NL contenders: D-backs bet future on Mark Trumbo

usa-marktrumbo-arizonadiamondbacks.jpg

NL contenders: D-backs bet future on Mark Trumbo

We spent last week previewing the NL East, but the strength of the Nationals and Braves means that the Phillies likely have a better shot at the playoffs by winning a wild-card, something they’ve never done. In the coming days, we’ll break down the Phils’ top competition for the two NL wild-card spots.

Up next: Arizona Diamondbacks

2013 record: 81-81

Additions: OF/1B Mark Trumbo, SP Bronson Arroyo, RP Addison Reed, C Henry Blanco

Subtractions: CF Adam Eaton, SP Tyler Skaggs, 3B Matt Davidson, RP Heath Bell, OF Juan Rivera, C Wil Nieves

***

The Diamondbacks traded away two key pieces of their future to upgrade immediately, so anything less than a playoff berth in 2014 will be a huge disappointment.

Arizona dealt 25-year-old centerfielder Adam Eaton (a potential defensive whiz and leadoff batter who hit .348 in 1,560 minor-league plate appearances) and 22-year-old lefty Tyler Skaggs (a top-10 MLB prospect by MLB.com prior to 2013) in a three-team trade that brought back slugger Mark Trumbo.

Worth it? We’ll see. Places loads of pressure on Trumbo to protect Paul Goldschmidt. The opinion here is that Trumbo’s an overrated home-run hitter. From 2011-13 he averaged 32 homers and 94 RBIs. He also hit .251 with a .300 on-base percentage and struck out 457 times. The most alarming sign? His strikeouts have increased from 120 to 153 to 184 the last three years.

And the Diamondbacks acquired the 27-year-old Trumbo just as he’s about to start getting expensive. He made $4.8 million in his first year of arbitration, which could result in his making about $23-25 million the next two years.

Top offense?
The projected Diamondbacks starting lineup looks like this:

Gerardo Parra (L) - CF
Aaron Hill (R) - 2B
Paul Goldschmidt (R) - 1B
Mark Trumbo (R) - LF
Miguel Montero (L) - C
Martin Prado (R) - 3B
Cody Ross (R) - RF
Didi Gregorius (L) - SS

That’s a pretty good lineup. Parra is one of the most underrated players in baseball -- he hit a deceptively low .268 in 2013 with 43 doubles and 10 homers, played all three positions and won a Gold Glove.

Hill’s hit .298 with an .860 OPS since joining Arizona.

Goldschmidt led the NL in homers, RBIs, slugging, OPS and intentional walks last season and finished second in MVP voting. He’s a big, powerful first baseman who hits good pitching and can run and steal bases. My pick for 2014 NL MVP.

Montero was terrible in 2013 but is still one of the top-seven offensive catchers.

Phillies fans remember just how complete a hitter Prado is, and just how difficult he is to deal with when runners are in scoring position. Ross gives you power out of the seven-hole and Gregorius will compete with top prospect Chris Owings for the shortstop job.

If everyone stays healthy, Arizona could have one of the three best offenses in the National League. It looks like a better offense, on paper, than any NL East team boasts.

All No. 3s
The Arizona rotation is solid but unspectacular. There is really no ace, unless you think lefty Patrick Corbin is the guy who was 12-2 with a 2.24 ERA at the end of July and not the guy who went 2-6 with a 6.05 ERA the final two months.

After Corbin comes Brandon McCarthy, Trevor Cahill, Bronson Arroyo and Wade Miley. Nobody in this rotation is a strikeout pitcher. Cahill relies on groundballs, Arroyo relies on deception and McCarthy relies on pinpoint control.

The bullpen will go as far as Addison Reed and J.J. Putz take it. Reed, the 25-year-old closer acquired from the White Sox this offseason, had 40 saves but eight blown saves and a middling 3.79 ERA last season. You never know which Putz will show up from year to year.

Brad Ziegler and hard-thrower David Hernandez have some skills.

The prediction
Arizona loses a lot of games to the Dodgers because it isn't built to beat them. L.A.’s rotation will negate the D-backs’ biggest strength.

Colleague Ben Davis is picking the Diamondbacks to win one of the two wild-cards, but I’m predicting they go 84-78, miss the playoffs and finish tied for second place in the NL West with the Giants.

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies manager Pete Mackanin on Monday said he was not ready to name an opening day starter “because anything can happen in the spring.”

But Mackanin dropped a strong hint that veteran Jeremy Hellickson will get the nod for the second straight year when the Phillies open the season in Cincinnati on April 3.

“He’s probably got the best chance to be our opening-day starter,” Mackanin said after Monday’s workout. “I’m not going to definitely announce it because anything can happen in the spring. He was last year. I’m not making the announcement that he will be, but there’s a good chance he might be.”

Jerad Eickhoff, who led the Phillies' starting staff in innings (197⅓) and ERA (3.65) last season, is another candidate for the start, but it sounds as if he will slot in behind Hellickson.

On paper, the Phillies’ opening week rotation — barring something unforeseen — could be Hellickson, Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola. Of course, as Mackanin said, “anything can happen in the spring,” so all of this is early-camp guess work.

Hellickson, who turns 30 on April 8, went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts for the Phillies last season. He returned when the club extended him a $17.2 million qualifying offer for 2017. Hellickson accepted the Phillies’ one-year offer after considering free agency.

