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2021 D-backs preview roundtable: Darkhorse players, season prediction

Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Josh Rojas throws to first for the out after fielding a ground ball by Houston Astros' Josh Reddick during the sixth inning of a baseball game Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Arizona Diamondbacks come into the 2021 season with not the highest of expectations after an underwhelming 2020.

The D-backs are projected to win roughly 77 games this season by Baseball Prospectus, 11th in the National League and third in the division.

While that doesn’t come with the expectation that the D-backs make the playoffs this season, Arizona still has a talented roster with a few key areas that could swing the season.

Arizona Sports’ hosts, reporters and editors run through some of those.

Name one darkhorse player you think could have a big season. Why?

John Gambadoro, co-host of Burns & Gambo: Let’s go with Carson Kelly for the darkhorse player. Tons of talent, was a key piece in the Paul Goldschmidt trade and really struggled last season. He has the tools to be a top-end catcher and I think this year he puts it all together.

Ron Wolfley, co-host of Doug & Wolf: J.B. Bukauskas appears to be ready to run out of that bullpen with a dark heart and a painted face. He had a great spring and posted impressive numbers. In eight appearances, he pitched 7.2 innings and struck out 14 hitters. He didn’t allow an earned run on his way to giving up three hits. He may not make the opening day roaster but with Taylor Widener in the rotation, Bukauskas should be a major contributor in the bullpen at some point this summer.

Doug Franz, co-host of Doug & Wolf: Is Josh Rojas a darkhorse? I realize he won’t hit .400 like it feels like when you watch him in the spring, but I do think the changes he’s made in diet, focus and professionalism aren’t going to fade away. The real test will be as he excels, what will happen when the advanced scouts change their reports? The famous phrase “when the book comes out,” is very real.

Vince Marotta, co-host of Bickley & Marotta: I know he wasn’t the splashiest acquisition, but I think Asdrubal Cabrera still has a lot of gas left in the tank. Yes, he’s 35, but he’s only two years removed from a 91-RBI season that ended with him playing a key role for the World Series champion Washington Nationals.

Dave Burns, co-host of Burns & Gambo: I haven’t watched every Cactus League game but the reviews and the numbers have been too strong to ignore so I’ll say Josh Rojas.

Luke Lapinski, host of The Rundown: I’m not sure Rojas really qualifies as a darkhorse at this point. At least not locally. But it’s hard to ignore what he did this spring, and he should get every chance to succeed near the middle of this lineup. If Rojas is too obvious, I’ll go with Christian Walker. Simply because he could be the D-backs’ most reliable source of raw power.

Kellan Olson, editor for ArizonaSports.com: Eduardo Escobar is right alongside Ketel Marte in rather underwhelming 2020 seasons after stellar 2019 campaigns. He is my version of a darkhorse, as I think he should still be viewed as one of the stars on this team and should have those expectations even though his .605 OPS last year was awful. With how the pitching looks, the D-backs will need the bats to come on strong.

Tyler Drake, editor for ArizonaSports.com: While Josh Rojas is the easy pick after an impressive spring, I am turning my attention to first baseman Christian Walker. The first baseman quietly recorded 15 RBIs (tied for seventh in all of spring training) and added five homers, slugging .708. With Kole Calhoun on the shelf for what sounds like at least the first few series of 2021, I envision Walker stepping (back) into the role of the D-backs’ big bat. Last season, Walker led the team in doubles (18) and was second in home runs (7) and RBIs (34). He also tied Calhoun for most runs scored with 35. He clearly has the power and a solid spring should translate over to when things go live April 1.

Kevin Zimmerman, editor for ArizonaSports.com: He’s probably not a darkhorse to hardcore Diamondbacks fans, but I’ll take this time to shout out one member of the D-backs who is currently not in the Opening Day bullpen. Bukauskas finished up 7.2 spring innings with a 0.00 ERA. Due to service time saving or for true baseball reasons, he’s starting the year in the minors, but I suspect we’ll see him with the big league club at some point.

With the Dodgers and Padres stocked to make championship runs, do you think the D-backs can keep pace enough to make a Wild Card appearance?

Torey Lovullo (AP Photo/Matt York)

Gambo: Contending for the Wild Card will depend on Madison Bumgarner and the health of Zac Gallen. Right now, they seem to be on the outside looking in. This 17 of 22 games on the road to start the season could bury them if they get out of the gates slowly. Lot to worry about this year.

