Arizona Diamondbacks MLB 2011 Predictions: 10 Things That Could Make Them Champs
Justin Upton and the Arizona Diamondbacks had a rough go in 2010. Plagued by a historic case of strikeout fever—the batters whiffed 144 times more than any other club in the National League and the pitchers struck out the third-fewest opponents on the senior circuit—and a poor defense, the team lost 97 games.
Manager A.J. Hinch and GM Josh Byrnes got the axe, and have been replaced by Kirk Gibson (in the dugout) and Kevin Towers (in the front office).
The team did little this winter to suggest they feel like contenders in 2011. Their pitching staff was young but got even younger, and their lineup now features more contact hitters but far less upside risk. Still, this team has some pieces that have enigmatically struggled in recent years, and if they put it all together, who knows? The snakes could bite some unsuspecting National League foes.
Here are 10 things that have to happen first.
This is the first in a series of pieces listing 10 things that would have to go right for each MLB team to win a pennant this season. To find out when your favorite team's article comes out, follow me on the twitter @MattTrueblood, or sign up for your team's Bleacher Report newsletter.
1. Justin Upton Stays Healthy
Although he is just 23 years old, Justin Upton will play his sixth professional season in 2011. Here are his games played totals for the first five:
He is not exactly made of glass, but Upton clearly has trouble staying healthy over the course of a full season. Nagging things seem to steal at least a week or two from him every year, and a shoulder problem followed him all season last year.
Upton spent the winter strengthening his core and rehabbing the shoulder, and expects to be fully healthy all year for the first time since 2007. If he is, the Diamondbacks get a huge boost. If he is not, the team lacks an elite bat to ignite their lineup.
2. Upton Reaches His Potential
Yes, Justin Upton is that important. He gets two slides.
Upton is a fine player, and he had a good year even in 2010. He showed a little power (17 homers), a little speed (18 stolen bases) and some great instincts (11.2 percent walk rate and terrific range in right field).
What Upton did not show, though, is his potential to be a superstar. His batting line fell from a .300/.366/.532 slash in 2009 to .273/.356/.442 in 2010.
Upton is young and should be allowed to mature slowly, especially since the Diamondbacks have him under contract through 2015. If the team wants to win this season, though, it will take a breakout campaign more commensurate with the explosive ability Upton showed in 2009.
3. Jarrod Parker Gets Ahead of Himself
As Tommy John surgeries and rehab schedules go, Jarrod Parker did all right for himself and the team. He underwent the procedure in November 2009 and has taken the recovery slowly, a luxury afforded him by virtue of not yet being a big-league hurler.
By all accounts, he approached the rehab program as if he needed to be ready within 12 months, but slowed the process down later on so as to strengthen the arm for peak performance in 2011.
Parker will likely begin the season in Triple-A, but given his electric stuff—he throws in the mid-90s with a sharp curve—he should not be there for long. If he matures quickly and shows no ill effects from the surgery, Arizona has a co-ace and a very good young rotation.
4. Ian Kennedy Proves He Wasn't a Fluke
Throughout his four years in the Yankees organization, Ian Kennedy showed all sort of promise but had little real success at the big-league level. He was almost a throw-in when Arizona got him last winter in a three-way trade with New York and Detroit.
In 2010, though, he figured some things out. At 25 years old, he suddenly seemed to have learned how to best use his stuff, and National League hitters seemed baffled. Kennedy would finish the year with 168 strikeouts against just 70 walks in 194 innings, and he allowed only 163 hits. His lone glaring vulnerability was the home run, of which he surrendered 26.
If he can cut down on the go-fer balls in 2011, he can be a top-of-the-rotation guy and Arizona can compete with the rest of the division's superb starting rotations.
5. Xavier Nady and Melvin Mora Find the Fountain of Youth
Xavier Nady can really hit. At 32, he is now a full 23 months clear of Tommy John surgery that hampered him even after his return with the Cubs in 2010. If he can stay healthy and rediscover the stroke that made him Hell on southpaw pitching in 2007 and 2008, the Diamondbacks will have another power hitter in the lineup.
Nady does not draw walks with any proficiency but does make better contact than (say) Adam LaRoche, so he can be an upgrade if he can function at 100 percent.
Melvin Mora turned 39 last month, and although he can still hit a little, his defensive value is seemingly gone. The Diamondbacks have to hope against hope that Mora is in great shape and can ably defend third base this year. If he can, the team can stomach his lack of power at the plate. If he cannot, they need him to slug the way he did as a younger man, when he three times eclipsed 20 homers for the Orioles.
6. J.J. Putz Dominates
Injuries have derailed Putz's career in recent seasons, but the right-hander showed glimpses of his former glory with the White Sox in 2011. Buying into a heady skill set and Putz's apparent health, new GM Kevin Towers invested in the flamethrower this winter and installed him as the team's closer.
The tools are still there, and in fact, Putz may be getting better with age: His split-fingered fastball now shreds left-handed hitters as well as his slider twists up right-handed ones, and the heat has not left his arm on the straight fastball. Putz has the potential to play as one of the three best closers in the National League, and if he reaches that ceiling, Arizona becomes a force with which to be reckoned.
7. Stephen Drew Busts Loose
Stephen Drew keeps finding ways to get better. His defense at shortstop, once atrocious, is now sparkling, and he has the athleticism to keep his value in that area. He posted the highest walk rate of his career in 2010 and the result was a .354 wOBA, a carer-best number over a full season.
Now, though, the Diamondbacks need Drew to find the next gear. He will turn 28 this month, so the theoretical peak (age 26) is behind him. Given his healthy learning curve, though, Drew remains a breakout candidate.
His WAR in 2010 was 5.1. If he exceeds it in 2011, the Diamondbacks will be thrilled, and the offense should hold up just fine. If he regresses at all, the team might be in trouble.
8. Everyone Buys into Kirk Gibson
Gibson took over as the interim GM last season, and although the team did not exactly turn its season around, there were more signs of life.
Gibson is a fiery and tough figure, the perfect mixture of brash and assiduous, and the players need to take their cue from him. A mentality of perseverance and a certain edge might be the perfect formula for a team playing against three division rivals with better-balanced ball clubs than their own.
9. Juan Miranda, International Man of Mystery, Reveals Himself
In most big-league systems, Juan Miranda would already have gotten an extended look—and maybe even a full-time job. As a New York Yankee, though, Miranda found a much greater barrier to entry. He managed to cobble together 94 plate appearances in New York over three seasons before being traded to Arizona this winter.
The Diamondbacks think they know what they have: Miranda has been strikingly consistent in the minor leagues the past few years, hitting for good but not exceptional power while drawing walks and hitting for a .285 average. He should post at least decent numbers in the thin desert air, but the breakout possibility is certainly there. Arizona needs a big year from Miranda to flesh out their offensive attack.
10. Someone Gets Hurt, or Soemthing
Let's face it: The Diamondbacks are not a bad team, but the Rockies are better. So are the Giants, and likely the Dodgers. Even if all these things go right, it will a hectic race to an NL West title for Arizona unless something goes wrong for one or more of the other contenders.
Maybe Buster Posey will have a sophomore slump, or Matt Kemp will continue to labor in the doldrums. Maybe one or more of the true aces of which the other three teams are possessed will blow out their elbow.
One way or another, the Diamondbacks (like every team, really) need to catch a few breaks in order to reach the promised land.