It’s September, and that means the playoff races are heating up in Major League Baseball. However, not everyone makes it to the promised land. Tom Wright tells us what went right and what went wrong in the elimination of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Sometimes, the best improvement you can make is to just stop being a jerk.
For the last couple years, Arizona’s front office consistently voiced a commitment to “grit” and “toughness” and “spirit” and all of the other cliches that the Diamondbacks apparently took to mean, “start pointless beanbrawls, injure opposing players, and generally be as unlikeable as possible.” Last year, they took their machismo to another level, throwing at players in spring training games, injuring key contributors to playoff-bound teams, intentionally hitting players in close games with runners on base, and doing whatever else they could to show that winning would take a backseat to moral victories. In a related story, most of the victories that the Diamondbacks had last year were of the moral kind, as their 98-loss season made it clear that the machismo had been of little help to any sort of on-field success.
This year, to the betterment of baseball as a whole, a management housecleaning pushed out nearly everyone responsible for the Bad Sportsmanship Era of the Diamondbacks. In came president Tony LaRussa and GM Dave Stewart, smart baseball types who decided to tone down the machismo and focus on more mundane tasks like “hitting,” “pitching,” and perhaps even “fielding.”
The new duo was greeted with an unusual roster, as the Kevin Towers era remains one of the more schizophrenic in recent history. Towers was very clear that he didn’t want guys who weren’t “tough” (whatever that may mean), which is why he sold off stars like Justin Upton and Stephen Drew for far less than they were worth. What Towers wasn’t clear on was what he did want in a player, as he had a habit of trading for players and then subsequently selling them at a discount. On the other hand, Towers seemed to have an eye for talent, and he left his successors with highly-skilled players like Paul Goldschmidt, AJ Pollack, and Brad Ziegler. Towers, as he has been in every stop of his MLB tour, was a bit of a mixed bag in Arizona, and a mixed bag is exactly the roster that La Russa and Stewart inherited.
To that roster, Stewart and LaRussa would quickly add their own touches. They traded away Didi Gregorius for some minor leaguers, signed Cuban import Yasmany Tomas to a huge deal, and traded for Jeremy Hellickson to anchor the rotation. More importantly, they also did their best to make people forget that the Diamondbacks were the annoying team from years prior, returning the focus to baseball and avoiding the sorts of malicious actions that had defined the 2013 and 14 squads.
The irony of this season is that many of the moves that the D-backs completed this offseason haven’t yet worked out, but the newfound stability of the organization, relative health of the starting players, and lack of nonsense surrounding the club allowed the team to improve. The trade of Gregorius was largely spurred by the a misplaced belief in the idea that Chris Owings is ready to be a starter; Owings is currently hitting .238 with no walks or power. Likewise, Cuban slugger Tomas signed a $68 million deal, then proceeded to hit 8 home runs in his first 400 at-bats in the bigs. Arizona also paid two prospects in order to gamble that Jeremy Hellickson’s two mirage seasons in 2011 and 2012 were actually real; unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a bad bet.
Regardless, the return of Paul Goldschmidt and AJ Pollack, the midseason acquisition of Wellington Castillo, and the re-emergence of Patrick Corbin as a front-line starter (and the surprise emergence of new acquisition Robbie Ray as a reasonable #2 starter) have pushed the D-Backs into respectability. In fact, the Diamondbacks outscored their opposition this year, and the only reason we’re not talking about the D-Backs as a wildcard contender is because they hit .239 in close-and-late situations; given that the Snakes currently lead the NL in runs, it’s probably safe to call their clutch hitting failures a fluke.
It’s still early in the careers of many of the people listed above; Corbin, Ray, Owings and Tomas are all under 26 and everyone in the rotation and starting lineup is under 29, so it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of reason for optimism in Arizona. The bad news is that the rotation still needs three more starters, and also that next year being an even-numbered year means that the Giants will probably win the World Series again. However, if the D-Backs can sort out the rotation woes, they’ll be a force to reckon with during San Francisco’s off-year in 2017.
The Diamondbacks last made the playoffs in 2011. Their last (and only) World Series victory was in 2001.
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