For the third consecutive season, we are proud to introduce the Deadspin Baseball Season Previews. Yes, baseball is awfully close now; it's spring training, after all.
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.
If any Arizona fan tries to tell you last year was expected to happen, don't believe them. Just about everything about 2007 was a surprise: Arizona's offense fizzled, our bullpen proved a tower of inconceivable strength and we survived the loss of Randy Johnson, while Doug Davis and Livan Hernandez pitched out of trouble with cheerful abandon, both men apparently pitching permanently from the stretch. Despite playing in a hitter-friendly park, we had the lowest average in the NL, scored 20 runs less than our opponents and still managed to post the best record in the league. We then swept the Cubs in three delicious games - more on them later - and though the wheels fell off the Saguaromobile in the Championship series, the season can only be described as exceeding all expectations.
More of the same in 2008? I certainly hope not. My digestive tract can not cope with another year of 52 one-run games, accompanied by six more months of every statistical analyst on the planet telling us we shouldn't be winning. No: this year, I want the Diamondbacks offense to be what we thought it would be last year, and then some, while Randy Johnson's back should possess the suppleness of a well-oiled young willow, and Dan Haren joins Brandon Webb at the top of the rotation to form a 1-2 punch unrivaled in the majors. KTHXBAI.
Wishful thinking aside, there does seem ground for optimism. Most of the roster return from last year, with the majority young enough that they'll be better, simply through age and experience. The few changes are indisputably improvements, most notably replacing Hernandez with Haren in the rotation, a move not far short of the Mets acquisition of Johan Santana, as far as impact. Sure, the D-backs sold a good chunk of the farm to do it, but with the exception of 2B Orlando Hudson, the entire starting lineup is signed at least through 2010. Given that, hoarding prospects was pointless - after all, you don't get any additional wins for having a really-good Triple-A roster.
Certainly, the Arizona rotation is a thing of potential beauty. Webb will likely be one of the Cy Young candidates again, while Haren started the All-Star game for the American League last year. Randy Johnson's back is once again a question mark, but apparently feels much better than last year, and Davis will walk far too many people, yet somehow escape. Then there's Micah Owings, who might be the best-hitting pitcher since Babe Ruth last took the mound - just ask the Braves, against whom he went 4-for-5 with two homers and six RBI, plus seven innings of three-hit ball in a game last August.
We should, hopefully, not be relying on the bats of our pitchers this year, and if there's an area where the D-backs really need to improve, it's at the plate. It was a young team, and it showed: in particular, shortstop Stephen Drew and right-fielder Carlos Quentin were weak spots. Quentin has gone, swapped for an A-ball player who became part of the Haren deal, and is replaced by phenom Justin Upton. The list of 20-year olds who played full-time in the majors of late is short: in fact, over the past fifteen years, it's Adrian Beltre, Andruw Jones and A-Rod. Upton is that good, potentially. Drew remains, though may find some of his playing time given to Chris Burke if he struggles again.
Elsewhere, Chris Young's 32-homer rookie season led the team, stealing 27 bases to go with them - just don't look at the 141 strikeouts or the on-base percentage which ended at only .295. It was notable that a lot of the Arizona players had significantly better second halves; 1B Conor Jackson and C Chris Snyder, in particular. I would hate to point fingers, but do note that the D-backs fired their hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer, at the All-Star break. The team added 38 points of OPS in the second half, with September being the offense's best month, by quite some distance. Here's to more of that in 2008.
The bullpen kicked ass, with just about every member outperforming all expectations, capped by Jose Valverde, who led the majors in saves, and also in opposing fans irritated, thanks to his patented post-save celebrations. He's now gone, traded to the Astros, so we'll get to see what life is like on the receiving end this year. Replacing him is Brandon Lyon, almost the anti-Valverde: far less demonstrative, and possessing four decent but not overpowering pitches, rare for closers, who usually dominate with two. I'm hoping our relief corps get given some more runs to play with, but they should be reliable, and the addition of Chad Qualls will help plug the gap left by Valverde.
It is kinda scary to think that veteran presence and leadership in the Arizona clubhouse will now be supplied by Hudson and Byrnes. This is because Tony Clark left the D-backs contract offer on the table while shopping around, only for it to be withdrawn. (He ended up getting a shorter, less well-paid deal with the Padres, for whom Adrian Gonzalez played 161 games at first-base. Clark's ass may well have fused with the pine on the Petco bench by season's end.) One suspects that things will go well, as long as things are going well - but as we saw at the All-Star Game, he couldn't even control his dog. Can a man driving a 2005 GMC van, which Byrnes calls the "shaggin' wagon," really command respect from his teammates?
One good step forward is the feeling that the D-backs are finally building rivalries with other teams. The Rockies are probably the most likely contenders, with both organizations building from within, and on a limited budget: there is some dislike there, with Troy Tulowitzki a particular lightning-rod for hatred. The problem is that it's still too "nice," though the hurling of bottles onto the field at Chase, after a questionable umpiring decision in the NLCS, certainly showed that the fans in Arizona could be provoked into passion, albeit not perhaps in a manner approved by Bud Selig.
For, let's be honest, Phoenix is a town of fickle, frontrunning fans - an inevitable result of being a city where almost everyone is from somewhere else and brings their loyalties with them. Nowhere is this more apparent when the Cubs come to town and all their fans living in Arizona suddenly come out of the woodwork. [I got a lot of flak during the season for observing how it was odd they feel such fierce loyalty to Chicago, yet apparently have no desire to live there...] But I have to say, something about the late-August series against Chicago galvanized the local fans, and by the time of the playoff series, Chase Field was no longer Wrigley South. Here's to more of that in 2008 as well.
The NL West promises, once again, to be among the tightest divisions in baseball - save the Giants, who will suck in a manner you'd expect, given the replacement of Barry Bonds in the cleanup spot by Bengie Molina. But I think the addition of Haren has kept the Diamondbacks at the front of the pack, and if the offense can perform even adequately, our pitching staff will do more than keep us in most games. Unlike last season, you won't find Arizona at 66/1 for the World Series this year, and if the anticipated division title occurs again, no-one will fancy facing Webb and Haren, with a side-order of Big Unit, in the playoffs.