With the additions of Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller to the rotation, there seems to be instant credibility to the Diamondbacks up-coming season. This test will likely come during spring training. That’s when manager Chip Hale and his team should be inundated by the national media and the prospects of endless interviews.
While the Diamondbacks seemed to be have improved, at least from the vision of the starting rotation, there is one dimension which needs to be considered. With less than two months before pitches and catchers report to Salt River, the Diamondbacks spring training facility, the rotation appears set. With Greinke and Miller at the top, lefties Patrick Corbin and Robby Ray, along with righty Rubby De La Rosa, are the projected five.
In that vein, it’s the hope and probably the expectation of Hale and other Arizona decision-makers that the starters eat innings. If these five can constantly go deep into games, that will lessen the pressure on the bullpen, and save arms at critical times.
At the same time, the Diamondbacks will entrust to ball to closer Brad Ziegler as one who will slam the door on opponents in the ninth inning. While Ziegler has shown to be an effective set-up reliever and one for getting a critical double-play grounder at an important time, the physical burden on this 36-year-old old could be demanding.
Ziegler ended last season by converting 28 straight save opportunities and that streak will continue into the up-coming season. While Ziegler is franchise-holder for most appearances with 312, his age and health could be factors on his productivity.
On Sept. 9, 2014, Ziegler underwent season-ending microfracture surgery on his left knee, and continued to ice his knee periodically through last season Then again, the barometer for efficiency in saves is around 45 for a team which is considered a contender. By comparison, the top three in saves last season all were part of NL playoff teams. Mark Melancon of the Pirates topped the National League with 51 saves and that was followed by Trevor Rosenthal of the Cardinals (48), and Jeurys Familia of the Mets with 43 saves.
Going forward, the issue with Ziegler will be the physical demand and how well he can handle the dramatic conditions of a potential ninth inning save in consecutive or three nights in a row. Throughout last season, Ziegler said he would do whatever it would take to help his team. That included reverting back to his previous role as set-up reliever or the demands of a closer. Clearly, Ziegler was most effective over the last two months of the season and his 28 straight saves tied a franchise mark established by J. J. Putz from the end of the 2011 season and into the 2012 season.
If Ziegler’s role is magnified, the essence of the starters also comes into this discussion. Hale and others seem to be count on the starters to go deep into games and, in some cases, this is supported by past performance. The usual benchmark for longevity is 200 innings turned in for a season.
In the case of Greinke, his numbers are telling. For his 12-year major league career, Greinke threw 2,094 innings and measures out to an average of 174 innings per season. Yet, consider the six seasons in which he started 30 or more games. Here, that averages out to 214.5 innings per season, and the Diamondbacks hope for that kind of production.
Only four years into his major league career, Miller has increased his innings every season over the past three years. With the Cardinals in 2013, he when 15-9 and threw 173 innings. In 2014, also with St, Louis, Miller was 10-9, but increased his innings to 183. Last season with the Braves, he went 6-17, but passed the 200 inning plateau with 205 innings.
Corbin, who came off of Tommy John surgery last season to record a 6-5 mark, threw 85 innings. In his NL All-Star season of 2013, in which Corbin went 14-8, he threw 208 innings. By the end of the last season, he said he was frustrated for not going longer into games. At the same time, Corbin recognized that the Diamondbacks’ medical staff was clearly cautious in light of his major surgery. Following his final start of last season on Oct. 1 at home against the Rockies, Corbin earned a no-decision, but said afterward, “my goal for next season is 170 innings.”
The other two projected starters showed capability to stretching innings. De La Rosa, who finished with a team high 14 victories (14-8), threw 188 innings while Ray, at 5-12, worked 127 innings.
All of which could portend the rotation foreshadowing the desire of Hale and other decision-makers. While the starters may deliver on their promise of longevity, one outstanding question, as Hale looks forward to opening day, is the durability, resiliency and production of Ziegler as closer. Should the Diamondbacks get important innings out of their starters and the closer, who ever that turns out to be or by committee, can effectively save between 43 and 50 games, then this team could be playing baseball late into October.