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April 11, 2008
Can Of Corn
The Surging Snakes
Here's I question I think can be asked with a surprising degree of legitimacy: Will the Arizona Diamondbacks be the best team in baseball this season?
It's not Arizona's undeniably hot start that leads me to wonder this--sample size and all that; rather, their talent, age, balanced strengths, and management, and the lack of a truly great team in 2008, all conspire to make the Diamondbacks perhaps the power team in the game right now. Allow me to justify myself at length ...
Last season, Arizona notched 90 wins and the best record in the National League. Of course, they did all that despite ranking a paltry 27th in team EqA and posting a negative run differential. The latter analytical nugget has been woefully overemphasized of late, and any Pythagorean hand-wringing when it comes to Arizona overlooks two facts: one, the offense got progressively better as the season went along (in the first half, the offense posted a low and aberrant BABIP of .276), and two, the lineup was so young that the usual logic doesn't really apply.
With that said, if the Diamondbacks are to return to the post-season in 2008--let alone have the best record in baseball--then they'll need to make tremendous strides offensively. They likely will. PECOTA tabs Arizona for 827 runs scored this season, which would be a mammoth improvement upon their 2007 total of 712. Take a glance at the individual hitter projections, and you'll see that PECOTA is fairly bullish on the young Arizona hitters. However, it's underselling Justin Upton.
The system predicts Upton's batting line will be .271/.349/.471, which is thoroughly impressive for a 20-year-old toiling in the majors. Still, I call it abject pessimism. Upton's abilities are well chronicled, and he's got a history of taking off after some transition time. Upon being signed, he struggled for a season in the Midwest League, but the following year, 2007, he cut a wide swath through the California and Southern Leagues, despite being much younger than his peer groups. At the tail end of '07, he logged 140 uninspiring at bats in the majors. However, Upton tore it up in spring training, and he's crushing the ball thus far in the regular season. I'm operating partly on a hunch here, but I think Upton's going to come perilously close to--and perhaps exceed--his 90th-percentile batting line of .300/.384/.545. I'll confess to being enthralled by Upton, whose ridiculous bat speed, raw power, and visible poise at the plate are beyond impressive, but even my objective side thinks he's going to squash his weighted-mean projection like a grape.
On the pitching-and-defense front, PECOTA says the Snakes in '08 will give up 774 runs. Last year, they surrendered 732 runs, so, obviously, PECOTA says they're going to get worse on that front. I disagree.
Specifically, I think Dan Haren's being given short shrift. In fact, count me among those who regard Brandon Webb and Haren as the best one-two punch in the game. Haren's 27, so he should be entering his prime seasons, and he's coming off a year in which he worked 222.2 innings, posted an RA of 3.68, and ranked sixth among AL hurlers in VORP. This season, PECOTA sees his ERA rising from 3.07 to 3.84. Granted, Haren has moved from a pitcher's environment to hitter-friendly Chase Field; however, he's also now in the non-DH league and facing the generally inferior offenses of the NL and the decidedly inferior offenses of the NL West. Haren's 2007 BABIP of .292 isn't out of whack, so I'm not sure why he's expected to regress so much in 2008. Actually, I'm not sure why he's expected to regress at all. In any event, Haren's essentially replacing the innings of Livan Hernandez (5.11 RA in 2007), so Arizona's going to be much better off on that front.
Elsewhere, Micah Owings has the potential to best his projected ERA of 4.98. In the minors, the knock on Owings was his fringe changeup, but last season he relied on his off-speed stuff quite a bit, particularly against the opposite side and when behind in the count. So he's gaining confidence in it. As well, his flyball tendencies should dovetail nicely with Arizona's exceptional outfield defense. Given those factors, his 75th-percentile projection (4.42 ERA) seems more appropriate.
Rotation depth might be a concern, what with Randy Johnson's age and Doug Davis' very serious health concerns, but, as spot guys go, you could do worse than Edgar Gonzalez. The front of the bullpen is capable, and there's always the strong possibility that top prospect Max Scherzer will be around to help out sooner rather than later, should Arizona decide to convert him to relief or acclimatize him, Earl Weaver-style, in the major-league bullpen.
With all that said, Arizona isn't a great team. Then again, no team is. Getting back to PECOTA for a moment, the system projects Arizona for 87 wins this season, putting it behind a number of teams:
Projected Wins, 2008
Color me skeptical with regard to the Yankees' ability to win 97 games. They're old at too many key positions, bad defensively, weak in the bullpen after Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, and playing a tough schedule. The Mets and 93 wins? The injuries say otherwise. Every other team on the list is within hailing distance of the conservatively-projected Diamondbacks. However, I think the D'backs will be miles better on offense--on the order of 130 runs better--than they were last season and about the same when it comes to keeping runs off the board. So I'm penciling them in for 95 wins, the most in all of baseball. Whether that's tantamount to being the best team in all of baseball is another matter.