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Sports Illustrated's 1999 Baseball Preview
  During the winter, Arizona threw $95 million at five free-agent pitchers ,including Todd Stotlemyre, who's averaged 13.5 over the last four years. V. J. Lovero

Arizona Diamondbacks

Arizona wants to win now, but a stockpile of pricey pitching won't be enough

By Ian Tomsen

The upside-down financial laws of baseball are on display at a spring training compound in Tucson. On one side of the complex are the White Sox, one of the original American League clubs, trying to start over with a group of young, unproven players. Across the way are the Diamondbacks, one of baseball's two youngest franchises, whose management didn't leave much room for rookies after spending $118.9 million on Randy Johnson and other free agents over the winter.

"It was like we didn't have an off-season," says Arizona manager Buck Showalter, who hopes the last few months of dice rolling have improved the Diamondbacks exponentially. Arizona is hoping to overtake the 1995 Rockies, who in their third year became the youngest expansion franchise to reach the postseason. At the very least the Diamondbacks want to join the 1962 Angels (86-76) as the only expansion teams to achieve .500 in Year Two.

Buck Showalter
(second season with Arizona)
1998 Record
65-97 (fifth in NL West)
Fourth in NL West
Batting Order
LFTony Womack
2BJay Bell
CF Steve Finley
1BTravis Lee
3B Matt Williams
RF Luis Gonzalez
3B Tony Batista
C Kelly Stinnett
LH Randy Johnson
RH Andy Benes
LH Omar Daal
RH Todd Stottlemyre
RH Armando Reynoso
RH Gregg Olson
LH Greg Swindell
RH Amaury Telemaco
RH Aaron Small
LH Brian Shouse
LH Brian Anderson
Next Up...
"I knew we were going to do something," says first baseman Travis Lee of Arizona's outrageous off-season. "Then I show up the first day, and the clubhouse is all veterans." Not that he's complaining. "There are a lot of 10-year guys to learn from," says Lee, 23, a Rookie of the Year candidate in '98 until a groin injury limited him to five second-half homers. This year the Diamondbacks expect big numbers from their youngest starting player. He could also teach his elderly teammates a few tricks with a yo-yo, his constant companion on road trips. On top of that, Lee is ambidextrous. He throws and bats lefthanded, but in high school he was a righthanded quarterback.
By signing seven free agents, including five pitchers, Arizona added decades of experience to a club that produced only 65 wins last season. First baseman Travis Lee and third baseman Matt Williams are the Diamondbacks' only Opening Day starters of 1998 who are returning at the same positions. "I look around here and see a lot of guys who have done it, who know what they're doing," says Gregg Olson, who returns as the Arizona closer.

But can they keep on doing it? The Diamondbacks already lacked speed before the injury to their two-time National League steals leader; leftfielder Tony Womack will be sidelined for the first three weeks of the season after having fractured his right ulna in spring training. Williams and centerfielder Steve Finley are trying to come back from nagging injuries. Jay Bell has moved from shortstop to second base and has been asked to cut down on his strikeouts. With the exception of the 29-year-old Womack, all of them, plus rightfielder Luis Gonzalez, are on the far side of 30. Old age might be the dooming irony for Arizona.

Nonetheless, the Diamondbacks are to be congratulated for trying to erase the last two syllables from last year's hopelessness. After much fanfare they won just eight of their first 39 games, which ultimately prompted club officials to scrap their original five-year plan and go after Johnson. "We could see we weren't going to have the kind of honeymoon we thought we'd have," says Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Phoenix Suns as well as the Diamondbacks. "My 32 years of experience in pro sports have taught me that if you see something, you'd better adjust. Hopefully we can compete, and compete now."

In 1988 Colangelo rebuilt the Suns by trading for Kevin Johnson in midseason, and drafting Dan Majerle and signing free agent Tom Chambers in the off-season, thereby transforming woeful 28-win Phoenix into a 55-27 playoff team. To make Arizona competitive now, Colangelo tapped the same boldness that he showed in the NBA, though his tactics were somewhat different. "It's easier in basketball, because if you can find two or three right guys, you can turn things around quickly," he says. "There was a lot of speculation about Bernie Williams coming here, but we knew how long it would take us if we tried to improve position by position. If there's one spot in baseball you can upgrade to make a difference in your team, it's pitching."

Arizona has rebuilt itself around the 6'10", 35-year-old Johnson in the hope that he'll continue to follow the path of Roger Clemens, who was rejuvenated two years ago after leaving the Red Sox. Johnson was 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA for the Mariners before his midseason trade to the Astros, for whom he was 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA. The Diamondbacks believe they signed the latter-day Johnson. "Look at my last four years in Seattle," says the Big Unit. When his contract wasn't an issue, he won the Cy Young Award in 1995 and finished second in the voting for it in '97. "Then last year was a rough year," he says. "They say, 'Go out and keep doing your thing.' Sure, I tried to do that, but you want to know where you're going to be. I was physically fit, but mentally I lacked focus a little bit until I left Seattle."

  • Diamondbacks
    Thanks to the backloading of Johnson's, Stottlemyre's and Finley's contracts, the Arizona payroll will be around $45 million, giving the Diamondbacks a chance to break even. Their top pitching prospects -- Nick Bierbrodt, John Patterson and Brad Penny -- will be able to spend the year in the minors, and Arizona has three of the top 71 picks in this year's draft. Over the long haul the Diamondbacks should continue to attract free agents to Phoenix, a preferred year-round base for millionaire athletes.

    But this isn't a team for the long haul. It was put together with used parts to win now. Olson has already noticed the improvement. "Last year every opportunity was meaningful, because we were battling for every win we could get," he says. "This year the downside of me screwing up is going to be different, especially if we're in a pennant race. It's just going to be nice going out to the bullpen knowing we have a really good shot at winning. That alone keeps everybody's head in it."

    Issue date: March 29, 1999

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