Turning the Page to 2021 A Balancing Act for D-backs

The Arizona Diamondbacks kicked off their 2021 season on Wednesday with pitchers and catchers reporting to Salt River Fields. It’s a new year and a different feel from last year’s spring training session.

The team pushed all (well, many) of their proverbial chips to the center of the table for the 2020 season. After exceeding expectations in 2019, signing Madison Bumgarner to a four-year deal and trading promising prospects to Pittsburgh for All-Star centerfielder Starling Marte, events happened that weren’t on anyone’s radar: baseball, sports and the world stopped.

The coronavirus pandemic made it so a 2020 season almost didn’t happen and when it did, it was a quick ramp-up period to a condensed season. No matter what way it’s examined, the team underachieved. A group that had deep playoff aspirations will end up picking fifth in the 2021 draft, and it wasn’t one area of concern.

Eduardo Escobar’s numbers plummeted. Ketel Marte found his way on base plenty but hit only two home runs after knocking 32 out of the park in 2019. The team hit the second-fewest home runs in Major League Baseball.

Diamondback pitchers walked the second most batters in the National League. Virtually every pitcher aside from Zac Gallen, Stefan Crichton and Merrill Kelly saw their ERA inflate.  

Starling Marte, Robbie Ray, Archie Bradley and Andrew Chafin were all dealt for younger players at the trade deadline. The Dodgers and Padres, who were already on a collision course for the National League West crown, added Trevor Bauer, David Price, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell. The Diamondbacks’ offseason additions were headlined by Joakim Soria and Asdrubel Cabrera. 

It’s virtually the same group that struggled in 2020 that needs to perform in 2021. Mike Hazen opted for this route in his first year as general manager and the team made it to the National League Division Series. But these circumstances are much different than they were entering the 2017 season. Part of the decision to hold steady is confidence that this roster currently constructed can compete. The financial impact of fanless baseball in 2020 also plays a role. Many teams will need to get creative in how they approach their salaries after steep losses last year. Regardless of the reasons, the organization is hopeful standing pat with their roster and banking on bounce-backs can lead to them competing in the toughest division in baseball.

But it’s a tough tight rope to walk when it comes to evaluating last season. The starting and stopping and starting again was far from ideal. Playing in front of dozens instead of thousands was an adjustment. The typical stress of a Major League season was compounded with protocols to prevent the virus from entering the building. The 162-game marathon became a 60-game sprint.

But these new factors weren’t exclusive to the Diamondbacks.  

“It was (a different season) for everyone,” Bumgarner said on Wednesday. “It was an even playing field. We just didn’t do what we wanted to do and it just didn’t work out for us. You have to find a way to get past that and compete this year.”

The future Hall of Famer’s debut season in the desert was a microcosm of the Diamondbacks’ year. He posted a 6.42 ERA in 41.2 innings. His strikeouts per 9 innings was down. His hits per 9 innings was a career worst. He gave up home runs twice as frequently than his previous career worst in that department in 2017.

While he isn’t dodging the bad numbers or poor performance, Bumgarner put 2020 into context to prepare for the upcoming season.

“As far as my baseball career, I’m not going to let three months change 10 or 12 years of what I’ve done,” Bumgarner said.

“I probably had 10 or 12 starts strung together that were similar to the year I had last year. There were just 18 or 20 more (starts) to overshadow them.”

Despite the less than ideal circumstances, it gave Torey Lovullo a chance to evaluate his present and future roster.

“Part of me wants to put (last year) in a bag and punt it,” Lovullo said. “But I did get a snapshot at what some guys can do and what some guys need work on. So we’re never ever going to take our ability to evaluate for granted.

“We did constantly evaluate but we have to be careful at a certain over-evaluation at key points with certain key guys. I think it’s been very healthy with the conversations we’ve had with the guys leading up to spring training. I know they’re very eager.”

Lovullo also had to use the offseason to look inward. Heading into the last year of his contract, he admits portions of last year “slipped away” from him. He had to process the frustrations of 2020’s season to be able to look ahead to 2021.

“I got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Lovullo said. “I think I always do, but a little more so this year. I’m very eager to get going. I’m very eager to see what direction this team starts moving in day by day throughout the course of the spring. It’s my job to make sure they’re ready day one and I think they will be.”

Using that chip to their advantage can help in the underdog role they’ll play this upcoming season. Fangraphs recently posted the postseason odds for each club, and only three clubs have worse odds in the National League to make the playoffs.

But being under the radar and finding balance between accountability and acceptance of the 2020 struggles could help the club defy projections in 2021.

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