PHOENIX (AP) – The Arizona Diamondbacks were one of baseball’s big surprises a year ago. The surprise this year would be if they don’t keep winning.
“Last year we kind of snuck up on people and had to earn their respect,” said Torey Lovullo, the National League manager of the year in his first season in the desert. “I think we’ve done that, which I’m very proud of.”
Nearly everyone is back from the team that went 93-69 – 24 more wins than the previous year – and earned the National League’s No. 1 wild card spot. Optimism abounds in the clubhouse.
“We learned from last year,” outfielder David Peralta said, “and that’s why we’re going to be better this year.”
Not quite everybody returns. The glaring omission is outfielder J.D. Martinez, whose torrid performance after he came in a mid-season trade with Detroit (29 home runs, 65 RBIs in 62 games), carried the Diamondbacks down the stretch. Arizona couldn’t afford to keep the free agent Martinez but tried to make up for some of that lost offense with a three-team trade that brought outfielder Steven Souza Jr. from Tampa Bay.
Souza batted only .239 last season but hit 30 home runs and drove in 78, adding a big bat to join Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb, although slamming them out at home might be a bit more difficult as the team uses a humidor for its baseballs at Chase Field this season.
All five starters are back from a rotation that was among the better ones in the game last year led by Zack Greinke (17-7, 3.20 ERA, 215 strikeouts) and Robbie Ray (15-5, 2.89 and 218 strikeouts).
Ace reliever and reigning Diamondbacks free spirit Archie Bradley described the team around him.
“Growing experience,” he said. “I would say the experience we went through last year, experiencing and growing, learning how to win. ... Realizing what good teams do to win and what it takes to win day in and day out in this league, especially in our division, being so tough.”
The team picks up where it left off last year and improves, avoiding key injuries, to find a way to unseat the Dodgers in the NL West. The Dodgers abruptly ended Arizona 2017 success story by sweeping the Diamondbacks in the NLDS.
Injuries hit important players, the bullpen falters, Greinke has a down year and the team tumbles back toward the bottom of the division.
The return of Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings from injuries gives the Diamondbacks a deep infield, with Ketel Marte – strong at shortstop when he came up from Triple-A Reno and filled in last year – playing some at second to make room for Ahmed, one of the game’s best defensive players.
Owings, normally a shortstop, can play second, third and in the outfield, as can Daniel Descalso (who also can play first).
The quiet anchor of this team is the five-time All-Star first baseman, who remains one of baseball’s biggest bargains from a contract he signed long ago when he was just emerging as a star.
Despite a slump in the final weeks, Goldschmidt had another huge season, batting .297 with 36 home runs and 120 RBIs. He also stole 30 bases and earned his third Gold Glove.
The Diamondbacks team ERA of 3.66 was third-best in baseball (behind Cleveland and the Dodgers) and a big reason was a strong starting rotation that returns intact.
Before faltering in the playoffs, Greinke rebounded into form after a down first year in Arizona. His 215 strikeouts were the second-most of his career. Ray, meanwhile, had a breakout season, finishing third in the National League in strikeouts.
Lefty Patrick Corbin had a strong second half of the season to go 14-13 with a 4.03 ERA. Then there are right-handers Taijuan Walker (9-9, 3.49) and Zack Godley (8-9, 3.37).
Godley (165 strikeouts in 155 innings) could be poised for a breakout year after coming up last year to fill in when Shelby Miller required Tommy John surgery.
Arizona held a three-man competition to fill the role of departed closer Fernando Rodney between Bradley, Brad Boxberger and Yoshihisa Hirano.
Bradley was among the game’s best setup men last year, with a 1.73 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 73 innings pitched. Boxberger, acquired from Tampa Bay, led the American League in saves with 41 two years ago but has been slowed by injuries since. Hirano, 33, was a successful closer in Japan and will be making his MLB debut.