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Diamondbacks Building to Be MLB's Surprise Contender in 2016

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistAugust 21, 2015

Arizona Diamondbacks Paul Goldschmidt bats during a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, in Pittsburgh.  (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)
Fred Vuich/Associated Press

The criticism has been shot with impunity, mostly because everyone with an Internet connection has done it, and the targets have been easy to hit.

Arizona Diamondbacks chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and general manager Dave Stewart have a reputation for resisting Major League Baseball's move into an analytics era, per USA Today's Jason Lisk. They are not entirely different from the previous regime of Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson, and their controversial payroll-slashing trade of the organization's 2014 first-round pick in June, followed by curious and baffling comments by Stewart in defense of the deal, led to a war cry from critics, per ESPN's David Schoenfield.

Rightfully so. This is a franchise that does not look like it can afford to jettison promising pitchers for cash, and it's moves like that that can create distrust among a fanbase.

Then again, showing immediate promise and potential does much more to retain it. The Diamondbacks are quietly growing into one of the most promising teams in baseball, building to become a potentially legitimate National League contender in 2016 with a potent, youthful offense and a pitching core with upside.

"We kind of look around the clubhouse, and the players like the players that are in here," center fielder A.J. Pollock told Dave Lumia of Fox Sports Arizona last week. "We feel like we're very capable of turning heads. Some people are surprised, but we're not."

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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

And maybe nobody should be. The Diamondbacks have a plus-29 run differential. Based on that, the team should be around six games over .500 by way of Bill James' Pythagorean win-loss predictor. The reason the club sits two games under .500 is because its pitching staff gives up more than four runs a game on average. 

The offense has saved the team from being an embarrassment because of its pitching. It's scoring more than 4.5 runs per game, the fourth-highest average in the majors behind three American League East teams going into Thursday.

In that same time frame, the Diamondbacks led the NL in runs (538), BABIP (.317), baserunning (12.7) and ranked in the league's top five in OBP (.324), slugging (.405), OPS (.729), Weighted On-Base Average (.316) and Weighted Runs Created Plus (96).

They are also the youngest lineup in the majors with an average age of just under 27 years old—they started the year as the second youngest (28.04 years), according to Stats LLC (per ArizonaSports.com). At the start of last season, the team had the sixth-oldest lineup in baseball.

Brett Anderson @_BAnderson30_

@JeffPassan tough lineup

"Maybe it's because everyone is so young and so hungry and still trying to make a name for themselves. But you should see how hard this team works behind the scenes, the time spent in the weight room and the (batting) cages," Paul Goldschmidt, the team's MVP candidate, told Dan Bickley of AZ Central.

"And we have to be one of the most prepared teams in the league when it comes to scouting reports. It all shows up on the field."

With guys like Goldschmidt, Pollock, Welington Castillo, David Peralta and Yasmany Tomas as mainstays in the lineup, not to mention top overall pick in last June's draft Dansby Swanson set to join that infield in the next few years at the latest, the offense seems set.

The team's problem is its rotation, and everyone, including manager Chip Hale, understands that.

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Hale: our starting pitching needs to get better, other than that we're very competitive #Dbacks

Robbie Ray, acquired from the Detroit Tigers in the three-team deal that sent shortstop Didi Gregorius to the New York Yankees over the offseason, has been the most promising arm in Arizona this season. He is 23 and has a 3.38 ERA and 3.29 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in 15 starts. He has also been far better on the road and away from hitter-friendly Chase Field, putting up a 2.75 ERA in nine starts, as opposed to a 4.45 ERA in six home starts.

Patrick Corbin looks like he can be a valuable starter since returning from Tommy John surgery last month. In his nine starts, the 26-year-old has a 4.09 ERA, 3.72 FIP and is striking out 9.2 hitters per nine innings.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Other than those two, the Diamondbacks have not gotten much in the way of optimism from their other starters, including Rubby De La Rosa, Jeremy Hellickson or Archie Bradley, though Bradley is only 23 years old and has fought shoulder issues this season.

Plus, Cuban signee Yoan Lopez is on the minor league disabled list with elbow stiffness/tightness, which can be a precursor to Tommy John surgery. Lopez cost the team more than $16 million to sign because of taxes, and he was the organization's No. 5 prospect, according to MLB.com.

This is why it was so curious, and infuriating to some, that the front office would move last year's top draft pick, Touki Toussaint, for money when he was rated the team's No. 3 prospect by ESPN's Keith Law. This doesn't seem like an organization that can get rid of promising pitching prospects as if they grow through the rock lawns of the Arizona valley.

If La Russa and Stewart take the $10 million they got for Toussaint and deploy it in a deal for a front-line free-agent starter, then fine. Because for the Diamondbacks to become true contenders in the NL West, their rotation will have to greatly improve from being one of the league's bottom dwellers, according to FanGraphs.

"If Dave Stewart can fix the pitching," Joel Sherman of the New York Post said on MLB Network, "this team can be something."

For now that "if" remains prominent, but so does the fact that the Diamondbacks have a great foundation of young position players poised to give opposing pitchers fits in 2016 as the team makes its way back to relevancy.

All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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