It is only 9 games into the season. The Arizona Diamondbacks are only 3 games out of first place. But after a 3-6 start at home, it might be time already to face the facts: these Diamondbacks just aren't very good.
I know many of you most likely think that I am overreacting, and that very well may be true. After all, other teams (such as the mighty Boston Red Sox) are off to similarly horrific starts. To be honest, I would not be shocked if the Diamondbacks do indeed finish first in the NL West this season. But I would be even less surprised if they do not. Because, for the Diamondbacks, the flaws exhibited in their showing thus far seems less like an early season mirage (a la Boston) and more like reasons for legitimate concern. Let's take a look.
Bullpen ERA: It is hard to find a team that was more snake-bit by their own bullpen than the Arizona Diamondbacks last season. Late-inning meltdowns by Brandon Lyon, Jon Rauch, and Chad Qualls cost Arizona the Divisional Title last year. It Arizona is to succeed in 2009, the bullpen clearly needed improvement. However, a 6.89 bullpen ERA (good for 15th out of 16 NL teams) shows this has not occurred, and nor will it likely occur. The core of the Diamondbacks relief corps that proved so inconsistent last season has returned this year, and has shown little signs of improvement.
Jon Rauch has followed up a awful spring with a 9.64 ERA, looking all too hittable to be a late inning reliever. Chad Qualls is fresh off a blown save Tuesday night, a game the Diamondbacks bit and clawed their way back into yet saw all their progress erased in a single inning of work by Qualls. Tony Pena has been the lone bright spot thus far. But, as a prototypical power-throwing reliever, he is the only one of his kind in a bullpen otherwise full of mediocrity.
Justin Upton/Chris Young: It is hard to find two young players with more pure talent than Upton and Young. Both are five-tool stars, capable of 30-30 seasons if not even more. The Diamondbacks believed so much in Young that they signed him to a contract extension before last season. Similar faith was shown to Upton, when they traded Carlos Quentin and opted to give him the starting job in Right Field. The fact that both players failed miserably to meet expectations last season is a major reason why the Diamondbacks finished a mediocre 82-80. So far this season, it appears we will be getting more of the same.
While Young has showed signs of life, his .257 batting average is hardly exemplary and his .289 OBP is well below average. Upton seems utterly lost at the plate, batting .105 to start the year. Not only is he unable to recognize breaking pitches, but also now seems incapable of catching up to above average fastballs. If these two players continue to struggle, so too will Arizona's offensive woes.
Brandon Webb: It is difficult to discount just how important Webb is to this team. He has led the Diamondbacks in wins each of the last three seasons, and has not finished lower than second in the Cy Young voting over that span of time. So when Brandon Webb was placed on the disabled list after his first start of the year with shoulder fatigue, Diamondbacks fans around the country took a deep breath and started preparing themselves for a long season. When Webb returns and if he is able to regain his Cy Young form very well could determine how successful the Diamondbacks are this season. And so far, it is not looking good.
Management: Much has been made of Bob Melvin's surprise rise to Manager of the Year in 2007. But receiving such an award does not make you a good coach. Melvin's calm persona and passive managerial style do little to light a fire under a team that very much needs a good kick in the tail. His inability to set a defined line-up prevents Arizona's notoriously streaky hitters from getting in, and staying in, a groove, and his stubborn desire to stick with mediocre relieves like Jon Rauch in late-inning situations will continue to cost Arizona games.
The Diamondbacks are by no means dead in the water, but they do face an uphill battle. Playing 18 of their first 21 games at home, Arizona needed to seize this early season opportunity to establish themselves as the premier team in the NL West. Instead, their offense has sputtered, their bullpen has been tagged, and they have dropped their first three series in a row at home. Maybe it is too early. Maybe the offense will come. Maybe Young and Upton will start hitting. Maybe Brandon Webb will return, and return to Cy Young form. Or, maybe the Diamondbacks just aren't going to be very good this year.