With the Arizona Diamondbacks set to throw the first pitch of the 2021 season on the road Thursday against the San Diego Padres, we asked the crew from the Ain’t No Fang podcast to lay out what’s left to be discovered about manager Torey Lovullo’s team.
Here are six questions the D-backs have yet to answer as spring ends and Opening Day begins the regular season.
Who plays second base?
Cody Fincher: This may be a question that has many answers. For a while, the answer was Ketel Marte. But it looks as though Marte will be the D-backs’ primary center fielder, at least for this season. So who will play second base in 2021? Well, it looks like it’s going to be a combination of guys.
We believe you’ll see a lot of Asdrubal Cabrera at second this season and by the way he performed in the spring, he deserves the playing time. Cabrera hit .326 with three home runs and nine RBIs, and has certainly earned the at-bats. Other options include Josh Rojas, who had a great spring, and moving Eduardo Escobar to second during some games with Cabrera at third.
Who will get the at-bats in the outfield?
Steve Zinsmeister: We are expecting Ketel Marte will play more in the outfield than the infield in 2021. This is thanks to last year’s midseason trade of Starling Marte, which left a Marte-sized hole in center field. So we are led to believe that Ketel, David Peralta and Kole Calhoun are the starting outfielders. But that leaves opportunities for guys like Tim Locastro and maybe even Pavin Smith.
Locastro is poised for an uptick in at-bats this year, and he’s earned them by getting on base. His elite speed could make him dangerous on the basepaths as well. With Christian Walker at first base, Smith appears to be blocked there. He might get a handful of at-bats in the corner outfield spots, although I’m skeptical of his ability to play the position.
Does Torey Lovullo’s contract get extended?
Derek Montilla: It seems like the Diamondbacks want Lovullo back, with the skipper expressing his desire to continue to manage this team, so an extension appears inevitable. Lovullo has a winning percentage of .522, which feels like the D-backs’ record at the end of every season. On one hand, the team’s performance has hovered around mediocrity during his tenure. His biggest accomplishment outside of being named NL Manager of the Year is leading this team to a Wild Card birth and victory before being ousted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the next round.
However, few managers or coaches have become part of the Valley the way Lovullo has. He has embraced this community as his home and has fostered an environment in the clubhouse where the team feels like family. Both the D-backs and Lovullo have said they do not want his contract extension to become a distraction, so I would expect a deal to get done after this season.
What will the starting rotation look like?
Fincher: With their best pitcher, Zac Gallen, sidelined with a forearm injury, Lovullo announced that the starting rotation will line up like this: Madison Bumgarner, Merrill Kelly, Caleb Smith, Taylor Widener and Luke Weaver. Widener will have a place in the rotation at least until Gallen comes back. The starting rotation is far from set in our mind as many of the D-backs starters struggled this spring.
Smith sported an ERA of 8.57 in six spring training starts with a WHIP of 1.76, while Luke Weaver had an ERA of 8.59 with a 1.64 WHIP in four Cactus League starts. Widener was a pleasant surprise this spring, posting an ERA of 3.68 and a 1.02 WHIP in four total games (two starts) in spring. When Gallen returns, it will be a battle for that final spot in the rotation between Weaver and Widener. If Weaver continues to struggle and Widener continues to impress, don’t be surprised to see Weaver moved to the bullpen.
Will we see a breakout youngster in 2021?
Zinsmeister: I’ve already mentioned Pavin Smith, who is a decent contact hitter with the ability to get on base at a good clip. But there are more exciting players who could break out in 2021. Chief among them, Josh Rojas might finally get the chance to play a lot. With no official starter at second base, Rojas could see a lot of time there, and he appears to be the backup shortstop as well. The Diamondbacks want Daulton Varsho to be a catcher in the future, but he might also see time in the outfield if/when he returns to the majors this season.
The question is whether or not there are enough at-bats in the majors for him to develop as a player. Remember, he never played in Triple-A. As for the pitching staff, keep an eye on J.B. Bukauskas, who might have been the most impressive reliever in spring training. He could make his big league debut very soon and I wouldn’t be surprised if he establishes himself as a late-inning option.
Do the D-backs have a set closer?
Montilla: It’s hard to see the D-backs not going with a conventional closer, but Lovullo has alluded to using multiple members of the bullpen in closing situations, which may be the right call. Joakim Soria stands out as a top candidate based on his experience and time in MLB as a successful closer, but his spring numbers that included a 9.64 ERA in 4.2 innings pitched are concerning and hardly make him a standout amongst his peers in Cactus League play.
Both Stefan Crichton, who also hasn’t had a fantastic spring, and Kevin Ginkel, who has a 1.08 ERA in 8.1 innings pitched, will most likely see closing opportunities with Soria getting the majority of the reps for the foreseeable future. I believe Yoan Lopez could also emerge as another viable closer for Lovullo this season.