You might remember, from back at the beginning of the NFL season, when we previewed each team by having a writer we liked write about their favorite team.
Well, we're less than a week away from the start of baseball — spring training is here! — so it's time to do the same thing in the baseball world. Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.
Today: The Arizona Diamondbacks. Your author is Jim McLennan.
Jim McLennan grew up in Britain so never saw live baseball for the first three decades of his life. He's making up for it now, and rants, on a daily basis, about the Arizona Diamondbacks over at AZSnakePit.com. His words are after the jump.
Last season, the Tigers proved it was possible for a team to go from 110-game losers to the World Series in three years. In 2007, the Arizona Diamondbacks attempt to complete the same journey, and there are some parallels in their progress so far. After taking only 43 games in 2003 the Tigers improved 29 the next year, then consolidated with almost the same win total, before riding the best pitching in baseball all the way to the big show. After taking only 51 games in 2004, the Diamondback improved 26 the next year, then consolidated with almost the same win total, before...
Well, we'll have to wait and see. But here's one striking fact: Arizona have four pitchers in their rotation who were Opening Day starters in 2006: Webb (AZ), Johnson (NYY), Davis (MIL) and Hernandez (WAS). That may be unique, for any team in baseball history. Of course, there are question marks over a good three-quarters of those names, and at the time of writing, we don't know for sure who the number five will be. Still, the tactic of GM Josh Byrnes over the past year has been obvious: go out and get pitchers who can go deep into games.
He's had to accomplish this with brain rather than financial brawn, as the Diamondbacks' budget leaves them unable to compete in, say, the Matsuzaka auction - they were a mere $30m or so short of Boston's bid. It'd help if they weren't still paying through the nose, to the tune of about $25m per year, for the deferred contracts Jerry Colangelo signed with players during his Enron-like time as owner. So Byrnes has gone the trade route instead, netting Doug Davis from the Brewers in exchange for catcher Johnny Estrada and a couple of pitchers, and Livan Hernandez from the Nationals for two mid-level prospects. [The deals which brought Chris Young and Albert Callaspo to Arizona are also looking pretty good.]
Of course, the big one was the return of prodigal son Randy Johnson, back to the franchise with whom he won four Cy Youngs and a World Series co-MVP, as well as pitching a perfect game. Johnson had been unhappy from, literally, day one in New York, when he pushed a photographer on the way to his medical, and hell hath no fury like the Big Apple media scorned. While notching 34 wins in two years - only Santana and Garland had more in the AL - his postseason failure [10 earned runs in 13 innings] were enough to make him the whipping-boy. The death of his brother turned Johnson's thoughts West, and Arizona did the rest.
The question is, how will he do? Hell, how would any of us do, at age 43 and coming off surgery for a herniated disc? But this is Randy Johnson, and writing him off would be foolish. While no one expects Big Unit c. 2001 , if he can cure the problems, possibly back-related, that he had pitching from the stretch (batters hit .321 against him with runners on base last year), he should be a solid backup to Cy Young winner Brandon Webb. And that position, too, will ease the pressure, as Johnson is no longer expected to be the staff ace. He'll miss the first couple of weeks, and his starts will be scrutinized minutely - both in Arizona and New York. It's probably little exaggeration to say, as Johnson goes, so likely will the Diamondbacks' season.
Behind those two, lurk Livan Hernandez and Doug Davis. Though the former was great after coming over from the Nationals last season, his stuff is now little more than cunning junk; he can certainly flummox batters with it, if they let him. Davis was troubled by walks last year and seemed to be trying to be too fine with his pitches, not helped by inadequate defense behind him. With Gold Glover Orlando Hudson at second, that should be less an issue now. The fifth spot is currently Edgar Gonzalez's to lose, but the D-backs have no shortage of candidates, and will need someone - possibly Enrique Gonzalez [no relation] - to fill in until Johnson is ready.
The hope is these starters will go seven-plus innings per night, which didn't happen enough last year. As a result, the bullpen was sorely taxed, often found wanting, and little has been done to shore it up. Indeed, Arizona lost Greg Aquino in the Davis trade, Luis Vizcaino to New York, and Jorge Julio could only be less subtly offered for trade, if they made him wear a sign reading 'Proven Closer' while pitching. Jose Valverde has that job for now, but has never managed to hold it for a full season: in four years, his career high is eighteen saves. Brandon Medders, Jose Cruz and Brandon Lyon will need to be effective, and that will likely be decided by how often manager Bob Melvin needs to use them.
If the pitching staff has the predictability of a meth-crazed octopus, things look a lot more reliable on the position player front, where what you'll see this year, could be much the same lineup as in 2011. Arizona will get the first full season from Stephen Drew (SS), Carlos Quentin (RF) and Chris Young (CF); Conor Jackson (1B), Chad Tracy (3B) and Chris Snyder (C) are also aged 26 or younger on Opening Day. This team can flat-out hit and will present a formidable challenge from top to bottom, with Eric Byrnes (LF) and Hudson (2B) completing the everyday lineup. There could be five or six players with 20 homers, and the rest might get 15 or more.
There's no obvious leadoff or cleanup hitter to be found, and Melvin will mix and match lineups as necessary; Tracy, for example, will drop down the order against lefties, who have always given him trouble. He may even be benched entirely, with switch-hitter and infield utility guy Callaspo impressing enormously: in 490 at-bats at Triple-A, he struck out only 27 times, batting .337. Similarly, in the outfield, Scott Hairston swatted 28 homers for Tucson and could start in left, since Quentin is currently out with a slight tear in his labrum. To cover right field, Byrnes would shift over there.
Otherwise, Byrnes moves to left, replacing departed "fan favorite" Luis Gonzalez - here meaning, "once great, now mediocre and overpaid, with a nice smile" (though now that he's left, I can mention the rumblings which suggest his 'family guy' persona was perhaps not strictly accurate). Gonzo will continue to help Arizona this year ... by playing for the Dodgers. In left, Byrnes must repeat last year's career season, in order to be merely average at his new position, and it's strange he is still with Arizona. The organization is not stupid any longer; they know Hairston's potential. And you'd think teams would beat a path to Chase Field for Byrnes, given he and Alfonso Soriano were the only two outfielders to hit 25+ homers and steal 25+ bases last year. Apparently this isn't the case - which makes me wonder why not.
Don't get me wrong. Most Arizona fans love Eric's gung-ho 'attitood.' We love his unquestionable, genuine enthusiasm for the game. We love his style, or lack thereof. We just have a younger, better and cheaper alternative - albeit one whose hair is not apparently sculpted by 5,000 Volts of alternating current. With Hairston out of options, as is fellow backup outfielder Dave Krynzel, juggling roster spots once Quentin and Jeff DaVanon return to full health, promises to be one of the trickier tasks faced by Bob Melvin this year.
Will it all come together? It certainly may, with sources as diverse as the Hardball Times and FoxSports.com (Ed. Note: And Deadspin!) picking Arizona as the team to beat in the West. And if they do get to the playoffs, do you think any team fancies facing Cy Young holder Webb and a rejuvenated Big Unit in a short series? Hell, no. We do not, in any way, wish to encourage online gambling. That said, if you look around (and, ahem, are not a resident of the US), you can still get the Diamondbacks at odds of 66-1 to win the 2007 World Series. Frankly, that's a gift, and readers might consider contacting their overseas relatives in regard to this matter, before the sports books catch on. And the scariest thing is, this Diamondbacks team is only going to get better...