For the first time in three years, pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in mid-February and things are, dare I say, normal. The Diamondbacks are back.
No masks, no restrictions, no Zoom interviews. Just baseball, unhindered. Is this heaven? No, it’s Arizona.
The D-backs did not make any big splashes in free agency this offseason, but they did make one big trade and sign several free agents. No one will call them the favorites in the NL West, but they have piled up enough young talent to be more interesting than their 74-win 2022 season would have you believe.
Without further ado, here are eight storylines to keep an eye on this spring as Opening Day 2023 draws closer.
1. Adapting to the rule changes
Adjusting to the rule changes that Major League Baseball is introducing in 2023 will arguably be every team’s most important spring training storyline. If you’re not familiar, the changes consist of three main components: a pitch clock, shift restrictions and bigger bases. The pitch clock will likely require more conscious adjustments than either of the others.
“It was a big topic for the staff [on Tuesday],” manager Torey Lovulllo said. “We talked about how to get the information to the pitchers. And it was a first meeting we had [Wednesday] here in the tent, telling the pitchers what the new rules were. We had the minor-league staff that’s been used to it over the past year speak up and talk about it, and they brought up a lot of the challenges that they faced.
“It will become a new normal.”
Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, revealed in a media session on Tuesday that umpires will also be more vigilant about calling balks in 2023 than in past years. The MLB rulebook stipulates that a pitcher working out of the stretch must come to a complete stop before delivering a pitch — a rule that, according to Sword, has not been properly enforced in recent years. Careful enforcement of the rule is necessary for the pitch clock operator to know when to stop the clock. (The clock stops when the pitcher starts his motion.)
Along the same lines, MLB also plans to crack down on what the rulebook deems “illegal pitches.” When working out of the windup, pitchers are only permitted to take one step back and one step forward before throwing the ball. A number of funky deliveries have emerged over the years that do not abide by the rule and should have been violations all along. A violation results in an automatic ball.
Lovullo said he does not know yet which, if any, of his pitchers will need to alter their pitching motions to abide by the new rules, but suffice it to say that pitchers were unenthused by the potential ramifications.
“It was an uncomfortable conversation,” Lovullo said. “The guys were all kind of shaking their head. But what I said was … I don’t want to hear anybody complaining about it. We have to adapt to it. It’s not going away. So, we’ll find out who needs to make some adjustments, and we’ll get it done.”
In order to simulate the pitch clock on the backfields, Lovullo said the team will soon use pitch timers during bullpens and live batting practice sessions.
In addition to the pitch clock, the new shift restrictions will also require teams and players tom make adjustments. The shift is not banned, you see. It is just restricted. That means that, while teams will not be able to execute every shift from the 2022 playbook, some shifts are still valid — as long as they meet two requirements. First, there must be at least two defenders on either side of second base. Second, all infielders must have both feet on the infield dirt. Teams are also prohibited from having a defender switch sides of second base within any particular inning, which was previously a common practice.
The shift restrictions rule out a lot of things, but there are certainly still loopholes. The most obvious one is that there are no restrictions on outfielder positioning. A team can — and almost certainly will — reposition outfielders into the shallow portion of the pull-side grass from time to time, essentially replicating what some shifts have looked like in the past.
Suffice it to say that the Diamondbacks will be tinkering in spring training. They might save their best strategies for the regular season so as to not give away their best ideas, but we will see some funky things. There is no better time to experiment than when the games don’t count.
2. The fifth starting rotation spot
As I wrote in my Opening Day roster projection story last month, the Diamondbacks have four starting pitchers already set: Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Zach Davies and Madison Bumgarner. The fifth spot, theoretically, is up for grabs.
Lovullo stopped short of committing to those four during a media session on Wednesday, but he did indicate that those four are viewed differently than the rest of the group.
“When we’re talking about it, we know we have four really good starting pitchers that have done it at a pretty high level and some other guys that are filling in, whether they’re young or veterans,” Lovullo said. “That’s kind of how we’re starting in our conversations. But anything can happen between now and Opening Day.”
