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Middle Relief: The Diamondbacks and Shattered Expectations

Justin UptonWhen Arizona Diamondbacks managing general partner Ken Kendrick joined Phoenix radio station XTRA-910 for an interview Tuesday, he had no plans to hold back. Kendrick wasn’t happy with the way his team was playing, and he had particular pointed comments for two of his employees: Stephen Drew and Justin Upton.

“You know, I’m going to be real direct about Stephen,” Kendrick said regarding Stephen Drew, the team’s usual starting shortstop who’s been out since July 2011 with a serious ankle injury. “I think Stephen should have been out there playing before now. And, frankly, I for one am disappointed. I’m going to be real candid and say I think Stephen and his representatives are more focused on where Stephen is going to be a year from now than going out and supporting the team that’s paying his salary. All you can do is hope that the player is treating the situation with integrity, and, frankly, we have our concerns.”

He wasn’t done. Addressing the disappointing numbers put up this season by his star right fielder, Kendrick’s words came crashing down like lightning bolts.

“Well, I think Justin is an enigma at this point. I know he had an injury early on, maybe a little bit of a nagging injury. But he’s played. He’s certainly not the Justin Upton that he has been in the past and that we would expect of him. He’s 24 years old, and it’s time for him to be a consistent performer and right now this year he’s not been that.”

If Kendrick’s remarks sound particularly harsh, it’s because so much was expected of the Diamondbacks this season (and also possibly because Kendrick was being a bit of an impetuous jerk, but whatever). The D-backs were one of the best stories in baseball last year. After winning just 65 games in 2010, they surged to 94 wins in 2011, riding a talented, young core to an unlikely NL West title. With Upton, Drew, Chris Young, Miguel Montero, Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, and other young stars in tow, the D-backs figured to win big again this year.

Hasn’t happened. Even after a 10-0 blowout win over the Rockies Tuesday, Arizona still sits in third place in the NL West, nine games behind the division-leading Dodgers and four games under .500.

Drew and Upton do share some responsibility for that disappointment, to be sure. Last season, Buster Posey suffered a similar injury to Drew’s, yet made it back this year in time for Opening Day. Meanwhile, Upton is having by far the worst season of his career, hitting .243/.340/.365 with just five homers, after swatting 31 last year. But holding them out as scapegoats is missing the bigger picture. Posey got hurt two months before Drew, so it made sense for him to return sooner. As his agent Scott Boras noted, that Drew would be jaking it with free agency coming up at season’s end makes absolutely no sense, unless Drew’s hoping for the lowest possible offers. As for Upton, a lingering thumb injury, dating back to the start of the season, has severely hampered his performance. He, too, was none too pleased with Kendrick’s outburst. “Man, that’s his opinion,” Upton told the Arizona Republic‘s Diamondbacks beat writer, Nick Piecoro. “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have a comment on it. He’s going to say what he needs to say.”

If all of Arizona’s problems resided with a missing shortstop and an ailing right fielder, they’d still be a lot better off than they are now. Sadly, that’s not the case.

• Center fielder Chris Young started the season unconscious, hitting a ludicrous .410/.500/.897 over the first 11 games of the season. A shoulder injury landed him on the DL, and he finally returned to the lineup on May 18. He’s been a disaster ever since, going just 8-for-50 and raising speculation that he didn’t fully recover from the injury and needed more rehab time before returning.

• Co-staff ace Daniel Hudson posted a 6.00 ERA through his first three starts before he, too, hit the DL. He didn’t return until May 27 and is only now starting to fare better, tossing two solid starts in a row.

• Third baseman Ryan Roberts enjoyed a breakout season in 2011, posting a .768 OPS with 19 homers; he’s at .620 with three homers this year.

• Catcher Miguel Montero slugged .469 last year; he’s at .363 this year.

• J.J. Putz was one of baseball’s most dominant closers last year; he sports a 6.00 ERA and sits below replacement level so far this season.

Despite their big early hole, the Diamondbacks’ season is far from over. Aside from having 106 games left to play, they’re chasing a Dodgers team that’s even more banged-up than they are, with perennial MVP candidate Matt Kemp out at least a month and several key supporting players also on the shelf. Arizona has had lots of bad luck aside from injuries, going just 5-11 in one-run games (which is partly the result of Putz’s alarming regression, too, to be fair) and facing potential positive regression in the weeks and months to come. They’ve got a raft of exciting pitching prospects in tow, with Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, and Patrick Corbin all knocking on the door from the high minors. And yes, with Drew due to begin a rehab assignment on Thursday and Upton being rested in two of the past four games and possibly a couple more, the hope is that the D-backs will get two of their best players back and performing at full capacity soon.

