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2010 Arizona Diamondbacks: Nowhere to Go but Up(ton) Spring Preview
by Keith Glab,
April 4, 2010

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Adam LaRoche 1B
Kelly Johnson 2B
Edwin Jackson SP
Ian Kennedy SP
Bob Howry RP
Aaron Heilman RP
Rodrigo Lopez SP
Departed Pos.
Max Scherzer SP
Doug Davis SP
Yusmeiro Petit SP
Eric Byrnes OF
Alex Romero OF
Trent Oeltjen OF
Daniel Schlereth RP
Scott Schoeneweis RP
Chad Tracy 1B
Joshua Whitesell 1B
Tony Clark 1B
Last year's Arizona Diamondbacks began the season unable to generate any offense whatsoever despite playing in one of the best hitter's parks in all of baseball.  They hit .231/.308/.394 as a team during the month of April, resulting in the dismissal of the coaching staff and wholesale changes to the composition to the roster.  New manager A.J. Hinch, who had no prior managerial experience, didn't find acceptance from his players or success until late in the summer. 

But the D-backs did have success, going 29-26 in the months of July and August before tailing off again in September.  The difference in those months was the team's offense: a .776 July OPS and a .791 August OPS for a team that could not manage an OPS of .740 in any other month.  The Snakes certainly had problems on the mound all year with the absence of Brandon Webb causing a chain reaction to the entire staff, but when the offense was clicking, the D-backs were still a winning team.   

This is very good news, because even though Arizona's pitching staff isn't going to be any better than it was last year, they have an offense built to score runs consistently throughout the season.

2009 Standings - NL West
West W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Los Angeles Dodgers 95 67 .586 0 50-31 45-36 780 611 .610 68-47 27-20
Colorado Rockies* 92 70 .568 3 51-30 41-40 804 715 .553 65-44 27-26
San Francisco Giants 88 74 .543 7 52-29 36-45 657 611 .533 65-52 23-21
San Diego Padres 75 87 .463 20 42-39 33-48 638 769 .415 49-58 26-29
Arizona Diamondbacks 70 92 .432 25 36-45 34-47 720 782 .462 53-62 17-30

Part of the reason the offense clicked beginning in late June was that Miguel Montero became the starting catcher around that time.  From June 27 onwards, Montero posted a .912 OPS, making him one of the elite offensive catchers in all of baseball.  His defense also took a big step forward, as only two catchers saved more runs than he did defensively last year, according to John Dewan's Runs Saved system.

Pos '09 '10
C Montero Montero
1B Tracy LaRoche
2B Lopez/Roberts K Johnson
3B Reynolds Reynolds
SS Drew Drew
LF Parra/Byrnes C Jackson
CF Young Young
RF Upton Upton

The trouble is that Chris Snyder joined Eric Byrnes, Chad Tracy, and Chris Young as players that general manager Josh Byrnes signed to long-term contract extensions despite their having shown only brief success.  While some large market teams wouldn't be crippled by having a defensive catcher of Snyder's caliber as a backup at $11.25 million over the next two seasons, the small-market D-backs are desperate to deal him, particularly with minor league catchers John Hester, Sean Coughlin, and Konrad Schmidt each looking like capable big league backups at the very least.  To that end, Chris Snyder is going to take a lot of at-bats away from Montero in the early going in order to showcase his health and make him tradable.

Recent long-term extensions were also given to Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds, although these moves do not figure to backfire.  Just 22-years old, Upton was the best overall right fielder in the game last year and has a Hall of Fame career ahead of him.  Reynolds, 26, is more of a risk with his inconsistent defense and tendency to set the all-time strikeout record every year.  Nevertheless, Reynolds possesses some of the best raw power in all of baseball and can draw walks and steal bases to boot.    

Kelly Johnson
Add to Montero, Upton, and Reynolds a first baseman in Adam LaRoche who has averaged 66 extra base hits a year over the past four seasons, and you have an offense that is in business.  LaRoche could even wind up having a career year at the age of 30, as he is playing in a hitter's park now and is coming off consecutive 25-homer campaigns.  At the very least, he is an immeasurable upgrade over the first basemen Arizona used last year that combined to bat just .229.