“He feels great,” Mackanin said. “He’s in a great frame of mind. I’m sure he would like to have gotten a five-year, $100 million contract from someone, but he’s real happy to be here and we’re happy to have him.”

Eflin takes the mound
Right-hander Zach Eflin returned to a bullpen mound Monday after being slowed last week by a bout of knee inflammation. He threw 40 pitches and reported no problems.

Eflin had double knee surgery in the fall so the Phils will take it slow with him. He projects to be in the Triple A rotation.

Looking good
Phillies pitchers continued to throw “live” batting practice Monday. Mackanin roamed four fields and got a look at all the arms. He liked what he saw of Pat Neshek, the submarine right-handed reliever that the Phils acquired from Houston in an offseason trade.

“I was watching Neshek throw live BP,” Mackanin said. “Not only does he have good movement on his fastball and a real nice sharp-breaking slider, but he threw some outrageous changeups that seemed to stop halfway to the plate. So I’m looking forward to seeing him compete in games.”

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The dew on the infield grass had barely dried when Andrew Knapp was marched out to the firing squad at Phillies camp early Sunday morning.
 
He took his position at first base and looked across the diamond where Phillies instructors Doug Mansolino, Chris Truby and Larry Bowa were lined up at third base, shortstop and second base, respectively. Armed with fungo bats and a dozen baseballs each, the trio of sharpshooters proceeded to smash bullet one- and two-hoppers at Knapp, who was tasked with pulling them out of the dirt to complete the putout.
 
“Good job,” shouted Bowa, a tough grader when it comes to infield work, as Knapp finished up the hellacious early-morning drill.
 
Knapp is a catcher by trade, but he will continue these intense individual sessions at first base throughout the spring — in addition to his regular defensive work behind the plate.
 
A 25-year-old switch-hitter, Knapp was the Phillies’ second-round selection in the 2013 draft. He’s getting a lot of attention in this camp because he has a shot to make the club as a reserve player. The Phils are in need of a backup catcher and a backup first baseman and Knapp, in big-league camp for the second time, is trying to show he can handle both assignments in one package.
 
“Last year it was more of a happy-to-be-here thing,” he said. “I was just trying to pick as many brains as I could and take in as much knowledge as I could.
 
“But this year it’s more of a let’s-go-win-a-job kind of deal.”
 
General manager Matt Klentak and manager Pete Mackanin first floated the idea of carrying Knapp as a two-position reserve at the winter meetings.
 
Of course, it came with a lot of qualifiers. Knapp is still considered a developing player and team decision-makers would have to consider what impact a reserve role would have on his development. Also, the prototypical backup catcher in the majors is a plus defender who has experience handling a big-league pitching staff. Knapp has never played in the majors and his defense is considered a work in progress. Later in the winter, the Phillies signed two big-league veteran catchers (Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan) to minor-league deals and they are very much in the mix for the job.
 
“I kind of understand there’s a definite value in having a veteran guy as a backup, but I think I can do the job on the field,” Knapp said.
 
A potential separator for Knapp could be his bat and his versatility if he can continue to develop it. He is not a novice at first base. He played there as a sophomore at the University of California. Knapp also has this going for him: He’s on the 40-man roster and with so many young prospects on it and the probable need to add an outfielder like Chris Coghlan later in camp, that could work in Knapp’s favor.
 
Another factor that could affect Knapp’s chances: The Phillies’ development blueprint calls for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro to get the bulk of the playing time at first base and catcher, respectively, at Triple A.
 
“You’d like to see him get 500 at-bats, but it’s not a perfect world,” Bowa said. “Our Triple A team is loaded. He might find himself in the same role at Triple A. if that’s the case, it might be best if he came here if he swings the bat like he can and he can provide versatility.
 
“A guy like him can give you some options and flexibility. When you face the Mets and they have three stud right-handers throwing 95 (mph), it might be nice to have a guy like that to give (first baseman) Tommy Joseph a blow.”
 
Knapp had a brilliant season with the bat at Double A in 2015. He hit .360 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS in 55 games, earning him the franchise’s Paul Owens Award as minor-league player of the year.
 
Knapp tapered off at Triple A last season. He hit .266 with eight homers, 46 RBIs and a .719 OPS over a full season. Knapp’s day last summer typically started with defensive work at 1:30 in the afternoon.
 
“I would get my hitting in, but I don’t think there was as much of a focus on it as there was the year before,” he said. “I do think last year I took a real step forward defensively, especially in the second half of the year. I kind of had a tough first half, but the second half I really honed in on the defensive part, blocking and throwing mostly, just kind of keeping everything in front and shutting down the running game.”

A lot of eyes will be on Knapp when the exhibition games start next week.
 
“We need to find out if he’s capable of doing it,” Mackanin said. “Catching is a defensive-oriented position. We need good defense. We need good game-calling, a catcher who can handle pitchers, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at from a guy like Knapp as well as the other guys. We’re going to take a good, long look at that.
 
“He’s definitely in the mix. I want to play him a lot to see him. We all want to see what he can do offensively and defensively. From what I’ve been told he’s shown a lot of improvement and we’re going to look for that. We’re looking for the 25 best men. There’s a good chance he might be one of them.”

Knapp is determined to show that he is.
 
“It’s open for someone to go take it and I want to be that guy,” he said.