Out of those four pitchers, the most questionable one is undoubtedly Madison Bumgarner. More on him later.
For now, let’s take a look at Lovullo’s options for the No. 5 spot.
At minimum, the list of starting rotation candidates includes Drey Jameson, Ryne Nelson, Brandon Pfaadt and Tommy Henry. Tyler Gilbert and Corbin Martin could be in that group as well, although both struggled in limited stints in the big leagues last year.
Jameson and Nelson might have the inside track after posting sub-2.00 ERAs in their first several big-league starts late last season, but Henry beat both to the majors and has more big-league experience than both combined. One could also make a strong case for Pfaadt, who led all of Minor League Baseball in strikeouts last year and could be the next great Diamondbacks starting pitcher.
3. Will Torey Lovullo name a closer?
Since taking over prior to the 2017 season, Lovullo has always named a closer before Opening Day. This year, it looks like that trend could change.
“I’ve always had a closer and worked the game backwards. It’s just how my mind works. But I’ve got to evolve a little bit in that area,” Lovullo said. “Look, if Tug McGraw was going to walk into this clubhouse tomorrow or Mariano Rivera, that guy would be the closer. But I need to see somebody emerge before I can say something like that.
“For right now, it’s very fluid. I haven’t yet made up my mind about naming somebody as our ninth-inning guy.”
Should Lovullo decide to name a closer, the candidate with the most recent experience in the role is newly signed relief pitcher Scott McGough, who spent the past four seasons pitching for the Yakult Swallows in Japan. McGough has 69 saves over the past two years. Lovullo said that McGough is open to any role and “just wants the baseball.”
Another newcomer that could close games is right-hander Miguel Castro, whose contract includes performance incentives based on number of games finished. Castro has only seven career saves — six of which came in 2019 or earlier — but his arsenal, on paper, is the type that could hold its own in high-leverage situations: an upper-90s sinker, a low-90s changeup and his best pitch, a mid-80s slider.
Other candidates to close games include 2022 All-Star Joe Mantiply and the newly signed Andrew Chafin, who has eight saves the past two years with the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s. On paper, Chafin might be the best reliever on the roster, but Lovullo has yet to establish a role for him.
“We haven’t really had a chance to talk details yet,” Chafin said. “But I’d be willing to bet it’s going to be very similar to how it was when I was here last.”
Lovullo said that Diamondbacks general manger Mike Hazen has been “working on him” to move away from the necessity of having a single closer at the start of the season.
“I need to evolve as a manager,” he said. “I think Mike sees a bigger picture than I do. I’ve got to listen.”
4. The final bullpen spot(s)
In addition to ironing out the team’s ninth-inning options, there is at least one spot that is unaccounted for in the bullpen. Here is a speculative look at where the bullpen stands after the acquisition of Chafin:
To be clear, not everyone on this list is equally likely to make the roster, but it is, at the very least, a reasonable starting point. The team has other interesting options as well, including Carlos Vargas, Justin Martinez, Cole Sulser and others. For a full breakdown, check out this story from last week.
Notably, Lovullo said that left-hander Kyle Nelson is fully healthy after finishing the 2022 season on the injured list due to elbow inflammation.
“He was somebody that we turned to and looked at on the backend of our bullpen,” Lovullo said. “[He] got hurt and just could never really get back into that groove again.”
5. Ketel Marte’s defense
Early in the offseason, Lovullo told his infielders that the shift restrictions will place increased demand on their ability to move left and right. For Ketel Marte, that appeal was delivered in person in the Dominican Republic, as part of a trip that Lovullo took in November.
“We need to make sure that you’re agile, strong and making the movements left and right as good as anybody when you step into spring training,” Lovullo told him.
Marte’s defensive metrics have declined over the past two seasons. In 2021, he posted minus 15 defensive runs saved and minus five outs above average as a center fielder. In 2022, he had minus six defensive runs saved and minus three outs above average at second base.
Despite Marte’s struggles in recent years, Lovullo said that Marte accepted the challenge that was issued over the offseason.