After that fearsome foursome, the D-backs plan to start four position players who were disappointments in 2009, but who are each still young enough to have bounce-back seasons to regain their former glory. 

Stephen Drew wasn't actually bad last year, but after he finished the 2008 season so very strong, the D-backs were expecting nothing less than an All-Star season and received nothing more than a solid contribution instead.  At age 27, Drew should be one of the better offensive shortstops in the league once again this season, although it appears that he may never be the superstar he was billed as.

Left Fielder Conor Jackson has had an excellent spring, which is an encouraging sign from someone who missed most of 2009 due to illness.  He turns 28 in May, and if he can repeat the .376 on-base percentage he managed at age 26, this team is going to score a ton of runs.  Hinch plans to rotate Jackson and Drew in the 1-2 spots in the batting order.  That duo won't steal many bases, but they shouldn't need to with the guys slated to hit behind them.

Comeback Candidate
Conor Jackson
Should score 100 runs at the top of this lineup
Disappointment Candidate
Edwin Jackson
Injury risk had 5.83 ERA and 12 HR allowed in last 11 starts

Second baseman Kelly Johnson has declined since his excellent 2007 season, culminating in a disastrous .224 batting average last year.  Like fellow former Atlanta Brave Andy LaRoche, Johnson should benefit from hitting in the desert.  The 28-year-old second-sacker might also do better hitting at the bottom of the order, as his career splits suggest.

At 26, Chris Young is the youngest of these four comeback candidates, but he has also had the least prior success.  In over 1900 major league plate appearances, Young is a .235 career hitter with a .307 OBP.  He'll hit some homers whenever a pitcher is foolish enough to throw him a fastball and steal some bases on the rare occasions that he reaches base safely, but this isn't someone from whom you should expect much production.  Fortunately, all the D-backs expect from him at this point is that he covers Chase Field's spacious centerfield with his excellent speed.

If even two of those four players have renaissance seasons, the D-backs should have one of the top five offenses in the National League. If a couple of those fours continue their downward offensive spiral, it won't be a complete disaster, as the D-backs have a lot more depth than they did a year ago.  So much so that super-utilityman Ryan Roberts will begin the season in the minors after leading the D-backs with a .367 on-base percentage last year.  Rusty Ryal grabbed the super utility role from Roberts by slugging .600 this spring to show that his 20 homers, 8 triples, and 39 doubles combined between Reno and Arizona last year were no fluke.  Fourth outfielder Gerrardo Parra hit .290 last season and won't turn 23 until May.  Middle infielder Tony Abreu hit .345 this spring an finished second on the club with 14 RBI.

With Roberts, Hester, and big first base prospect Brandon Allen also waiting at Triple-A Reno, this is a Diamondbacks team that can sustain quite a bit of unexpected injury or ineffectiveness among their position players and still have a productive lineup.    

Pos '08 '09
SP Haren Haren
SP Scherzer E Jackson
SP Garland Kennedy
SP Davis Davis
SP Buckner/Petit Webb/Buckner
CL Qualls Qualls
LP Zavada Norberto
RP Gutierrez Gutierrez
RP Vasquez Vasquez
RP Rauch Howry
RP Pena Heilman
RP Rosales Rosales
Unfortunately, that position player depth is not matched on the pitching staff.  The Diamondbacks dealt away young phenom Max Scherzer, citing him as an injury risk.  Oddly enough, they dealt him (along with top bullpen prospect Daniel Schlereth) for two even bigger injury risks in Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy.  Not only do those two pitchers combine for only four successful major league months between them, but Jackson was one of the most overworked pitchers in baseball last year and Kennedy already has an injury history at the age of 25.

