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Full Count: Analyzing the Diamondbacks' challenging path to the postseason

Jesse Friedman Avatar
February 21, 2023

Over the last 11 seasons, the Diamondbacks have played a total of four playoff games.

All of them, of course, happened in 2017. Three were losses to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series. The other was a four-hour fracas at Chase Field against the Colorado Rockies, a game that the D-backs ultimately won, 11-8. Some say they have never heard Chase Field louder than it was on that day.

Now, it’s 2023, and it’s been six years since the Diamondbacks’ last playoff berth. If they don’t reverse that trend this year, they will find themselves in the longest playoff drought in franchise history.

While the team has made significant progress since losing 110 games in 2021, the path to the playoffs in 2023 is, frankly, murky at best. The D-backs would not only have to outperform their projections by a wide margin, but several other teams would have to do the opposite. As of the most recent update, ZiPS gives the D-backs a 26.3 percent chance to make the postseason in 2023. PECOTA is much bleaker at just 3.6 percent.

By win total, ZiPS has the D-backs winning 81 games in 2023. PECOTA expects a second straight 74-win season. Last year, it took 87 wins to nab a postseason spot in the National League, and it is reasonable to expect a similar threshold moving forward.

Granted, the youthful D-backs are a hard team to project. PECOTA, for example, pegs outfielder Corbin Carroll as a .233/.305/.406 hitter in 2023. One could argue that’s a bit light, considering that Carroll hit .260/.330/.500 in 115 big-league plate appearances last year. In similar fashion, PECOTA projects Josh Rojas for a .241/.327/.371 batting line, despite the fact that he has hit .267/.345/.401 over the past two seasons.

We could poke holes at some of ZiPS’ individual player projections too. The reality is that baseball projection systems are highly complex, and we will never fully understand why they are higher on some players than others. Suffice it to say, however, that the engines that power PECOTA and ZiPS are probably a bit less excited about the D-backs than you are, and they have good statistical reasons for believing this.

None of that precludes the possibility that the D-backs could outperform those projections dramatically, however. Particularly given how many well-regarded young players they have, the D-backs have a wider range of possible outcomes than most other teams. Moreover, projection systems invariably miss by a wide margin on a few teams every year. Last year, for example, PECOTA projected the Cleveland Guardians to win 79 games. They went on to win the AL Central with 92 wins.

A similar course of events took place when the D-backs last made the playoffs in 2017.

“We were sitting in the exact same situation with a high-70s projection and won 93 games,” D-backs general manager Mike Hazen said. “I don’t put a ceiling on, with improvement, where our roster can go. There’s a lot of talent on this roster. But the objective win totals are the objective win totals. There’s no lying in that.”

In light of those numbers, Hazen is not calling the D-backs’ offseason a success.

“We’re still 15 games below, on paper, the best teams in the division,” Hazen said. “I don’t think it’s satisfactory until that gap gets closed to a much narrower band.”

Frankly, winning the NL West looks like a near impossibility for the Diamondbacks. The Dodgers and Padres have two of the most talented rosters in baseball. On top of that, both ZiPS and PECOTA favor the Giants over the D-backs.

Fortunately, a Diamondbacks postseason berth does not necessarily require an NL West crown. With the addition of a third Wild Card spot last year, the path to the playoffs is wider than ever.

Nonetheless, if we average ZiPS and PECOTA’s standings projections for 2023, the D-backs come out tied for the ninth-best record in the National League, alongside the Miami Marlins and the Chicago Cubs.

TeamAvg Record Projection
New York Mets95-67
Los Angeles Dodgers93-69
Atlanta Braves92-70
San Diego Padres92-70
St. Louis Cardinals88-74
Philadelphia Phillies87-75
Milwaukee Brewers85-77
San Francisco Giants84-78
Arizona Diamondbacks77-85
Miami Marlins77-85
Chicago Cubs77-85
National League projected records for 2023, via PECOTA and ZiPS

Making the postseason, of course, is not just a matter of getting to, say, 87 wins. It is a matter of achieving one of two tasks: (1) winning your division or (2) being one of the three best teams that doesn’t. The D-backs would almost certainly have to do the latter.

Frankly, it’s hard to envision any scenario in which the Dodgers, Padres, Braves and Mets don’t make the playoffs. In all likelihood, two of them will win divisions, and the other two will be wild card teams. In addition to those four teams, the NL Central division winner — likely the Cardinals or Brewers — will also get a spot. That leaves only one playoff spot that is up for grabs.