The fate of the two whipping boys aside, the Diamondbacks would be best served standing pat and waiting for everything to come together — improved health, snapbacks in some ugly early-season performances, and a pitching cavalry in the form of prospect Bauer and friends who could make a deep, immediate impact. Still, the boss might want to zip it next time he gets the urge to vent. Except for Drew, virtually every other significant player on the team is under contract at least into next season, with Upton and the newly enriched Montero around much longer. It’s possible the D-backs have dug themselves a hole too big to escape from for this year. But given their existing major league and minor league rosters, they’re still the deepest, most talented team in the division for the foreseeable future. Maybe don’t do anything to jeopardize that, even if it’s your ownerly right to do so.

THREE UP

R.A. Dickey: He’s been the ninth-best starting pitcher in the majors by xFIP. His past four starts have been a study in total domination: 38 strikeouts against just two walks over 28 1/3 innings. He and his running mate Johan Santana have propelled the Mets to within a game and a half of the NL East lead, in a season where the cellar was the team’s expected outcome. He does it all by throwing a pitch wielded regularly by less than 100 pitchers in the game’s history, confounding hitters at age 37 with his often unhittable knuckleball.

And man, can he ever geek it up. R.A. Dickey is a primo podcast guest. He’s the author of a best-selling book that’s also an athlete’s memoir actually worth reading. But wait, there’s more. He’s a gigantic Star Wars fan who helped bring Star Wars Night to Citi Field, hooking other teams on the idea. He names his bats after swords from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And since his using Star Wars‘ “Imperial March” for his at-bat music wasn’t quite awesome enough, he recently changed it to the opening theme from Game of Thrones.

With apologies to STATS Inc. intern turned sabermetrics-talking Rays outfielder/highlight reel Sam Fuld, Sinatra-playing, Heimlich-administering Reds third baseman Todd Frazier, and all other nominees — Dickey is officially the king of all baseball nerds, combining All Star–caliber performance with top-shelf nerditry. Congrats to you, sir, and HOYVIN-GLAVIN!

Andy Pettitte: We’ll start with a quick caveat: It’s probably not a coincidence that two left-handed starters both looked like Sandy Koufax within eight days of each other; both pitchers got to carve up the Rays, a team that’s woefully undermanned against left-handed pitchers with Evan Longoria and Jeff Keppinger out of the lineup and a rusty Desmond Jennings playing in his first game back after an extended DL stint. Of course, that’s the kind of stuff you nitpick about when dealing with a rock-solid veteran or a rising star. When it’s someone who didn’t throw a single pitch in the majors all last season and turns 40 next week, it misses the broader point: Andy Pettitte is on fire, keeping a fractured Yankees staff afloat, and fueling a rise toward the top of the AL East.

Pettitte’s 10-strikeout performance Tuesday hiked his strikeout-to-walk rate to 4.6-to-1 for the season. Only seven qualified starters have flashed better command this season (Pettitte doesn’t qualify as he’s only made five starts), and that list includes stars like Cliff Lee, Matt Cain, and Stephen Strasburg. Pettitte’s benefited from a 90.6 percent strand rate, which has helped drop his ERA to 2.78. But he’s also generating a ton of ground balls (57.9 percent ground ball rate) and figures to see some positive regression in his high home run-to-fly ball rate. He’s giving up fewer line drives than ever before and holding lefty hitters below the Mendoza line with one extra-base hit. With Michael Pineda out for the season, Phil Hughes a Jekyll-and-Hyde case, and Ivan Nova getting rocked nearly every time out despite a heady strikeout rate, Pettitte’s been a godsend for the Yankees.

Dan Uggla and Martin Prado: The National League’s second-best non-Coors offense belongs to the Braves, and Uggla and Prado are two big reasons why. Uggla had a big second half last year (.296/.379/.569), riding an improbable 33-game hitting streak and ending the season with 36 homers. Problem was, his first half was so toxic (.185/.267/.385) that he set career lows in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average. He’s raking again this year, clubbing two more homers Tuesday night to pace the Braves to an 11-0 win and shove his season line up to .276/.384/.492.

