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On a blustery March day in Tucson, a small boy took the baseball that third baseman Chad Tracy had just autographed for him and tucked it under his jacket to protect the signature from the raindrops that had begun to fall. It was a smart move: The value of Tracy's autograph, like his value to the Diamondbacks, is likely to appreciate in the near future.
With his compact yet powerful lefthanded stroke, his eagerness to put in long hours of practice and, at last, a position to call his own, Tracy is on the verge of establishing himself as one of the game's top middle-of-the-order hitters. "He's already had a big season," says leftfielder Luis Gonzalez, referring to Tracy's .308, 27 home run performance last year, his second in the majors. "Next, we're talking huge."
Stardom seems like such a sure thing for Tracy, 25, that the club isn't afraid of burdening him with high expectations. "His lefty swing and his ability to hit to all fields with power reminds me a little bit of George Brett," manager Bob Melvin says. "He'll hit his share of home runs, but he's a .300 type of hitter with power, not a guy who's just looking to hit the ball out of the park. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him win a batting title one day."
Arizona's farm system is producing several promising young hitters who are expected to make an impact this season or next, including rookie Conor Jackson, 23, (who's expected to be Arizona's full-time first baseman), shortstop Stephen Drew, 23, and outfielders Carlos Quentin, 23, and Chris Young, 22. Serious postseason consideration will have to wait until those players develop, but that won't be long if they improve as quickly and steadily as Tracy has. "He's pretty much the prototype for how you'd like to see a young player come along," says Melvin. "He's been in the big leagues for three years and made great strides every year. That's what we'd like to do as a team."
Tracy's production at the plate was one of the main reasons why the D-Backs finished second in the NL West last year after losing 111 games in 2004. It also helped persuade them to trade third baseman Troy Glaus to the Blue Jays for second baseman Orlando Hudson and righthander Miguel Batista in the off-season. That deal enabled Tracy to settle in at third, his natural position, after playing first and rightfield last year.
Switching to first after playing third as a rookie wasn't particularly difficult for Tracy because he had spent some time at first in the minors. But he admits that he was shaken when he was sent to the outfield last year to make room in the lineup for first baseman Tony Clark's bat. Even though he made only two errors in 51 games at the new position, it was an experience he'd rather not relive. "I was scared to death," he says. "I came into the clubhouse at Wrigley Field one morning and saw my name in rightfield for the first time. I had about an hour to get a crash course in playing the outfield from [coach] Brett Butler, and then I was out there. The rest of the year was mentally exhausting because I had to think so much instead of playing instinctively. I'd lay awake at night thinking about how I was going to survive the next day out there."
Playing the outfield was especially tough for Tracy because he is fanatical about preparation, and the move left him little time for any. Even though he's far more comfortable at third base, Tracy spent the off-season getting ready for his return, concentrating on footwork and agility drills to help improve his accuracy on throws across the diamond, the lack of which accounted for the bulk of his 25 errors at the position as a rookie.
No major adjustments are necessary at the plate, where Tracy is adept at peppering the outfield gaps. The 6'2" 210-pounder made a big jump in power from eight homers in 2004, but it wasn't because he was focusing on turning himself into a long-ball hitter. "I basically try to knock the second baseman and shortstop's head off [with line drives]," he says. It's just becoming more common for Tracy's line drives to keep rising and clear the fence. His career is taking the same arc, and the Diamondbacks are ready to go along for the ride. --P.T.
Eric Byrnes will open the season in centerfield, but the Diamondbacks should make that a temporary move. Prospect Chris Young (right), acquired from the White Sox in the December deal that sent righthander Javier Vazquez to Chicago, should be ready to man the position as soon as he recovers from the broken right hand he suffered on Feb. 9. Young, 22, is a true centerfielder with power, speed and a solid walk rate (26 homers, 32 steals and 70 walks at Double A last year), while Byrnes, 30, is an aging fourth outfielder who doesn't hit righthanders (.203 average, .268 OBP, .324 slugging against them in 2005).