SCOTTSDALE — It was easy to define the Arizona Diamondbacks’ futility last season.Their 5.09 team ERA was a major league high. The starters’ ERA was even higher, at 5.39.
While pitchers who made 160 of those 162 starts are in camp this spring, new general manager Mike Hazen said he believes not only in the strength of the rotation but in the bounce-back capacity of some who struggled a year ago.
“This game is built in a lot of ways on pitching, and I like the starting pitching that we have, I do. Not only in its talent but in its depth,” said Hazen, who was hired away from Boston to replace Dave Stewart last October.
“As you go through a major league season, some of the really good teams we had on paper in the past could be undone with a lack of starting pitching. We may still deal with some of those issues, as every season is different, but I feel good coming into the season with the breadth of the starting pitching that we have and the talent that is here.”
The entire staff also should benefit from an improved outfield defense, with center fielder A.J. Pollock and right fielder David Peralta returning from injury. The D-backs will align the corners as they did at the start of 2016, with Yasmany Tomas in left field and Peralta in right.
The D-backs return five players who made at least 20 starts a year ago, and newcomer Taijuan Walker joins that group from which the rotation will be picked.
The D-backs plan to “slow-play” No. 1 Zack Greinke with an eye toward health in a spring training that is a week longer this year because of the World Baseball Classic. Greinke had minor aches each of his last three springs with the Dodgers — elbow inflammation in 2013, a right calf strain in 2014 and elbow soreness in 2015 — and he also missed time in the regular season with an oblique strain and shoulder tenderness last year. He will not begin throwing his bullpens until later this week.A look at the group:
“Zack is ready to go,” new manager Torey Lovullo said. “He has a program that he’s been following. He knows himself better than any pitcher I’ve had a chance to talk to. He just knows that he wants to throw it a little bit later in the week.”
No one expected Greinke to duplicate the 19-3, 1.66 ERA season he had with the Dodgers in 2015, but his 2016 numbers — 13-7, 4.37 — were underwhelming. His return is the first step toward rotation solidity.
“We don’t need to get ready for Day 1 of spring training,” Lovullo said. “We need to get ready for Day 1 of this championship season.”
Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, Archie Bradley, Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin are the other top candidates, although right-handers Braden Shipley and Matt Koch add depth. Rubby De La Rosa returned to camp on a minor league contract. The D-backs beat both Miller and Walker in arbitration this spring. Walker will make $2.25 million in 2017 after filing for $2.6 million in a ruling made Tuesday.
Ray had his best season in his first full year in 2016, averaging 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings while finishing 8-15 with a 4.90 ERA. His improvement was offset by downturns from Miller and Corbin, who statistically had their worst years. Walker and Bradley continue to work their way forward.
The D-backs need some combination of that group to step up to improve on the 69-93 season that cost Stewart and manager Chip Hale their jobs.
Walker, 24, was the D-backs’ principle offseason acquisition, acquired from Seattle in the Jean Segura deal, and the D-backs believe he is ready to take the final step in becoming a full-time rotation member. Walker has made 29 and 25 starts the last two seasons, going a combined 19-19 with a 4.56 ERA in a park that skewed pitcher-friendly the last three seasons. Like Bradley, the seventh player taken in the 2011 draft, Walker has been the subject of extreme expectations since being a sandwich pick after the first round of the 2010 draft.
“He’s been one of the top young starting pitchers for awhile,” Hazen said of Walker. “He came onto the scene very quickly at a very early age … we talk about that word expectations in a lot of cases. I don’t know what the expectation should have been. I’ve said this many times with a lot of young players, those expectations are very, very unfair.
“Every young major leaguer is going to transition to the major leagues in his own way. He’s been very successful in that. We are hoping to continue that climb with him. That’s why we acquired him. We see him being a big piece to this ball club moving forward.”
Bradley is just as positive as Hazen entering the season after going 8-9 with a 5.02 ERA in 26 starts in 2016. Bradley spent the last four months of the season in the rotation, and he struck out 11 in seven innings in a 9-5 victory over San Diego on Oct. 1, his final appearance, and it charged him up.
“Every guy should say this in this locker room, but I feel like I can win a Cy Young this year,” Bradley said. “I’m not saying I’m going to. That’s not a prediction, but that’s how you have to feel about yourself. That’s what I want to do this year. When I take the ball every fifth day, I want my teammates to know that that day, we are going to have a chance to win a ball game.
“It’s the point now where I want to solidify myself. I want to be a guy that people talk about. I want to be an All-Star. I want to be a Cy Young winner, and that’s the type of pitcher I think I can be.”
By Jack Magruder