Why the Arizona Diamondbacks are a dark-horse MLB playoff contender in 2021

Feb 25, 2021; Scottsdale, Arizona, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks infielders Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar (right) during spring training workouts at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Diamondbacks are among the most likely teams in MLB to bounce back this season, and are definitely a dark-horse National League playoff contender in 2021.

Yes, the Diamondbacks are coming off a discouraging 25-35 campaign, good for last place in the NL West. It’s also true that the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres overheated the stove this offseason and look poised to be perennial pennant threats for the foreseeable future. Their presence in Arizona’s division doesn’t help the cause, either.

None of the above takes away from what the D-backs have going for them, though, which is a well-rounded ball club.

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Arizona Diamondbacks have a better offense than they showed in 2020

Arizona Diamondbacks have a better offense than they showed in 2020
Mar 4, 2021; Salt River Pima-Maricopa, Arizona, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Ketel Marte (4) hits a single against the Los Angeles Angels during a spring training game at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Last season the D-backs were in the bottom-half of MLB in runs, batting average and OPS. Ketel Marte (a .732 OPS last season), Eduardo Escobar (a .212 batting average last season) and Carson Kelly (a .221 batting average last season) struggled at the plate when compared to the success they found in 2019.

Marte was an MVP candidate in 2019. He was getting on base at an elite level, emerging as a cornerstone for manager Torey Lovullo’s lineup and has extensive experience starting at both second base, center field and shortstop. Escobar was superb for Arizona at the plate in said season, totaling 35 home runs and 118 RBI while holding his own at the hot corner. Kelly blasted 18 home runs in 2019, serving as one of the best hitting catchers in the sport.

These three have the talent to get back to their 2019 ways or at least close to it. If they do, the D-backs can have a top-10 offense next season when taking into account those around them.

Christian Walker is a power outlet at first base. David Peralta has a smooth swing and is coming off a season where he hit .300. Right fielder Kole Calhoun raked in the sport’s 60-game regular season, posting an .864 OPS and 40 RBIs; shortstop Nick Ahmed is a contact hitter and slick fielder.

The bulk of the aforementioned players were present for the team’s second-half push in 2019, where they showcased growth across the board and looked like a team on the rise (the D-backs finished the 2019 season 85-77 after being 64-66 in August). Pitching was an equal part of that optimism.

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The D-backs pitching staff boasts underrated depth

Arizona Diamondbacks' pitching staff is underrated
Sep 10, 2020; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Madison Bumgarner against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Although they struggled as a whole in 2020, the D-backs have a compelling group of young starting pitchers beginning with Zac Gallen. The 25-year-old has quietly been one of the more reliable starting pitchers in MLB since landing in Arizona via trade in 2019.

Across his 20 starts with the organization, Gallen has logged strikeouts at a high rate thanks to his devious four-seamer and cutter and has pitched deep into games. Last season Gallen posted a 2.75 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP and 82 strikeouts across 12 starts.

Entering year two of his five-year, $85 million deal, Madison Bumgarner, 31, is a prime bounce-back candidate after posting a dismal 6.48 ERA across his nine starts last season. The southpaw is adept at getting hitters to wave at his curveball and provides length.

Luke Weaver, Alex Young, Merrill Kelly and Caleb Smith are a year removed from showcasing the ability to take the hill and perform every fifth day. Meanwhile, Taylor Clarke has shown the ability to be a competent starter. There’s depth and upside on this pitching staff given these starters have no more than five years of MLB experience under their belt. Those who don’t crack the rotation can beef up the bullpen.

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Arizona Diamondbacks have road to playoffs despite tough division

Arizona Diamondbacks have road to playoffs despite tough division
Sep 10, 2020; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers base runner Enrique Hernandez (left) is caught stealing home and tagged out by Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly in the sixth inning at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NL is all over the place. All five teams in the NL East are at least formulating a scenario where they win the division. At least four of these teams are separated by individual hairs. In the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals are flaunting their new star, Nolan Arenado, the Milwaukee Brewers have added to their positional depth chart and the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates have traded and/or lost several key contributors to free agency.

The NL West should be a two-horse race between the Dodgers and Padres. That said, a two-horse race doesn’t exclude a third team in the division from snatching one of the two NL Wild Card seeds, especially if the competition in the NL East lives up to the hype.

How does the NL East having four teams play well work in the D-backs’ favor? Divisional play makes up roughly 47% of an MLB team’s schedule, meaning the Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, New York Mets, Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies will have to beat each other. With these teams loaded or at least improved, a couple of them are poised to underwhelm from a win-loss standpoint even if they have a playoff-caliber roster. They have to feast on each other.

Plus, if the NL Central sees two, if not just one team emerge as a pennant threat that further opens the door for the D-backs to get in the Wild Card Game.

Last season was a mess for the Diamondbacks. This season presents its own set of challenges but none that eliminate them from being a competitive ballclub that contends for a playoff spot.

Of course, them posing a threat in the NL is reliant on their offense collectively picking up the slack and their rotation getting back on track. All things considered, it’s highly unlikely that even 80 percent of their 2020 shortcomings repeat themselves this season. A 162-game season allows the D-backs to get into a groove and back to their productive ways. This roster has depth, offensive firepower and versatility.

Three NL West teams made the playoffs in 2017 with 87-plus wins, which the D-backs were part of. It can happen again.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are a legitimate playoff contender.

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