Jackson and Kennedy would be nice pitchers to have at the bottom of your rotation, but because the organization failed to replace workhorses Jon Garland and Doug Davis and because Webb's surgically repaired shoulder is healing behind schedule, those are the team's number two and number three starters to begin the season.  Granted, the rotation is going to look a lot better once Webb has rejoined the fold, but by that time, there is a good chance that either Kennedy or Jackson has fallen prey to an injury themselves.

To be honest, the D-backs' postseason chances died he minute that Rodrigo Lopez was named the team's fourth starter.  At this stage in his career, the 34-year old Lopez should be a Triple-A starter that gets called up only if disaster strikes the big league rotation and he has proven himself over the span of a few months.  Instead, based on five solid spring starts, the D-backs will turn to Lopez every four games until a fifth starter is added to the rotation on April 17.  And let me tell you, the selections available to fill that role - Billy Buckner, Kris Benson, Kevin Mulvey, and Bryan Augenstein - don't exactly inspire much confidence at this point in their respective careers.

Dan Haren has established himself as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, but even more so than last year, he will be the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal rotation.

Chad Qualls
The D-backs think they improved their bullpen by acquiring veterans Bob Howry an Aaron Heilman, but those two will be hard-pressed to improve upon the production of Jon Rauch and Tony Pena, both of whom got dealt late last year.  Much like the Ryan Roberts head-scratcher, southpaw Clay Zavada will begin the year in Triple-A after being one of Arizona's best bullpen arms last year.  Instead of the mustache man, the D-backs will turn to Jordan Norberto as the only left-hander on their pitching staff.  Norberto throws hard, but he has pitched only 23.2 innings above A-ball in his life and he allowed 29 hits, 18 walks, and 23 runs (21 earned) in that time.  Maybe the Diamondbacks can just intentionally walk any dangerous left-handed batter whom they face in the late innings.

Closer Chad Qualls had a terrific season last year before suffering a gruesome injury to his knee.  Juan Gutierrez came on very strong at the end of last season, but doesn't have the track record to be counted on as the second-best pitcher in your bullpen.  All in all, the Diamondbacks bullpen figures to be about as good as it was last year, when it was overworked and inconsistent.

Diamondbacks Team Capsule

Who is that guy?
April 16, 2010 Chris Young, Is That You? - In 2007, Chris Young nearly went 30/30 (32/27) and scored 85 runs in 148 while playing stellar centerfield defense as a rookie, so it was easy to overlook his .237/.295/.467/.763 RSL. In 2008, he played 160 games, hit 42 doubles, and raised his RSL to .248/.315/.443/.758, so he looked to be a work in progress. The 2009 season gave us all reason to worry 134 games, .212/.311/.400/.711 RSL, and only 15 homeruns and 11 stolen bases to go with 54 runs scored; the Chris Young experiment appeared to be over.

Well, the early returns for the 2010 season are in, and through nine games Young is looking fabulous three homeruns, 14 RBI, and an OPS over 1.000. As difficult as it is to draw conclusions from such a small data-set, one factor seems to have played an important role in his early season success for a fast guy, Chris Young is a much better five/six hitter than he is a one/two hitter, and Young has spent the 2010 season in the six and seven spots in the lineup thus far after a career spent as a square-peg batter trying to fit into the round-hole role of leadoff man.

Final Word

The Diamondbacks are the most improved team in the NL West because of their offense and the possible return of Brandon Webb, but with only 70 wins last year, they didn't improve enough to compete for a playoff spot.  They obviously are unable or unwilling to acquire the extra starting pitcher that would be required to make this a postseason team.  The plan may be to find one after they trade Chris Snyder, but the D-backs are going to need to include money with any Snyder deal at this point, so they don't figure to net enough dough to get a pitcher of much consequence.

The good news for D-backs fans is that there are a lot of star players in place for the next few years here.  With Chase Field set to host the 2011 All-Star Game and deferred debt from a decade ago finally disappearing, the D-backs should soon have enough green to fill out a complete pitching staff.  Furthermore, the D-backs took a terrific haul in last year's draft, making it possible for this to be the Team of the Teens even if the 2010 season is nothing to write home about.             

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