"We have a chance to win, not only this year, but for several years."
General manager Josh Byrnes didn't land the biggest off-season pitching prize (Johan Santana) or even the second best (Erik Bedard). Instead, he settled for the bronze, obtaining Dan Haren from the A's in an eight-player deal that brought neither the payroll hit of Santana (six years, $137.5 million) nor the toll in prospects of the Bedard deal (notably centerfielder Adam Jones and pitcher Chris Tillman). In return for the 27-year-old Haren, an innings-eater still three seasons removed from free agency, Byrnes surrendered six minor leaguers who were blocked by the team's glut of young talent. (Leftfielder Eric Byrnes is the only regular older than 30.)
Josh Byrnes's more daring move, though, came a matter of hours after he closed the Haren deal on Dec. 14, when he dealt closer Jose Valverde to the Astros for reliever Chad Qualls, utilityman Chris Burke and minor league righthander Juan Gutierrez. The margin for error is particularly thin in baseball's most competitive division, top-to-bottom, and Valverde's dominance (47 saves) was an important factor in the Diamondbacks' major-league-best 32-20 record in one-run games last season.
Yet as good as Valverde was, the setup trio of Juan Cruz, Brandon Lyon and Tony Peņa was no less valuable to a club whose inability to score runs made tight games a near-nightly occurrence. Lyon will be the new closer and, as a sinkerballer who pitches to contact, an unconventional one. Last year, however, opponents hit only .210 against him with runners on base, and he's almost equally efficient against righties and lefties. "I go at hitters and throw strikes," says Lyon, 28, the one remaining piece from the trade that sent Curt Schilling to the Red Sox in 2003.
Cruz, Peņa and Qualls will work in front of Lyon -- a model similar to the one the Indians successfully employed last year, when flamethrowers Jensen Lewis, Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez cleaned up big messes in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings before soft-tossing Joe Borowski took over in the ninth. "They all could close," says manager Bob Melvin of his setup trio.
Innings one through six are in even better hands. In each of his three years with Oakland, Haren won at least 14 games, made 34 starts and pitched more than 217 innings. "I wanted to go to a team that was winning now," he says. "We have a chance to win, not only this year but for several years."
Forty-four-year-old Randy Johnson might be the game's best No. 5 starter -- if he can find his groove after having back surgery each of the last two years. As evidence that the five-time Cy Young winner can still pitch at a high level, Byrnes points to a six-start stretch last season in which the Big Unit was 4-0 with a 2.02 ERA and struck out 51 batters in 35 2/3 innings.
But will the Diamondbacks score enough runs to support this deep staff? Arizona was outscored by 20 runs last year despite playing in a hitter-friendly park. After his team ranked last in the NL with a .321 on-base percentage, Melvin emphasized plate discipline in spring training. "We're going to have to do the small things," says centerfielder Chris Young, who hit 32 homers from the leadoff spot but had a sub-.300 OBP. "We're going to have to steal bases, get the bunts down. Our pitchers are keeping us in the game, so offensively we need to get a few runs late to win a ball game." -- Joe Lemire
Issue date: March 31, 2008