Arizona Diamondbacks: 7 Ways the Franchise Built Itself into a Playoff Contender

Freddy WanderContributor IIISeptember 10, 2011

Arizona Diamondbacks: 7 Ways the Franchise Built Itself into a Playoff Contender

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    If before the 2011 MLB season started someone had told me that the Arizona Diamondbacks were going to be in first place at any point in September, I would have thought they were suffering from valley fever.

    Looking at all the teams in the NL West on paper, it’s hard to make a case that the Diamondbacks had a chance.

    The Giants had just come off of a championship season with the likes of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain leading the way, the Dodgers were led by Matt Kemp on offense and a young staff headed by Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, the Padres would be on a high from an unexpectedly great season in 2010 and the Rockies were a young, extremely talented team looking to make their mark in the division.

    Even with all of these obstacles in their way, the Arizona Diamondbacks have managed to take an 8.5 game lead in the division with less than three weeks left to play in the season.

    Looking back at the 2011 year, one can really see how the Diamondbacks have combined a multi-year plan formulated by general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson, and play from individual players that have exceeded everyone’s expectations to become the cream of the crop in the NL West.

    The 2011 season for the Arizona Diamondbacks has proved that you really cannot judge a book by its cover. 

Building a Top 10 Farm System

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    At the beginning of the year, the Diamondbacks' system was ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack on pretty much every organizational rankings list. Many lists even had them in the bottom 10. In Baseball America’s preseason top 100 rankings there were three Arizona Diamondbacks ranked; Jarrod Parker at 33, Tyler Skaggs at 82 and Matt Davidson at 99.

    Jarrod Parker has put together a solid season coming back from Tommy John surgery and Tyler Skaggs has shown ace potential and started the futures game in Arizona.

    One name that was not ranked in the top 100 that should have been was Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt put up video game-like numbers at AA Mobile with 30 home runs, an OPS of 1.061 and 82 walks over 366 ABs and has helped bolster the Diamondbacks in the middle of their impressive playoff run.

    Besides Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks boast an impressive group of top pitching prospects. Along with the aforementioned Parker and Skaggs, the Diamondbacks drafted Trevor Bauer number three overall and Archie Bradley at number seven in the 2011 MLB amateur draft to give them four top-tier starting pitchers in their system.  The depth of pitchers is also impressive with David Holmberg, Patrick Corbin, Anthony Meo, Andrew Chafin and others looking impressive.

    The Diamondbacks' system looks to have consistent, top level performers that should keep them winning for years to come. 

Keeping Kirk Gibson as the Manager After the 2010 Season

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    When Kirk Gibson took over managerial duties in 2010, his results were not immediately noticed. Over the last half of the season in 2010, Gibson led his team to a 34-49 record. But GM Kevin Towers saw something in Gibson that caused him to give Gibson a two-year contract.

    Again, immediate results were not seen as the Diamondbacks went 11-15 in the first month of the season. But, unlike some other managers, Gibson did not get angry with his team or lose hope that they could win. He pushed his team and believed that once they did start winning and realized that they could, he could keep that going.

    Since April, Arizona has battled with San Francisco for first place, until August when Arizona went 19-10 while the Giants put up a poor record of 11-18. Now, with less than three weeks left in the 2011 MLB season, the Diamondbacks are red hot and streaking to their first division championship since 2007. This unlikely outcome surprises most fans and experts, but does not surprise Gibson.

    His winning ways and the attitude face lift Gibson has performed in Arizona should keep them in check and keep the Diamondbacks rolling into the 2011 playoffs. 

Players Exceeding Expectations

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    Ryan Roberts – “Tatman,” as he is called by the fans in Arizona, was the source of huge hits at the beginning of the season. His high energy and clutch hits instantly made him a fan favorite. Filling the hole left by Mark Reynolds, Roberts has amassed 18 home runs, 77 runs batted in and added 18 stolen bases. He has also provided solid defense at a position he is not all too familiar with posting a UZR/150 ( UZR runs above average per 150 Defensive Games) at third base of 4.2 Ryan Roberts is the exact type of player that Kirk Gibson loves to have on his team; high energy, winning attitude, solid defense and clutch hitting.

    Ian Kennedy – It was thought that Kennedy could become a solid starting pitcher, but I do not think that anyone really thought he had the potential to become an ace like he has. Not only has he become an ace for a playoff contender, but he has gotten the attention of the entire nation and looks to get recognition for the Cy Young award. With only 1 win needed to give Kennedy 20, he will join Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Brandon Webb as Arizona starters who have reached 20 wins in the last 10 years. Combine Kennedy, Hudson, Parker, Skaggs, Bauer and Bradley and you have the formula for an amazing future rotation.

