2023 MLB Season Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks

Image: Christian Petersen / Getty Images

2022 Record: 74-88 (.457 win%, 4th in Division)

2023 Payroll: $85,964,090 (25th)

2023 Projected Lineup:

1. LF Corbin Carroll, .237 AVG/.319 OBP/.413 SLG, 2.8 fWAR

2. 2B Ketel Marte, .268 AVG/.338 OBP/.435 SLG, 3.1 fWAR

3. RF Jake McCarthy, .256 AVG/.321 OBP/.406 SLG, 1.9 fWAR

4. 1B Christian Walker, .253 AVG/.332 OBP/.456 SLG, 2.7 fWAR

5. 3B Josh Rojas, .249 AVG/.331 OBP/.379 SLG, 1.8 fWAR

6. DH Lourdes Gurriel Jr., .280 AVG/.330 OBP/.435 SLG, 1.1 fWAR

7. CF Alek Thomas, .261 AVG/.318 OBP/.411 SLG, 2.0 fWAR

8. SS Nick Ahmed, .230 AVG/.288 OBP/.361 SLG, 0.7 fWAR

9. C Gabriel Moreno, .274 AVG/.330 OBP/.404 SLG, 2.2 fWAR

2023 Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Zac Gallen, 182.0 IP/3.77 ERA/1.23 WHIP, 3.0 fWAR

2. Merrill Kelly, 193.0 IP/4.28 ERA/1.32 WHIP, 2.1 fWAR

3. Madison Bumgarner, 145.0 IP/4.94 ERA/1.38 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR

4. Zach Davies, 120.0 IP/4.88 ERA/1.46 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR

5. Ryne Nelson, 103.0 IP/4.59 ERA/1.35 WHIP, 0.6 fWAR

2023 Projected Top 4 Relievers:

1. Drey Jameson, 46.0 IP/4.21 ERA/1.36 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR

2. Miguel Castro, 64.0 IP/3.92 ERA/1.37 WHIP, 0.2 fWAR

3. Joe Mantiply, 63.0 IP/3.60 ERA/1.27 WHIP, 0.4 fWAR

4. Scott McGough, 62.0 IP/4.06 ERA/1.32 WHIP, 0.2 fWAR

Important Injured Players (Estimated Return):

C Carson Kelly (June-July)

RP Mark Melancon (June-July)

RP Corbin Martin (July)

RP Joe Mantiply (April)

What Does Baseball Mean to Arizona?

In 2002, a year after Tony Womack’s historic double and Arizona’s inaugural World Series trophy, the Diamondbacks ranked second in attendance. An average of 39,494 walked into Bank One Ballpark, a figure that has yet to be bested in the two decades since. Diamondbacks fans have only seen playoff baseball four times since their title-clinching upset over the Yankees, despite amateur and lower-level professional baseball contests splayed around their state. 

Since Paul Goldschmidt was dealt to the Cardinals, Arizona hasn’t seen consistent production from any of their quasi-stars. But, despite their lackluster on-field display, the Diamondbacks have never seen their attendance numbers into the bottom half of the league. Arizona is a land populated with baseball fans. This is a fanbase that consistently paid to watch a 52-win D-Backs squad lead by Merrill Kelly: Give them a half-competitive team and Chase Field will fill back up, just as it did in the early days.

2022 Offseason Recap:

When the offseason kicked off, the Arizona Diamondbacks were a top suitor for shortstop Xander Bogaerts. That dream died in early December, as Bogaerts went to the division rival San Diego Padres. In the wake of their inability to sign him, the Diamondbacks’ front office got to work, flipping Daulton Varsho for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Gabriel Moreno. 

They had already acquired 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis a couple weeks prior in an outfielder-for-outfielder swap that destined Cooper Hummel for Seattle. Alongside these trades were a plethora of minor housekeeping moves, including but not limited to adding minor bullpen pieces to help a squad that was dead last in WAR in 2022.

