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CNN/SI Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks
Posted: Tuesday March 16, 1999 12:35 PM
By Greg Auman, CNN/SI
Player to Watch, Randy Johnson, LHP
By signing a four-year contract worth $52.4 million in the offseason, Randy Johnson vaulted the free-spending Diamondbacks' payroll into a new tax bracket. The challenge facing the towering fireballer now is getting Arizona a win-loss record to match its high-priced lineup.
Johnson dominated the National League in a brief stint in Houston at the end of last season, going 10-1 with a staggering 1.28 ERA. He finished last season with 329 strikeouts, more than twice what Andy Benes managed in leading the Diamondbacks staff with 164.
Arizona took a major risk in handing such a paycheck to a 35-year-old who's missed significant time with injuries. But if he can be anywhere close to what he showed in Houston, the 6-foot-10 pitcher could help the Diamondbacks break the Marlins' record for well-funded transitions from expansion team to playoff contender.
1998 Recap (65-97, 5th in NL West)
The team's inaugural season began auspiciously with a 10-6 start, but the 2-12 stretch that followed was more indicative of a long first year in which Arizona's ballpark stood out as the highlight.
But Bank One Ballpark -- with its pool just beyond center field -- helped the D-Backs to only three more wins at home (34) as on the road (31). Only five teams had less of an advantage at their home field.
Rookie first baseman Travis Lee had the team's first home run and tied for the team lead with 22, but some of Jerry Colangelo's high-dollar investments didn't pan out. Matt Williams had 20 home runs, matching his lowest total in nine years. Andy Benes saw his ERA jump from 3.10 in 1997 to 3.97 in '98, and he lost 13 games along the way.
One stretch of four wins in 22 games before the All-Star break gave Arizona fans a kick of sand in the face, and by losing eight of their last nine games, the D-Backs barely edged Tampa Bay, their expansion mates, ending the year as baseball's worst team not located in Florida.
So long as their wallets don't slow them down, the Diamondbacks should be much, much faster in two key areas next season. On the basepaths, Arizona had just 73 stolen bases last year, ranking 24th among major-league teams. Outfielder Devon White, one of two Arizona players with more than 10 steals, signed with the Dodgers, but in Tony Womack (58), Steve Finley (12) and Luis Gonzalez (12), Arizona brought in three players who combined had more stolen bases than the team could pilfer in its first year. Womack, acquired from the Pirates, led the National League in steals last year and if healthy, should destroy White's team record of 84 runs scored.
The Diamondbacks also should have more speed on the mound -- the team that finished dead last in strikeouts last year brought in Johnson and Todd Stottlemyre, who struck out 204 batters with St. Louis and Texas last year. While they're expensive, those two should radically upgrade the starting rotation. One arm to keep an eye on is Armando Reynoso -- in the last four years, opposing batters have hit .316, .291, .275 and .256 against him.
Depth in pitching will help Arizona -- Willie Blair and Jeff Suppan combined to go 5-22 last year as the team searched for a steady rotation. Last year's pitchers weren't all bad -- Omar Daal, just 26, had a 8-12 record, but his 2.88 ERA was the best in baseball among pitchers with losing records.
Manager Buck Showalter has the payroll of a contender, and if Colangelo can show himself to be a more sensible shopper, the fans who bought in on the novelty of major-league baseball in the middle of the desert last year will keep coming back for more. If not, there's always that swimming pool.
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