Diamondbacks deserve your attention this year

The Arizona Diamondbacks don’t receive much national attention, in part because they’ve rarely been good in recent years. Since the end of the Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling era in 2003, the Diamondbacks have made just two playoff appearances in 12 seasons and have just one other season above .500.

So maybe they’re not on your radar for 2016, but the Diamondbacks will be a fascinating and entertaining team to watch. While their playoff hopes took a big hit with the possible season-ending injury to All-Star center fielder A.J. Pollock (broken elbow), look at all the interesting subplots to follow:

  • Paul Goldschmidt is the quiet superstar who has two MVP runner-up finishes in the past three years. He hits like Mike Trout but stole more bases than Trout in 2015, and Goldschmidt is the best defensive first baseman in the majors.

  • Zack Greinke was the big free-agent signing, coming off a season in which he posted a 1.66 ERA, befuddling batters with his precision location and ability to change speeds on different pitches. His Opening Day start didn’t go well -- the Diamondbacks later reported he pitched with the flu -- and seeing whether he can live up to his six-year, $206.5 million contract makes him one of the most important players on any team this season.

  • Once a minor league pitcher, David Peralta got hurt, returned four years later as an outfielder with Rio Grande Valley in the independent North American League, signed two years later with the Diamondbacks and then blossomed into one of the top hitters in the game in 2015 with a .312/.371/.522 line.

  • Cuban Yasmany Tomas signed for $68.5 million on the heels of Yasiel Puig's and Jose Abreu's big numbers. His first season with Arizona was a disappointment. What will happen in 2016?

  • Nick Ahmed played in the shadow of Andrelton Simmons and Brandon Crawford a year ago, but he’s a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop.

  • Jake Lamb is a potential breakout performer, a .321 career hitter in the minors with a sweet left-handed swing.

  • Daniel Hudson, a 16-game winner on the 2011 playoff team, has fought through two Tommy John surgeries and now throws 96 mph out of the bullpen.

On top of that are all the background stories: the new uniforms; the controversial Shelby Miller trade; the Dave Stewart/Tony La Russa dynamic -- the Diamondbacks’ front office seemingly operates on an island as compared to the other 29 teams; and the attempt to compete with the deep pockets of their division rivals in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Steve Berthiaume, the Diamondbacks’ excellent TV play-by-play guy -- and a former SweetSpot contributor from his ESPN days -- says enthusiasm has never been higher in the Valley.

"We were a sneaky fun team last year. We were coming off a 98-loss season, we improved by 15 games and sort of nobody noticed. People see Goldy’s numbers but may not realize how good he is," Berthiaume said during spring training, while also mentioning some of the other young players. "We developed a really nice narrative, and now we’re ready to build on what was started last year. Expectations are really high."

Of course, he said that before the Pollock injury, which now makes including Ender Inciarte in the Miller deal even more painful. That deal also included shortstop Dansby Swanson and pitcher Aaron Blair, two top-50 prospects. But the Diamondbacks felt they needed to add another top starter to go with Greinke and Patrick Corbin.

“We challenge our baseball staff: This is your budget. They say this is our window to compete,” Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall said recently at the SABR Analytics Conference. “We can’t spend wildly in this market. They had to create some flexibility and move some big-ticket items.”

In other words, it costs something to get something. The Miller was criticized, but the idea that the Diamondbacks’ window to win is now makes sense. Goldschmidt is signed through 2019 at an incredibly discounted rate -- he’ll make $5.9 million this year, up to $14.5 million in 2019. That’s their window. His contract gave them the payroll flexibility to sign a guy like Greinke, so that’s why they traded for Miller rather than waiting for Swanson and Blair to arrive in a couple of years.

Diamondbacks local TV ratings were up 30 percent a year ago, making them the highest-rated prime-time show in the Phoenix area. Those ratings should go up even more this year. The new uniforms have been a big hit, especially the charcoal gray road uniforms. Hall said the D-backs are the first team to sell more road jerseys than home jerseys.

The Diamondbacks are also well-liked by their fans. That might seem obvious, but it's not always the case. In ESPN The Magazine’s annual Ultimate Standings -- a survey of how fans think their teams are doing -- the Diamondbacks ranked ninth last year among all teams in the four major pro leagues.

Maybe that was a reflection of the improved product on the field, but it’s also a reflection of having fun players to cheer for and the in-game experience at Chase Field. Now the Diamondbacks just need to get a few more of those fans out to the ballpark. Ballpark revenue, it seems, just isn’t that important anymore, with the increasingly lucrative local TV deals.

But don’t tell that to the Diamondbacks. John Fisher, the team’s senior VP of ticket sales and marketing, said 54 percent of the team’s revenue last year came from local revenue -- that’s ballpark admissions, concessions and sponsorships but doesn’t include local TV money. The Diamondbacks bring in more money from their local TV this year, but getting fans to the park is still important.

“If we come up $4 million short, that has to come from somewhere,” Fisher said. “The owner’s pocket or a player making that salary.”

Despite a product that fans approved of, the Diamondbacks ranked just 12th in the NL in attendance, drawing a bit more than 2 million fans. Fisher said it can be a tough market: There are a lot of transplants; there are the snowbirds who live elsewhere in the summer; the metro is so spread out now that driving into downtown Phoenix can be a lengthy, time-consuming drive. Like a lot of teams, the Diamondbacks now use a lot of ticket analytics to get more butts in the seats.

Of course, the best way to do that is put a winning team on the field. When I talked to Miller after one spring training start, he raved about the clubhouse atmosphere, how well the players were getting along. That seems to be something that emanates from Hall and the ownership group, down to the players, coaching staff and everyone else. “The whole organization feels like a team,” Berthiaume said.

With Pollock out, a lot more factors will have to break right for the Diamondbacks to beat out the Dodgers and Giants. Greinke, Miller and Corbin will have to be one of the top rotation trios in the league. Socrates Brito will have to produce some value in center field. Ahmed and Jean Segura will have to improve at the plate. Lamb will need that breakout year, and Tomas has to hit better.

And if that doesn’t happen? You can always check out the uniforms.