While the Kyle Lewis acquisition was not lauded in November, it’s starting to look like a fair deal for both sides, if not leaning the Diamondbacks’ way. Both players, Hummel and Lewis, come with tons of uncertainty. Hummel, who has spent as much time behind the plate as he has on the outfield grass, did not have a successful rookie campaign. The switch hitter slashed .176/.274/307 in 66 games, good for a 65 wRC+ and -0.8 WAR. Not a fantastic way to begin your major league career. 

However, digging a bit deeper into Hummel’s stats paints a more nuanced picture. The 18th round pick hasn’t posted a wRC+ below 135 since 2017, and Statcast has him among the league in both sprint speed and arm strength. In other words, Hummel has good raw tools to and a track record of success through all levels of the minors. And through 40 ABs in spring training, he has a 1.095 OPS.

Wanna know who else has an OPS north of 1.000 in spring training? That’s right it’s Kyle Lewis, who’s hitting .387 in 31 ABs. Lewis is coming off two years of discomfort and injuries in his right knee, limiting him to 54 games between ‘21 and ‘22, but the outfielder does have a track record of success at the big league level. In his award-winning 2020 year, Statcast had him in the 91st percentile for Outs Above Average and 78th for barrel percentage. 

Even in that successful ‘20 season, Lewis did strike out more than he’d like to, and only had an average exit velocity of 88.3 mph, good for 40th percentile in the MLB. Given his high defensive ceiling and offensive floor, it’s unlikely the Diamondbacks get much less than 3-4 WAR out of Lewis (barring more injuries). That’s likely more than Cooper Hummel will produce in ‘23, but Hummel’s minor league numbers and lack of an extensive injury history could give the Mariners a production edge in 2024 and beyond.

Daulton Varsho is an elite defender, there’s no doubt about that; he led all outfielders in OAA last year. There is doubt about Varsho’s bat, though; he only barely broke the 100 mark in wRC+ last year. And while the catcher/outfielder did only sport a .269 BABIP last year, his xwOBA was 25 points below his wOBA, suggesting the Blue Jays should expect some regression at the plate. 

Even with some offensive regression, Varsho could very well put up 3.5-4.5 WAR and contribute to a deep Jays’ postseason run. Given the all-but-guaranteed production the Diamondbacks gave up and the uncertainty that accompanies their return pieces, one could say that Arizona resoundingly lost the trade. 

Don’t worry, they didn’t. The uncertainty that surrounds Moreno is not entirely undeserved. His swing lacks much umph and, looking down at his numbers in the minors, there isn’t much indicating it’ll naturally develop. The catcher only hit three home runs in 62 games down in Buffalo in 2022, and posted a measly .058 ISO in the majors. In ‘21 he did have a .278 ISO in 32 Double-A games to accompany a .651 SLG, but he hasn’t shown much power since then. 

Instead, Moreno’s game has relied on slapping the ball around the outfield for singles and doubles. He’s made some swing changes and has found his power stroke early in spring training. Moreno holds his hands just below his shoulders before he strides, seemingly focusing on an upward attack angle in an attempt to create more power. He still flips his bat up before he swings, but his position appears to be much more under control. The leg kick has been replaced by a soft toe tap, and accordingly his swing is smoother and more controlled.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. comes with significantly less uncertainty than Moreno, but also less team control. The outfielder will likely not see the grass much in Arizona; his defense ranks near the bottom of the league, with all of his value coming via the bat. And while it’s definitely above average, Gurriel Jr. won’t turn many heads at the plate. 

In his career he’s a 115 wRC+ hitter, with his 2022 mark coming in only one below that. The DH oddly doesn’t strike out or whiff much, but still manages to mash the ball; his average exit velocity was 90.6 mph in ‘22. While it seems there might be some room for Gurriel Jr. to sacrifice a bit more whiffs for some more power (and increase his overall production), his 2022 BABIP and xwOBA indicate there could be some regression in the coming year. 

