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Series preview: Who are the Diamondbacks and what do they want?

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We thought they’d be bad, but they’re actually... pretty good?

Arizona Diamondbacks v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

I love haircuts. I have to get one every three weeks or so just to look like a normal-ish person. Otherwise, it gets shaggy and weird and given the odd shape of my face it quickly combines to form a staggeringly unflattering portrait of a sad, talentless person.

This is why the Diamondbacks traded Paul Goldschmidt in the offseason.

While it’s true that teams could afford virtually any player for any salary and it’s true that teams have an incentive to lock up their marquee names for their entire careers, that doesn’t mean it’s always the best course of action to throw free agent or extension money at rosters and hope for the best.

That’s almost exactly how the Giants got into their current predicament and why their rebuild will take years, not months.

So, the Diamondbacks opted to avoid the Giants’ painful situation and the fate that has befallen so many high salaried teams whose competitive window has closed by giving themselves a haircut. Trade away Paul Goldschmidt to avoid the headache of having him reject a qualifying offer and leave for another team in free agency, gaining a draft pick but with no guarantee of anything there... let Patrick Corbin walk and trust that your drafting and development can net you a comparable pitcher at some point in the near future.

The Diamondbacks also avoided the pesky issue of winning three world championships in a five year span, but that’s irrelevant to this preview. They did trade away their best hitter and face of the franchise and allowed perhaps their best pitcher to leave in free agency, though.

So, who are they and what do they want?

Well... they seem to be competitors. They seem to be anti-tank. Despite those major moves or non-move, they’ve managed a 24-20 record eight weeks into the season. That’s just one win off of last year’s record through May 16th (25-18).

It hasn’t all been letting favorites walk or trading away top talent. The Diamondbacks made some supplementary moves in the offseason in the hope that they would be enough to supplement the core they held onto post-Corbin and Goldschmidt and still compete.

  • Adam Jones signed about a week and a half into spring training and has posted an .850 OPS in 180 plate appearances.
  • Christian Walker was a waiver claim back in 2017 and after two full seasons in Triple-A and a ~.950 OPS in 1,048 at bats, the Diamondbacks handed him Paul Goldschmidt’s old job and have been rewarded with a Paul Goldschmidt level of performance through the first quarter of the season (.901 OPS in 168 PA).
  • Merrill Kelly was a 30-year old minor league free agent whom they signed in December. He’s now their #4 or #5 starter (he’ll start the series opener on Friday night). Had never logged a major league inning until this season. He’s made eight starts, four at home and four on the road. In those four home starts, he’s posted a 3.20 ERA and a 21:3 strikeouts to walk ratio, a staggering contrast with his road results (6.53 ERA / 15K : 14BB).
  • Their starting catcher, Carson Kelly, was acquired in that Goldschmidt trade and has a 105 OPS+ in 80 PA to go along with plus defense (+1 Defensive Run Saved or +1.9 Defense Runs Above Average).
  • Greg Holland was signed just before spring training and has revived his career as a closer. He has 20 strikeouts in 15 innings to go with 8 saves (one blown save).

So, maybe the Diamondbacks didn’t start a rebuild. They gave themselves a haircut. The Giants had this option in 2017, when it was clear that the team wasn’t going to compete that year. They might’ve been able to move a younger, talented player like, oh, Brandon Belt, or maybe even... no, Belt was the only good, movable piece who wouldn’t have hobbled the Giants’ foundation were he have been moved.

Does this mean I admire the Diamondbacks for what they accomplished? No. They’re still the Diamondbacks. Too many uniforms. A comical reliance on grit and bravado. And, they’re paying Zack Greinke $34 million a year after choosing to not have Paul Goldschmidt.

As for the series itself, I’ve always viewed these first couple of road trips to Arizona as being season-defining. At least, it has felt like virtually every series in Arizona is season-defining or momentum-creating. If we just go back to 2017, the opening series defined that season.

Going back further in time, though, I always think about this 2001 series that really gave the Giants a huge boost. There are more examples, but I’m not going to cover them because I’ve wasted so much time talking about haircuts. Suffice it to say, the Giants could very well revitalize themselves with a strong performance this weekend.

They’ve been remarkably bad on the road the past few seasons (66-117 since the start of 2017), but were 6-4 in Arizona last year and they won’t have to face Greinke this series, as the Zackmaster is on the IL. They will have to face Robbie Ray on Sunday, though, and all he’s done is put up a 2.89 ERA in 11 career starts against the Giants, striking out 83 in 62.1 IP.

They’ve also never faced Merrill Kelly. The Giants are always the worst version of themselves when they matchup against a pitcher they’ve never seen before.

Still, it’s important to note that Pablo Sandoval has a solid career line against the Diamondbacks

123 G | 492 PA | .323 / .378 / .503 (.881 OPS) | 143 H | 14 HR

Could this weekend be Pablo’s last gasp of greatness for the Giants or his last weekend as a Giant if a big sell-off is near?

Pitcher to watch

Archie Bradley and Zack Godley are two Diamondbacks whose status with the team is up in the air at the moment. Godley was taken out of the rotation, but Bradley being moved out of a setup or late inning role creates a bit of a void in Arizona’s bullpen ahead of Greg Holland.

On that note, I should make 26-year old Yoan Lopez (1.06 ERA in 17 IP) the one to watch, but I’m circling back on Bradley. Suppose Torey Lovullo decides tonight or tomorrow to throw Bradley into a high leverage situation against the bottom of the Giants’ order — y’know, just to see if he’s really as bad as the numbers reflect (11.37 ERA in 6.1 May innings; 10 earned runs in 18.1 innings on the season) — a lot will be hinging on this appearance besides the game itself.

When players can’t perform against the Giants, their careers are put in jeopardy. Bradley’s just 26 years old, of course, and barring any health concerns, he should pitch for a few more years, but imagine the setback he’ll experience if he can’t bail out the Diamondbacks against one of the worst offenses in the history of professional sports.

On the other hand, imagine the opportunity for the Giants here to once again get to the opposition’s bullpen late in the game. Makes it easy to dream about the team having a solid showing this weekend... if they can, y’know, keep the other team from scoring so much.

Hitter to watch

David Peralta is dealing with a minor arm injury, so there’s a nonzero chance he’ll be limited this weekend. That would be very good news for the Giants. Dude has been raking. He’s tied with Javier Baez for the second-most hits in MLB (57) behind Cody Bellinger (61); although, because of how baseball works now, those 57 hits don’t mean all that much.

Peralta is just 33rd in wOBA (weighted on base average) at .373. A lot of that has to do with a 5.7% walk rate to 24% strikeout rate and just six home runs. He does, however, have the second-most doubles in baseball (16).

The 31-year old outfielder has basically reached his projected ceiling, and it’s a good one. Can his hot start overcome the Giants’ relative management of his skill set? In 240 career plate appearances, he has just a .771 OPS. Only the Dodgers have done better against him in the NL West (.754 OPS in 250 PA).

Prediction

This won’t make any sense, but given the series’ history, given Pablo Sandoval’s tremendous track record against the franchise and his current league average hot streak, and given that the Giants will deploy Aaron Altherr and Tyler Austin against the normally formidable (against the Giants, anyway) Robbie Ray on Saturday, I’m saying the Giants will win two out of three.

I know, I know. Makes no sense. Shouldn’t be possible, but here I am, making that very prediction. Will it be season-defining like previous series? Uh... sure. Why not? 20-25 looks better than 19-26 or 18-27. That record wouldn’t preclude a sell-off. That’s in the cards no matter what. But just imagine the possibility of rebuilding on the fly. A haircut.