Who doesn't love an oversized, retired player race?
One of the biggest surprises of the season has been the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks, and AZ Snake Pit's Jim McLennan is undoubtedly enjoying every minute of it. We sent him some questions about the D'backs, and he was kind enough to take the time to send us his responses.
On the Draft:
MLBDD: Clearly, having 2 picks in the top 7 is going to have the potential to bring in some high-end talent. What did you think of the selections of Bauer and Bradley, and how surprised were you that both were able to get contracts done?
JM: I'm happy with both. I was a little concerned that signability might come into play, especially with the second pick, #7 overall. With that one being compensation for not signing Barret Loux last year, it was unprotected, so if we didn't sign our pick, it would be lost. Given the depth of this year's draft, that would have been a severe disappointment. However, the team went for what they considered the best available player each time, even though they knew that neither player would come cheap. I was impressed with how quickly Bauer signed, getting inked three weeks before the deadline; there was never much to suggest Bradley wouldn't follow suit.
My Thoughts: Bauer has been everything they thought and more so far (33 strikeouts in 19 innings across High-A and AA), and could very well be called up when rosters expand on the 1st. The deal Bauer signed included a 40-man roster spot, so it's a pretty easy move for the team. Getting Bradley signed was crucial as well in my opinion, for the reasons Jim mentioned.
Read Jim's thoughts on an excellent set of pitching prospects, an MVP candidate, and what the key to the D'backs success has been this year after the jump...
On the Future:
MLBDD: The farm system has quite a special set of pitching prospects down in AA right now. How are you feeling about the future talent that is in the system, and is there one prospect that has really surprised you this year?
JM: The rotation in AA Mobile is Trevor Bauer, Jarrod Parker, Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin, and Charles Brewer. The first three would probably be in most lists of the top 50 prospects in all of baseball, and I would not be surprised to see that trio in the Majors next year. While, of course, there's no such thing as a "sure fire" pitching prospect, add them to Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy, and it could give Arizona a rotation as good as any in the National League, even the Phillies and Giants.
The biggest surprise among prospects this year is probably the one currently occupying the #4 spot for the Diamondbacks: Josh Collmenter. He was off the radar for most people - just last November, John Sickels ranked Collmenter as our sixteenth-best prospect and Dan Strittmater, our Snake Pit prospect guru, had him at #21. He was originally called up to replace the DL'd Aaron Heilman in the bullpen, but we needed a rotation replacement for Barry Enright, and Collmenter threw six shutout innings of two-hit ball in each of his first two starts. His lack of a "third pitch" is condemned by conventional wisdom, but his delivery (basically, his release point is about the same as a southpaw, despite Collmenter being right-handed) is so deceptive, he has flummoxed hitters, and continues to do so.
My Thoughts: The rotation down in AA is pretty ridiculous, although Bauer and Parker could both see callups come September. I don't know if that rotation would compete for that title next season, but they definitely could be in the running by 2013. As for Collmenter, he's been a complete surprise, and the numbers appear to be legitimate. Thus far, Collmenter has posted a solid 3.3 K/BB ratio in the Majors, and his FIP is not far out of line with his ERA to this point. I'm inclined to agree with John Sickels' assessment that he could be an innings-eater, and should help the team out for the remainder of the season.
On the Hunt for a Playoff Spot:
MLBDD: I don't recall too many of the experts thinking that this year's Diamondbacks would compete, yet here they are. Is there one move that you feel has really helped to propel this team to the top of the division?
JM: The one change from last year is a much, much more solid bullpen. There are really two moves which anchored this: signing closer J.J. Putz as a free agent, and trading Mark Reynolds to the Orioles for two relievers, including David Hernandez, who is our eighth-inning guy and occasional closer. Between them, they have over 100 innings with an ERA of about 2.75, and have combined for 42 saves. They are a huge part of the reason why Arizona is 53-5 when leading after 6 innings; last year, they were 53-15 in the same situations.
My Thoughts: If there is one thing that Kevin Towers is known for, it is being able to assemble an excellent bullpen. These two have pitched excellently, and have really allowed the game to become a 7 inning matter. Add in lefty-specialist and Rule 5 pick Joe Paterson, and the bullpen has become more of a strength than it was in previous years. Towers' effort to get more players who strike out less often at the plate seems to be helping some, but the bullpen is having the greatest impact.
On the Trade Deadline:
MLBDD: The team really only made two moves at the July 31st deadline, acquiring pitchers Jason Marquis and Brad Ziegler. Did you want to see the team add something else to help with this run, or are you happy with the moves the team made to supplement the current roster?
JM: Marquis is done for the season with a broken shin, and Ziegler has been fairly "meh" - he's mid-relief bullpen fodder. The team has also swapped underperforming second basemen with Toronto, exchanging Kelly Johnson for Aaron Hill: maybe a change of scenery and a hitter-friendly park will help Hill get back toward his monster 2009 numbers. They also picked up utility guy John McDonald, better known for his glove than his bat. He and Willie Bloomquist will likely split time at SS, replacing Stephen Drew, who broke his ankle.
I can't say, overall, that I've been all that impressed by the moves. The Marquis move made sense, but two bad starts and an injury have left the back end of our rotation as weak as ever. But then, it's the current roster who have taken us to the top of the NL West, so when something is working far better than expected, you don't change it!
My Thoughts: The only way the Hill trade made sense to me was by getting utility guy McDonald as a part of it. Hill and Johnson seem exactly like Jim mentioned - a challenge trade for a pair of struggling infielders. While it is extremely unlikely, it is possible that the Diamondbacks pick up the options for HIll for the next 3 years. That said, the majority of their core is solid, and it was really just small moves that were needed at the deadline. It's tough sometimes, because no one can foresee injuries either.
On MVP Candidate Justin Upton:
MLBDD: Justin Upton's name isn't getting a lot of run as an MVP candidate, yet I doubt highly that the team would be where they are without his performance this season. Do you think that this is the best we are likely to see from Upton, or is there another gear above where he's been this season?
JM: This season, you're looking at about a .300 hitter with 30+ homers. That's already pretty elite, but yesterday was Upton's 24th birthday. So in terms of the standard aging curve, his best years would seem to be still in front of him - many players haven't even debuted by that age. What his ceiling might be, it's hard to say. Upton's current OPS for his career is 30 points higher than Barry Bonds had through his age 23 season. Not that I'm saying Upton is bettter than Bonds, but the potential Justin shows is certainly amazing. Something like Ken Griffey Jr. is not impossible.
My Thoughts: Upton has been nothing short of a beast this year, with 25 homers and a .298 average to this point, along with 19 stolen bases. Oh, and he's also signed to a team friendly contract worth a total of $50M that covers through 2015. It's good to see that the team didn't trade him during the offseason, although the sheer amount of prospects that came back would have been completely ridiculous. It's hard to fathom that he has also been in the Majors for parts of 5 seasons already.
Just for Fun:
MLBDD: Which bad early 90's sitcom do the 2011 Diamondbacks most resemble?
JM: Married... with Children. A crotchety, middle-aged man tries to keep control over a house containing an amusing mix of impetuous youth and veteran presence, who love each other, deep down. Hilarity ensues, and hopefully, an NL West title.
Thanks to Jim for taking the time to answer our questions. You can find his writings and complete coverage of the Diamondbacks over at AZ Snake Pit.