Wolfley: No. They need five or six core players to have bounce-back seasons in 2021. Knowing how talented and deep the Dodgers are and the upstart Slam Diego Padres, the Diamondbacks need Marte, Bumgarner, Eduardo Escobar, Merrill Kelly, Carson Kelly and others to reject their 2020 performance and vow under moon, sun and sky to return to their talented ways in 2021. The Diamondbacks need ALL of them to bridge last year’s production gap, and that seems like a bridge too far.

Franz: No. This should make D-backs fans feel good because I guaranteed they’d be a playoff team last year. However, in order to put Arizona in the Wild Card race, you must predict the team finishes ahead of the Dodgers, Padres, Mets or Braves, and every surprise team (Phillies, Cubs, Marlins). Arizona needs seven different people to have a “bounce-back” year just to be in the running for a playoff spot. Of course it can happen. Imagine how stupid any talk show host would look if they explained why the Jazz and the Suns would be the top two Western Conference seeds when making predictions before last Christmas. There are just too many teams in the National League with so many fewer question marks that have to be ranked ahead of Arizona before I’m willing to believe they can go to the playoffs.

Marotta: Let’s talk after the first 22 games of the season (17 of which are on the road, nine of which are against playoff teams from year ago). With no Gallen, Kole Calhoun and Clippard to start the season, I think the D-backs need to tread water for the first month and return home at the end of April at or near .500 to have a chance to compete for a Wild Card. Let’s just say I don’t feel great about it.

Burns: Unfortunately no. They could but it would mean every bounce-back guy — Weaver, Bumgarner, Carson Kelly, Nick Ahmed, Eduardo Escobar, Marte — all bounced back in a big way. That seems like a lot to ask.

Lapinski: I trust Torey Lovullo and Mike Hazen to get the most out of this group. Granted, that didn’t happen last season. But it has happened every other year that this duo has been here, so I’m willing to write 2020 off as, well, 2020. I wouldn’t be stunned if the D-backs were contending for a Wild Card spot, but they need a lot of things to go right. Problem is they’ve already had a few things go wrong that were out of their control, and the season hasn’t even started yet.

Olson: I think it has less to do with trying to keep the pace of those two juggernauts and more to do with the fact that this isn’t that good of a baseball team. To magnify this point, here’s my pitch for everything that needs to go right and above expectations for this team to be in the range of 85-95 wins. The bullpen will need to be good, getting at least two strong performances from the top-end guys while an unknown emerges to help in middle relief. In the rotation, Bumgarner (coming off a career-worst year) and (the not healthy) Gallen need to be an average 1-2. From there, they need two solid arms to round it out from Merrill Kelly (maybe!), Caleb Smith (probably not) and Luke Weaver (not looking great). With the bats, Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Carson Kelly need to get back on track toward their 2019 numbers. Christian Walker needs to remain consistent, as does David Peralta. Not absolutely impossible, but you certainly need an optimistic brand of thinking to get there.

Drake: The bats need to be active and the pitching consistent. Easier said than done. Oh yeah, and the D-backs need to hope the injury bug from spring training doesn’t follow them into the regular season. It’s possible Arizona sees a majority of their players bounce back in 2021. It’s possible the starting rotation does enough to weather the storm while Gallen is on the mend. I think what it really comes down to is how the D-backs fare in close games, meaning there will be a lot of emphasis on the closer-by-committee approach Lovullo is rolling with to start the season. While a clear-cut closer hasn’t been named (yet) — Joakim Soria, Stefan Crichton and Chris Devenski appear to be the three-headed closer for now — it could be a matter of games before we see where that is trending. The D-backs have a razor thin margin for error this season. But if they can hit the ground running April 1, Arizona can build up enough confidence and momentum to make things interesting and put a little heat on the National League playoff race.

Zimmerman: Regardless of the top of the NL West, this team in theory has the ability to keep pace in the Wild Card hunt if the 2020 trends re-align back to where we thought they’d be. Still, it’s a bold move when your division rivals are spending on talent to keep a relative status quo coming off a season in which the Diamondbacks looked outmatched and needing a roster reset. Even in a best-case scenario, I can see the D-backs keeping in the Wild Card conversation before fading mid-way through the season.


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