Talk about making the best of a bad situation, today my son (not really a baseball fan) came down sick, so he and I will be staying home for Opening Day. I couldn't be more excited to ignore at least some of my adult responsibilities and watch a few ballgames. It's Opening Day (ok, Opening Day 2.0). It's time to celebrate. It's supposed to be an ‘appy occasion. Optimism and hope springs eternal and all that. Look on the bright side of life. Let's not bicker and argue about ‘oo killed ‘oo.
You could definitely feel that optimism this spring in Scottsdale, at the Diamondbacks training camp. Team representatives spoke glowingly about their offseason, and about the young players coming up through the system. One guy tried to sell me that Socrates Brito was the second coming of Willie Mays, and I'm only exaggerating slightly. Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller, and a full season of Patrick Corbin had invigorated a franchise who has struggled to build a consistent winner over the last decade. The Diamondbacks, at least to me, seemed like a club who would very seriously compete for (and probably win) an NL Wild Card. I was on board the bandwagon.
That all changed on Friday, when A.J. Pollock slid awkwardly into home plate in an exhibition, breaking his elbow. He will be out for most, if not all, of the season. Pollock broke out in a major way in 2015, managing to stay both healthy and effective for the first time at age 27, hitting .315/.367/.498, hitting 20 homers, stealing 39 bases, and playing excellent defense in center field. He was worth somewhere around seven wins above replacement. By any measure, he was one of the most productive and valuable position players in baseball last year. And he figured to build on that success in 2016.
Now, one of the major tenants of sabermetric thinking is that a single injury generally can't make or break a season for a ballclub. That you can plug a replacement-level guy in for a few weeks and only lose a win or two of value. Or that, sometimes, that replacement-level player could easily get hot for a week or two and even help his club.
But here we're talking about a player who was playing at an elite level and who will be out for an overwhelming majority of the season. And over the course of a year, those hot streaks tend to even out. Water finds its level. We're also talking about the guy replacing him, Brito, who had a .339 OBP at double-A as a 22 year old, who has only line-drive power, and who can't hit left-handed pitching. ZiPS projects Brito to hit something like .259/.287/.382 as a rookie, and to be worth around a half-win above replacement. I'm more bullish than that, and think that elite defense will help make up for the offensive profile.
But even if we're talking about a two-win player in 2016, Brito would be a massive downgrade from Pollock. Worse, given that the Diamondbacks will be contending with either the Giants or Dodgers, as well as the Pirates, Cardinals, and Nationals for those Wild Cards, the margin of error for them was always relatively slim. The Diamondbacks, quite simply, could not afford to lose the one guy they just lost. The drop off is simply too huge. What a shame, given the price they paid in talent and treasure to put themselves in a position to make the postseason, that the campaign is essentially lost before they even get to play a game. Wait 'til next year, I guess.