Gurriel Jr. managed only five home runs in 121 games last season. If he can lift the ball a bit more and retain a BABIP around his career average of .327, I could see Diamondback fans watching a solid, 130 wRC+ rental in 2023.

2023 Regular Season Preview:

The Arizona Diamondbacks are an interesting team cloaked as a boring one. They likely aren’t good enough to compete for a wild card (much less a division title), but they aren’t bad enough to regress from their 74-win campaign last year. That’s kinda boring. How they intend to get there isn’t, though. 

Arizona seems to be leaning into the rule changes by prioritizing players with speed, contact, and defense. Alek Thomas, Nick Ahmed, and Corbin Carroll are all prime examples of players with above average defense, contact ability, and speed. Add Ketel Marte and Jake McCarthy to that list and you’ve got half a lineup who can spray the ball around the field and swipe bags. 

It’s not as if they’ve abandoned power hitters, but a slap-heavy approach could work well in a home stadium that was sixth-best in the league at preventing the long ball in ‘22.

I won’t lie to you Arizona, it’s gonna be rough on the mound. Diamondbacks pitchers accumulated the fourth worst team WAR total last year, and most of that was Zach Gallen. Team USA legend Merrill Kelly put up a respectable 3.62 FIP in 200.1 innings and Joe Mantiply came out of nowhere to post a ridiculous 10.17 K/BB, but the rest of the ‘pen was silent. 

Despite a lack of free agent SP signings, there are some up-and-coming arms that could help the D-Backs come late summer. Brandon Pfaadt will likely be given consistent starts and could even slot into the two or three spot if Davies and Bumgarner continue to struggle. 

Michigan product Tommy Henry has had a rough go of it in Triple-A and the majors so far, but he’s struck out 18 in 16.1 innings in spring training and could be used out of the bullpen for long relief stints. 2019 first round pick Drey Jameson could be used as a fourth or fifth starter; he’s shown promise in his short stint in the majors, and his plus slider pairs well with a fastball that can reach 100 mph.

The bullpen has seen some heavy reshuffling, both due to a brutal 2022 campaign and major injuries to its top arms. Both Mark Melancon and Corbin Martin are out for the first months of the season, and, as I’m writing this, the team has announced that Joe Mantiply will start the season on the IL. 

As it stands right now, five of the eight arms in Arizona’s pen were acquired this past offseason. This is undoubtedly a different staff than in their pitiful ‘22 campaign. Will their ‘pen improve in ‘23, though? Probably not a ton. 

The Diamondbacks are in an odd position in that they have a relatively high ceiling, a good farm, and no real expectations for the season. There’s a world in which Arizona is fighting for a Wild Card spot come September, but even if they’re not the team has a bright future ahead of them. 

It’s clear the front office is starting to see a competitive window open and is accordingly spending on major league ready talent. 2023 will be the first full-season test of the Moreno, Carroll, Gallen and Marte core, and I think they’ve got a shot to be dangerous.

Player to Watch #1: Christian Walker

You think I’d write a season preview on the Diamondbacks and forget Christian Walker? The first baseman flat out raked in 2022, smashing 36 home runs and posting a .235 ISO. And while this last year was a full-season breakout for the 32 year old, there’s indication that he has more in the tank. 

Walker posted an xwOBA that was 13 points above his wOBA and a BABIP almost 40 points below his career average. On top of a 122 wRC+ in ‘22, Walker was ranked as the best defensive first baseman by a long shot. He ended with an OAA 10 better than Lewin Díaz in second place, who had four. 

Christian’s still got two years left of team control and figures to be a key piece in a sneakily good Diamondbacks offense this year. If the shift can help raise his BABIP a little and he continues to perform on defense, Walker could very well post another 4+ WAR season.

Player to Watch #2: P Brandon Pfaadt

I mentioned earlier that Brandon Pfaadt would likely see a couple starts at the big league level this year. When he comes up likely depends on how good Arizona’s offensive and how bad their pitching might be, but it’s not impossible that Pfaadt is making starts in mid June. 

