The wealth of young talent on the Diamondbacks was apparent one day in early March when general manager Josh Byrnes watched outfielders Carlos Gonzalez, 21, and Justin Upton, 19; catcher Miguel Montero, 23; and infielder Emilio Bonifacio, 21, play in a morning B game, then saw infielder Alberto Callaspo, 23; shortstop Stephen Drew, 24; first baseman Conor Jackson, 24; rightfielder Carlos Quentin, 24; and centerfielder Chris Young, 23, in the regularly scheduled afternoon exhibition. It was like watching airplanes line up at an airport during the morning rush.
So loaded is Arizona that Byrnes isn't even tempted to carry the teenage Upton on the major league team when it breaks camp -- and probably not at any point this season -- even though the G.M. says some scouts compare Upton's power with Gary Sheffield's or Frank Robinson's. As one rival hitting coach said after seeing Upton this spring, "He's a star with a major league bat right now. If they have five guys better than him, I have a hard time believing that."
"We studied all the teams over history that were dominant over a prolonged period," says Byrnes, "and in every case their run began with a heavy concentration of young players. Teams like the 1966 Orioles, for example."
After three straight losing seasons, the appropriately fresh-looking Diamondbacks (they dumped the purple-and-teal duds for a more tasteful brick-red-and-black ensemble) are primed for takeoff. But will it be this year? Arizona will start as many as five players (Drew, Jackson, Quentin and Young, and possibly Montero, if he earns a share of the catching job) who are either 23 or 24 (they were all born 16 months apart) and combined have only 332 games of major league experience. (Only Jackson among them did not play in the minors last year.)
Byrnes, for one, doesn't believe his club is too green to contend, mostly because his young players are so talented and have a "maturity that goes beyond whatever inexperience they may have" -- in particular, Drew, whose brother is 31-year-old Red Sox outfielder J.D. Drew. Hardly awed by his first look at the majors last year, the younger Drew hit better after his July promotion (.316) than he did in Triple A (.284). "He's a special player," second baseman Orlando Hudson says. "He's got every tool, but what's so impressive is that the game slows down for him. Young players tend to speed things up, but he doesn't panic if he's in an 0-and-2 hole or has to come in on a [ground] ball with a fast runner. He's going to be the starting shortstop for the National League All-Star team for a lot of years."
Says Byrnes, "He's very athletic defensively, even though his body language can seem kind of slow, like his brother's or Joe Mauer's. He can be deceiving that way because when there's a play that needs to be made, he makes it."
The Diamondbacks figure to get reliable starting pitching, considering they have four guys who were Opening Day starters last year (Brandon Webb; Randy Johnson, who pitched the opener for the Yankees; Livan Hernandez, for the Nationals; and Doug Davis, for the Brewers) and who all rank among the top 15 inning-eaters over the past three years. The bullpen is far less secure, especially with little added to a unit that ranked ninth in ERA (4.34) and lost 27 games last year. (Only the Florida and Milwaukee pens lost more in the NL.)
Still, Arizona's fate likely will depend mostly on how quickly its young players develop. Can a team break in three or four every-day players at the same time and still win a division title? The Diamondbacks enthusiastically believe the answer is yes. "Can we win with this group?"asks Hudson. "Oh, yeah. We're definitely good enough to win." -- Tom Verducci
Issue date: March 26, 2007