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5 questions facing the Diamondbacks in the second half

Jesse Friedman Avatar
July 14, 2023

An All-Star break filled with memorable Diamondbacks moments has come and gone, and the second half of the season has arrived.

The Diamondbacks enter with a 52-39 record, tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in the NL West.

Given the expectations for the team entering the season, the 2023 Diamondbacks have already been a raging success.

For as great as that first half was, though, it also left fans with a sour taste. The D-backs lost seven of their final 11 games entering the break. In two of those games, they had their opponent down to the final out, only to see them come back and win.

According to Fangraphs, the team’s playoff chances have fallen to 63.7 percent, down from a peak of 80.4 percent on June 12.

Diamondbacks playoff odds by day, 2023

Baseball Prospectus now pegs the D-backs as unlikely to make the playoffs, with a probability of 40.7 percent.

So, what has gone wrong? A little bit of everything.

Merrill Kelly had a blood clot and has been out since June 27. Ketel Marte missed a few days with a lower back issue and is slugging only .269 in July. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has been inconsistent since returning from a groin injury in early June.

The bullpen has been alright overall, but an all-out disaster in the ninth inning. Corbin Carroll, the team’s best player, has regressed over the past few weeks.

Ultimately, the Diamondbacks are still well-positioned to start the second half, but the team has undoubtedly fallen back to earth. Will the coming months continue troubling recent trends, or will the D-backs get back to the team of destiny they appeared to be several weeks ago?

The answers to these questions will go a long way toward answering that one.

1. What will the Diamondbacks accomplish at the trade deadline?

What the Diamondbacks do in the next two weeks — both on the field and in the front office — could be the most important factor in how far they go in 2023.

On the field, the team faces a brutal schedule to open the second half. From July 14-23, the Diamondbacks play a nine-game road trip against the 50-41 Blue Jays, the 60-29 Atlanta Braves and the 50-41 Cincinnati Reds.

With strong recent performances from the Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers, the NL playoff race has tightened. There are now only three games of separation between the D-backs and the fourth-best team in the wild card race.

All that is to say: These next 10 days or so leading into the trade deadline are particularly important. With a strong showing, they could force the collective hand of the front office to push in the chips on 2023. If they struggle, front office members could choose a more conservative route.

As of now, the D-backs figure to be one of the more aggressive teams in the league at the trade deadline.

“Nothing’s really changed on the pitching front,” Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen told Bickley & Marotta on Monday. “I still think we need to add to our pitching. I still think backend relief and adding a starter are probably two things that we are at least going to set out on the agenda.”

Hazen also said that the bottom of the lineup needs to pick things up down the stretch and that he is willing to add bats externally if needed.

The degree to which the Diamondbacks improve at the deadline could have a huge impact on their outlook the rest of the way.

2. Will the Diamondbacks stay healthy?

Recent injuries to Kelly and Drey Jameson notwithstanding, the Diamondbacks have been relatively healthy in 2023.

According to Baseball Prospectus, they have lost only 0.9 projected WARP to injury this season. (WARP is Baseball Prospectus’ wins-above-replacement metric.) That is the smallest WARP total lost to injury in all of baseball.

The Diamondbacks have the smallest amount of WARP missed to injury in 2023, according to Baseball Prospectus.
WARP missed due to injury by team in 2023, via Baseball Prospectus

The Diamondbacks have had injuries this year, to be sure, but they have been well-positioned to deal with them.

Carson Kelly, for example, missed the first two months of the year with a forearm fracture, but Gabriel Moreno played well as the primary catcher and Jose Herrera filled in admirably as the primary backup.

Zach Davies missed seven weeks with an oblique strain, but, frankly, he has not pitched much better than those who replaced him.

To some extent, the Diamondbacks would be expected to suffer fewer injuries than other teams. According to Baseball Reference, they have employed the sixth-youngest position player group in the majors this year and the 14th-youngest pitching staff.

Even so, injuries are difficult to predict, and the D-backs have been dealt a good hand in that regard this season.

