did last year. With that said, he will still be a top-3 second baseman in baseball. That’s pretty great company to be in (Houston’s Jose Altuve and Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies). Full disclosure, I hope he proves me wrong and is a top-15 player like last season. He’s been raking. I think he actually just hit another homer as I typed this.
Fincher: It’s hard to have a better season than Marte had in 2019, when he hit .329 with 32 home runs and 92 RBIs with a .981 OPS. With the way he’s been swinging the bat in camp, though, Marte looks like he’s ready to put up big numbers again this year. I would expect him to be right back in the conversation for MVP.
Montilla: It seems unbelievable, but I feel like Marte is going to be even better. He has added some size during the offseason and already shown off his power during summer camp. He will also have the comfort of playing second base all season instead of adapting to the outfield. I think he will be an early MVP candidate.
Layman: I think he’ll be about the same, which is a compliment. He was really good last year. He told reporters recently that he’s going about his routines the same way and feels really confident in his game, which is exactly what you want to hear. His home run in one of the exhibition games backed up his talk.
Olson: Better. I don’t think anyone believes this was a flash in the pan, but as many have said here already, he was tremendous last year. With that being said, I think he’s on a star trajectory and is going to keep putting up lines like last year’s for the next half-decade.
Zimmerman: I can see a season of similar production, but I think he can still be a better player. Defensively, sticking at second should bump his impact there. At the plate, it’s tough to produce like he did last year but I don’t expect a major drop-off. The guy’s certifiably damn good.
Lapinski: Same. Probably not fair to expect better numbers, but he really doesn’t look like he’s going to drop off at all.