Commentary

Arizona Diamondbacks fantasy team preview

Updated: February 27, 2008, 11:21 AM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

It's the mirrors. How else can you explain the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks? They finished tied for last in the NL West in 2006, finished 14th in the National League in runs scored last season, were actually outscored by 20 runs for the entire season and yet somehow managed to compile the league's best record and make it all the way to the NLCS before being swept away by Colorado.

Truth be told, this is a very young team. Take the Big Unit out of the equation, and you don't have a single major contributor over the age of 32. While Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, Chris Young and Justin Upton aren't necessarily household names, they join with Orlando Hudson and "Grandpa" Eric Byrnes to make up the core of a lineup that is gaining experience as a group, and returns almost intact from last year's playoff squad.

What's Changed?

Key Additions
Dan Haren, P
Chad Qualls, P
Chris Burke, 2B-OF
Billy Buckner, P

Key Losses
Jose Valverde, P
Livan Hernandez, P
Tony Clark, 1B
Carlos Quentin, OF

And then there's the pitching. The ace of the staff, Brandon Webb, is now joined by Dan Haren, whom the team all but stole from Oakland. If a healthy Randy Johnson is added to the mix for an entire season, or even just most of it, Arizona won't need the offense to improve by much in order to have a repeat of a 90-win season. Certainly the team surprised many by trading its closer -- Jose Valverde, who led the league in saves in 2007 -- and there's no guarantee the D-backs truly have someone ready to jump in and fill that void. However, the team is confident that its pitching staff will be solid from top to bottom.

With the addition of Haren and a healthy Johnson, this pitching staff is unquestionably better than last season. The offense, having remained essentially the same, will be no worse, and with an extra year of collective experience under this young lineup's belt, should easily be better. One need only look to the .272 team batting average in September, the team's highest output of the season, for a sign of things to come.

When the Diamondbacks take a long hard look at their roster, they have to think they are indeed the fairest of them all. So there's no reason to believe the final result in 2008 will be anything but a perfect reflection of 2007, only perhaps with the fairy tale ending more appropriate for such mirror gazing.

Ballpark: Chase Field is one of the more favorable hitters' parks in the major leagues, ranking fifth in runs scored, seventh in total hits allowed and 11th in home runs allowed, according to the park factor numbers. Especially telling is the number of triples the Diamondbacks hit at home compared to on the road (31-9) showing just how much room there is for balls to elude outfielders. In fact, the park-factor numbers for three-baggers are staggering, with Chase Field ranking first by a landslide. When you take all those numbers and add them to Arizona's very low rankings in runs scored (26th overall) and OPS (24th overall), it's really hard to figure out how the Diamondbacks ended up winning 50 home games. Somebody had to be doing all that scoring in the Chase, and in 2007, it certainly doesn't appear it was the home team.

The Offense

2007 Team Stats
OBP+SLG (OPS): .734 (24th)
Runs Scored: 712 (26th)
Home Runs: 171 (16th)
Attempted Steals: 133 (11th)

Chase Field Factor:
Runs: 1.111 (5th) | HRs: 1.112 (11th)

Probable Lineup
Name
Pos
Proj. Rd*
Chris Young
CF
10
Orlando Hudson
2B
19
Conor Jackson
1B
21
Eric Byrnes
LF
4
Mark Reynolds
3B
NR
Stephen Drew
SS
23
Justin Upton
RF
24
Chris Snyder
C
NR
*Projected round a player will be drafted in an ESPN standard 10-team league.
Top Sleeper: If you started listing the names of first basemen you'd want to consider for your fantasy team, you would likely start with Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard, and after the usual suspects were gone, you'd begin to come up with promising but unproven guys like James Loney and Joey Votto. Given as much time as you needed, you still might not remember the name Conor Jackson. Sure, he's not going to stand out among the power hitters at the position, but so what? Without Tony Clark squeezing him for at-bats, he should have enough chances to improve upon his second-straight 15-homer season. Plus, he has an amazing eye, coupled with a quick bat, skills that helped him manage a .365 on-base percentage in 2007, and a second-half slugging percentage of .555. Playing full time in Chase Field, and with a little bit of luck, Jackson may even end up finishing in the top 10 in the NL batting race.

Intriguing spring battle: Actually, the Diamondbacks are pretty much set, be it in their rotation, bullpen or their starting lineup. Manager Bob Melvin has all but decided that Brandon Lyon will be the team's closer, so the lone position that has any mystery is that of catcher. Chris Snyder and Miguel Montero are set to once again share duties behind the plate, but Snyder is considered "the starter" and as such, will get the bigger piece of the playing-time pie. Melvin has said he doesn't want Montero to be just an 80-100 at-bat backup player. The tag-team tactic worked well last season, as the combined 23 home runs the pair hit would put any backstop this side of Victor Martinez to shame, if they were all embodied in one player. Of course, all of this may be made moot because a broken finger Montero suffered in winter ball simply hasn't healed yet. If the injury lingers too long, Robby Hammock may claim a more traditional backup role along with Montero's spot on the roster.