3. Will Corbin Carroll keep it up?

The first half of Corbin Carroll’s rookie season was nothing short of remarkable. He hit .289/.366/.549 with 18 homers, 48 RBI and 26 stolen bases. According to ESPN Stats and Info, he became the first rookie in MLB history to eclipse 15 homers and 25 stolen bases by the All-Star break.

For as great as Carroll has been, however, he was not the same over his final 20 games or so in the first half. From June 14 onward, the D-backs’ star hit a modest .222/.267/.407.

While three lackluster weeks are hardly cause for concern, Carroll’s underlying metrics have suggested some degree of over-performance all year. He is undoubtedly a fantastic player, but it is probably unrealistic to expect him to maintain his first-half production the rest of the way.

It is also worth noting that Carroll has never played more than 125 games in a season in his professional career. There is some degree of risk that his body will wear down as the season continues.

4. What will Zach Davies, Tommy Henry and Ryne Nelson contribute the rest of the season?

No matter what the Diamondbacks do at the trade deadline, they are all but certain to rely on at least two of Davies, Tommy Henry and Ryne Nelson in the second half.

Henry has been the steadiest of the three. In 14 games (13 starts), the 25-year-old lefty has gone 5-1 with a 3.75 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and .246 batting average against.

Henry’s underlying metrics paint a worrisome picture, however. Out of 98 starting pitchers with 70 or more innings pitched in 2023, Henry’s 16.3 percent strikeout rate is the 11th-lowest mark in baseball. On top of that, his 9.3 percent walk rate is higher than the league average, as is his home run rate of 1.5 per nine innings.

Frankly, it is remarkable that Henry has managed a sub-4.00 ERA. Holding opposing hitters to a .202/.269/.312 slash line with runners on base has been a big factor. Ten of the 13 homers he has allowed this year have been solo shots.

Ryne Nelson’s peripherals are comparable. His 16 percent strikeout rate is slightly lower than Henry’s, but his 7.1 percent walk rate is better than the league average and he has allowed 1.3 homers per nine to Henry’s 1.5.

Still, Nelson’s 4.66 FIP and 5.04 xFIP are not particularly good. If he is at all underperforming his true talent level with his 5.19 ERA, it does not appear to be by much.

As recently as two weeks ago, however, Nelson appeared to be taking a step forward. On June 25 and July 1, he hurled a combined 14 1/3 innings of two-run ball. Nelson quickly ran into another wall, however, allowing seven runs on nine hits to the New York Mets in his final start before the break. It’s been that kind of year for the D-backs’ righty.

Ironically, Davies has the best peripherals of this group, but his on-field results have been the worst. In 11 starts, he has a 6.37 ERA, 1.53 WHIP and .271 batting average against. Last year, Davies was one of the team’s better starters with a 4.09 ERA in 27 starts.

5. Can Jake McCarthy, Alek Thomas and Gabriel Moreno reach new heights in the second half?

The Diamondbacks offense slowed down significantly heading into the All-Star break, tallying only 2.9 runs per game in the team’s final 11 games.

If the Diamondbacks are unable to add a bat at the trade deadline — and even if they are — three hitters, in particular, will be key down the stretch: Jake McCarthy, Alek Thomas and Gabriel Moreno. All are young, and all have looked good at the plate at one time or another this year.

Since returning from a stint in the minors on June 19, Thomas has hit .328/.339/.569 with three homers in 59 plate appearances. McCarthy also spent time in Reno this year and is hitting a much-improved .300/.366/.417 since being called up.

Moreno has not spent any time in the minors in 2023, but he has also had an up-and-down season offensively. From the start of the season through May 16, the 23-year-old hit .321/.345/.402 in 34 games. Since then, he has hit only .204/.277/.276.

The fact that Moreno plays good defense at a premium position means that he does not need to hit much to be valuable. Nonetheless, scouts have graded his hit tool as high as 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Clearly, the 23-year-old has plenty of room to improve offensively.

Ultimately, if any of McCarthy, Thomas or Moreno take that next step forward in the second half, it could go a long way toward helping the D-backs get where they want to go in 2023.

Follow Jesse Friedman on Twitter

Top photo: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

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