Cleat Geeks

Snakes Alive; The 5 Diamondbacks With the Most to Prove in 2016

The Diamondbacks were one of the most aggressive teams in baseball this off-season. They made several headline free agent signings and trades to revamp the pitching staff and plug holes in the lineup, and they should be firmly in contention in both the NL West and the entire National League in 2016. The team has a pretty strong idea of what they are going to get out of a majority of players and positions, but there are still a handful of roster pieces that have plenty to prove in the new season. Here is a breakdown of those five players, ranked from who has the least to prove to the most to prove.

5. Yasmany Tomas

yasmany-tomas-mlb-arizona-state-arizona-diamondbacks-850x560Having played professional baseball since he was 17, the Cuban outfielder broke out with a .301 batting average and 16 home runs in 69 games as a 20-year-old in 2011 and then went 6 for 16 with two homers, a double, and a walk for Cuba’s national team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. These performances led to him defecting to the United States in the middle of 2014, where he was expected to garner a lucrative contract as one of the league’s best international free agents. His defense and the position he would play were questioned, but his age and incredible power and strength were not. Teams that were desperate for power and play in difficult hitter’s parks, namely the Mariners, the Giants, the Royals, and the Cardinals, coveted Tomas, and the contract that he was going to receive was expected to surpass the $68 million and $72.5 million that fellow Cuban sluggers Jose Abreu and Rusney Castillo had inked in prior years. On November 26, 2014, the Diamondbacks swooped in and somewhat surprisingly gave Tomas one of the largest contracts in franchise history at six years and $68.5 million, and he looked every bit worth that money for at least one half of the 2015 season. Prior to the All-Star break, he displayed an ability to hit to all fields with a .313 batting average, a .351 on-base percentage, 15 doubles, five homers, and 35 runs batted in, but his numbers and his playing time dropped off of a cliff in the second half. He only hit .208, walked just four times, struck out 55 times, and drove in just 13 runs, and his performance in September was especially brutal (seven hits in 41 at-bats, just two extra-base hits). His decline can be attributed to several factors, including that he hadn’t played baseball in 2014, the MLB season is much longer than the Cuban season, he didn’t have a true position in the Diamondbacks outfield to begin with because the team was loaded there, and he had been forced to play 31 games at third base – where he’s at his worst defensively – after the incumbent Jake Lamb went down with a stress fracture in his foot. Tomas doesn’t turn 26 years old until mid-November, shed over 20 pounds in the offseason, and is now the clear-cut starter in right field, but plenty of fans already consider him a bust and would much prefer to see Ender Inciarte, who was dealt to Atlanta in one of the more controversial trades in franchise history. The fans might have a valid point if the post-All-Star break Tomas carries over into the 2016 season, especially considering the money he is commanding, but a Diamondbacks lineup that finished second in baseball in runs scored despite his struggles would be even scarier – and the middle of the order would be downright lethal – if Tomas returns to his pre-All-Star break form while mixing in more of the power he showed in Cuba and during the World Baseball Classic. Tomas is going to get ample opportunity to prove himself, and this writer believes he won’t disappoint.

4. Shelby Miller

Shelby_MillerAt first glance, you might think it is crazy that a 25-year-old starting pitcher who has already served four seasons in the majors, has a career 3.22 ERA, was an All-Star in his first season in 2013, and is coming off a season in which he reached his career high in innings pitched (205.1) and strikeouts (171) and notched career lows in ERA (3.02) and homers allowed (13) wouldn’t have much to prove, but – as mentioned a short time ago – he was acquired at the expense of Inciarte, a fan favorite who had a dynamic first full season with the bat and in the field in 2015, and Dansby Swanson, the #1 pick in the June draft and the widespread perceived eveyday shortstop of the future for the Diamondbacks, so expectations for Miller are exponential. Fans will immediately – and unfairly – write Miller off because of his 17 losses in 2015, and many experts believe that he is a #2 or #3 starter at best, but Arizona needed starting pitching in the worst way and had to pay a hefty price to get it. Miller is just entering the prime of his career, so if he can take the next step toward becoming an ace, the Diamondbacks will have a potent 1-2 punch on their starting staff that should get them to the playoffs for years to come and it won’t matter how Inciarte, Swanson, and Blair perform in Atlanta. There’s little reason to think Miller will drop off, but if by some chance he does, the Diamondbacks rotation could return to the same place it has been stuck in for almost a decade: mediocre at best.