    Josh Collmenter – Collmenter did not even rank in Baseball America’s top 30 prospects in the Diamondbacks system at the beginning of the year. So far he has surpassed everyone’s expectations in the 2011 season with his performance. In 28 games (21 starts), Collmenter has put together a 9-8 win loss record with a 3.10 ERA. He benefits from an impressive 3.83 K/BB ratio. Very serviceable starting pitcher that has shown he does not fold under pressure.  

    Gerrardo Parra – Gerrardo Parro really profiled as a 4th outfielder at the beginning of the season. Luckily for Parra and the Diamondbacks he was able to receive consistent playing time. He has been spectacular in the outfield with above average defense. Also, his offense also has been pretty better than expected as he has hit for a batting average of .295, 48 runs and 11 stolen bases. Never will be a top player in the league, but has done what he needs to for his team this year.

Cut Down on Strikeouts

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    Over the last few years, the Arizona Diamondbacks batters have been providing a nice breeze for the hot fans at Chase Field, in the form of swings and misses.

    Between 2008 and 2010 the Diamondbacks were ranked 30th, 29th and again 30th in the league in strikeouts per game, according to teamrankings.com. In 2010 they had peaked with their worst season. The Diamondbacks averaged 9.44 strikeouts per game that year, which was a full 0.95 strikeouts more than the next highest team.

    The big move that the Diamondbacks made to improve on this number was to trade Mark Reynolds to the Baltimore Orioles in the offseason. Reynolds was able to lock down the top three spots for most strikeouts in one season by whiffing over 200 times from ’08-’10.

    The current Diamondbacks team is still ranked in the bottom 10 for strikeouts per game, but they have improved from 9.44 to 7.79 strikeouts per game. As the players on the team continue to mature and become more patient, this number should continue to improve.   

Not Trading Justin Upton

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    Around the same time that the Diamondbacks were looking to trade Mark Reynolds, there were a lot of rumors floating around that they were going to trade their young superstar; Justin Upton.

    In November, GM Kevin Towers was entertaining offers from many different teams in an attempt to receive a deal involving top players. The likes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Michael Pineda were examples of the type of talent that Towers was looking to receive in return for Upton. To the relief of the citizens of “Up-town,” Upton was not traded.

    In 2011, Upton has put together a season that has rocketed him into top five consideration for NL MVP. As of September 9th, Upton is leading the NL in extra base hits, is hitting .298 and has 20 stolen bases. His numbers are impressive and one can only assume that he will get better as he matures some more. 

Improving Relief Pitching

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    One of the main reasons that the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks ended up doing so poorly was because they could not close out games.

    The relief pitchers for the 2010 team had the opportunity to record a save 59 times; they only were successful a putrid 35 times. That is only a 59% success rate. It seemed like every other day you would hear about the Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen blowing another lead.

    The Diamondbacks added a slew of new names to help their relief situation in 2011. J.J. Putz and David Hernandez are two of the players that were added that have turned the bullpen around.

    Putz has a 2.45 ERA and has saved 38 of 42 attempts while David Hernandez, who was acquired in the Mark Reynolds deal, has saved 11 games, recorded a hold in 22 games and is sporting a 9.5 K/9 ratio. 

Smart Trades

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    Arizona trades Dan Haren for Joe Saunders, Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin and Rafael Rodriguez

    Dan Haren is obviously the best player in this deal right now, but overall the Diamondbacks did pretty well in this trade. Saunders has had a decent year with 10 wins so far and an ERA below 4.

    The real catch in this deal is turning out to be Tyler Skaggs. Skaggs started the futures game this year and between A+ and AA he managed a 2.96 ERA and 198 strikeouts in 158.1 innings as a 20-year-old. He has real potential to be an ace in the majors.

    Arizona trades Edwin Jackson for Daniel Hudson and David Holmberg

    The Diamondbacks hit the jackpot in this trade. Edwin Jackson can be brilliant at times, but is inconsistent, wild at times and expensive.

    Daniel Hudson slipped right in to the number two spot in the rotation, winning 8 of his 11 starts for Arizona. He has continued his success in 2011, going 16-9 with 156 strikeouts at the age of 24.

    Holmberg could also really be a steal. Between A and A+ Holmberg won 12 games and had more than a strikeout per inning. He is a few years away from the majors, but if he eventually works out, the Diamondbacks struck gold in this trade.

    Arizona trades Mark Reynolds for David Hernandez and Kam Mikolio

    Might not seem like the best of trades since Mark Reynolds can put up 30 home runs a year, but he will also strike out 200 times. The Diamondbacks addressed their biggest need in this trade; relief pitching. Overall this was a good trade for Arizona.

    Arizona trades Kelly Johnson for Aaron Hill and John McDonald

    Kelly Johnson had really taken on the role of Diamondbacks second baseman, but the switch could be good for everyone. Since coming to the Diamondbacks, Aaron Hill has hit .365 with eight extra base hits in 63 at-bats. John McDonald is a great defensive backup that can play multiple positions. The winner of this trade will be determined by whether or not Aaron Hill can return to his former ways.