“Ketel is in a very good spot,” Lovullo said. “He looks like he leaned up a little bit. He put on some good weight in the right places. And he’s excited about going out and showing people what he can do defensively.
6. The fate of Madison Bumgarner
Hazen left little doubt in a press conference with reporters on Friday: Madison Bumgarner is going to be in the starting rotation.
“He’s going to get the ball again this season,” Hazen said. “We’re penciling him in to be in our rotation, and he’s going to be in our rotation.”
Since signing with the D-backs prior to the 2020 season, Bumgarner has struggled to live up to his five-year, $85 million contract. In 346.2 innings, he has gone 15-29 with a 4.98 ERA, 5.04 FIP, 1.33 WHIP and .262 opponent batting average. There are two years and $37 million remaining on the deal.
Given the plethora of intriguing young arms mentioned earlier — Jameson, Nelson, Pfaadt and Henry, in particular — it appears the D-backs are prepared to favor Bumgarner over a potentially better, younger arm.
7. A few notable position player battles
As outlined in my Opening Day roster projection story, the majority of the competition in camp will take place among pitchers this spring, but there are a few interesting battles to be fought on the position player side as well.
For one, the outfield is not set in stone. Alek Thomas, in particular, is a player to watch, given that he finished the 2022 season in the minors and has a lot to prove offensively after struggling down the stretch last year.
At shortstop, it stands to reason that longtime veteran Nick Ahmed will take over the primary role following an injury-riddled 2022 season. Still, Lovullo was noncommittal about Ahmed’s role, given what 23-year-old Geraldo Perdomo showed last season.
“We missed Nick last year,” Lovullo said. “That’s somebody that we’ve counted on from a defensive leadership position since I’ve gotten here.
“They both want to earn things and they want to show that they’re ready and healthy. And they’re both going to contribute. How and where and when, I don’t know. But I want them to go out there and compete to the best of their ability.”
Even if Perdomo does not win the everyday shortstop job, he could be an option as a sixth infielder alongside Ahmed, Christian Walker, Josh Rojas, Evan Longoria and Ketel Marte. Other possibilities for the extra infield spot include Emmanuel Rivera, Diego Castillo and Blaze Alexander, among others.
In the outfield, the clearest options to make the roster are Thomas, Jake McCarthy, Corbin Carroll and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. The D-backs will likely add one more to that group. Possible options include Pavin Smith, Kyle Lewis, Dominic Fletcher and Dominic Canzone.
When asked about Smith’s role in 2023 on Thursday, Lovullo pegged him as the “most likely” option to back up Christian Walker first base. With no other clear backup first baseman on the roster, it appears that Smith has an inside track to make the roster as a backup first baseman and a part-time right fielder.
8. The impact of the World Baseball Classic
After being canceled in 2021 due to the pandemic, the World Baseball Classic is set to return in 2023 after a six-year hiatus. While major league teams have widely been supportive of players who want to participate, there is no getting around the fact that the March 7-21 timeframe of the WBC interrupts the normal buildup to the regular season.
The D-backs have a total of 13 participants organization-wide. Notable names include RHP Merrill Kelly, RHP Mitchell Stumpo, 2B Ketel Marte, 3B Emmanuel Rivera, OF Alek Thomas and OF Dominic Fletcher, all of whom have a chance to crack the D-backs Opening Day roster.
“These players are going to be ramping up a little bit quicker,” Lovullo said. “We have most of them here right now, knowing that they’re going to be stepping away for a little while. There’s a little extra time in spring training.
“We’re not going to miss a beat. We’re going to miss having them around because we like having them around, but the fact they’re going to be jumping into some competition is going to be good for their readiness for the start of the season.”
Despite the potential challenges, Lovullo has remained supportive of any player who wanted to participate.
“What more can you do as a player than to go out and represent your country
the best way you know how?” he said. “I think these players should be very proud to have this opportunity, and our guys are.”
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Top photo: Rob Schumacher/The Republic