At 36-25, the Diamondbacks not only sit a surprising 11 games over .500 but also hold a one-game lead over the Dodgers for first place in the National League West. While the D-backs’ young core made them a popular sleeper pick heading into the 2023 season, few anticipated that more than two months into the year, they’d hold the fifth-best record in baseball and the second-best mark in the National League.
Huge performances by Rookie of the Year favorite Corbin Carroll, ace Zac Gallen, veteran righty Merrill Kelly, former top prospect Geraldo Perdomo, trade acquisition Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and underrated slugger Christian Walker have not only placed the D-backs among the upper echelon of teams in the National League — they’ve created an air of staying power. Arizona’s offense ranks in the top six of all MLB teams in terms of batting average, slugging percentage, runs scored and stolen bases.
If there’s an area the team is currently lacking, it’s likely on the pitching staff. General manager Mike Hazen acknowledged as much last night in an appearance on The Show podcast with Jon Heyman and Joel Sherman of the New York Post. Asked where his club might look to upgrade as we move past the “early” portion of the season and begin to inch closer to the annual summer trading bonanza, the seventh-year general manager spoke with relative candor.
“Certainly pitching,” said Hazen. “We’ve been playing very dramatic baseball lately. We either win it or lose it in the ninth inning, and that’s not a great way for a baseball team to go through life. We’d like it to be 6-0 in the seventh inning and then just ease on through the last six or nine outs of the game. That has not been happening to us, so we’re going to need to address the pitching, for sure. From a starting depth standpoint to get through the last four months of the season and/or to shore up our bullpen. We play good defense. I don’t know that our run-scoring is going to stay at the clip it’s staying at right now, which is going to put more pressure on our pitching staff. I think that’s an area that almost every contender will probably have to address, but it’s certainly one we’re going to need to address.”
For all the Diamondbacks’ offensive success, they’ve been a middle-of-the-pack unit in terms of pitching — both in the rotation (4.52 ERA, 17th in MLB) and in the bullpen (4.09 ERA, 19th in MLB). The rotation numbers are a bit skewed by some early struggles from the since-released Madison Bumgarner, but there’s no getting around the fact that the Snakes are relying on a top-heavy starting staff. Gallen and Kelly have been nothing short of brilliant, both sitting on sub-3.00 ERAs through more than 70 innings. However, they’re not just the team’s only two starters with a sub-3.00 ERA — they’re the only Arizona starting pitchers with an ERA shy of 4.50.
Young arms like Tommy Henry, Ryne Nelson, Drey Jameson and Brandon Pfaadt have not performed as well as hoped in the 2023 season. Bumgarner pitched to a calamitous 10.26 ERA before being released, and fellow veteran Zach Davies has made just four starts with a 5.40 ERA this season, owing to a left oblique strain that shelved him for more than six weeks. Each of Henry, Nelson, Pfaadt, Davies and Jameson have posted below-average strikeout and walk rates when pitching out of the rotation, and of that same bunch, only Davies has managed to keep the ball in the park at an acceptable rate (0.98 HR/9).
The bullpen situation isn’t nearly as dire. Offseason signees Andrew Chafin, Miguel Castro and Scott McGough have all performed well, with Chafin’s peripherals lending particular credence to his status as a top-notch reliever. Holdovers Kevin Ginkel and Kyle Nelson both have sub-3.00 ERAs, and the D-backs will soon welcome back one of their top 2022 relievers, as lefty Joe Mantiply is on a minor league rehab assignment after missing the past month with a hamstring strain. Mantiply has only thrown 7 2/3 frames this year due to that injury and a bout with shoulder inflammation, but he’s been effective in that brief time. Meanwhile, DFA pickup Jose Ruiz and minor league signee Austin Adams have each impressed (albeit through only 4 1/3 innings for the recently selected Adams).
That doesn’t rule out the possibility of Arizona deepening the relief corps, particularly if the supply of starting pitchers is scant and asking prices prove prohibitive. However, it also seems fair to expect that rotation depth will be the priority for Hazen and his staff.
The D-backs won’t simply go into cruise control with a strong offense, however. Arizona ranks fifth in MLB with a .431 slugging percentage, but much of that is due to the team’s high batting average and glut of singles. The Diamondbacks’ 69 home runs as a team rank just 14th in MLB, and their team ISO (slugging minus batting average) is tied for ninth at .170.
Given that context, it’s perhaps not surprising that Hazen also acknowledged that the D-backs will be on the lookout for a boost in the power department. Where in the lineup or at which position on the diamond that upgrade would come remains an open question, as Hazen noted that “one through nine, I think we have a fairly consistent lineup with good hitters.”
Still, adding “a bit of slug” to the lineup will be another priority, and Hazen figures to carry a fairly open mind toward that goal, given the versatility of a number of his current contributors. Ketel Marte, Josh Rojas and Perdomo all have experience at multiple positions, while both Jake McCarthy and Carroll are capable of playing all three outfield spots.
Of course, the deadline is still more than seven weeks away, and injuries and/or a downturn in any singular player’s performance could open a more glaring need in the lineup. As it stands, the focus could well be on production over position. It’s unlikely we’ll see many — if any — major trades in the month of June, but D-backs fans can be encouraged in hearing their baseball operations leader voicing a clear intent to improve the club in multiple areas as we get into the meat of the schedule.