After an inspiring run to the 2011 postseason via an NL West championship, the Arizona Diamondbacks took a step back in 2012, falling to a .500 record and a third-place finish in the NL West—a figurative regression to average.
Though a third-place Diamondbacks team, following the 2000 season, returned to claim the NL West title and the franchise's only World Series appearance and victory, the last two go-arounds for Arizona two years out of a division championship have seen a complete turnaround:
After securing their third NL West crown in 2002, the Diamondbacks fell to third place in 2003 and finished in the division cellar in 2004.
Following their 2007 NL West championship, the Diamondbacks finished second in 2008 before dropping to fifth in both 2009 and 2010.
The sports world tends to be cyclical, and as Arizona attempts to rebound from a first-to-third performance last season, the club will also attempt to break a most inauspicious trend.
Yet en route to such a goal, the D-Backs will encounter several key problems and face a few significant weaknesses along the way.
It used to be cute.
From Chris Young to Justin Upton, Jason Kubel, Gerardo Parra and even A.J. Pollock and Adam Eaton, the Diamondbacks had no shortage of outfielders in 2012.
Yet at some point, the experiments become stale and using up to 18 players in one game—which Arizona did during a nine-inning 9-6 loss to St. Louis on May 7, 2012—becomes wholly impractical.
2012 is over and Arizona has made several key moves—acquiring former Red Sox left fielder Cody Ross and ex-Brave Eric Hinske after trading Young to Oakland—yet the outfield switcharoo continues with six names occupying the D-Backs' New Year's Day outfield depth chart in a 4-3-4 alignment.
While Kubel, Eaton and Upton will remain primary starters for now, persistent rumors of an Upton trade with a large variety of teams do nothing to form and preserve a sense of outfield consistency.
Regardless of Upton's actual on-field performance—which could very plausibly rebound—such uncertainty is simply not conducive to success.
Speaking of Justin Upton, the rumor mill has placed Texas and Upton in the same sentence, further stating that Arizona would like Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus or prospect middle infielder Jurickson Profar in return.
The Rangers are said to be actively balking at the request.
Yet the pursuit of a shortstop to replace the departed Stephen Drew to complement Willie Bloomquist, Cliff Pennington—whom Arizona recently picked up after a career-worst 2012 season in Oakland (Pennington batted just .215 with six home runs and 28 RBI)—and rookie Didi Gregorius (acquired from Cleveland) may seem foolish, especially in the wake of the Gregorius deal and considering the mishmash that already exists in the Arizona outfield.
Instead, Aaron Hill is coming off an impressive year, guided by an .882 OPS which is 123 points higher than his career average.
Unfortunately, that is where the impressive second base work begins and ends. If primary backup Bloomquist—who will also back up the hot corner in addition to handling his shortstop duties—is unavailable, the club will use the below-average John McDonald.
Then again, if the D-Backs are looking to convert Andrus into a second baseman...
A six-time Gold Glove winner, newly-acquired third baseman Eric Chavez appears to be a huge improvement at the hot corner—as long as he doesn't have to face left-handed pitching.
A .281 hitter in 2012, Chavez derives his average and power from hitting right-handers. Chavez hit .298 against them last year while compiling a .908 OPS. Against southpaws, however, Chavez batted just .152 with a .152 slugging percentage and a .382 OPS.
Enter Chris Johnson, last season's second-half third baseman who is not especially phased by the left-handed pitch. Johnson hit .295 against righties and .245 against lefties with just a 147-point OPS drop-off as opposed to Chavez's 526-point schism.
As a trade-off for sitting Chavez, Johnson's career .931 fielding percentage at third base means more errors (Chavez has a .969 fielding percentage), though Arizona's depth chart also lists utility-men Bloomquist and Hinske as emergency hot-corner replacements.
Nonetheless, Arizona will retain a certain Achilles Heel at third base, if only against a certain class of pitcher.
By the way, those two additions—2010's ninth highest spender and 2012's eighth highest—are the San Francisco Giants.
Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks have long adorned the bottom half of the expenditures list, appearing at the No. 24 slot in 2012. Since the modern luxury tax was instituted in 2003, only that year's Florida Marlins—in 25th place—have won a World Series despite appearing in baseball's bottom half.
The next closest winners were the 2005 Chicago White Sox, the 13th highest spender in baseball.
Meanwhile, the Padres have gradually yet consistently held a sub-25th position since the franchise's post-2008 salary dump, while the team on the field has failed to make a postseason since 2006.
With the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers quickly moving into position to rival and overtake the Bronx Bombers for the top money team in baseball, Arizona—and by extension, San Diego and Colorado—will now have to contend with two top dogs with diamonds in their eyes.
And how does a team best combat such a conundrum?
Spend, spend, spend.