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Diamondbacks roster projection 2.0: Early Cactus League edition

Jesse Friedman Avatar
March 10, 2023

With Cactus League play nearing its midway point and the season opener now just three weeks away, the Diamondbacks’ Opening Day roster is coming into focus.

Although the team still has 62 players in major-league camp, nailing down that list of 26 players is not as difficult as it might seem. It appears that most of it was set in stone before spring training began.

The relative lack of open competitions in spring camp is a good sign for the D-backs. More players are established at their positions, and players who might have been considered for roles in recent years have been forced to depart for other organizations to find those opportunities. The bar has been raised.

While there aren’t many roster spots up for grabs, several intriguing spring competitions are still in progress. Without further ado, here is my best guess at how it will shake out.

Diamondbacks starting pitcher Brandon Pfaadt pitches against the Chicago Cubs at Salt River Fields on Feb. 27, 2023.
Diamondbacks starting pitcher Brandon Pfaadt pitches against the Chicago Cubs at Salt River Fields on Feb. 27, 2023. (Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic)

Starting pitchers (5)

Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Zach Davies, Madison Bumgarner, Drey Jameson

Other candidates: Ryne Nelson, Tommy Henry, Brandon Pfaadt

One could argue that top pitching prospect Brandon Pfaadt is the rightful frontrunner for the Diamondbacks’ fifth rotation spot. He has not allowed a run in five Cactus League innings, while the other three candidates all have ERAs north of 4.00. Nonetheless, when D-backs manager Torey Lovullo was asked about whether Pfaadt has put himself in the center of the competition for the final rotation spot, Lovullo was noncommittal.

“I think anything’s possible in this game, and I want everybody in that locker room to come to the ballpark and, especially on days that they’re working, to try to impress to do something spectacular,” Lovullo said. “I don’t where it lands with all of our young starting pitchers. I just know that we have a lot of good ones.”

Pfaadt is the only member of the quartet who has yet to appear in the majors. It appears that the D-backs might prefer to hold off on his big-league debut until later in the season.

Out of the other three candidates, Jameson has the best Cactus League numbers. The hard-throwing righty has consistently showcased the plus stuff that spurred him to a 1.48 ERA in four starts last year. Considering how good he’s looked so far and how good he was last year, I’m holding fast to my previous projection that Jameson will land the fifth rotation spot.

Diamondbacks starting pitcher Tommy Henry pitches against the Texas Rangers at Salt River Fields on March 8, 2023.
Diamondbacks starting pitcher Tommy Henry pitches against the Texas Rangers at Salt River Fields on March 8, 2023. (Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic)

Relievers (8)

Mark Melancon, Miguel Castro, Scott McGough, Joe Mantiply, Kevin Ginkel, Andrew Chafin, Corbin Martin, Tommy Henry

Other candidates: Cole Sulser, Jeurys Familia, Carlos Vargas, Justin Martinez

In my first stab at projecting the D-backs’ bullpen in early January, I projected that the team would add one more free-agent reliever before the end of the offseason. It took a while, but the D-backs signed free-agent left-hander Andrew Chafin in mid-February. While fellow lefty Kyle Nelson could still crack the roster, the addition of Chafin might relegate Nelson to Triple-A Reno to open the year.

In addition to Chafin, I’ve added two other pitchers to the bullpen that weren’t on my list previously: Corbin Martin and the aforementioned Henry. The D-backs will likely need someone who can give them some length early in the year, and Henry slots in nicely as a lefty who gives opposing lineups a different look. He pitched well his last time out, logging four scoreless innings on Wednesday against the Texas Rangers.

Martin, meanwhile, is one of several hard throwing D-backs relievers who have pitched well this spring. Once viewed as the centerpiece of the 2019 trade that sent Zack Greinke to the Houston Astros, Martin has struggled to make the leap from Triple-A Reno to the big leagues. Persistent injuries haven’t helped. The D-backs took a different approach this year by converting Martin to a reliever. Cactus League numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, but the early results are promising.

In 4.1 innings, Martin has allowed one run with one walk compared to six strikeouts. The average velocity on his four-seam fastball has crept up from 94 MPH to around 96 MPH, and he appears to have mostly left his slider and changeup behind in favor of his curveball. Martin does have one minor-league option remaining, but he is also 27 years old. The D-backs would do well to bring him up and see what they have.

They do have other options, though. Flamethrowers Justin Martinez and Carlos Vargas have consistently topped 100 MPH in the Cactus League and have each only allowed one run in four appearances. Veteran right-handers Jeurys Familia and Cole Sulser have also looked good. Martin is my pick for the moment, but a case could be made for any of the five.

