COMMENTARY | The start of the Arizona Diamondbacks' 2013 Major League Baseball season may be less than a week away, but the TVs in the clubhouse are tuned to the NCAA tournament.
So, in honor of the Sweet 16, I bring you, in no particular order, the 16 reasons to be excited (or not) about the Dbacks in '13:
1. The bullpen - Along with the San Francisco Giants, the Dbacks start 2013 with potentially the best bullpen in the National League West. If Heath Bell bounces back, as expected, from a dreadful 2012, the Snakes will have a solid 7-8-9 inning trio in Bell, David Hernandez, and J.J. Putz.
2. Martin Prado - For the first time in a long time, the Dbacks take the field without having to avoid a black hole at third base. Praised by even Chipper Jones as the spark that ignited the Atlanta Braves' defense, this trade acquisition also is impressing both on the field and in the clubhouse.
3. Adam Eaton - Excitement over the league's top impact prospect will have to wait 6-8 weeks as he recovers from a UCL strain but once "Spanky" takes the field, his speed, contact hitting and defense will electrify the team and its fans.
4. Gerardo Parra - With a cannon for an arm, Parra has always been incredibly fun to watch in the outfield. That fun usually died at the plate, however. This spring, the Venezuelan is off to a torrid start and will play almost full-time, setting him up for another Gold Glove.
5. The running game - The Diamondbacks have always been aggressive on the bases. But they've not always been very smart about it. Crowds groaned too often in 2012 as runners got caught stealing or ran into outs. New first-base and baserunning coach Steve Sax hopefully will put an end to that.
6. Pitching depth - Much has been made of the Los Angeles Dodgers' eight starting pitchers on staff, but the Dbacks are just as deep and arguably better. In addition to Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Brandon McCarthy, Wade Miley, and Patrick Corbin, the team has former starters Randall Delgado and Josh Collmenter in the bullpen. And ace prospect Tyler Skaggs is just a phone call away.
7. Aaron Hill - The best second basemen in the NL and second-best in baseball in 2012, Hill had the biggest season you never heard about. Off to another strong start, there's no reason to believe he can't match or beat last year's numbers.
8. Didi Gregorius - Also recovering from an elbow problem, the Dutch shortstop acquired in the Trevor Bauer deal ranks as on of baseball's highest-rated prospects. Talented and enthusiastic, he'll light up the diamond, once he gets back on it.
9. Grit and grind - As manager Kirk Gibson enters his third season as Dbacks manager, his team has finally started to look just like him. With no marquee superstars, the Diamondbacks have pulled together as a team and are committed to gritty play and grinding out runs. Gibson expects 100-percent effort and this might just be the team that gives it to him.
Unfortunately, for Dbacks fans, there are a few items on this Sweet 16 souring hopes for opening day.
10. Injuries - Eaton and Gregorius aren't the only ones hurt. OF Cody Ross, signed as a free agent from Boston, pulled a calf muscle March 3 and is doubtful for opening day. A week before regular play begins, Ross said he was at 70 percent and hopeful, but that playing opening day takes a back seat to ensuring he's healthy. Miley, meanwhile, is still iffy as he struggles to overcome a spring dead arm.
11. Defense - Asked to review his team's prospects, Gibson said March 24 that past squads have defended better. The trades of OF Justin Upton and Chris Young weakened the outfield D, although Jason Kubel surprised many last year by leading the league in outfield assists. On the infield, Prado is still mastering 3B and is backed up by Eric Chavez, whose bat plays larger than his glove. The team also traded gold-standard defensive SS John McDonald, giving the job to rookie Gregorius and utilityman Willie Bloomquist. Gibson may find he's running last week's "27 outs" situational-fielding drill more than he likes.
12. Heath Bell - Bell remains the biggest question in the Diamondbacks' revamped bullpen. If the dominant reliever from pitcher-friendly Petco Park shows up, list item No. 1 will come true. If the hapless Miami Marlins pitcher turns up at Chase Field, the Dbacks are going to have to go to "Bullpen Plan B."
13. Lefties - To grind out runs, you need to hit the ball first. And several Diamondbacks have a significant problem hitting lefties. 1B Paul Goldschmidt, OF Jason Kubel, 3B Eric Chavez all have batting average splits of at least 30 points against southpaws.
14. Outfield offense - Hitting below the Mendoza Line this spring, Kubel's slump actually began in August last year. Will he snap out of it? Probably. When? Who knows. With Ross and Eaton hurt, the opening-day outfield likely will be Kubel, Parra (a career .280 hitter) and rookie A.J. Pollack, who hit just .240 in limited play last year and isn't doing any better this spring. That weak punch puts a lot of pressure on Hill, Prado and Goldschmidt to power the offense.
15. Quality starts - With the Dbacks' new bullpen and rotation depth, it could become a six-inning game for the starting pitchers. But the assumptions about the staff's solidity depends on the answering being "yes" to a number of questions: Can Kennedy regain his Cy Young-caliber form of 2011? Can ground-ball pitcher Cahill consistently keep the ball down? Will Miley show the same command and confidence as last year? And can rookie Corbin start turning over a lineup three times?
16. Montero's endurance - Catcher Miguel Montero caught 139 games last year. He's reportedly impossible to pull out of a lineup, but history shows the beating catchers take gradually starts cutting into playing time. Will the iron man break down? And will Gibson put his foot down and force his catcher to catch more breathers?
More Diamondbacks Spring Training:
James is a 25-year journalist who has worked in Washington, New York, Bangkok and Tokyo covering politics, business, travel and sports. With so many homes, he's adopted several teams, most recently the Diamondbacks upon moving to Phoenix in 2012.
Follow James on Twitter at @NotThatBobJames.
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