Justin Upton having MVP-type season
MORE BARK OR BITE?
Editor's note: Throughout August, ESPN.com will take a close look at various teams in the hunt for a playoff spot to assess whether they have what it takes to survive the dog days of August and remain in contention come October.
At the bottom of the page, each team will receive a dog bone rating based on our overall analysis: five bones = serious postseason contender; four bones = good contender; three bones = average contender; two bones = poor contender; one bone = no contender.
Although Justin Upton only recently entered the serious National League MVP talks, he has been the big dog for Arizona all year long. On pace for a plus-.300-30-100 season, Upton is finally starting to reach the unlimited potential he possesses. Even scarier is that he's only 24. Upton broke into the big leagues in 2007, the same year Arizona last reached the postseason. But this time around is different; this is his team and he'll be a big reason why the D-backs will or will not play in October.
In August, the combined batting average of Chris Young and Kelly Johnson is .242. Again, that's combined. And although the D-backs, after losing Jason Marquis to injury, desperately need a fifth starter, Young and Johnson are more crucial to the team's success. As of Thursday, Arizona's second best hitter in on-base percentage, Gerardo Parra at .356, bats eighth in the lineup. Young and Johnson typically sandwich Upton in the order, so their success will ultimately lead to even bigger and better things for Upton.
The improvement the Diamondbacks' bullpen has made this season has had a significant impact in more ways than one. The team has reduced its bullpen ERA from 5.74 last season to 3.77 in 2011, which has led to leads being preserved more effectively and the team's offense flourishing late in games.
The Diamondbacks' bullpen has limited home runs (only allowing one every 12 innings this season, compared to one per seven innings in 2010) and their hitters have specialized in the go-ahead home run. The Diamondbacks have eight go-ahead home runs in the eighth inning or later this season, tied for second most in the majors.
Arizona's resurgence has also been keyed by an MVP-caliber season from Upton, who is among the major league leaders in total bases and wins above replacement. Upton has improved significantly in one important area from last season: He's on pace to reduce his strikeout total considerably. He has become a much more aggressive hitter with two strikes than he was last season. He already has more two-strike extra-base hits in 2011 (18) than he did in all of 2010 (17).
Make no mistake about it, Trevor Bauer is good. With a low-to-mid-90s fastball, knee-buckling curve and diving changeup, he has three-plus pitches, and he'll even throw a solid slider on occasion to provide a different look to hitters. He throws strikes, he maintains his stuff deep into games and he was the best pitcher in college baseball this spring while having yet to be challenged as a pro. "It's always worked for him and I think it always will," one National League scout said. "I think he'd be fine in the big leagues, and he won't be afraid."
There's little doubt Bauer can handle big league hitters, but the length of Bauer's season, as well as his heavy workload at UCLA, should indicate to the Diamondbacks that while flags fly forever, it might not be worth risking the career of a potential ace. UCLA's baseball season began in February, with practices starting in January. That means that other than a six-week break between his final outing for the Bruins and his pro debut, Bauer has been pitching for eight months already, and to extend him into the playoffs could stretch that into the 10-month range, a risky endeavor for a 20-year-old.
For more of Kevin Goldstein's analysis, click here.