Will talks with Joe about Arizona’s chances in the D’backs Hope and Faith edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

The Arizona Diamondbacks haven’t been all that relevant since an 84-78 season in 2003. However, the now-departed Mike Rizzo’s tremendous work is about to bear fruit in the form of as many as five drafted-and-developed hitters forming the core of a potentially excellent lineup. While their reacquisition of Randy Johnson this winter has the smell of “sideshow” about it, Johnson actually may well be a perfect #2 to Brandon Webb‘s #1, making the trade for him less about selling tickets every fifth day and more about selling them in October.

To win the World Series, the Diamondbacks need to complete four specific tasks:

  • Score at least 825 runs. Chase Field is one of the best hitting environments in the NL, so the standard for what makes a good D’backs offense is a bit higher than it would be for other teams. Scoring 825 runs would give the team one of the top five or six offenses in the league, and likely second only to the Dodgers in the division.

    To make this happen, the D’backs don’t need more than to play the right guys and get good, not great, seasons from their young hitters. Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin, and Conor Jackson all start the season coming off of strong partial seasons in 2006. There’s no question that all three are major-league hitters, and significant upgrades on their predecessors in Phoenix. Chris Young‘s March wrist injury kept him from having an impact in ’06; he enters this season set in center field with the expectation that he’ll be a Mike Cameron-caliber player. That core of four is unrivaled by any team in baseball.

    To push the offense over the top, Bob Melvin can maximize production in left field, by working Scott Hairston into the mix with Eric Byrnes. The two are both right-handed hitters, with Hairston an inferior defensive option, so a straight platoon won’t work. Byrnes is fairly helpless against right-handed pitching, however, so getting Hairston six-inning starts against them would add 20 or 30 runs over the course of the season.

    Hairston or Byrnes will usually be on what is a very deep and effective D’backs bench. Jeff DaVanon is one of the best fourth outfielders in the game, Alberto Callaspo is a legitimate .300 hitter who can play three infield spots, and once Miguel Montero earns the catching job, Chris Snyder returns to being one of the better backups in the league. This bench is a clear competitive advantage for the Diamondbacks.

  • Allow no more than 775 runs. The best Diamondbacks teams actually allowed fewer than 700 runs. This team can’t quite expect to be that good, but improving just a bit on last year’s 788 runs allowed should be enough. The pitching will be part of that, as the Diamondbacks are likely to have a better team strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio in ’06.

    The real benefit is likely to come defensively. Chase Field’s outfield is massive, and 2007 is going to the first time in a while that the team will put an outfield out there with any chance of covering the ground. Chris Young not only upgrades center field as a 23-year-old with great speed, he allows Eric Byrnes to spend more time in left field, where he’s a superior defender. Carlos Quentin is just average defensively, but that’s enough to be an improvement on the departed Shawn Green.

    Add it up, and the Diamondbacks are replacing more than 2000 defensive innings played by old guys with 1200 more from Young and 800 more from Quentin, and using Byrnes more effectively, if perhaps a bit less. The Diamondbacks allowed 1503 hits in ’06, including 374 doubles and triples. Just three NL teams-the flyball-happy staffs of the Brewers and Phillies, and the Rockies in Coors Field-allowed more doubles and triples. That number will never be low because of the dimensions of the ballpark, but getting it down to 330 or 340-roughly league-average-will go a long way to lowering the team’s runs allowed.

  • Get innings from the rotation. The Diamondbacks got just shy of six innings a game from their starters last season, and that stat overstates the case. Brandon Webb and Miguel Batista combined for a bit more than 6 2/3 innings per start; everyone else combined for just a bit more than 5 1/3 innings per start, putting strain on a bullpen that wasn’t able to handle it. The additions of Johnson and Doug Davis, to go with last August’s pickup of Livan Hernandez, are designed to specifically impact this number. The Diamondbacks are looking to get more than 1000 innings from their starters this year, with a better distribution of innings among the back end of the rotation, and perhaps sparing Webb some of the work he did last year.
  • Be imaginative with the bullpen. Dana Eveland, Doug Slaten, and Bill Murphy are uninspiring choices for a southpaw out of the bullpen, so why force it? The 2002-2005 Angels essentially did without a lefty in the pen, with Mike Scioscia eschewing matchup advantages in favor of complete-inning and multiple-inning outings from the many effectiver right-handers at his disposal. I think any team would take their performance in that time.

    The Diamondbacks are loaded from the right side, just as those Angels were. Jose Valverde may need to be a one-inning closer. He’s an awkward, max-effort guy who has had a lot of trouble staying healthy. In front of him, you have Jorge Julio-a similar type of pitcher, less effective, more durable; Juan Cruz, who’s been terrific out of the bullpen in his career; Brandon Medders, Brandon Lyon, Tony Pena…all can work two innings at a time, and Pena has upside. Maybe it’s worth keeping one lefty around in a division with Barry Bonds, Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe, and Brian Giles, but there’s an argument to be made that the Diamondbacks can fill out the pen just fine without dipping into the southpaws.

    It is, admittedly, more difficult to do this in the NL, where the need to address the pitchers’ lineup spot complicates matters. As mentioned, however, the Snakes have a very effective bench, and two excellent double-switch tools in DaVanon and Callaspo. A no-lefty, no-cry strategy for the bullpen wouldn’t cripple Melvin in the other half of the inning.

These tasks just get the Diamondbacks to the postseason, of course, but in the three-tiered playoffs, that’s more than enough. There’s just no way to know how October will go. The path to get there, though, is clear. This Diamondbacks team is returning to relevance, and can win the World Series just by making the right choices for the roster and catching some breaks with a couple of older pitchers in the rotation. They’re closer than you think.

Will talks with Joe about Arizona’s chances in the D’backs edition of Hope and Faith Radio:

Click to download mp3
(6.2 MB)