PHOENIX – By now, field manager Torey Lovullo of the Arizona Diamondbacks is likely tired of the same question. During spring training, he was constantly asked about the character of his team, ways to improve from a disastrous 52-110 season, and how to close the 55 games behind the NL West-leading San Francisco Giants gap in the division standings.
While hope springs eternal, the Diamondbacks may be hard-pressed to escape struggles of the recent past. Within their own division, the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, and Giants are expected as highly competitive. That leaves the Colorado Rockies and Diamondbacks left to flee the NL West basement.
Frustrated and exasperated by the events of last season, Lovullo has made it known he expects change and demands his players respond from the difficulties of the 2021 season.
“Last year, I was really disappointed with the pace in which we picked up the baseball and especially in the infield,” Lovullo said before Tuesday’s preseason finale in Chase Field against Cleveland. “The outfielders were not exempted from this either. We knew we would prioritize a couple of things and that was pitching and defense. These go hand-in-hand and that’s the common denominator for success of all teams.”
Numbers support Lovullo’s assertion.
Arizona finished last in the NL with a frightening 5.11 ERA for the season. As well, the club committed 100 errors and only the Miami Marlins (122) committed more. The Diamondbacks’ .983 fielding percentage was tied with the New York Mets and Washington Nationals as next to last in league fielding. Only the Marlins’ .973 was lower.
If Lovullo seeks improvement in these vital areas, the offense needs a charge as well. In particular, the Diamondbacks seek greater production from first baseman Christian Walker, their traditional “clean-up” hitter, and resident of the number four hole in the lineup. Last season, the 31-year-old native of Norristown, Pa. finished with .244 batting average and production slipped. Due to a nagging oblique injury with limited mobility, Walker managed only 10 homers and 46 RBIs. That’s down from a career-high of 29 homers and 73 RBIs during the 2019 season.
For the Diamondbacks to be completive in a very competitive division, Walker will have to regain his production of three years ago.
“There was a lot of bad stuff I wanted to clean up,” he said before Tuesday’s spring finale. “I want to get bigger and stronger and get back to being a big body with a lot of explosiveness and power. If I can put the barrel on the ball, it’s a good chance this will be hit hard somewhere. That’s the goal. Try and keep it simple, stay strong and stay explosive.”
One of the underlying difficulties of last season was poor baserunning. That was due to the absence of Dave McKay, the team’s venerable first base coach. Sidelined for most of the season, McKay suffered, as a result of a dugout fall, lingering injuries. That left the Diamondbacks vulnerable on the bases and missing one of the best base coaches in the game.
“We can get better in every aspect, but base-running was a big thing for us last year,” said outfielder Pavin Smith. “(McKay) was away and we got away from that. We need to be a little more aggressive on the bases and take the extra base when we can do that.”
All of which, Lovullo hopes, points to overall improvement. After all, the Diamondbacks appeared generous in offering Lovullo a one-year deal for 2022 and, in light of what happened in Chase Field a year ago, that could be a gift of undue charity.
Elsewhere … in the final pre-season game Tuesday afternoon in Chase Field, the Diamondbacks defeated Cleveland, 3-1 before 6,448. Right-hander Zac Gallen, slated as the number five starter in the rotation, went 3.2 innings and yielded one run. Afterward, he told reporters there was no discomfort from his recent bout with bursitis. “Shoulder feels fine,” he said. “I’m bouncing back pretty well, and not too worried about it. I’m happy to have that behind me.” For the shortened spring training campaign, Arizona finished with a record of 11-10-1.
With Mark Melancon as the closer and Ian Kennedy as the set-up reliever, the rest of the bullpen is uncertain, Lovullo told reporters before Tuesday’s game. “By this time, we would like to have our squad in place,” he said. “A little late this year and we’ll still working through some things.” … Opening Day match-up is set for Thursday night in Chase Field. Veteran right-hander Yu Darvish will start for San Diego and Madison Bumgarner gets the ball for Arizona. Behind Bumgardner, Lovullo named the four starters in the rotation. Merrill Kelly goes in game two and followed by Zack Davies, Caleb Smith, and Gallen.