The DII product shoved at Double-A Amarillo in 2022, striking out 12.3 per nine innings and posting a 3.63 xFIP in 105.1 innings. He posted similar numbers after a late season call up to Triple-A, and has looked solid against major league talent in Spring Training. 

Pfaadt won’t light up the radar gun, but his fastball has good life and he’s got a sinker/two seam to run away from lefties when he needs it. Pfaadt’s gyro slider seems to play well on his glove side, and he’s proven that the fastball/slider combo works against big league batters. 

There’s been some understandable bumps at the A and AA level, but for the most part Pfaadt has cruised through the Diamondbacks system. He might struggle at first, but if Arizona lets him ride it out, Pfaadt has the tools to be a solid 2-3 starter come late ‘23 and beyond.

Player to Watch #3: OF Jake McCarthy

If you weren’t watching the Diamondbacks closely last year, you might have missed Jake McCarthy post a 3.76 WAR/162 alongside an impressive 116 wRC+. The lefty actually began the year in Triple-A Reno, posting a blistering 165 wRC+ in 36 games. He was quickly called up to the show and held his own for the remainder of the season. 

Now, if you take a quick look at McCarthy’s Baseball Savant page, you’ll be greeted with a disappointing sea of blue. Aside from his speed, McCarthy was below average at pretty much everything last year.

However, I believe there’s significant room for improvement. Aside from the fact that he’s only 25 years old, McCarthy put up impressive numbers against most common pitch types. His wOBA against fastballs, curveballs and changeups were .354, .541 and .345, respectively. Sliders, on the other hand, were different. The man can’t really hit a slider. 

Whiffing 42.3% and posting a .197 xBA against sliders won’t do you any favors; it was the second most common pitch he saw in ‘22 and might be the most common in ‘23. If he can at least be average against the pitch, he can improve on an already successful rookie campaign.

I also think it’s very likely that McCarthy significantly improves his defense this year. Remember that sprint speed I said was the only non-blue dot on his Savant page? It’s crimson red; McCarthy can run. Looking at Daulton Varsho’s 21-22 fielding changes, we can see a huge improvement in Varsho’s “jump”, or reaction to the ball off the bat. 

The Blue Jay went from middle of the pack to one of the best in baseball, a jump that catapulted him into a career year. McCarthy runs 2 ft/s faster than Varsho. If he can learn to get better jumps and improve his routes a bit, I’d expect a massive uptick in overall ability. 

Even with some regression in 2023, if Jake McCarthy can keep his bat around league average and learn what the Diamondbacks taught Varsho, he could easily put up 3-4 WAR. 

Position Group to Watch: Outfielders

Do not take your eyes off this outfield. The Diamondbacks absolutely have an outfielder problem going into 2023, and it’s the best kind. With Kyle Lewis, Jake McCarthy, Alek Thomas, and Corbin Carroll, you have four players who are either insanely fast, good at defense, or some combination of both. 

In a cavernous Chase Field outfield with a staff like Arizona’s, they will have their work cut out for them. I don’t think it’ll be a problem, though; expect highlight reel catches weekly out of Arizona. 

I predict that Byron Buxton’s 2017 OAA of 27 (all time record by an outfielder) will be broken by a Diamondbacks player in 2023. One could even surpass 30.

2023 Record Prediction: 81-81

As I have said before, it’s unlikely the Diamondbacks take a massive step back in 2023. In fact, I think there’s a good chance they will reach the .500 mark for the first time since 2019. And while it’s unlikely that Arizona finds themself in a playoff contest this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re flirting with a spot come late September. 

If this is the case, the Diamondbacks have pulled off a remarkably impressive three year rebuild, and could be held up as an example to other small market teams. Regardless if they break the .500 mark, there will be a competitive team in Phoenix this year. Don’t sleep on the D-Backs.

Categories: 2023 Season Preview, Articles, Season Analysis

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