The 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks were a testament to just what the right manager could do with a team filled with young talent. Under the tutelage of first-year manager Kirk Gibson, the D-Backs borrowed some of Gibby’s fire and steam-rolled to a 94-68 record and their first National League West title since 2007.
Arizona would be eliminated in the National League Divisional Series by the Milwaukee Brewers, but the season would be labeled a success, with Gibson winning National League Manager of the year award and Ian Kennedy would tie for the league-lead in victories at 21, good enough for a fourth-place finish in the National League Cy Young voting. That level of success early on for the young Diamondbacks created an aura of high expectations for 2012.
You did not have to be psychic that they were set up for failure.
The 2012 Diamondbacks would pick up right where the 2011 edition left off, with the team winning its first four games of the season. However, Arizona would only put together four more winning streaks of 4 or more games throughout the remainder of the season, struggling to keep themselves at a .500, where they finished at 81-81 and 13 games behind the Giants in the NL West.
A lot of things actually went well for the D-Backs in 2012. Offensively, Arizona was a solid ball club, finishing 7th in Major League Baseball in runs scored in 2012. Offseason acquisition Jason Kubel fit right into the line-up, putting his part-time DH roll behind him and hitting 30 home runs and driving in 90 as the primary left fielder for the Diamondbacks. Second-year first baseman Paul Goldschmidt showed glimpses of promise in what was a streaky season, hitting .286 with 20 home runs and 82 RBI of his own. Catcher Miguel Montero also showed that he was worth the 5-year, $60 million extension he signed in May, logging a .829 OPS with 15 home runs and 88 RBI while playing 141 games behind the plate. Even Justin Upton, who general manager Kevin Towers dangled out there as trade bait during the season his a solid .280 with 17 home runs, 67 RBI, and 107 RBI despite reverting a bit from his 2011 form.
But for all of the good put together by that group, the true hero of the 2012 Diamondbacks was second baseman Aaron Hill. Acquired midway through 2011 in a deal with the Blue Jays that sent Kelly Johnson to Toronto, the Diamondbacks saw enough in Hill to bring him back, signing him to a two-year contract. Hill rewarded Arizona for their faith with a huge offensive season, netting a .302 average, .882 OPS, 26 home runs, 85 RBI, and a 4.6 WAR (Baseball-Reference). Oh, and he threw in two cycles in a matter of two weeks time, becoming just the second player to do it twice in the same season.
But for most .500 teams in baseball, there is a second side to the coin which keeps them from truly reaching their promise. For the Diamondbacks, it was pitching.
After having four pitchers accumulate 10 or more wins in 2011, lead by Kennedy’s 21, the Diamondbacks would only get three pitchers to that level in 2012. Kennedy, despite winning 15 games in 2012, took a step backward as he struggled to find the plate and replicate his Cy Young form from a year earlier, posting a 4.02 ERA along the way. Offseason trade acquisition Trevor Cahill also pitched decently, picking up 13 wins with a 3.78 ERA.
The bright spot for the pitching staff was Wade Miley. Miley put himself into the Rookie of the Year debate in the National League by leading the Diamondbacks with 16 wins, a 3.33 ERA, and a 1.18 WHIP.
Without Miley stepping up, the Diamondbacks would have struggled to a much greater degree. A season-ending injury to 2011 16-game Daniel Hudson after just 9 starts this season left Arizona short-handed, and they struggled to find an adequate pitcher to slot into the back-end of the rotation. Joe Saunders struggled in the role before being sent to Baltimore in a late season trade. Arizona would also turn to rookies Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, and Patrick Corbin but none were able to bring their mastery of minor-league hitters to help the Diamondbacks.
The key for Arizona in 2013 is knowing that they are not too far off from the team that won the division a season ago. That said, the team has some tough choices to make this offseason, particularly in the outfield.
Center fielder Chris Young has shown glimpses of stardom in the past, but has proven time and again that he is fragile and inconsistent. At 29-years-old, he does not appear to be turning the corner one would have wanted him to years earlier. Arizona is stuck with him for 2013, with a team option for 2014, but with an $8.5 million deal for next season, he is not likely going anywhere either.
That takes us to right fielder Justin Upton, perhaps the most enigmatic player in baseball. Unlike his brother, BJ Upton, Justin has shown that he can be a MVP candidate. The trouble for him is that he suffers from Bret Saberhagen disease, only playing to his full potential every other season. He is also the most easily traded player on the Diamondbacks rosters and would bring the highest return to the team. With fans and upper management growing weary of him, Arizona should move early in the offseason to maximize return on him. They can then look at moving prospect Matt Davidson to the outfield and getting his big bat to the major league level in 2013.
The trade of Stephen Drew also clears the way for another well regarded prospect in shortstop Chris Owings. Owings may still need to start 2013 in the minors, as he has yet to play above Double-A, but he put together a season of .290, 17 home runs, 58 RBI, and a .775 OPS as a 20-year-old between High-A and Double-A in 2012. That’s a premium bat for a shortstop and the D-Backs will want an offensive upgrade over John McDonald as quickly as they can get one.
The rest falls on the trio of rookie hurlers. Skaggs, Bauer, and Corbin are well thought of around baseball, and rightfully so. 2013 will be the season for at least two of them to step into the rotation and fully grasp their potential. The dearth of starting pitching available of the market this winter, not to mention the amount of teams with deeper pockets needing the same arms, will dictate that Arizona find their solutions from within. Having a trio of arms like Skaggs, Bauer, and Corbin available to call upon in such a situation should be very reassuring to Diamondbacks fans next season.
Overall, this is a team capable of returning to the big dance with just a few tweaks. Kevin Towers is the man to pull the right strings, so it is just a matter of seeing how the winter shakes out for Arizona.