Spring Postcard: Webb, young D-Backs look to bounce back
Although this team made the NLCS in 2007, it is still an exceedingly young group
The Diamondbacks aren't messing around when it comes to fundamentals
The D-Backs are heavily dependent on starter Brandon Webb
This spring, SI.com's baseball writers will be filing postcards from all 30 camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. Although this team made the NLCS in 2007, it is still an exceedingly young group.
Only Chad Qualls (31) and Bobby Howry (36) from the 40-man roster have reached the age of 31. That is generally a good thing. Yet, they need to prove they know how to band together again, especially after last year's abject underachievement. Manager A.J. Hinch, who took over for Bob Melvin last May, noticed last year that "the sense of urgency just didn't seem to be there.'' He believes the kids were still living off their success of 2007 and early '08 and taking things for granted. "We stopped making plays,'' he said. But despite their youth, it's not an immature group (rising star Justin Upton plus Mark Reynolds, Chris Young, Conor Jackson and Stephen Drew are among the more mature 20-somethings you're going to find
2. The Diamondbacks aren't messing around when it comes to fundamentals.
Hinch, a Stanford man and former Olympian, is probably a fundamental kind of guy anyway, but following last year's disastrous season -- he believes they're lifting what he calls the "black cloud'' of 2010 -- Hinch has them working OT on the basics. His good work didn't show in the spring opener, however, as they played a sloppy game in an 11-1 defeat to the rival Rockies. A particular problem was which base to cover in that game.
3. Maybe no team is more dependent on one player than the D-Backs are on ace Brandon Webb.
Last year, Webb's shoulder issue came to light on Opening Day. He pitched that day, and never again last year. His pain became an omen for the season. "Losing Webb on Opening Day was a catalyst,'' Hinch said. Once again, he could be the key to the year. With Webb at his best, he and Dan Haren form one of the better one-two punches in baseball. Without Webb, their rotation could become somewhat suspect, especially at the back end.
Unless he loses his nerve, Ian Kennedy, a forgotten man in the Bronx, should be the No. 4 starter. D-backs bosses told him, "It's not New York, there's no reason to be nervous.'' Assuming he follows that advice, and grows up a little (he had the propensity to say the wrong thing at the wrong time in New York), he's in the rotation. Kennedy was once being compared to Mike Mussina for his nice, four-pitch repertoire, but the latest comp is Brad Radke, still not too bad. That should leave only the No. 5 job as a competition between unproven youngsters Kevin Mulvey, Bryan Augenstein, Billy Buckner and bounce-around veteran Rodrigo Lopez. The overall rotation is very good, especially once Webb is ready to go. But the bottom of the rotation carries the potential to be an issue.
New Face, New Place
Adam LaRoche seems to be fitting in nicely here. He's going to be counted on to lengthen the lineup and improve the clubhouse, and so far the reviews regarding the clubhouse are excellent. For one thing, LaRoche has no bitter taste from an offseason where he passed up a deal that would have guaranteed $17 million over at least two years with the rival Giants to come to Phoenix for $4.5 million this year plus a $1.5 million buyout. "I've got no regrets, no complaints,'' LaRoche said. After he tried countering the Giants' offer, they never called back, LaRoche said. He seems thrilled in Arizona, anyway. "My family loves Phoenix and I like playing at that stadium. Obviously, I'd rather hit there,'' he said. "San Francisco was not first on my list, nothing against them.'' Cue Tony Bennett for the San Francisco rebuttal.
The organization's top prospect, Jarrod Parker, could be ready this summer after Tommy John surgery set him back. Parker has been held out of many deals, and the D-Backs have high hopes he'll eventually be a top-of-the-rotation starter. The entire Diamondbacks' roster is filled with young players with enough experience that they are no longer considered prospects
Experience needed, and the more the better. Veterans Howry, Kelly Johnson, Adam LaRoche and Aaron Heilman were imported to mix with the still very youthful team and add some savvy and sagacity. Howry and Heilman are middle relievers and Johnson a middle infielder who hit .224 last year in Atlanta, so LaRoche could become a key man. GM Josh Byrnes said LaRoche is already proving to be a positive clubhouse influence. Yet, even LaRoche, who came via free agency in one of the better deals of the winter ($6 million guaranteed) and is known as a steadying influence, hasn't been lucky enough to be part of many winners. Several players remain from the successful 2007 team, but that seems like awhile ago now.
Not Done Yet
Conor Jackson, who was limited to 99 at-bats last year when Valley Fever decimated his season, is being counted on for a big comeback season. Jackson brings excellent contact skills (.281 career batting average, .361 on-base percentage) to a team that strikes out far too often and could be used in the leadoff spot, where he'll be a key to their overall productivity. He said he's back to full strength and putting his acting career on hold to give baseball his full attention. Good thing.
If Webb is back to being the pitcher who finished in the top three in Cy Young voting three straight times, they will have one of the best tops to any rotation in baseball, right there with the Cardinals, Mariners and Red Sox. Dan Haren, who will start Opening Day, looks primed for another big season after leading the majors with a 1.00 WHIP in 2009, so if Webb -- who's temporarily penciled in for game No. 3 but may have to be pushed back a couple weeks after a sluggish start to spring -- can regain his form, they can match anyone.
Two rising stars, Upton and Reynolds, grace the lineup. Reynolds hit 44 home runs, has light-tower power and good athleticism (he's a plus defender and stealer of 24 bases) while Upton carries MVP potential. He hit .300 with 26 home runs at age 21 last year and is thought to be only scratching the surface of his potential. The D-Backs obviously think so also, or they wouldn't have given him a $51.25 million, six-year extension early in spring.
Catcher Miguel Montero quietly had one of the best seasons of any catcher in the league last year, hitting .294 with 16 home runs. The smallish Montero (5-11, 190) took over the top catching spot, which led to the D-Backs shopping Chris Snyder over the winter. They thought they had a deal with the Blue Jays for Lyle Overbay (they're better off with LaRoche) before Toronto backed out after their doctor made a murky claim about Snyder not quite being in shape (he appears to be in fine shape, by the way).
There's a lot of young talent here, but there remains a question whether it's their time yet, especially after the disappointments and disarray of last year. The rotation could be dynamic, but the bullpen remains a question without a dominant closer (tough veteran Chad Qualls is back to handle the duties) and very dependent on kids (Juan Gutierrez, Esmerling Vazquez and Clay Zavada are back to play key roles).
There are some seemingly big names in a clubhouse that's thought to have some anonymity: Billy Buckner, Zack Kroenke and Ryan Roberts. Of course, Kroenke isn't really Zack Greinke, he only sounds like him. And Roberts isn't Brian Roberts (you can tell from the tattoos as well as the missing B). Buckner does conjure up images of the 1986 World Series, though he's no relation. Now if only they could find a new Mookie Wilson to come to camp, that would really be saying something.
It's time for a huge bounce-back year for the team, and especially for Young, the talented center fielder who provided hope with a big September that brought him over the Mendoza line, from .188 all the way to .212. Young, a smart kid (his reported 1250 SAT is among the highest in the league), needs to figure out how to get back to where he was couple of years ago. And so does the team. Here, they all believe it can be done.
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