It’s time for another installation of our Silver Linings series, where we look at the positive takeaways that can be drawn from otherwise underwhelming seasons. In this edition, we’ll head out to the National League West. As the Dodgers and Rockies sprint towards a photo finish, here are the reasons for optimism for the three clubs that have been left behind:
Diamondbacks: Bullpen Pieces
Following an unceremonious exit in the 2017 NLDS at the hands of the rival Dodgers, the Diamondbacks hoped 2018 would be the year they’d break through to win a division title. Indeed, a blistering start to the season saw Arizona jump out to a 21-8 record, and the Snakes appeared poised to dethrone the Dodgers as division champions. Unfortunately, the D-Backs allowed the rest of the division to catch up over a stretch in May during which the team lost 13 of 14 games. The team now sits at a mediocre 80-78 and has lost 8 of its last 10 games, forcing an early exit from the heated race for the NL West crown.
Despite the disappointment, there’s obviously talent on hand. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to identify silver linings that portend significant hope for the future. True, the rotation was generally a bright spot, but perhaps not in a manner that’s particularly exciting for the future. Zack Greinke and breakout star Patrick Corbin have anchored the staff, but the former is a highly-paid veteran who’ll be entering his age-35 season and the latter is destined for free agency. Surprising production from the resurgent Clay Buchholz helped quite a bit, but he finished with injury and is also heading back to the open market. The team received contributions from Robbie Ray and Zack Godley, though neither was as effective as might have been hoped.
If there’s something to carry out of the 2018 campaign, though, perhaps it’s to be found on the other side of the pitching staff. The Diamondbacks’ bullpen was the source of a number of bright spots for the club in 2018. After several lackluster seasons spent pitching in Baltimore, left-hander T.J. McFarland has enjoyed a career year in Arizona, posting a 2.00 ERA in 72 innings. Yoshihisa Hirano, who signed as a free agent after 11 seasons in Japan, proved to be a reliable option out of the bullpen, and Archie Bradley pitched well in 70 games, though not at the same level as he established in 2017. In 48 2/3 innings, Andrew Chafin has yet to concede a home run while striking out more than a batter per inning. And Silvino Bracho arguably pitched well enough in his 28 appearances that he’s deserving of a steady MLB job going forward.
That relief corps could represent an affordable, reliable unit that allows the organization to invest its resources to address other areas. Make no mistake, there are needs. Center fielder A.J. Pollock will join Corbin in heading onto the open market. The payroll pressures from Greinke’s contracts will not abate. While perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt will return, 2019 is the last year of his current contract. The Diamondbacks’ window for contention appears to be closing quickly, and 2018 looks like a missed opportunity.
Giants: Rotation Finds
Coming off a last-place finish in 2017, the Giants set their sights on a bounce-back campaign in 2018. The team acquired a pair of pricey veterans, Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria, in hopes that the experienced newcomers would ignite the team. However, the Giants’ offense has fallen flat, and an unlucky streak of injuries has left the club mired in mediocrity. Having scored the second-fewest runs in the National League, the Giants’ offense has been a disaster. The team has posted an overall slash line of .241/.302/.371. Longoria is clearly not his former self, and McCutchen was jettisoned in August after the team fell out of contention. Injuries to regulars Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Hunter Pence, and others have sapped the Giants of their firepower.
Meanwhile, a veteran rotation has fallen apart. Highly paid rotation cogs Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija suffered significant injuries. Staff pillar Madison Bumgarner made it back to the mound and produced good results, but showed reduced velocity and peripherals. Derek Holland turned in a nice bounceback campaign, but he’s a free agent.
In this situation, it’s not hard to spot the brightest glimmer of hope. Rookie Dereck Rodriguez has been a revelation in the Giants’ starting rotation. Since debuting with the big league club in late May, Rodriguez has made 18 starts, posting an impressive 2.50 ERA. His presence in the rotation has mitigated the damage caused by the absence of Samardzija and Cueto, who have combined to make just 19 starts this season. Rodriguez has perhaps also made it easy to overlook rookie left-hander Andrew Suarez, who has also emerged as a serviceable rotation piece. Whether there’s more in the tank is open to debate, but Suarez still looks to be a nice asset after pitching to a 4.22 ERA across 28 starts.
