The struggling Mets head out west to start a long road trip tonight and their first stop will be in the desert to take on the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. After winning the NL West crown a year ago, Arizona has slumped to a 49-49 mark. They currently sit in 3rd place in the division, six games behind the first place Giants and three games in back of the Dodgers. In order to get a better look at the Diamondbacks, I sent Jim McLennan of SB Nation's Diamondbacks site AZ Snake Pit some questions and he was kind enough to answer them for us.
Amazin' Avenue: We're close the end of July now and the Diamondbacks sit just a game over .500 after winning the NL West in 2011. They've gotten some great individual performances but in 2012, they seem to be less than the sum of their parts. What's kept this team from having more success thus far?
AZ Snake Pit: If you want to point to one thing, it's that the team has struggled in close games. The Diamondbacks are only 8-14 in one-run contests, compared to 28-16 last season. The reasons for that are a combination of things: the bullpen hasn't been as lethally good when protecting leads, and the offense has struggled in "late and close" situations, hitting a league-worst .185. The net result is that the 2012 Diamondbacks have already lost a dozen games where they were tied or ahead after seven innings; last year's model lost only six all season.AA: Mets fans have heard the rumors about the Diamondbacks shopping 24-year old RF Justin Upton, who's in the midst of a down year. Why do you think they seem to be interested in moving such a talented, young player and do you think they ever will actually move him?
AZ: It's down to using a position of strength to help areas of weakness. The D-backs not only have a decent trio of other starters, in Chris Young, Jason Kubel and Gerardo Parra, they have good prospects in the minors, such as Adam Eaton, hitting .374 with 30 SB for Reno. On the other hand, both short-stop and third-base are question-marks, both immediately and in the longer term. Willie Bloomquist has been playing over his head, and Stephen Drew's $10 million option for next year likely won't be exercised.
That's the "why", but it all depends on the team getting the haul it wants - and I've a feeling that has not been the case so far. Arizona does not "need" to shift Upton, and if they don't get an acceptable offer, they'll be perfectly happy to hold on to the outfielder. I've a feeling that's likely to be the case: there were similar trade rumors of Upton being on the block in the 2010-11 off-season, and those didn't pan out.
AA: Aside from Upton, the D-Backs sit in third place in the NL West at the moment. Leading up to the trade deadline, do you see them as buyers or sellers? What do you foresee them doing over the next week, if anything?
AZ: Third-base is likely the most immediate area of concern. They traded Opening Day starter Ryan Roberts to the Rays earlier this week, after a disappointing season. That would seem to open up the spot for a trade acquisition, because stand-in Bloomquist - who hasn't hit a home-run this year, in over 300 PAs - doesn't give the production you'd expect from the hot corner.
But it's hard to say if they'll be buyers or sellers: it seems every time I lean one way, the team goes the other. I was feeling optimistic after they finished the first-half by winning three straight from the then division-leading Dodgers. Then they came out after the break and were swept by the Cubs. I suspect there'll not be anything too major, but GM Kevin Towers has surprised us before.
AA: Former American Leaguers Jason Kubel and Aaron Hill have had outstanding seasons. What have you seen from them this year and do you think their success is sustainable?
AZ: The signing of Kubel was largely panned by Arizona fans at the time, seeming as it did to replace Gerardo Parra, who merely hit .292 and win a Gold Glove, for a lot less money. But Kubel has *really* enjoyed playing at Chase - 17 of his 22 homers have come there, and his OPS is about 400 points higher at home! I think it's the case that he was really hurt by Target Field, and his approach at the plate suffered.
It's a bit harder to say for Hill. I think he simply benefited from a change of scenery - as did Kelly Johnson, who is doing well (albeit not as well as Hill) in Toronto. I do recall hearing it allowed him to stop "trying" to hit home-runs, which seemed almost an imperative with the Jays, and that let him get back to a more natural game, albeit still with more pop than most 2B.
AA: Which Diamondbacks players have been playing well over the last few weeks and which players have been struggling?
AZ: Outside of Kubel, Chris Young has started to hit the ball better since the All-Star break: he's 10-for-34, with seven extra-base hits, including three homers. On the other end, Stephen Drew is still finding his feet, batting .209 over 19 games since he returned. However, after a year away from the majors, due to that horrific ankle injury, some rust is to be expected.
The pitching has been pretty good of late: Trevor Cahill is the only current starter with a second-half ERA over four, and the Mets won't be seeing him. Ian Kennedy has put together consecutive eight-inning outings, allowing a total of three runs, and if the D-backs are to make a push in the second half, they'll need more of those kinds of outings. Josh Collmenter struggled early on, but since the end of April, has a 1.51 ERA over 47.2 innings of work, and has earned a spot back in the rotation. He may prove the toughest pitcher you'll see this series.
Thanks again to Jim McLennan for helping us preview this series with the Diamondbacks. Here are the scheduled pitching matchups for this weekend:
Friday, July 27th: 9:40 PM on SNY, Jon Niese against Josh Collmenter
Saturday, July 28th: 8:10 PM on WPIX, Chris Young against Ian Kennedy