In 2016, the Arizona Diamondbacks were at a crossroad. A slow start put the Diamondbacks nine games under .500, and 13.5 games back in the division … by July.
An exciting off-season was headlined by the signing of former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke away from their division rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. General manager Dave Stewart moved Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, to the Atlanta Braves for pitcher Shelby Miller, who had just come off one of the strangest All-Star campaigns where he led the National League in losses despite a 3.02 ERA. These two additions, coupled with promising pitchers Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray, led many to believe that Arizona was going to compete for a playoff spot in 2016.
The offense was supposed to be fierce, led by emerging superstars in their prime in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and outfielder A.J. Pollock, and with up-and-coming prospects up the middle in Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings. Arizona had cleared the disappointing Mark Trumbo off their books. Jean Segura was added to provide depth to the club.
After a middling start, Michael Bourn was signed by the club to provide a spark at the top of the lineup, but the Diamondbacks still struggled.
Here are some statistics to show why the team finished 30 games under .500 and fans were barking for owner Ken Kendrick to completely break up the squad:
- Pollock fractured his elbow in spring training and effectively missed the entire year.
- Miller may have effectively been the worst pitcher in the MLB, allowing 11 hits and nearly four walks per nine innings pitched. In only 101 innings of work, he pitched to a 3-12 record with a 6.15 ERA.
- Corbin joined Miller with regards to pitching below replacement level. Corbin finished 5-13 with a 5.15 ERA.
- Ray was only slightly better. Though he did finish in the top 10 for all major league pitchers in strikeouts, his control was less than stellar, leading the team in walks and earned runs.
- The defense was a total disaster. All five starters had a large discrepancy between their ERA and their FIP, which calculates defense’s impact on an ERA.
- Greinke was hardly an ace. His 4.37 ERA was nearly three runs higher than a year earlier as a Dodger, when he finished second in the NL Cy Young race. He threw 66 less strikeouts, allowed nine more home runs and 13 more hits in 60 less innings, and had his walks per nine innings pitched went up.
- Ahmed and Owings were unimpressive. In fact, Segura, who was by far the team’s best player, pushed Owings to a superutility role. Ahmed couldn’t crack .600 in OPS. Owings eventually took over at shortstop and was only slightly better with a strikeout to walk ratio of 4.35.
- Bourn was awful in his brief stint in Cactusland. His OBP barely cracked .300 and he was caught stealing in five of his 18 attempts. He was traded to the Orioles for their playoff run.
Kendrick decided to keep most of the band together, though he did fire Stewart and manager Chip Hale. The Diamondbacks went into the Red Sox front office to hire General Manager Mike Hazen and manager Torey Lovullo.
Hazen could have sold off the underperforming assets from the year before, specifically the young pitchers, but instead opted to keep Miller, Corbin and Ray to start along the immovable Greinke, and bolstered the rotation with a trade for promising right hander Taijuan Walker, who was acquired from the Mariners along with Ketel Marte for Segura, Mitch Haniger and Zac Curtis. Walker came in as a 24-year-old with dynamite stuff but uneven results. His talent came at the steep price of Segura, and signified that the new regime was comfortable building around Pollock, Goldschmidt and third baseman Jake Lamb.
The Diamondbacks also let Wellington Castillo walk in free agency and signed Chris Ianetta and Jeff Mathis to more team-friendly deals. Fernando Rodney was brought in to close games, so if anything, Arizona knew they were in for fun ninth innings.
Coming off a sweep of the hapless Mets, the Diamondbacks are sitting at 24-18, just two games back in the NL West. This has been a byproduct of the Diamondbacks trusting that their players all had off-years at the same time and believing in their development team.
The pitching staff has flourished. Greinke is 5-2 with a 3.09 ERA. The home runs are still a little high, but his strikeouts are way up and his walks are way down. Miller has also improved from last year. While his walks are still high, he is allowing far fewer hits. And Walker has been a great addition due to some mechanical tweaks. He is 3-3 with a 3.91 ERA. Corbin and Ray have been decent, but still have some room to improve.
Goldschmidt is looking like the player who has finished second in MVP voting twice. A 30-30 season is an inevitability and a 40-40 season isn’t out of the question. Lamb has also produced at a fine rate, hitting .283 and slugging at .524. And Pollock, prior to recently being placed on the 10-day disabled list, was hitting .299 with 11 stolen bases. It is safe to say the stars have performed.
But the supporting cast has also excelled. Brandon Drury was moved over from left field to second base to plug in for Segura and owns a slash line of .306/.345/.478. He is currently fourth in the NL with 12 doubles. Drury was moved over for Yasmany Tomas, who has also produced at a torrid pace with a .252/.309/.528 slash line.
But the biggest revelation has been Owings, who should be challenging for a start in this year’s Summer Classic. Owings has been sitting at .317, with five home runs and nine stolen bases. While his defense has left a lot to be desired, he is top 10 in the NL in hits.
Ahmed has also improved. He has already equaled his total of four home runs from last year with an OPS of .726. He’s third in defensive WAR, which is all the more impressive considering his limited playing time.
This is a story of how a mid-cap organization doesn’t need to overblow a bad season. The Diamondbacks certainly are not a team of great depth, and may need to add some bullpen help if they want to make a deep run. But right now, baseball is a lot of fun in the desert.