Stephania Bell on Randy Johnson

Leading off in the 40-and-over category is Johnson, who is making yet another return from back surgery. Sound grim? Well, don't let that fool you. Johnson is doing very well in his rehab; he has some things working in his favor this time around. His surgery to address the latest lumbar herniated disk took place in late July, giving him more recovery time before the start of the season than he had last year (prior back surgery was October 2006). Not only that, but he has been through it all before: the surgery, the rehab, the strengthening, the return to pitching … and knowing what to expect goes a long way in facilitating recovery. Additionally, he had already worked diligently to enhance his core strength after the first surgery, making it that much easier for him to fine-tune the system after this one.

This is not to say that Johnson is free from the risk of having more back pain, or any other injuries that can afflict 44-year-old pitchers, for that matter. But he still was effective when healthy last year, delivering strikeouts and winning games. In fact, prior to his diagnosis of a recurrent herniated disk, he had 42 strikeouts in five starts, with a 1.52 ERA. Johnson still has "the arm of a 25-year-old," according to manager Bob Melvin, and he is expected to be ready when pitchers and catchers report to spring workouts in mid-February. He is motivated, confident and, all things considered, relatively healthy. This looks to be a good year ahead for the Big Unit, and he could be a good value pitcher for fantasy owners.

Trainer's room: After his second back surgery in as many years, Randy Johnson is going to be treated with kid gloves this spring. No fielding practice allowed! Put that bat down, Randy! So far, so good. But with Johnson, it seems he's at a point in his career where it isn't a matter of "if" he'll get hurt, but rather "when." Early reports have been promising and assuming there's no setback, Randy could well take the No. 2 spot in the rotation, so that the two left-handers (Johnson and Doug Davis) aren't pitching on consecutive nights. However, if any red flags go up at all, don't be surprised to see Randy drop down to the No. 5 spot, which would accomplish the same "splitting the lefties up" goal, but also ease his early-season workload.

In other injury news, Orlando Hudson is good to go after season-ending surgery on a ligament in his left hand in September. The same can't be said for Chad Tracy, who needed microfracture surgery on his knee. He's had some setbacks in his rehab process, and expects to be running for the first time in late February. Still, he is optimistic about making the opening day roster, if only as a potential pinch hitter. Should Tracy make a full recovery, he'll most likely steal time from third baseman Mark Reynolds, especially if Reynolds struggles out of the gate.

Schedule Preview: We've mentioned how much Chase Field tends to favor hitters and hurt pitchers. Fortunately, the Diamondbacks' 2008 schedule contains three huge stretches where you can play these percentages to your advantage. A stretch of 16 home games out of 19 from April 28 to May 18 would be a good time to get those Arizona bats in, and the arms out, of your lineup. Then from July 8 to Aug. 3, 15 out of 21 games on the road looks like a key stretch for the pitching staff to shine. If you're ooking for a late-season surge, you've come to the right place. With 12 of 15 games at home from Aug. 19 to Sept. 3, you should see the offensive production from Arizona increase. Certainly over the course of a long season, statistics do tend to level out to where they are supposed to be, but if you're looking to make some "buy low" and "sell high" roster moves, these dates can provide you with a guide for when to make your move.

Future Closer: It's not often that a team trades away the league leader in saves, but Arizona did just that, sending Jose Valverde to Houston in exchange for reliever Chad Qualls, utility man Chris Burke and pitching prospect Juan Gutierrez. When the deal was made, it was assumed that Qualls, Brandon Lyon and Tony Pena would all spend the spring competing for the vacated closer job, but apparently that's not the case. Manager Bob Melvin says he believes in "defined roles" and has taken steps to make sure everyone knows exactly where he stands. Qualls will be the seventh-inning guy, Pena will be the eighth-inning guy and Brandon Lyon will be the closer. It makes sense to give the job to Lyon. After all, he has some experience in the job, having saved 14 games for the Diamondbacks in 2005, as well as compiling nine saves with Boston in 2003. But more importantly, if Lyon fails, the team can always insert Pena into the job and Lyon would probably be able to recover. If the roles were reversed and Pena failed in the job, the damage to his young psyche might not be as easily repaired.