3. Patrick Corbin

PatrickCorbinMuch of the situation outlined above with Miller applies to Corbin, with an exception being that the latter was neither acquired in an off-season trade nor signed as a free agent. The former staff ace lost his entire 2014 season and roughly half of his 2015 to Tommy John surgery, but he’s proven to be a more than capable starting pitcher when healthy. In his only full big-league season in 2013, he was selected as an All-Star and put together a fine 3.41 ERA with 208 1/3 innings pitched and 178 strikeouts, although a lot of the shine on that year was taken away by a lousy August and September, when he surrendered 43 runs over 64 innings and appeared fatigued and overworked. He was forced to undergo Tommy John after feeling tightness in his elbow during spring training of 2014 and the Diamondbacks never truly recovered from his loss. He battled through understandable inconsistency (3.21 ERA in July, 4.50 ERA in August, allowed five runs in 5 1/3 innings in one October start) to register a respectable 3.60 ERA and 78 strikeouts over 85 innings and 16 starts in 2015. If Corbin proves he’s healthy (and there’s nothing to show he isn’t) and is able to build on his successful 2013 and his encouraging 2015, the Diamondbacks could have a dominant front three in their rotation; if Corbin struggles and/or is injured again, the starting staff will suffer and there could be all kinds of pressure on Zack Grienke or perhaps someone like 24-year-old Robbie Ray or 23-year-old Archie Bradley to carry the group. Simply put, the starting pitching will completely make or completely break Arizona in 2016.

2. Archie Bradley

Photo by; AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Photo by; AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Selected seventh overall out of high school in the 2011 draft, the current 23-year-old has long been the Diamondbacks top pitching prospect, as well as one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball. He put up a 3.84 ERA and struck out 152 batters over 136 innings in his first professional season at Single A South Bend in 2012, and then followed up that performance with a dominant 1.84 ERA and 162 strikeouts over 152 innings across High A Visalia and Double A in Mobile in 2013. His command has long been questioned (84 walks in 2012, 59 in 2013, and 49 over 83 innings in 2014), but his stuff and his ability to be a front-line major league starting pitcher have never been doubted. He finally got his first taste of the bigs when the Diamondbacks placed him on the Opening Day roster in 2015, and he lived up to every bit of the hype in his first three starts. He pitched at least six innings all three times, shut out the Dodgers in his debut, and posted a sparkling 1.80 ERA overall, but everything changed when he took a line drive off his face in the second inning of his April 28th home start against Colorado. He missed roughly three weeks and appeared very timid upon his return. He would make four more starts, never getting past the fifth inning or allowing less than four runs, went back on the DL with shoulder tendinitis in June, and spent the remainder of the season in the minors after being activated from the DL on August 25th. He enters this spring having to battle for the fifth spot in the rotation and, although this writing sees him as the favorite and expects him to get the spot, he’s far from a certainty and not without strong competition. If Bradley recaptures the dominant form he displayed in his first few MLB starts last season and has shown throughout his minor league career, he could not only be the best #5 starter in baseball, but the Diamondbacks rotation as a whole would have enviable depth and strength. If the line drive to his face proves to be a permanent issue (or perhaps his shoulder acts up again), one might have to wonder if it will be time to declare Bradley a bust.

1. Chris Owings

ChrisOwingsHeading into June 20th of what was his rookie season of 2014, the middle infielder was asserting himself as a key component in the middle infield for many years to come. He had won Rookie of the Month honors in April after hitting .313, slumped in May (.217 average, .250 on-base percentage), and then came to life again in June (.317 BA, .333 OBP). Unfortunately, things quickly took a turn for the worse for Owings on the night of June 20th. During a 4-1 win over the division rival Giants, Owings tore up his shoulder while sliding into home plate, and he would eventually require surgery to repair a torn labrum at the end of the season. He wouldn’t play again until June 24th and he made his next start on June 25th, but he landed on the disabled list on June 29th and would remain there until September. He hit a mere .208 spanning 72 at-bats upon his return, and he didn’t walk much, either (just four times). His entire 2015 season proved to be downright abysmal; he stumbled out of the gate with a .227 BA and .247 OBP in April, limped to the finish with a .195 average and .262 OBP in September and a 1 for 14 October, and never hit better than .260 in any month. His plate discipline was non-existent as he struck out 144 times and drew all of 26 walks. If not for his quality defense and a severe lack of options (backup second baseman Aaron Hill hit just .236 with a .290 OBP in 313 at-bats, utilityman Phil Gosselin didn’t debut for the Diamondbacks until August 31st thanks to a long DL stint, and Brandon Drury was unimpressive in a cup of coffee in September), Owings likely would have been benched. He enters this spring having to prove that he can both hit at a respectable level and that his shoulder is at full strength. The Diamondbacks just acquired Jean Segura from the Brewers to push Owings, and the former will take over the everyday second base job if he’s able to come close to or surpass his rousing rookie season of 2013, when he parlayed his .294 batting average, 12 homers, and 44 steals into an All-Star appearance. Segura’s defense is a downgrade from Owings, and his plate discipline also leaves a lot to be desired (sub-.300 OBP each of the last two seasons, 13 walks in 2014), but he couldn’t possibly be much worse than Owings was in 2015. Drury is also arguably the top hitting prospect in the organization, so his 2015 performance is hardly an indication that the Diamondbacks should automatically give up on him. I would be shocked if Owings not only starts the season in a regular role, but is even on the Opening Day roster or makes it through the full season as a Diamondback.

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