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September 05, 2011
The worst-to-first Diamondbacks seem to have made a quick turnaround, but their surge has been several years (and G.M.'s) in the making
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September 05, 2011

Snakes Alive!

The worst-to-first Diamondbacks seem to have made a quick turnaround, but their surge has been several years (and G.M.'s) in the making

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Seven of the eight MLB teams in playoff position last weekend were expected, more or less, to be there—they were no worse than cofavorites in their division or a top contender for the wild card when the season began. The party crasher? This year, Cinderella wears a halter top. Barely a year removed from trading away their top two starting pitchers with an eye toward the future, the Diamondbacks led the NL West and were poised to become baseball's latest worst-to-first story.

The turnaround is entirely on one side of the ball. Aided in part by a league-wide dip in run scoring, Arizona was on pace to allow 140 fewer runs in 2011 than it did in '10, nearly a full run per game. The Diamondbacks' scoring is virtually unchanged. (They are on pace for four more runs than their 2010 output.) You'll recall that the team traded third baseman Mark Reynolds to the Orioles last December, one of several initiatives designed to lower the team's K rate. While the Diamondbacks are whiffing less—down from 28% of their at bats last year to 23%—they are hitting for a lower average, with a lower OBP and slugging. The focus on whiffs was wasted breath; let's hope the franchise will learn that strikeouts aren't the bogeyman.

What the Diamondbacks are proving is the adage that success has many fathers. The club on the field reflects decisions made by the team's last four general managers. The current one, Kevin Towers, took over in September 2010; he honed a reputation as a builder of bullpens over his 14 years as the Padres' G.M., and he went right to work repairing a disaster site. The 2010 Diamondbacks had a 5.74 relief ERA—the worst in NL history—with 62 home runs allowed. Towers overhauled that group almost entirely: He signed veteran righthander J.J. Putz (2.76 ERA, 32 saves) to close games, acquired righty David Hernandez (2.67 ERA, 11 saves) in the Reynolds deal to pitch the eighth inning and plucked lefty specialist Joe Paterson (2.73 ERA) from the Giants in the Rule 5 draft. That trio has led the pen to a 3.69 ERA this season.

Towers can't take as much credit for the rotation. It was his immediate predecessor, interim G.M. Jerry Dipoto, now a club senior VP, who traded Edwin Jackson to the White Sox in exchange for righthander Daniel Hudson in July 2010. Hudson has settled in as a No. 2 starter, with a 3.75 ERA and an exceptional 1.9 walks per nine innings. Last summer Dipoto also dealt away then ace Dan Haren to the Angels as a payroll-reduction move, adding veteran soft-tosser Joe Saunders (3.98 ERA in 26 starts this season).

Dipoto was in place because Josh Byrnes had been fired in June 2010. Byrnes's fingerprints, however, are all over this year's success; he acquired ace Ian Kennedy (16--4, 3.09 ERA) in a three-way, seven-player deal with the Yankees and the Tigers that included Curtis Granderson (Detroit to New York) and Max Scherzer (Arizona to Detroit). In just his second full, healthy season in the majors, Kennedy has blossomed thanks to improved command, cutting his walk rate by 25% to 2.4 per nine innings. His commitment to throwing strikes has enabled him to average nearly seven innings per start without being abused. (He's averaging a modest 15.5 pitches per inning.)

Byrnes also signed third baseman Ryan Roberts (16 home runs, 15 steals) as a free agent in 2008 and traded for centerfielder Chris Young when Young was just a White Sox prospect. Now, the players delivered through transactions are complementing a homegrown core that began taking shape under G.M. Joe Garagiola Jr., who resigned in 2005. Under Garagiola the team drafted MVP candidate Justin Upton, who is taking the same leap in his age-23 season that many star outfielders have at that same age, dramatically improving his pitch recognition and plate discipline—he has cut his strikeout rate by a third—while learning how to drive the ball. Always loaded with skills, Upton is now leveraging his experience, and it's his stunning second half (.308/.363/.623) that has kept Arizona's sometimes shaky offense from collapsing.

The Diamondbacks are the real deal. They've had the best run differential in the NL West for most of the season. Towers has been aggressive about filling needs, with midseason swaps for reliever Brad Ziegler and starter Jason Marquis (who was subsequently knocked out for the year with a broken fibula) and an entire middle infield in last week's trade that sent second baseman Kelly Johnson to the Blue Jays for second baseman Aaron Hill and shortstop John McDonald. (The deal improved the defense substantially over the Johnson--Willie Bloomquist duo.) With the Giants suffering through critical injuries in the bullpen, the question has shifted from whether the Diamondbacks can pull off the upset to whether the defending champs can keep things close. We'll have a better idea on Labor Day weekend, when the teams meet in San Francisco for three games. For now, every game the Diamondbacks win is a feather in the cap of four G.M.'s.

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