Five Questions: Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks will have the best record in the National League this year. And it’s not me who thinks that—this is according to the Hardball Times division projections, which put Arizona at 86 wins.

Actually, I agree with the figure, though a few factors will have to bounce in Arizona’s direction. The Diamondbacks this year will sport new uniforms, the reigning Cy Young winner Brandon Webb, and no Luis Gonzalez in left field. They’ll be going with a veteran rotation and young batting lineup as they strive to continue rebounding from a 111-loss season just three years ago. Can the Diamondbacks become the Tigers of the National League?

1. Will Randy, and his back, bounce back?

Successful 43-year-old pitchers are rare. Only five men have won a dozen games at that age in baseball history: Jack Quinn, Phil Niekro, Tommy John, Nolan Ryan and Satchel Paige. This year, Johnson aims to join the club, the Diamondbacks having returned him to the organization with which he had his greatest triumphs. But how will he fare?

Certainly, the 2006 vintage was poor, posting the highest ERA in Johnson’s career, and winning 17 games thanks only to 6.48 runs of support per outing. Johnson suffered all season from a herniated back, and his problems pitching from the stretch were obvious: Opposing hitters batted .321 with runners on base, compared to only .206 with the bases empty. There’s also little doubt he was never emotionally comfortable in New York, and is happier back in Arizona, where the pressure is less intense. He won’t even be the ace in Phoenix, with Webb taking the lead there.

Johnson has not yet appeared in a competitive game, and probably won’t start until the second half of April. Still, if you had to pick one 43-year-old as a pitcher to whom you should hitch a franchise’s fortunes, there’s probably nobody better for the job. The Hardball Times book predicts a 3.70 ERA for him, which is admittedly more bullish than almost any fan would predict, and no one is expecting 372 Ks, as in 2001. If the Diamondbacks get 30 starts and an ERA under four, they will be very happy, and should be fighting for a playoff spot.

2. How fare the young guns?

At the other end of the spectrum, Arizona has one of the youngest sets of position players in the majors. The anticipated Opening Day lineup has six players aged 26 or younger, and everyday starters Conor Jackson (first base), Stephen Drew (shortstop), Chris Young (center field) and Carlos Quentin (right field) will have only 326 major-league games played, combined. Postseason experience is similarly light: Eric Byrnes‘ nine is the most playoff games for any non-pitcher.

Some predictions for the youngsters are near berserk: ZIPS reckons Young will hit 29 homers, while Bill James predicted 25 homers and 100 RBI for Quentin (before, obviously, the news of a tear in Quentin’s labrum). There’s no denying the tools on view, and if these kinds of figures are reached, the D-backs will be an offensive juggernaut in the NL West. But much of the talent is unquestionably raw and not proven at the highest level. (The Tucson AAA club, which hosted several of the young players last year, did win the Pacific Coast League.)

The sheer number of young players and their talent make it likely that one or two of them will have breakout seasons. It’s almost impossible to predict which ones, however, and it’s equally likely that there will be slumps. Bob Melvin will need to be patient and let them work through these; at least the opportunity to play “proven veterans” will be much less, with Shawn Green, Luis Gonzalez, Damion Easley and Craig Counsell no longer on the roster.

The core of this team should be around for the next five years, and will get better. How good they’ll be coming out of the starting gate in 2007 remains to be seen.

3. Will the relievers be a relief?

Arizona hasn’t had anyone notch 20 saves in a season since the days of Matt Mantei. Since then, Jose Valverde has been the most consistent, notching between eight and 18 saves a year for the past four, and begins the year as the anointed closer.

In 2006, Valverde started off phenomenally, allowing four runs in his first 16 appearances. The subsequent meltdown was spectacular: In May, his ERA ballooned to 7.71, then 12.66 in June. This proved so horrific for his psyche that he was sent to Tucson to regroup. He was fine again on his return (four earned runs in 18.2 innings), but will probably be kept on a short leash initially, and has been told to stick to his two best pitches, the fastball and splitter. Equally importantly, he must leave blown saves behind him, not let them snowball off downhill with his confidence.

Last year, Jorge Julio took over when Valverde went down. Julio has been the subject of trade rumors all winter, most recently linking him to the Marlins, so may not be in Arizona for Opening Day, and almost certainly will be gone by the trade deadline. Behind him lurks what remains of the Arizona bullpen, depleted further by a trade in which Doug Davis came to the desert.

Brandon Medders may be among the best-kept secrets in the National League (an ERA+ of 151 over the past two years); beyond him, Juan Cruz and Brandon Lyon, it all gets disturbingly murky and lacking in experience. However, if the rotation lives up to its promise of “innings eaters,” then four reliable arms will be enough to cover most important eventualities.

On the plus side, here’s to a season without, oh, relievers getting visited by the Feds for steroid abuse. Avoid that, and the Diamondbacks can only be better.

4. What will Arizona get from behind the mask?

Last year saw Johnny Estrada have the best offensive season at the position in franchise history, hitting .302 with 71 RBI. He has now gone, traded to Milwaukee, and is replaced by his backup,Chris Snyder, and highly rated prospect Miguel Montero.

Estrada’s plate discipline certainly won’t be missed: He took only six unintentional walks all season. It’s less certain whether Snyder will be able to wield the bat full-time. His previous attempt at that, in 2005, resulted in an OPS below .600. That was coming straight from Double-A, and he was much improved last year, albeit in a part-time role. Montero had a September cup of coffee in Phoenix, but hit .321 in 36 games at Triple-A and has an overall figure of .291 in his minor-league career.

However, perhaps the major improvement may be in their other roles. Comments from both sides suggest Estrada was not exactly enamored with some of the pitchers, and defensively left a bit to be desired, too. Snyder has shown himself superior in both these areas, though Montero’s arm is the proverbial loose cannon. (I believe that, on one play in Tucson, a throw to second was caught by the center fielder on the fly!)

It remains to be seen how manager Bob Melvin will split playing time; he’s a big fan of the “hot hand.” Overall, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the rookie force his way into the picture more and more as the season goes on, and certainly Montero would appear to be the long-term future behind the plate for the Diamondbacks.

5. Will the crowds come back to Chase Field?

Things look fairly stable off the field, with manager Bob Melvin signed to a contract extension early last season. On the other hand, attendance in Arizona has declined almost every year since the franchise started. The two exceptions were after the World Series win, and last season, where a final-weekend “farewell to Gonzo” surge meant a tiny uptick.

The enforced departure of previous owner Jerry Colangelo, the change of uniforms and the club’s refusal to re-sign Luis Gonzalez have all provoked fan ire, with boycotts being threatened. But other Diamondbacks supporters have welcomed these changes enthusiastically, and the battle between these factions will be decided by the clicking of the Chase Field turnstiles. Early reports indicate that season-ticket renewals and single-game sales are healthy, though the sellout Red Sox series may skew things somewhat.

It’ll also be interesting to see how public enthusiasm for the team is this year. In Arizona, almost everyone is from somewhere else—they tend to bring their team loyalties with them, and hometown support is fickle as a result. Add three years of losing records, Grimsleygate and the alternative allure of the unstoppable Phoenix Suns, and you can see why the Diamondbacks are not currently a hot ticket.

The youth of this team will be good in the long term, giving fans a chance to attach themselves to the franchise in a way the high-priced mercenaries of 2001 could never really provide. If they win as well, the full houses may not be limited to Boston’s visit.

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