If there’s a case to be made that the Giants can remain competitive while rebuilding, it begins with the idea that they’ll have multiple effective and affordable rotation pieces on hand for the coming seasons. And perhaps there’s reason at least to hope for better health and a return to form from some veteran players. It helps, too, that the organization received some strong performances from relievers who remain under control — Will Smith, Reyes Moronta, Tony Watson, Sam Dyson, and even a rejuvenated Mark Melancon — though some could also be trade fodder this winter. In truth, the club’s near-term course remains to be seen, in no small part because there’ll be a new regime at the controls.
Padres: Incremental Gains
While the Padres hardly sniffed the postseason in 2018, it was not a year without progress in San Diego. Though another losing season marks the 12th consecutive season the Friars will vacation in October, greener pastures appear to be on the horizon in San Diego.
Perhaps that’s scant consolation for fans who had hoped for a more dramatic leap in 2018. After all, the rebuild has been in the works for some time and it’s still unclear precisely which players will make up the anticipated core of the future. Still, it’s hard to ignore the sheer volume of talent — or its proximity to the MLB level.
Even with a number of players succeeding after making the leap to the big leagues in 2018, the biggest splashes may be yet to come. Boasting one of baseball’s premier minor-league systems, the Padres expect to receive an influx of talented players that will help to build the club into a postseason threat in coming seasons. With reinforcements waiting in the wings, the early returns look promising for the Padres.
There was no shortage of impressive rookies in San Diego this season. Pitchers Joey Lucchesi and Eric Lauer showed promise in their debut seasons, and look to have built foundations that will set the pair up for success in 2019 and beyond. Jose Castillo and Robert Stock are among the first-time big leaguers who have impressed in an intriguing bullpen unit that includes several other youngsters as well as hurlers who’ve thrived despite arriving as castaways (Craig Stammen, Kirby Yates, Matt Strahm). Before his season ended prematurely, Franchy Cordero, who features an intriguing combination of power and speed, injected excitement into the Padres offense, homering 7 times in 40 games. Outfielder Franmil Reyes has increasingly impressed at the plate after looking lost when he debuted in May.
Top prospect Luis Urias also received a call-up late in the season. Though his season was cut short due to injury, the 21-year-old infielder projects to hit for high average and play solid infield defense as he matures, a welcome addition to any club. The Padres also brought in the game’s top catching prospect, Francisco Mejia, in a deal that sent Brad Hand to Cleveland. Just 22 years of age, Mejia figures into the team’s future plans at a premium position, potentially functioning alongside Austin Hedges to form an impressive duo behind the dish (if the team can find a way to get Mejia’s bat in the lineup at other positions as well). Pitcher Dinelson Lamet, who flashed tantalizing potential as a rookie in 2017 but missed all of this season with a torn UCL, will offer a boon to the pitching staff in 2019.
Combine these major-league contributors with what may be the game’s deepest prospect pool, and the Padres believe they have a blueprint to contend in the near future. The farm is ripe with pitchers who could debut in the coming years, even if it’s not yet clear which will fully emerge. If there’s a truly exciting presence on the horizon, though, it’s shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who is one of the top prospects in baseball. Though he missed time with a thumb injury, he cemented his status as the organization’s most exciting talent by posting a .286/.355/.507 slash and banging 16 long balls in 394 Double-A plate appearances.
As their farmhands graduate to the Majors, the Padres hope to build a young core that has the potential to turn this organization into an annual contender. For now, that’s still a vision rather than a reality; the club’s broad collection of interesting players has yet to coalesce. But the waves of talent are now coming ashore. Perhaps 2019 will be the year that the patience begins to pay off?