June 9, 2023

Can the Diamondbacks make it a 3-team race?

When baseball writers get done complaining about how late their games are on, most of baseball’s attention this season will be on the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Padres kneecapping the Dodgers in last year’s divisional round gave this tango some stakes instead of the Padres just talking loud. The perception that this Dodgers team might be the weakest of recent vintage (admitting this “vintage” is one of the best stretches of all-time) while the Padres have added Xander Bogaerts and get a full season of Juan Soto only adds to the feeling that this exchange has become more eyeball-to-eyeball.

But what if there’s a third team crashing the party? It’s a stretch, but it’s not impossible that the Arizona Diamondbacks will enter the chat this season, at least enough to preview a three-way ruckus come 2024.

Does Arizona have a possible NL Rookie of the Year in Corbin Carroll?

Most of the buzz around the D-Backs this season orbits around Corbin Carroll, whom they’ve already handed $111 million for the next eight years after just 115 MLB at-bats. He’s the major, major chalk for Rookie of The Year, with Jordan Walker somewhere in the background. You can certainly look at Carroll’s minor league numbers, where he clowned both AA and AAA last year. Or maybe his cameo in Phoenix last season — .260/.330/.500 in just over a month of playing time. But sometimes, you just look at a guy and he just…fits right in there. Maybe it’s his poetry swing that generates such easy power, the ball jumping off of it out of appreciation for just being connected to something so sweet. Or the way he glides across left field without ever looking like he’s touching the ground. Or just watching his command of the strike zone where every AB feels like he knows something the pitcher doesn’t. Most every player is reacting to the pitcher. The special few just seem like they’re in control, and Carroll is one of those.

Corbin Carroll leaps at the wall to make a catch on a fly ball hit by Chicago Cubs’ Cody Bellinger

Corbin Carroll leaps at the wall to make a catch on a fly ball hit by Chicago Cubs’ Cody Bellinger
Photo: Ross D. Franklin (AP)

What’s so exciting about Carroll’s potential is that while he showed his power last year in his brief time in the Majors, his control of the strike zone hadn’t quite arrived yet, at least not according to the numbers. Maybe it was an eagerness to impress, but Carroll carried a 14-15 percent walk-rate in the minors last year, which was cut in half when he got promoted. He’ll assuredly add on-base skills this season to his power, which should boost him to a .900 or even 1.000 OPS.

Youth movement

But Carroll isn’t the only new hotness on the block in Arizona. The Opening Day lineup could feature three other kids 25 or under. Jake McCarthy got his first run in The Show last year, and while there were some bumpy moments in right field defensively, he put up a more than respectable 116 wRC+ at the plate. Alek Thomas, who will start in center, had a rough go offensively in his first tour last year (71 wRC+), but has minor league numbers that suggest there will be a turnaround, as well as the fact that he wasn’t buried in strikeouts. He will have to get the ball in the air more than a few times a week, however.

Those three outfielders made Daulton Varsho expendable, so the D-Backs expended him to Toronto for catcher Gabriel Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. The latter won’t have to threaten anyone with putting on a glove, but can still hit and may get a boost from getting half the game off most nights. Moreno looks to be a pretty nifty all-around catcher, and is another young Arizona hitter who doesn’t strike out much, though he does it through bat-to-ball skills rather than walking. The D-Backs very well could have one of the more annoying lineups to navigate in a year or two, or in a week or two, depending on how things go.

The rotation isn’t quite as spritely as the lineup could be, as it will sport mush-eaters Merrill Kelly and Madison Bumgarner in the middle, with Zac Gallen at the top. Bumgarner is toast, and Kelly is due some regression as he doesn’t strike a lot of hitters out. Though with the outfield as talented as it is defensively, he may continue to ride some fiendish BABIP treachery to good numbers.

That doesn’t mean the D-Backs don’t have young pitching in the holster to match what it’s in the lineup someday soon. Ryne Nelson is already in the rotation, and Drey Jameson will break with the team in the pen. But he could be moved to the rotation as soon as everyone realizes Zach Davies is just a gas can and a blowtorch wrapped in a baseball uniform, and he can only throw the gas can 82 MPH. Brandon Pfaadt will be lurking in AAA as well should one of the other kids falter or Bumgarner goes drank-from-the-wrong-chalice. All of these guys had some rough numbers in AAA last year, but some of that is due to the D-Backs AAA team being based in Reno in the Pacific League, which is a fireworks factory. A lot more has to go right with these kids in the rotation than in the lineup, but it’s also hardly fantasy.

Contributing to the optimism is that Christian Walker could be in for a bounce the right way, and that’s after he had a 122 wRC+ last season. His fiendish BABIP treachery went against him last season (.248), when he cut his strikeouts down, upped his walks, and boosted his launch angle. Given some luck, he could put up some monster numbers.

Can they run with the big dogs in California? Unlikely. The bullpen is filled with guys who walk too many hitters and don’t really have a guy who just eats them whole through strikeouts, at least not yet. Teams always find that guy out of nowhere, which is what the D-Backs are banking on. As promising as the lineup could be, there is no surefire anchor. One could appear, of course, but that’s out of projection and hope rather than fact right now. The rotation is creaky.

The other problem for Arizona is that it already feels like the wildcard spots are spoken for. Whoever loses the Padres-Dodgers battle will claim one. The NL East probably takes the other two. But the Diamondbacks could be on the same plane with the Brewers, ready to pounce should disaster strike one of the three favorites.

It’s still a California song in the NL West for this season, but the Diamondbacks will show everyone why that will expand in the near future.