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Arizona Diamondbacks
Overall rank: 4 Division rank: 1
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An aging squad insists last year's magic was no last hurrah. They might be right

By Phil Taylor

 

Devoid of young guns, Arizona will again depend on the 38-year-old Unit and his 35-year-old pal, Schilling.  John W. McDonough
ENEMY LINES
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Diamondbacks
"I think Byung-Hyun Kim can come back [from his disastrous World Series performance]. He didn't lose any of his stuff, and if you look at what he was throwing before the playoffs last year, it was like a hot knife going through butter. ... Randy Johnson was unbelievable his first couple of times out this spring. He's dominating like your best kid in Little League, except he's doing it against major league hitters. ... Curt Schilling is driven to repeat last year. ... Todd Stottlemyre is throwing well. It's not easy for him; he really has to reach back and grind every pitch, but if he holds up healthwise, he'll help in the No. 3 spot. ... I think Brian Anderson will have a comeback year. He picked up a nice split-finger pitch working with [pitching consultant] Roger Craig , and it'll really help him on both sides of the plate. ... Tony Womack still has a low on-base percentage, but he's getting a little better at the top of the order. He's their only basestealing threat. ... Damian Miller is coming off a shoulder injury and isn't throwing like he's capable of. Teams will take some liberties if that shoulder doesn't rebound. ... Mark Grace hasn't been driving the ball like he needs to. He's a down-arrow guy who will stand in the way of Erubiel Durazo . ... Craig Counsell is a gamer, but he's a very average player over 162 games. He has no power, doesn't steal bases and is average defensively. ... Jay Bell is on the decline. He has a slow trigger and still chases breaking balls. They'll have to make a deal for a third baseman."
It was a simple pop-up drill, but most high school teams could have run it more efficiently than the World Series champion Diamondbacks did on this March morning. Balls fell to the grass like raindrops as infielders and outfielders repeatedly got their signals crossed, each thinking the other was going to make the play. "Somebody asked me when I wanted to end it," said Arizona manager Bob Brenly. "I said, 'How about as soon as we catch one?'"

One botched spring training drill isn't exactly a signal that the D-Backs have a World Series hangover, but opposing teams need something to pin their hopes on, don't they? The first task for Arizona will be to not allow the lingering euphoria from its dramatic Game 7 win over the Yankees to rob the team of its hunger. "Most of us older guys have been waiting a long time to be able to call ourselves world champions," says Mark Grace, 37. "Now that we have the title, it's important to us to live up to it. We're not going to go out and stink up the joint. Whatever we do or don't do this year, it won't be because we've relaxed."

With the intensity and intelligence of leaders like Grace and Curt Schilling, it's unlikely that the D-Backs will have any trouble keeping the fire burning. But even if they keep their edge, there's always the possibility that they'll succumb to old age. Seven of the key players from last year's club -- Grace, Schilling, outfielders Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley, infielders Matt Williams and Jay Bell, and lefty Randy Johnson -- are 34 or older. Arizona has more veterans than a Memorial Day parade, and there are already signs that some of those well-worn bodies will have a hard time surviving the rigors of another year.

The Diamondbacks had barely unpacked their bags at the start of spring training when Williams, the 36-year-old third baseman who missed nearly two months of last season with hamstring and quadriceps injuries, went down again, with a fractured left leg and dislocated left ankle that are expected to sideline him until after the All-Star break. Righthander Todd Stottlemyre, 36, whom Arizona is hoping will help bolster a starting rotation that gets shaky after Schilling and Johnson, is trying to come back from elbow surgery and a dead nerve in his right shoulder that have kept him from throwing in a regular-season game for almost two years. Even Gonzalez, 34, who contributed 57 home runs and the game-winning hit in Game 7 of the Series, struggled through a late-season slump that hitting coach Dwayne Murphy believes was partly due to fatigue.

If Gonzalez breaks the 50-homer mark again and Grace hits his customary .300 or better, the D-Backs' offense still won't be overwhelming, particularly without Williams's righthanded power in the cleanup spot, and the candidates for the last three spots in the starting rotation -- Stottlemyre, Brian Anderson, Miguel Batista and Rick Helling -- won't strike fear into the hearts of opposing hitters. That means Arizona will need Schilling, 35, and Johnson, 38, who were a combined 43-12 last season and shared the Series MVP award, to be every bit as dominant as they were a year ago.

That's a heavy burden to place on two arms with so much mileage on them, especially after they were pushed to the limit last fall. Schilling pitched twice on three days' rest in the postseason, and Johnson came out of the bullpen to pitch 1 1/3 innings of Game 7 after pitching seven innings the night before. Both pitchers insist they feel no ill effects. "If anything, last October will help me," says Schilling. "I learned that there's a higher level of concentration and focus that I can reach, and that's something I can carry over into this season." With age often comes wisdom and toughness, and the Diamondbacks have those in abundance.

Issue date: March 25, 2002

 


 
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