D-backs’ Hazen expects bounce-back year from rotation
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Starting pitching was a big part of the problem a year ago for an Arizona Diamondbacks team that entered with high expectations but nosedived to a 69-win season.
Yet as Mike Hazen looked at the roster for his first season as general manager, he singled out just that aspect as the part of the team that’s impressed him most.
“I think this game is built in a lot of ways on pitching,” he said in a meeting with reporters on Tuesday, “and I like the starting pitching that we have, not only in its talent but in its depth.”
For that to be a team strength probably would require big bounce-back seasons for Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin and a return to good health and consistency for ace Zack Greinke.
“I’m nobody that looks in the mirror, any of us coming off a 69-win team, doesn’t want to look for some type of bounce-back,” Hazen said. “I’m sure it was motivation for a lot of guys –front office, coaches, players — in the offseason and hopefully we see the results of that.”
Success in the rotation also would mean the team gets a strong season from Taijuan Walker, the hard-throwing young right-hander acquired in a trade with Seattle.
“We see him as a big piece of this ball club moving forward,” Hazen said.
Struggles in the bullpen also were a big part of the Diamondbacks’ 5.09 ERA, worst in the majors.
Hazen thinks the team helped address that issue with the signing of right-hander Kevin Jepsen and left-hander Brian Matusz to minor league contracts this week.
“We’re pretty excited that they were still around,” Hazen said. “These guys have been good relievers in the past. … Obviously that’s something we’ve talked about through the course of the offseason, wanting to add to our club. We had a lot of good young arms, a lot of good young reliever candidates. We wanted to add a little bit more experience to that group.”
Hazen said he believes the team can bolster what he has acknowledged to be one of the worst minor league systems in baseball while not dismantling the major league roster, for now, anyway.
“First and foremost, the major league team is the most important part of the organization, year in and year out,” he said, “and this team, I think, has a lot of talent on it and we’re going to see where that takes us this year. But underneath that we’re working already on the amateur draft, the international market in finding those next Diamondback players that will be up here on the major league club.”
Sustained success, Hazen said, will depend on a “pipeline of talent coming through the minor league system.”
When the Diamondbacks fired general manager Dave Stewart and manager Chip Hale after last season and reassigned chief baseball officer Tony La Russa, the team turned to the Boston Red Sox to right an Arizona franchise that has not contended in the NL West in recent years.
First, the Red Sox general manager Hazen was hired as executive vice president and GM of the Diamondbacks. Then Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo was named Diamondbacks manager.
Both said it’s been a big help that they had already worked together well before they came to the desert.
Lovullo called it “a special relationship.”
“It think it’s sped up the process a little because our communication is quick, easy, well-understood,” he said. “We’ve worked through some conversations that maybe, if I hadn’t known him, it would have taken a day or two to get through it. The one thing that I know we’re able to do is we’re able to express ourselves openly and honestly and not have to worry about any lingering effects.”
Hazen spoke after the Diamondbacks pitchers and catchers went through their first spring training workout and there was plenty of enthusiasm, Lovullo said.
“I encouraged these guys this morning to not try and do too much too early,” the new manager said. “This is the first day of spring training. This is their first official bullpen of spring training and the natural tendency is to go out there and ask your body to do a little bit too much. I asked them to back off, which I don’t think many of them did.”