To get that final wild card spot, the D-backs would have to beat out the Phillies, Cubs, Marlins, Giants and either the Cardinals or Brewers (whichever team doesn’t win the NL Central). Let’s check in on how each of these teams look heading into 2023.

Bryce Harper doubles in the World Series for the Philadelphia Phillies, a team the Diamondbacks will be looking to beat in 2023.
Phillies designated hitter Bryce Harper hits a double against the Houston Astros during the fifth inning in game five of the 2022 World Series at Citizens Bank Park. (John Geliebter/USA TODAY Sports)

Philadelphia Phillies

  • 2022 record: 87-75
  • 2023 ZiPS projection: 85-77
  • 2023 PECOTA projection: 90-72

A year after making the World Series, it is hard to imagine the Phillies missing the playoffs entirely. But remember: This team only won 87 games last year, and they were 71-72 against teams not named the Washington Nationals. Under the previous playoff format, they would not have been a playoff team at all.

Nonetheless, the Phillies did get better this offseason, most notably by signing star shortstop Trea Turner. Their biggest loss of the offseason was probably Noah Syndergaard, but they countered that nicely by signing right-hander Taijuan Walker to a four-year contract. The Phillies have also had some turnover in their bullpen, but, if anything, it looks better than it was last year.

The biggest red flag for the Phillies this year is that Bryce Harper had Tommy John surgery late last year and is not expected back until the second half of the season. If a few other things go wrong for the Phillies, it’s not all that hard to see them falling outside the playoff picture.

Former Diamondbacks infielder throws to first base at loanDepot Park.
Miami Marlins second baseman Jazz Chisholm Jr. throws to first base to retire Colorado Rockies designated hitter C.J. Cron during the fifth inning at loanDepot Park. (Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports)

Miami Marlins

  • 2022 record: 69-93
  • 2023 ZiPS projection: 75-87
  • 2023 PECOTA projection: 80-82

In all honesty, I did not initially plan to include the Miami Marlins on this list. I figured they belonged with the Nationals, Pirates, Rockies and Reds as part of my not-even-worth-mentioning group. I was surprised to find that PECOTA projects the Marlins for 80 wins — six more than it has for the D-backs.

Nonetheless, it’s a bit hard to see how a team that won 69 games last year — and plays in that division — could realistically nab a playoff spot this season. Outside of adding a pair of solid veterans in second baseman Jean Segura and right-handed pitcher Johnny Cueto, the team does not appear to be better than it was last year.

Miami’s biggest move of the offseason was trading starting pitcher Pablo Lopez to the Minnesota Twins for second baseman Luis Arraez. While Arraez is a contact machine who struck out less than any qualified hitter in baseball last year, he has never reached double-digit homers in a season. The loss of Lopez, meanwhile, is a significant blow to the rotation.

The reason they did it — and the primary reason for PECOTA’s lofty 80-win projection — is that they have a pair of high-upside starters in Jesús Luzardo and Trevor Rogers. Those two, combined with Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara, could make for a fun starting rotation in Miami. Even so, there’s a lot of risk there, and it’s difficult to envision any scenario that would land them in the playoffs.

Adam Wainwright delivers a pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals, a team the Diamondbacks will be looking to beat in 2023.
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)

St. Louis Cardinals

  • 2022 record: 93-69
  • 2023 ZiPS projection: 91-71
  • 2023 PECOTA projection: 86-76

I also did not expect to include the Cardinals on this list, but for the opposite reason as the Marlins: The Cardinals are way too good to miss the playoffs, right? PECOTA, once again, surprised me. It has the Cardinals finishing two games behind the Brewers in the central. In that world, the D-backs would be chasing St. Louis, not Milwaukee, for a wild card spot.

After winning 93 games last year, the Cardinals had a relatively quiet offseason. Their biggest loss was left-hander Jose Quintana. Their biggest gain was signing long-time Cubs catcher Willson Contreras to a five-year deal.

Alongside offensive strongholds Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals have a plethora of valuable position players who play great defense. The biggest questions facing the Cardinals all revolve around their pitching staff.

Adam Wainwright, remarkably, was still great last year, but the wheels could fall off at any moment as he enters his age-41 season. Miles Mikolas is the best starter on the staff. It sounds like they’re hoping for a bounce-back from Jack Flaherty in his walk year. Hampered by injuries, he has made only 32 starts the past three seasons combined.

Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes delivers a pitch agains the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes throws a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks at American Family Field. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports)

Milwaukee Brewers

  • 2022 record: 86-76
  • 2023 ZiPS projection: 83-79
  • 2023 PECOTA projection: 88-74

Unlike the Cardinals, the Brewers’ have one of baseball’s best starting pitcher duos in Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff. Freddy Peralta and Eric Lauer are also solid rotation options, and newly signed lefty Wade Miley rounds out the staff.

The primary question — as it always seems to be with the Brewers — is about offense. Christina Yelich hasn’t looked like an MVP-caliber player since 2019, and it’s probably unfair at this point to expect him to become that again. He’s a good player, not a great one.

The highlight of the offseason for Milwaukee was acquiring William Contreras as part of a three-team trade with the Braves and Athletics. He slashed .278/.354/.506 last year with the Braves and made his first All-Star game at the age of 24. The Brewers nabbed a few other bats in trades over the course of the offseason, most notably outfielder Jesse Winker, infielder Abraham Toro and first baseman Owen Miller. Whether that group will be enough to move the needle offensively remains to be seen.

On paper, the Cardinals are still the better team, but the Brewers’ rotation is good enough to make them formidable in the wild card race.

Infielder Nico Hoerner delivers a sac fly for the Chicago Cubs, a team the Diamondbacks will be looking to beat in 2023.
Chicago Cubs shortstop Nico Hoerner hits a sacrifice fly against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field. (David Banks/USA TODAY Sports)

Chicago Cubs

  • 2022 record: 74-88
  • 2023 ZiPS projection: 78-84
  • 2023 PECOTA projection: 76-86

All the Cubs did this offseason was sign 10 free agents to big league contracts. Their list of signees includes LHP Drew Smyly, RHP Jameson Taillon, RHP Brad Boxberger, RHP Michael Fulmer, OF Cody Bellinger, C Tucker Barnhart, 1B Eric Hosmer, 1B/OF Trey Mancini, 1B/3B Edwin Rios and — their biggest move, by far — SS Dansby Swanson.

It’s a long list, but there probably isn’t enough quality there to catapult a team that won 74 games last year into the division race. Granted, Swanson was worth 6.4 fWAR last year on his own, but that was roughly double his highest total in any season prior. Taillon is a good starter, but not a great one. Smyly was already on the team last year. Mancini, Hosmer, Rios and Barnhart are solid roster-fillers, but they aren’t likely to add more than a win or two.

The X-factor for the Cubs in 2023 is likely Bellinger. Should he regain his 2019 MVP form, the Cubs could be very good. However, much like Yelich with the Brewers, that looks like a long-shot. Over the last three seasons, Bellinger has hit just .203/.272/.376 in 1,143 plate appearances.

Brandon Crawford delivers a sacrifice fly for the San Francisco Giants, a team the Diamondbacks will be looking to beat in 2023.
San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford hits a sacrifice fly at Oracle Park. (Sergio Estrada/USA TODAY Sports)

San Francisco Giants

  • 2022 record: 81-81
  • 2023 ZiPS projection: 88-74
  • 2023 PECOTA projection: 81-81

We finish with the NL West foe San Francisco Giants, who had a quietly productive offseason despite missing out on the two big fish they were rumored to be after: Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa.

The Giants were still very active in the free-agent market this winter, signing OF Mitch Haniger, LHP Sean Manaea, RHP Ross Stripling, OF Michael Conforto, RHP Luke Jackson and LHP Taylor Rogers.

Both Haniger and Conforto have significant injury risk, and Manaea struggled mightily in the second half with the Padres last year. Nonetheless, it’s not all that hard to envision any of one of those players having a breakout year for San Francisco.

The biggest problem for the Giants — outside of playing in the same division as the Dodgers and Padres — is that they also lost their ace, Carlos Rodón. The sheer volume of quality veterans on the roster gives them a relatively high floor, but losing Rodón and not replacing him with a top-tier starter limits their ceiling.

Nonetheless, like all of the other teams on this list, the Giants are good enough to be a formidable roadblock on the precarious one-lane road that is the Diamondbacks’ postseason path.

At the same time, it is worth pointing out that the reason that path exists at all is no small part because of the existence of the third wild card spot. Without it, one could bet with quite a bit of certainty that the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Braves and Cardinals (or Brewers) would represent the entirety of the NL playoff picture in 2023.

Even so, the probability of the D-backs landing that sixth and final spot are not high. People love watching young baseball teams, though, and this one is loaded with intriguing talent. And, hey, it’s spring training. ‘Tis the season for optimism. Anyone can win the whole damn thing.

Follow Jesse Friedman on Twitter

Top photo by Rob Schumacher/The Republic

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