SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Talk to a baseball executive or check the Vegas odds and it will be clear a Magnificent Seven has formed for 2018.
The Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers are strong favorites to win their divisions for at least a third straight year, the Astros for a second straight and the Yankees and Red Sox to repeat as playoff teams. Both Vegasinsider.com and Bovada have Boston with the lowest over/under win total of those seven at 91¹/₂, and the gap is six games after that to the Cardinals and Diamondbacks at 85¹/₂.
“We like the underdog mentality,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said. “We had that last year when we were probably the 28th pick in everyone’s mind. However, we overcame, we believed and we transformed inside our own clubhouse into what we believe was a special group.”
The Diamondbacks soared from 69 wins in 2016 in the final season of the failed Tony La Russa/Dave Stewart administration before being a 93-win wild card last year. Between the free-agent exit of J.D. Martinez and what looks like an overall improved NL West, the chances of repeating 93 has dimmed for Arizona.
Yet, if I were ranking teams, the D’backs would be my No. 8.
But is eight enough?
One reason for tepid free-agent spending is that there are such prohibitive favorites in each of the six divisions. Remember that four divisions were won last year by double-digit games, the Cubs won the NL Central by six and the Red Sox won the AL East by two over the Yankees, but the Yanks were 11 games ahead of the third-place Rays (and added Giancarlo Stanton).
It is a long season and there will be surprises — like how good Arizona was last year and how bad San Francisco was. But each front office does computer modeling of the upcoming season and if the strong likelihood is that all but seven teams are essentially playing for a wild card, well, then the other clubs will be more leery of spending to get in a one-and-done game.
The D’backs, Cardinals, Brewers, Mets, Rockies, Giants, Blue Jays, Twins and Angels are probably best qualified to be that eighth team and also be in play to fill out what ultimately is a 10-club postseason. Why do I view Arizona to be the best of the group? I like the 25-man roster depth and varied skills plus the creativity of the front office.
Arizona’s biggest area of concern is the rotation. Ace Zack Greinke has been throwing just in the mid-80 mph range and expressed concern to reporters about it after his last start. But D’backs GM Mike Hazen said, “We had the exact same conversation last spring, and he was a top-10 pitcher during the season. He doesn’t rely on velocity to get outs.”
Greinke, Patrick Corbin, Zack Godley, Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker helped the Diamondbacks boast the first team to have five pitchers make at least 25 starts each with ERAs 18 percent better than MLB average, factoring in league and park. But what if the rotation is not as durable? Hazen described the need to potentially have pitchers such as Taylor Clarke, Matt Koch and Braden Shipley provide “a bridge to Shelby.”
The trade for Shelby Miller that notably cost Arizona Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson was the most panned of the La Russa/Stewart term. Miller was terrible in 2016 and needed Tommy John surgery last year. Still, in Lovullo’s words he would be “like a free agent,” with the team targeting a mid-June return for a pitcher that did have a 3.02 ERA in 205 ¹/₃ innings in 2015.
For now, Hazen indicated the D’backs are staying open-minded about the still swollen free-agent market, and if someone would be willing to take a minor-league deal with an out who could provide depth. Starters such as Brett Anderson, Scott Feldman and Jeremy Hellickson are still free and might have to go this route.
As for the lineup, Martinez transformed it with his July arrival last year, joining face of the franchise Paul Goldschmidt to form a fierce middle-of-the-order duo. The addition of Steven Souza (via the three-team trade that netted the Yankees Brandon Drury) gives Arizona a 30-homer bat and an all-around strong player to also help enhance baserunning and what should be a very good defense.
Could Arizona use another good arm in the pen? Sure. Could the D’backs benefit from center fielder A.J. Pollock — in his walk year — returning to 2015 form (65 extra base hits/39 steals)? Yep. Do they need good health from their deep 25-man roster because their farm system at the upper levels is poor? You bet.
This is why they are not in the top seven. They have enough flaws to stay out of the elite group. But their 93 wins last year are more indicative of who they are than those 69 of 2016. They can be a dangerous eighth.