The Rotation

2007 Starters Stats
Record: 60-53 (13th)
ERA: 4.23 (6th) | WHIP: 1.41 (16th)
Batting Average Against: .271 (10th)
Home Runs Allowed: 118 (13th)
Team Fielding Percentage: .983 (21st)

Chase Field Factor:
Runs: 1.111 (5th) | HRs: 1.112 (11th)

Projected Rotation
Name
Proj. Rd*
No. 1
Brandon Webb
3
No. 2
Randy Johnson
NR
No. 3
Dan Haren
5
No. 4
Doug Davis
NR
No. 5
Micah Owings
23
No. 6
Edgar Gonzalez
NR
*Projected round a player will be drafted in an ESPN standard 10-team league.
Backups to watch: We've already talked about Chad Tracy, and the possibility of him usurping Mark Reynolds at third base. We'd be remiss though if we failed to mention Chris Burke, who gives Arizona tons of flexibility. He can play pretty much everywhere on the field, so should there be a major injury in the starting lineup, Burke is the most likely candidate to step up, be it at shortstop or center field. Burke has some nice speed, and a little bit of pop in his bat, but what's keeping him from becoming a candidate for a full-time job is his glaring inability to hit right-handed pitchers. Let's face it, a .197 average isn't going to cut it on the major league level. Still, if the opportunity does crop up, he may just rise to the occasion and help you in at least a couple of categories.

Fantasy Studs: Brandon Webb won the Cy Young Award in 2006, and nearly won it again in 2007, finishing second in the voting. With all due respect to Jake Peavy, considering Webb's home stadium and the fact that Arizona scored three runs or fewer in nine of his 10 losses, he may well have deserved the honor last season, too. Webb may be selected after Peavy and new-to-the-NL Johan Santana, but there isn't another name I'd put ahead of him.

Dan Haren may not be too far behind Webb. Look at Haren's 2007 first-half numbers: 9-2 with a 1.91 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP. Now it's true his second half didn't exactly live up to the expectations set up by those first-half numbers, but imagine how much easier it would have been for Haren to keep up that pace without that meddling designated hitter? Actually, no need to imagine: In 12 interleague games the past three seasons (i.e., versus NL opponents), Haren has a 2.93 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP and a .219 batting average against. When facing AL opponents, he posted a 3.74 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and .258 BAA.

Prospect to watch for 2008: Justin Upton made his major league debut last season and the team made sure to ease the 19-year-old into the show by not starting him against tough right-handed pitchers. He'd come into games in the seventh inning or later, or he'd leave games early for pinch hitters. This year, there will be no babying. Right field is his job to lose, which is why Carlos Quentin now finds himself residing in the Windy City. There's no question Upton is a star in the making, but unless you're in a keeper league, you need to show patience. There will be an adjustment period. But once he makes that adjustment? Watch out!

The Bullpen

2007 Relievers Stats
Record: 30-19 (3rd)
Saves/Opps: 51/66 (3rd)
ERA: 3.95 (13th) | WHIP: 1.34 (10th)
Batting Average Against: .245 (8th)
Strikeouts per 9 innings: 7.55 (10th)

Projected Bullpen
Name
Proj. Rd*
Closer
Brandon Lyon
23
Setup**
Tony Pena
NR
Setup
Chad Qualls
NR
Setup
Doug Slaten
NR
*Projected round a player will be drafted in an ESPN standard 10-team league.
**Closer-in-waiting
Prospects to watch for the future: Max Scherzer was the pitcher the Diamondbacks were adamant about not giving away in the Dan Haren deal. The young right-hander struck out 76 batters in just over 73 innings in Double-A last season, and even though there's an outside shot he might be able to make the 2008 team in a relief role, with Randy Johnson getting up there in years, it makes far more sense to give Scherzer a full season as a starter at Triple-A to prep him for a 2009 debut.

Emilio Bonifacio is a speed demon, swiping 41 bases at Double-A. His play impressed Bob Melvin enough that when Orlando Hudson went down with his hand injury in September, Bonifacio made the jump. Certainly, there's a long way to go between today and 2009, but we could definitely see Bonifacio on the Diamondbacks' roster, possibly even in the starting role.

Games plateau: We couldn't finish this preview without at least acknowledging the rumors that pitcher Micah Owings, who won the Silver Slugger award for best hitting pitcher in 2007, with a .333 average, four home runs and 15 RBIs, was going to be practicing at first base during the spring, so that his bat could be utilized on days he wasn't on the mound. That idea has been scuttled as both the risk of injury and the possibility of affecting his pitching performance are simply too great. That doesn't mean Owings won't be called upon to pinch hit, especially in extra-inning affairs; but it does mean that he won't be qualifying as a positional player anytime soon. Still, if you plan on drafting Owings, who could well be a 10-game winner this season, it might be a good idea to lobby your league's commissioner to let hitting stats for pitchers count. It probably won't happen, but it certainly couldn't hurt to try.

A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.