Five questions facing the Arizona Diamondbacks this offseason

Oct 14, 2015, 6:56 PM

Arizona Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale, center, congratulates Yasmany Tomas (24) and Nick Ahmed fol...

Arizona Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale, center, congratulates Yasmany Tomas (24) and Nick Ahmed following a 13-3 victory against the Philadelphia Phillies during a baseball game, Monday, Aug. 10, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

The 2015 baseball season has come and gone for the Arizona Diamondbacks. And while they’d obviously still like to be playing right now –- as the number of playoff teams is being whittled down –- they can take some solace in the fact that they showed considerable improvement in Chip Hale’s first year as manager.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons for baseball fans in the Valley to be encouraged. After all, not many organizations get to pin their future hopes on two players as gifted as Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. But the job is far from done. Even while improving by 15 wins, Arizona still finished 13 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. With that in mind, here are five lingering questions they need to answer this winter, as they attempt to close that gap…

Diamondbacks Dodgers Baseball1. What exactly is the starting rotation? May as well get the big one out of the way first. The D-backs finished eighth in all of baseball with 720 runs scored. Among NL teams, they finished second (behind the Rockies, somehow). Their 132 stolen bases placed them just two behind the Reds for the top spot in the Majors, and their 48 triples put them just one off the lead. See the pattern here? This group isn’t struggling to find offense. Their key to finding sustained success over 162 games will clearly hinge on pitching from here on out.
Arizona had 12 different guys make at least one start this season. Some of that was due to injuries, some was due to ineffectiveness. By the second half of the year, Rubby De La Rosa, Patrick Corbin, Robbie Ray, Chase Anderson and Jeremy Hellickson had emerged as the main pieces in the five-man rotation. Now they have to decide who from that group they feel comfortable leaning on again.

Corbin could be the linchpin to this group. Following a lengthy absence due to Tommy John surgery, he returned on July 4 and showed flashes of being the pitcher he was before he was injured back in 2013. If he continues on his current trajectory, Corbin would fill a major need near the top of this rotation. As the season wound down, Tony La Russa noted that the simple fact that guys like Corbin and Daniel Hudson finished this season healthy was among the club’s biggest victories for the year.

“We wanted to get to the end of the season with those guys pitching competitively,” he pointed out. “But being careful so that we ended the season with each of those guys going into the offseason healthy, excited and ready to get into a full winter of working out with a clear feeling about coming into 2016… and we’re really, really excited that today’s the first day of next season and Daniel and these guys – and Patrick — are going into the offseason healthy, for them and for us.”

For the most part, Ray pitched well, but was rarely rewarded with enough run support to receive actual wins for his efforts. De La Rosa showed flashes, but also had issues with keeping the ball up in the zone at times. And Anderson was arguably the team’s most consistent starter in the first half of the season before experiencing some ups and downs from late June on.

The thing to remember with this group is that they’re still young. Hellickson is the oldest at 28, and guys like Ray and De La Rosa were essentially learning to face Major League hitting on the fly. There should be improvement going forward, but they’ll likely want to bring in another established arm or two as well. The bullpen performed admirably, but Hale stressed that they will eventually need the starters to be able to eat up more innings and save some of the wear and tear on the relievers. Now they have to determine how many new arms they actually need. Did they see enough from some of these youngsters? Or are there other guys already within the organization that can help?

Archie Bradley2. More specifically, what can we expect from Archie Bradley? It was a rough year for the former first-rounder, who was red-hot to begin the season (2-0, with a 1.45 ERA in his first three outings) before taking a scary line drive off the face on April 28. He eventually returned, but was never really the same. Ultimately, shoulder issues cut his season short after just eight starts, leaving him with nothing more than a 5.80 ERA and 1.63 WHIP to show for his hard work.

There are a couple ways to look at Bradley’s situation moving forward. The pessimist will point to the fact that it’s somewhat concerning he was only able to give the club 35.2 innings, despite beginning the year with them. Extenuating circumstances aside, that’s not real encouraging –- especially because he finished on such a low note.
He’s only 23 years old though, and the talent is clearly there. Plus, on the bright side, he should be more than adequately rested for 2016 now. The hope is obviously that he can be a viable weapon at the very top of the rotation someday. If that were to come to fruition sooner rather than later, it could set off a domino effect that would address a number of the D-backs’ biggest issues.

Brad Ziegler, Welington Castillo3. Is Brad Ziegler the closer? On the surface, this seems like a crazy question. But the team has shown a preference in the past to keep Ziegler –- who is extremely skilled at inducing double plays –- in a setup role. While he’s isn’t the sort of overpowering hurler that managers often like to hand the ball to in the ninth, he is an excellent ground ball pitcher who is more than capable of working out of jams and bridging the gap from the starter to the late innings of a game.

Then again, just look at his numbers. Or, if that doesn’t do it for you, look at the list of closers Arizona has been disappointed by in recent years. OK fine, just look at Addison Reed.

Ziegler converted 30 of 32 save opportunities, and did so while posting a 1.85 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. He also held opponents to a .198 batting average. It’s hard to argue with stats like that, which is why the D-backs didn’t deal him when they undoubtedly could have gotten some decent offers from contenders at the trade deadline. And at the club’s final media availability, everyone seemed more than comfortable using Ziegler in the closer’s role again next season, if needed.

Chip Hale4. How does Hale balance playing time? There will be some hotly contested position battles when next spring rolls around, prompting Hale to note that he and his staff will likely have to weigh some established players’ resumes from 2015 against the Cactus League performances of a few up-and-comers.

It’s a good problem to have, and it speaks to Arizona’s growing depth among position players particularly in the outfield, where Pollock established himself as an All-Star, and Ender Inciarte, David Peralta and Yasmany Tomas are all worthy of at-bats as well. Balancing that will be key to the team’s continued success at the plate in the future.

In the understatement of the year, Hale did point out that he doesn’t expect anyone to challenge Mr. Goldschmidt for at-bats at first base.

Derrick Hall, Chip Hale, Tony La Russa5. Can they carry their newfound momentum into 2016? The 2014 season was abysmal … and that might be putting it nicely. When the dust had settled, the Diamondbacks had just 64 wins to show for their efforts –- the second-lowest total in team history.

This year was a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways. Arizona improved by 15 wins, and they seemed to have fun doing it. Yes, there are still issues to iron out –- mainly in the rotation –- but significant progress was made, and it rarely felt like they were ever completely out of a game. At the end of the year, both La Russa and GM Dave Stewart spoke glowingly about Hale’s performance, and rightfully so. After all, his 79 wins were second only to Bob Brenly as the most ever by a first-year manager in franchise history.

The key now will be to continue on that trajectory going forward. Another 15-win improvement might be a little ambitious but, to put it in perspective, such a jump would put them at 94 wins. And that would have been enough to claim the division this season.

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