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LOS ANGELES — Clap your hands. Stomp your feet. Submit a letter to your boss explaining why you can’t work the night shift. Opening Day for the Arizona Diamondbacks is here.
As the season gets under way, BetMGM has the over-under on the Diamondbacks’ win total at 75.5 wins. It appears that most D-backs fans will be taking the over, and understandably so.
After winning 74 games last year, the Diamondbacks have what looks like a better bullpen, a better offense and, potentially, a better starting rotation. Most importantly, they have more high-quality depth waiting in the wings for when injuries arise.
Diamondbacks fans aren’t the only ones who are optimistic about the 2023 season. For the first time in a while, they are getting some national attention.
While few national pundits have the chutzpah to pick the Diamondbacks to make the playoffs, they all seem agree on one thing: The Diamondbacks will be a lot of fun to watch in 2023.
The answers to these five questions will be key in determining how far they can go.
1. Is Corbin Carroll already a star?
After reaching the majors last August at the age of 22, outfielder Corbin Carroll hit .260/.330/.500 and was worth 1.4 fWAR in 115 plate appearances. Over a full season, that performance would warrant down-ballot MVP votes. He was that good.
But even if Carroll is slated to be an MVP-caliber player eventually, it wouldn’t be fair to expect that from him already. As Carroll accumulates more big-league at-bats, opposing pitchers will find holes in his game. Carroll will have to adjust, and for a lot of young players — even those that become stars — those adjustments take time.
Carroll also benefitted from some good batted ball luck last year. Frankly, keeping up a 133 OPS+ with a higher-than-average strikeout rate, a below-average walk rate and a below-average hard-hit rate is not sustainable. He will have to improve his quality of contact and plate discipline to continue to be the player he was last year.
Nonetheless, all Carroll has done since he was drafted is get better, and he has done so at a significantly faster rate than most high school prospects. It took all of 657 minor league plate appearances — essentially the equivalent of one big-league season — for him to work his way from high school to the majors. There is a reason that Carroll is widely expected to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2023.
Temper your expectations, yes. But also, don’t be surprised if Carroll surpasses them. If he does, the Diamondbacks could make an unforeseen leap in the standings.
2. Will Jake McCarthy and Alek Thomas take the next step?
When the Diamondbacks traded Daulton Varsho, one could argue that the decision spoke just as loudly about their belief in Alek Thomas and Jake McCarthy as it did about their belief in Gabriel Moreno. The move cleared the way for Thomas and McCarthy to be long-term, everyday players.
On one hand, Thomas and McCarthy are in very different situations. McCarthy was one of the best outfielders in the National League in the second half last year, hitting .302/.361/.434 with 22 stolen bases from July 11 through the end of the season. Thomas struggled offensively down the stretch and was sent down to Triple-A Reno.
On the other, their outlook is fairly similar. Thomas’ center-field defense gives him a high floor, and McCarthy’s spectacular base-running and solid defense does the same for him. Their ceilings are relatively high, too. Thomas has been a highly-touted prospect since the day he was drafted. McCarthy showed last year that he could be a lot better than the fourth-outfielder type most evaluators have expected.
Nonetheless, they both have a lot to prove. Thomas needs to show that he can get the ball in the air more, make better swing decisions and hang in there against lefties. McCarthy needs to show that he can impact the ball consistently, and that his offense isn’t all about his speed.
If both Thomas and McCarthy take the next step in 2023, they, combined with Carroll, could form one of the best outfield trios in baseball.
3. Is this bullpen really better?
Based on win probability added, no bullpen hurt its team’s chances of winning in 2022 more than the Diamondbacks’ did.
While the team didn’t make any splashy relief pitcher acquisitions over the offseason, the bullpen does have a new look. Five of its eight Opening Day members — Cole Sulser, Carlos Vargas, Scott McGough, Miguel Castro and Andrew Chafin — were not in the organization a year ago.
The relievers who are returning from 2022 were not at all part of the problem. Kevin Ginkel had a 3.38 ERA and strong peripherals in 29 innings. Left-hander Kyle Nelson had a 2.19 ERA. Joe Mantiply was an All-Star, and is expected to return from early-season shoulder fatigue before long. Drey Jameson will open the year as the long man, a role that he seems to be embracing despite his lack of experience as a reliever.
The revamped Diamondbacks’ bullpen still doesn’t look like a particularly good one, but it’s not hard to see it being around league average if a few things go right. That, in itself, would be a huge development.
The biggest unknown is who will close. Manager Torey Lovullo has said repeatedly that the team will go closer by committee, but he has not specified which relievers are part of that group. Based on stuff and past experience, Castro, Ginkel and McGough are the clearest candidates.
4. Which version of Ketel Marte will show up in 2023?
Ketel Marte was one of the best hitters in the National League in 2021, slashing .318/.377/.532 in 90 games. That wasn’t just a one-year outlier, either. From 2019 to 2021, he hit .318/.374/.543 with 48 homers in just under 1,200 plate appearances.
In 2022, Marte wasn’t the same. He hit .240/.321/.407. His batting average, on-base percentage and OPS were all career worsts since joining the D-backs in 2017. He also had an 18.1 percent strikeout rate, the highest of his career. With Marte signing a five-year, $76 million extension last year, his sudden regression is especially troublesome for the D-backs.
The good news is that Marte is only 29 years old, and he still hit the ball pretty hard in 2022. Both his 90.1 MPH average exit velocity and 41.9 percent hard-hit rate were well above league average, and almost exactly on par with his 2019 season. If Marte can be a bit more selective at the plate, it still seems possible that he could return to the player he was from 2019-21.
That version of Marte was one of the best in the baseball, and would be an enormous boost to the team in 2023.
5. How much will Brandon Pfaadt, Ryne Nelson, Drey Jameson and Tommy Henry contribute?
The Diamondbacks have the kind of problem that major-league always want to have: too many young starting pitchers.
Jameson and Ryne Nelson will open the year in the big leagues, Jameson as the long man and Nelson as the fifth starter. Brandon Pfaadt and Tommy Henry will start for Triple-A Reno, but it is all but certain that they will contribute in the majors at some point this year.
Young, inexperienced pitchers always have a wide range of outcomes. Pfaadt, Jameson and Nelson are all viewed by some evaluators as potential mid-rotation starters; some think Pfaadt could be even better than that. Could that group combine for a 3.50 ERA over 300 innings this year? Probably. Could that trio also have an ERA of 5.00 and spend most of the year in Reno? Also possible.
In much the same way, the Diamondbacks’ 2023 season as a whole is filled with unknowns. They could win 70 games, and they could win 90 games. But for the first time in a while, they have a clear direction, a core of young players that fans can rally around and a sense of hope that a six-year playoff drought will end some time soon.
Top photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports
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