This is the fifth and final installment of a five-part series leading up to Friday's home opener for against the San Francisco Giants. Check back with SB Nation Arizona throughout the season for recaps, analysis and everything regarding Arizona Diamondbacks baseball.
It's finally here: Christmas in April.
Opening day has arrived in Arizona and the road to repeating as National League West champions for the Diamondbacks has officially begun.
We've already looked at the lineup, the pitching staff, the farm system and the division. Now it seems the only thing left is to make one grand finale of a prediction and attempt to make sense of it all. Oh yeah, and maybe hand out some make-believe awards:
Playing The Role Of Favorites
Last year, the D-backs thrived largely in part to the fact they viewed themselves as underdogs coming off a 2010 season in which they had the third worst record in all of baseball. While manager Kirk Gibson has been trying to convince himself and his roster that they should be entering 2012 with the same mindset, it just simply feels forced and perhaps a bit delusional.
Nothing's given as San Francisco undoubtedly will give the Diamondbacks an aggressive run for their money. But the D-backs have to be the favorites after making notable improvements to the same core of players who finished with eight more wins than the Giants last season. The additions of Trevor Cahill, Jason Kubel, Takashi Saito and Craig Breslow mark the second straight successful offseason for GM Kevin Towers as he looks to build a dynasty around Arizona's young, talented nucleus.
But that "young" factor could work against them when dealing with these lofty expectations. If you need proof, look no further than five years ago.
In 2007, years of stockpiling their farm system with gifted prospects finally paid off with a surprising 90-win campaign that was capped off with a division title. And entering the offseason in win-now mode, the D-backs went out and made a blockbuster trade with the Oakland A's to acquire a talented starter, Dan Haren, to bolster their chances, making them the favorites in the NL in many experts eyes (sound familiar?).
The Baby Backs ended up folding under the pressure, finishing the 2008 season with a record barely over .500 (82-80). While I do believe manager Kirk Gibson is better suited to keep this team in check was than a player's coach like Bob Melvin was four years ago, this should still be a cautionary tale for the D-backs and their fans.
How the West Will Be Won
Obviously Justin Upton and Miguel Montero are ready to make a huge impact in the middle of this lineup. But beyond those two, there are a lot more question marks from one to eight than most people think.
Lead off options Aaron Hill and Ryan Roberts are virtual locks for regression after posting career highs last season and Stephen Drew still has yet to make his return from his nasty from his ankle injury. Furthermore, rookie sensation Paul Goldschmidt could be in store for some major slumps as an all-or-nothing hitter (53 Ks in 156 at bats) and outfielders Chris Young and Jason Kubel are coming off seasons defined by nagging injuries that caused them to struggle to get on base (.331 and .332 OBP respectively).
Luckily for the D-backs, their bench is as deep as they come. Geoff Blum, John McDonald and Willie Bloomquist can all play multiple positions at a high level and catcher Henry Blanco is just about as good of a defensively as you can be at that position. Oh yeah, apparently Arizona also have a 2011 Golden Glove winner in Gerardo Parra hanging out on the pine (what's that about?). Even if none of the outfielders struggle, you can still expect Gibby to find a way to get Parra into the lineup at least three times a week.
Even without a natural top of the order hitter, the D-backs still have the potential for one of the NL's most dangerous lineups with Upton, Young, Kubel and Goldschmidt all with the power to easily hit 30 HRs (especially with 81 games in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks). I feel it's a safe bet to guess that the D-backs will surpass the 4.51 runs per game they averaged last season and they could even overtake St. Louis and Cincinnati for the best offense without a DH if Chris Young carries his hot spring (.400 AVG, 5 HR,10 RBI and 15 R across 65 at bats) into the regular season.
As for the pitching, as long as the D-backs have the lead entering the late innings, they should be safe. The Arizona bullpen will be one of the league's finest when a healthy Takashi Saito returns to cover the seventh inning with David Hernandez and J.J. Putz in the eight and ninth. Even if Brian Shaw and Brad Ziegler don't repeat their outstanding 2011s, the Diamondbacks farm system is overflowing with blossoming, strike-inducing arms who are all nipping at the bit for a major league chance.
One of those pitchers such as Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin or Trevor Bauer could also be utilized in a starting role if Josh Collmenter or Trevor Cahill continue their spring struggles. And while that's looking almost anticipated with Collmenter at this point, I'd guess Cahill figures it out and becomes a consistent number three behind co-aces Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson.
2012 Prognosis: I'd be absolutely shocked if Gibson gets caught up in the hype and allows his men to repeat the 2008 season. While I don't think they're the World Series favorites out of the National League quite yet, I'd bet my last cent that they make the playoffs, at least as one of the wild cards but more likely as division champs. They're easily the most complete team in the NL West and they could always compile their abundant prospect depth in some trades to acquire one or two more impact players.
NL MVP not named Joey Votto: Justin Upton- He could always prove me wrong but ultimately I don't think this is his year with Votto looking to show the world $251.5 million extension was worth it. But is there any question that if Upton played in New York or Boston he'd be the odds-on favorite? Hell, if he played in one of those markets, he'd probably have a Prince-Ali-like walk up entrance before every one of his plate appearances.
Cy Young of the staff: Daniel Hudson- This isn't so much about a drop off from Kennedy as it is about Hudson taking the next step. The owner of a 2.87 ERA in last August and September, his 12 losses last year were mostly a product of bad luck. He may not technically leap frog Kennedy this year but opposing batters will fear him just as much, if not more.
Best offseason acquisition: Takashi Saito- Call me crazy but I believe Saito and his 42-year-old body holds up. And if it does, the NL West should look out. As I pointed out in my pitching preview, Saito has allowed only one earned run across the 14.2 innings he's pitched against the D-backs NL West rivals since 2009.
Worst offseason acquisition: Trevor Cahill- It's not so much that I feel he's going to flop but I visualize Skaggs or Corbin being just as productive in his rotation spot if he was never acquired. Cahill isn't the ace he looked like in 2010 when he went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA but he isn't as bad as his 2011 ERA of 4.16; he's somewhere in the middle. Then again, he'll make the best fifth starter in the league if Bauer and Skaggs reach their high ceilings.
Most improved player: Joe Paterson- I know, it's hard to improve on a 2.91 ERA but I'm convinced Paterson builds off the 1.35 ERA and five holds he had after the All-Star Break and becomes an integral part of this pen. I'm predicting an inning increase to around 50 and he could even break out of his situational mold if he continues his progression.
Second most improved player: Chris Young- The spring numbers aren't a fluke. Now that Young is over that wrist injury and has made improvements to his swing, he's going to start to hit righties better. Oh yeah, and his walk up song is "N*ggas In Paris" this season which certainly can't hurt. Bottom line: don't let him get into his zone.