If Uggla’s 2011 dip could be explained by a career-low .253 batting average on balls in play, Prado’s woes appeared more serious, stemming in part from a staph infection in his leg and (re-)raising questions about his ability to stay healthy for an entire season. He’s missed just two games this year and the numbers have come with him: .328/.401/.480, with three multi-hit games in his past four starts. With Chipper Jones due back this weekend and several key bats clicking, the Braves could be tough to beat.

THREE DOWN

Dodgers First Basemen: It might seem weird to pick on the Dodgers after two wins in a row. Hey, it’s entirely possible that they’ll keep winning without Matt Kemp (as well as Ted Lilly, Mark Ellis, and several other players). It’s conceivable that their pitching will continue to dominate. It’s plausible that they’ll keep performing Jedi mind tricks on opposing managers like they did on Charlie Manuel, prompting the Phillies manager to leave a tiring Cliff Lee in to face light-hitting Elian Herrera Tuesday night, resulting in a hanging curve and a two-run double that knocked in the eventual game-winning run.

It’s just not very likely. And with regression looming, the offense scuffling, and the hard-charging Giants winning four in a row and closing to within 3 1/2 games of front-running L.A., the Dodgers need more production, particularly from traditional high-offense positions such as first base. They rank 24th in the majors at that position, hitting a measly .249/.317/.359 through Monday’s games. The main culprit has been James Loney, hitting .247/.321/.355. He’s a near-replacement-level player making $6.4 million for his vast contributions. The Dodgers hinted at time off for Loney and followed through on Tuesday, starting Juan Rivera at first. That’s a swell idea, if you’re into nearly 34-year-old outfielders “hitting” .233/.260/.333 while trying to fake their way around a position they’ve rarely played. Whether it’s the oft-rumored Kevin Youkilis or someone else, the Dodgers would do well to acquire something approaching a competent big league first baseman. Right now, they have no one.

Daniel Bard: That the Red Sox sit just three games out of first place is a minor miracle given the state of their starting rotation, which includes two of the five worst starters in the game. Or at least it did, until Daniel Bard got sent to Triple-A on Tuesday.

The 26-year-old right-hander established himself as an elite reliever almost from day one. In three seasons as a setup man, Bard struck out well over a batter an inning and gradually refined his command, wielding a mid-to-high-90s fastball and a wipeout slider. But Boston harbored higher hopes for him, hoping to groom Bard into a viable starter. He started 17 games at Single-A in 2007, with disastrous results: a 6.42 ERA and one walk per inning, with his mechanics shot to hell. The Sox hoped this time would be different, that Bard could fill one of the rotation holes left with major injuries to John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Nope. In 55 frightening innings, Bard again walked more batters (37) than he struck out (34), posting a 5.24 ERA and 5.65 FIP. Pitching coach Bob McClure expressed concern that Bard was dropping his arm too much, getting away from the higher arm slot he’d thrived with in previous years. Whatever the cause, Bard lost more fastball velocity from 2011 to 2012 than any other pitcher in baseball by far. Though the Red Sox will work diligently with Bard to iron out his flaws, it’s also possible that Bard might simply be a casualty of one of the game’s toughest decisions: when to turn a reliever into a starter. As much as statheads like me stump for 180 good starter innings over 70 very good reliever innings, Bard might only have the latter in him. Matsuzaka figures to take Bard’s place in the rotation. But given Dice-K’s injury woes and how long it’s been since he’s pitched effectively, the Sox might have to look outside the organization to find a short-term answer at SP5.

Ervin Santana: Only Clay Buchholz and human punching bag Ubaldo Jimenez have fared worse than Santana and his 5.92 FIP. Santana’s problems are manifold: He’s walking more batters, giving up more home runs, and striking out fewer batters than ever before. Some of it’s bad luck, starting with a home run-to-fly ball rate of 23.5 percent that’s bound to get better. But for now, Santana’s a mess, surrendering 14 walks (vs. just eight strikeouts) in his past three starts. The Angels are one of the hottest teams in baseball, riding young stars Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo to a huge bounce-back after an abysmal start to the season. They’re also a near-auto loss every fifth day, at least until they get the old Big Erv back. Or even anything close.