Before moving on, it should be noted that Mark Melancon’s role appears to be secure, despite his struggles last year and a pair of poor showings to start spring training. In two Cactus League innings, Melancon has allowed five runs on nine hits.

“We’re not going to evaluate him like he’s a rookie trying to make the team,” Lovullo said. “I know that everybody wants to be critical of somebody, whether it’s Mark or anybody, that gets hit around. I’m not overly concerned about it right now, especially something like that. I think he’s gonna follow this process, follow his plan and he’ll get to where he needs to get to.”

Diamondbacks catcher Gabriel Moreno hits a single against the Seattle Mariners during a spring training game at Salt River Fields.
Diamondbacks catcher Gabriel Moreno hits a single against the Seattle Mariners during a spring training game at Salt River Fields. (Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic)

Catchers (2)

Carson Kelly, Gabriel Moreno

Other candidates: Jose Herrera, Alí Sanchez

Barring injury, the Diamondbacks will almost certainly open the season with Carson Kelly and Gabriel Moreno as their catchers. Lovullo said in a recent press conference that Kelly will get the majority of the reps.

Moreno, the centerpiece of the return in the Daulton Varsho trade, has looked good on both sides of the ball so far in spring training. He is the only D-backs hitter with two homers in the Cactus League.

Infielders (6)

Christian Walker, Ketel Marte, Nick Ahmed, Josh Rojas, Evan Longoria, Geraldo Perdomo

Other candidates: Emmanuel Rivera, Buddy Kennedy, Diego Castillo, Jake Hager

The first five names here can safely be viewed as locks to make the roster. The only possible question here is about that sixth spot. And, frankly, that not be much of a question at all. It’s hard to envision any scenario in which Geraldo Perdomo doesn’t make the team.

Granted, Perdomo did not hit well last year, but his defense is the key. The D-backs need someone to back up Nick Ahmed at shortstop, and the team does not appear to be comfortable using either Josh Rojas or Ketel Marte in that role. Blaze Alexander and Diego Castillo have experience at shortstop, but the former was just sent down to Triple-A Reno and the latter has not hit well so far this spring.

While we’re here, it’s worth pointing out that both Emmanuel Rivera and Buddy Kennedy have looked good offensively early in spring. Rivera is 4-for-16 with seven RBI, including a walk-off, three-run homer. Kennedy is 8-for-16 with two doubles, a triple, three walks and only one strikeout. Nonetheless, neither of them play shortstop, and that likely means both are headed to Reno to open the year.

Diamondbacks right fielder Pavin Smith runs the bases after hitting a two-run home run against the San Diego Padres at Peoria Sports Complex.
Diamondbacks right fielder Pavin Smith runs the bases after hitting a two-run home run against the San Diego Padres at Peoria Sports Complex. (Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports)

Outfielders (5)

Corbin Carroll, Jake McCarthy, Alek Thomas, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Pavin Smith

Other candidates: Kyle Lewis, Dominic Fletcher, Dominic Canzone

In the absence of Varsho, the first four names on this list are very likely to make the roster. There could be some doubt over Alek Thomas, who spent most of the 2022 season on the big-league roster but was sent down at the end of the year. Nonetheless, Thomas has had a solid spring offensively, and he appears to be in good position to get the majority of the starts in center field.

The fifth outfield spot is a bit more interesting. Pavin Smith closed off his batting stance slightly over the offseason, and the early returns in the Cactus League have been positive. He has gone 6-for-14 at the dish with a homer. Smith is the clearest option to back up Christian Walker at first base, with additional reps possibly coming in the outfield outfield and at DH.

Smith’s primary competitor is outfielder Kyle Lewis, whom the Diamondbacks acquired in a trade with the Seattle Mariners back in November. Lewis has only had six at-bats this spring, but his lone hit was a home run. Compared to Smith, Lewis has the advantage of being right-handed — the D-backs are still a bit lefty-heavy — but he also doesn’t play first base. On top of that, the fact that Lewis has had three major knee surgeries in recent years means he is probably best served as a DH rather than as a corner outfielder.

Should the D-backs choose Lewis over Smith, they could conceivably use Lourdes Gurriel Jr. as Walker’s backup at first base. Gurriel played eight games at first last year with the Toronto Blue Jays. Nonetheless, given Smith’s defensive versatility, his status as a former first-round pick and the fact that his batting stance adjustments seem to be yielding positive results, it is hard to imagine the D-backs sending him down to open the year.

Follow Jesse Friedman on Twitter

Top photo: Rob Schumacher/The Republic

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