ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

5 Diamondbacks spring training position battles to watch before Opening Day

Feb 14, 2024, 11:40 AM

Ryne Nelson...

Ryne Nelson (Arizona Sports/Alex Weiner)

(Arizona Sports/Alex Weiner)

Spring training at Salt River Fields for the Arizona Diamondbacks officially began Wednesday morning, a starting point for competition on the edges of a National League pennant-winning corps.

The D-backs efficiently addressed needs at third base, outfield, designated hitter and starting pitcher, but the offseason is not over. Teams can add players to the 60-day injured list Wednesday to open a 40-man roster spot and significant contributors remain available in an unorthodox offseason of free agency.

The D-backs have been linked to right-handed bats to deepen for lineup depth and flexibility, while general manager Mike Hazen has said you can never have too many relievers.

As the squad stands going into the first day pitchers and catcher report, here are five spots to watch the competition brew for Opening Day.

Who is the Diamondbacks’ backup catcher behind Gabriel Moreno?

Moreno swam when thrown into the deep end last season at 23 years old, as he earned his first Gold Glove and finished third on the team with 4.3 wins above replacement (Baseball Reference).

Behind him, the Diamondbacks cut ties with Carson Kelly in August, brought in Seby Zavala in September and used Jose Herrera as the backup during the postseason (Zavala was ineligible). Arizona traded Zavala this offseason in the package for third baseman Eugenio Suarez and enters camp with Herrera as the only other backstop on the 40-man roster.

The D-backs added a pair of catchers to minor league deals with invitations to spring training this winter: Tucker Barnhart and Ronaldo Hernandez.

Barnhart is a 10-year veteran with a pair of Gold Gloves but not much offensive punch.

Hernandez is a former top 100 prospect who at 26 years old has yet to make his major league debut (17 home runs and .781 OPS in Triple-A in 2023).

Moreno looks like a franchise staple, but he can’t start every game behind the dish.

Backup infielder

Suarez joins a starting infield with Christian Walker at first base, Ketel Marte at second and 2023 All-Star shortstop Geraldo Perdomo.

Veteran infielder Kevin Newman signed with the club as a non-roster invitee this spring, and he offers positional versatility with success hitting left-handers the past two seasons.

Incumbent third basemen Jace Peterson (lefty) and Emmanuel Rivera (righty) will compete for roles with the latter out of minor league options.

Shortstop Jordan Lawlar will have a spotlight this spring as one of the highest-ranked prospects in baseball (No. 4 by The Athletic’s Keith Law, No. 11 by MLB Pipeline). He played 16 games in Triple-A before joining the big league club, although he did not come out the chute firing and didn’t get much playing time entering and in the postseason. Still, the 21-year-old was there for the ride to the World Series and is expected to be key piece for the Diamondbacks with elite speed.

Prospect Blaze Alexander, 24, is another name to watch after he produced an .865 OPS in 73 Triple-A games last season. He has a rocket arm and experience at multiple infield spots in the minors without any MLB reps. Alexander and Lawlar both punished lefties in the minor leagues.

Fifth outfielder

The Diamondbacks brought back free agent outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and signed outfielder Joc Pederson to plug in at designated hitter with Corbin Carroll and Alek Thomas two young cornerstones on the grass.

That leaves Jake McCarthy, who missed the postseason with an oblique injury sustained during batting practice before Game 1 of the wild card round. McCarthy took a step back offensively from 2022 (.769 OPS to .644) but was a better player when he returned from a trip to the minors in the first half. He finished with 26 steals.

The D-backs have a bit less traffic in the outfield with Dominic Fletcher sent to the Chicago White Sox in a trade for pitching prospect Cristian Mena. The White Sox picked Fletcher over McCarthy, according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, a report that suggested the D-backs were willing deal McCarthy, even though he looked like a staple going into last spring. Switch-hitting prospect Jorge Barrosa and first baseman/outfielder Pavin Smith are other options on the 40-man roster.

MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reported the D-backs were looking to add a right-handed hitter to pair with Pederson, listing veteran outfielders Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham and Adam Duvall as potential candidates.

Fifth starting pitcher

The Diamondbacks solidified their top three starters with Eduardo Rodriguez joining Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. Brandon Pfaadt earned a postseason rotation spot and put together his best stretch in the majors during October.

That leaves the No. 5 spot open — similar to last spring but with Rodriguez and Pfaadt replacing Madison Bumgarner and Zach Davies. Ryne Nelson and Tommy Henry are the most experienced young pitchers in contention, while Drey Jameson had Tommy John Surgery late last year, knocking him out of the race in the short term.

Slade Cecconi had a cup of coffee as an MLB starter and Bryce Jarvis pitched as a reliever late last year, while Mena joins Blake Walston as organizational depth in the upper minors who could push for an opportunity this year.

Nelson won the job last spring but didn’t hold onto it for the entirety of 2023 (5.31 ERA). He has a fastball with rise that can touch the uppers 90s and a slider that has been effective when located, but his production from start to start was a mixed bag as a rookie. He finished on the right foot with 5.1 innings and one earned run in Game 4 of the World Series out of the bullpen.

Henry joined him in the rotation for much of the season but missed the final two months and playoffs on the injured list (elbow) — although he threw to live hitters before the World Series. Henry was the more predictable starter with a 4.15 ERA, getting to the sixth inning in 10 of 16 starts.

Cecconi started four games and pitched in seven last year, putting together a couple of terrific outings in August before getting optioned in September.

Bullpen spots

The D-backs have not done much to address the bullpen this offseason, an already deep unit based on the second half of last year. Paul Sewald, Kevin Ginkel and Ryan Thompson return after a dominant September and October in the back end. But who are the locks behind them? Miguel Castro, Luis Frias, Joe Mantiply, Kyle Nelson and Andrew Saalfrank had postseason roles. Scott McGough returns for a second season after injury cut his 2023 short.

Corbin Martin is back from a lost 2023, Justin Martinez debuted last year and Peter Strzelecki is an option after coming over in the Andrew Chafin trade. Does Jarvis go back in the bullpen, or could another young arm who does not make the rotation fill a relief role like Jameson last year?

Possible addition: Right-handed DH

Pederson slots in as the designated hitter after he signed with the club late last month, and while he’s hit right-handers very hard, his success against lefties has been far from desirable in recent seasons.

Hazen said after the signing Pederson enters spring training wanting to show he can produce against southpaws and play the outfield.

Hazen expressed wanting to see Pederson come through and Thomas step up against left-handed pitchers, which would simplify the roster construction, but the D-backs have other options if needed.

Newman can help there, as could Rivera. This could also open opportunities to get Lawlar in the lineup and Suarez off his feet as a DH.

There are darkhorse candidates as right-handed bats like non-roster invite first baseman Andres Chaparro and — down the road — minor leaguers Ivan Melendez and A.J. Vukovich, who played at Double-A Amarillo last season.

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5 Diamondbacks spring training position battles to watch before Opening Day