Diamondbacks may be best in West
August, 1, 2012
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Dodgers, Giants, Giants, Dodgers. Hanley! Hunter!
And ... on the outside ... don't forget about the Arizona Diamondbacks. Remember them? Last year's National League West division champions. Had that monster second half. Won 16 of 18 games in late August and early September to blow open the division.
Remember them? Well, here they are again. They were as many as 11.5 games out in late May. Daniel Hudson, a 16-game winner in 2011, went down for the season. Justin Upton was being shopped around. Kirk Gibson didn't seem so scrappy and tough when his team was six games under .500.
Here they are. They blanked the Dodgers 4-0 on Wednesday afternoon to complete an impressive three-game sweep, outscoring the Dodgers 19-4. Patrick Corbin, recalled from the minors to make his first start since May 21, combined with three relievers on the two-hitter. Paul Goldschmidt continued his torrid hitting with a 3-for-3 day. With 10 wins in their past 13 games, the Diamondbacks now are 1.5 games behind the Dodgers for second in the division, and 2.5 behind the Giants. The Dodgers and first-place Giants added reinforcements at the deadline because they needed help; the Diamondbacks didn't do much because they didn't have to.
There's pressure for general managers to make moves at the deadline -- from fans, sometimes from ownership, sometimes even from players on the major league roster. The D-backs quietly acquired third baseman Chris Johnson from the Astros a few days before the deadline, an under-the-radar move that plugged the one problem position for the team. While Johnson wasn't a headline acquisition, his season wOBA (weighted on-base average) is .336 while Hanley Ramirez's is .328.
Otherwise, like last season, the Diamondbacks decided to put faith in what they already had, to believe in their young players. They could have traded Upton; instead they made the smart choice to say he's probably better than what they could get for him right now. A year ago, instead of trading for a mediocre veteran first baseman such as Derrek Lee, they gave the job to Goldschmidt, skipping him past Double-A. He responded by hitting a solid .250/.333/.474 (BA/OBP/SLG) in 48 games. As the deadline approached the past couple of days, there were rumors the D-backs were in on a starting pitcher, maybe Ryan Dempster or Matt Garza. Instead, they'll once again stick with their own guys.
Corbin began the season in Double-A before making five starts for Arizona in April and May. After some time in Reno, a couple of weeks in the major league bullpen and then more time in Reno, the left-hander was called up to replace Josh Collmenter in the rotation.
"I feel a lot more comfortable now and I feel like I should be up here," Corbin said after Wednesday's game.
"That's the biggest difference -- feeling comfortable and going out there knowing you can pitch against these guys. ... My breaking ball was a good pitch for me coming up through the minor leagues, and I didn't have it my first time up here," he added. "But I gained it back when I was in the bullpen and then continued with it in Reno. Today I was throwing it for strikes, getting ahead of guys and then finishing them with it."
Corbin joins rookie All-Star Wade Miley in the rotation. Rookie Trevor Bauer, now back at Reno, made four starts earlier. Don't be surprised if hard-throwing lefty Tyler Skaggs -- 8-5 with a 2.59 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A -- makes an appearance in the rotation at some point.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had called this a "trap series" before the first game. "This series scared me from the beginning," he said. "They hurt us with the long ball all three games, and we weren't hitting the ball."
He should be scared. For starters, look at the season run differential for the three NL West leaders after Wednesday's action: Giants plus-5, Dodgers plus-7, Diamondbacks plus-44. No, that hasn't helped Arizona to a better record right now, but it is a good sign of overall team strength moving forward. As for those reinforcements, consider that heading into Wednesday's games:
- Diamondbacks third basemen had been outhit by Dodgers third basemen; the Dodgers have a .687 OPS from third base, the Diamondbacks .644. So Johnson upgrades third base arguably as much as Ramirez does for the Dodgers.
- Giants right fielders are hitting .268/.349/.432. Hunter Pence is hitting .271/.336/.447. Factor in that Pence was plying his trade in Philadelphia and now has to go to a tougher hitters' park, it's possible the Giants won't be getting better production from right field, especially when you factor in that Pence is a defensive downgrade from Gregor Blanco and Nate Schierholtz. Now, that doesn't mean Pence won't help the Giants. It's possible the Giants weren't going to continue getting that kind of production from right field. Or they can slide Blanco over to center to spell Angel Pagan. The larger point is that Pence mostly just maintains what the Giants have received so far from right field.
- Shane Victorino looks like a bigger upgrade for the Dodgers. He's hitting .261/.324/.401, which isn't great but is better than the Dodgers' current left-field line of .256/.326/.345. Plus, he should be a big defensive upgrade over Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera.
- But ... can't Arizona expect the same kind of increased production from Upton in right field the rest of the way?
ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski ran the deadline trades through his ZiPS projection system and how the trades increased each team's playoff chances. He has the Dodgers' chances improving 15.4 percent, the Giants' chances dropping 0.7 percent and the D-backs' chances dropping 6.5 percent.
That doesn't necessarily mean the Dodgers are the team to beat. They still have a gaping hole at first base named James Loney. They don't have a fifth starter. Chris Capuano got hit hard in July (5.14 ERA). The Dodgers and Giants also rank 15th and 16th in the NL in home runs.
It's August 1. Right now, I expect the NL West to be a three-team race down to the wire. And I'm going with the Diamondbacks to pull it out.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuDesmond Jennings pops up from his slide with so much flash that Eric Sogard has to look away.