The Diamondbacks broke every record for expansion franchises when they won the World Series in 2001, just their 4th season of existence. They did it almost exclusively through free agent signings, as owner Jerry Colangelo spared no expense to bring a World Series winner to Arizona. The weight of the free agent money and the lack of a strong farm system eventually brought down the former World Champions, but new ownership and a sharp young GM have restored hope to the franchise.
The Arizona franchise was awarded to Jerry Colangelo, who also owned the NBA's Phoenix Suns. Even before the 1998 season started, Colangelo worked feverishly to put together his franchise, spending as much money as necessary. The first move was an agreement on a publicly-financed stadium to be built in Phoenix in time for the Diamondbacks' debut. The Bank One Ballpark (or the "BOB") was a natural-grass stadium with a retractable-roof. It was more than just a baseball stadium, as evidenced by the swimming pool in right-center field, a conversation-starter in baseball circles if ever there was one.
Colangelo also signed former Yankees manager Buck Showalter to a massive contract three years before the team ever took the field. Showalter served in an advisory capacity, consulting on team-wide issues such as the ballpark and the uniforms. Joe Garagiola, Jr. was signed as the team's General Manager.
Before the expansion draft even started, Colangelo made waves by signing middle infielder Jay Bell to a 4-year, $32 million contract. Bell was a truly underrated performer and many other teams saw the move as wild spending that served to drive up contracts around baseball (which was partially true).
The expansion draft itself was fairly fruitful for the Diamondbacks, certainly when compared to their expansion-mates in Tampa Bay. Arizona's first two picks in the draft were Brian Anderson (Cleveland) and Jeff Suppan (Boston), neither of them aces, but both valuable arms. Suppan would be sold to Kansas City mid-season, but Anderson stuck around, providing good depth to what would soon become a historically good starting rotation.
Arizona's third pick, Gabe Alvarez (San Diego), was a third base prospect that never developed into anything at all. But the day of the expansion draft, the D-Backs packaged Alvarez with another pick, Pittsburgh 3B Joe Randa, as part of a trade with Detroit to get 3B Travis Fryman. But two weeks after getting the underrated Fryman, the Indians made another, more momentous trade. This one sent Fryman and relief pitcher Tom Martin to the Cleveland Indians for 3B star Matt Williams. The move really helped legitimize the Diamondbacks, giving them an established star right from the beginning. Williams was never really great in Arizona, but he was certainly very good, and he (along with Bell) gave the D-Backs a strong infield foundation from the very beginning. The D-Backs were also able to take advantage of the Florida fire sale by trading for CF Devon White.
Other useful players taken in the draft included: catcher Jorge Fabregas (Chicago-A), Karim Garcia (Dodgers), Cory Lidle (Mets), Tony Batista (Oakland), Omar Daal (Toronto), David Dellucci (Baltimore) and Russ Springer (Houston). Buried at the bottom of the draft was young Minnesota catcher Damian Miller (47th overall pick), who would serve as the young team's catcher for its first 5 seasons.
But Colangelo & Co. weren't done on the free agent market. The team nabbed Cardinal ace Andy Benes to a 2-year deal worth $12.5 million. It wasn't a very fruitful deal for the team, as Benes followed up a decent 1998 with a dismal 1999 before returning to St. Louis via free agency.
The most unlikely successful signing would be that of reliever Gregg Olson. Olson had attained stardom as a rookie phenom with the Orioles in the late 80's and early 90's, but the mid-90's saw him bouncing from team to team as a spare arm. His glory days seemingly over, the D-Backs signed him to a 2-year deal with barely more then $1 million. Olson was the comeback story of the year in 1998, when he saved 30 games as closer for the team, posting a 3.01 ERA (143 ERA+). He had a decent year as closer in 1999 (3.71 ERA; 119 ERA+), then left as a free agent.
But even with all these promising developments, the biggest "star" of the 1998 team was super-prospect Travis Lee. After being drafted by the Twins in 1996, Lee was (with the help of "advisor" Scott Boras) declared a free agent on a technicality. The loophole made the hot prospect a real-life free agent. The Diamondbacks signed him, with lots of high hopes for the future star. What followed was a fairly familiar story in modern baseball; after playing hard to get as an amateur free agent, Lee never developed into anything like people had expected. He had a decent rookie campaign in 1998 (269/346/429), but considering the context of the 1998 National League and his hitter-friendly home ballpark, that hitting line isn't too impressive for a first baseman, even a good-fielding one. After nearly two seasons of Lee getting even worse, the D-Backs traded him to Philadelphia as part of the blockbuster trade for Curt Schilling in 2000.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The 1998 Arizona Diamondbacks went 65-97, finishing last in the NL West. It wasn't much of a surprise for an expansion franchise to finish last, but it was still a bit disappointing for Arizona fans considering the money Colangelo spent on the team (the D-Backs' payroll was over $32 million, compared to about $27 million for Tampa Bay).
Team highlights were provided by the free agents -- Bell and Williams (20 HR each), Devon White (22 HR), and young Travis Lee (a career-high 22 HR). The pitching staff wasn't dreadful; in fact it was better than the ballpark made it look. Benes pitched fairly well, as did draft picks Anderson (4.33 ERA) and Omar Daal (2.88 ERA). Olson shined as closer, although the team sported a weak bullpen behind him.
It wasn't an awful first season, but (as I said) it must have been disappointing for Colangelo, Garagiola and Showalter, who had spent a lot of time, energy, and cash to field something better than your average expansion team.
So Colangelo went into the offseason ready to spend more money. The early returns were fairly promising; in November and early December, the team signed Greg Swindell, Greg Colbrunn, Armando Reynoso, and Todd Stottlemyre to significant free agent deals. Each player contributed to the team's 1999 leap forward; the only real "busts" would be Reynoso, who never pitched nearly that well again, and Stottlemyre, whose career was basically ended by injuries in 2000; but he still collected $8 million a year through the 2002 season.
But the deal that really put the team over the top occurred on December 10, when the team signed Randy Johnson as a free agent. Johnson signed a four-year contract and went on to win the Cy Young Award in all 4 years, a truly amazing feat. Johnson was a star and had been a star for years in Seattle, but he ascended to the elite when he went to Arizona, an unlikely accomplishment at age 35.
Colangelo followed that up by plunking down big money to center fielder Steve Finley. While not nearly as lucrative as the Johnson deal, Finley was a key part of the team's later success, giving them an all-around gem of a ballplayer for just a little more than $5 million per year.
Two other deals that offseason that went (nearly) unnoticed at the time were the acquisition of Erubiel Durazo and Luis Gonzalez. Durazo was a raw talent from the Mexican leagues, whereas Gonzalez was a 9-year veteran who was an underrated hitter, but otherwise not much of a star. Arizona took Gonzalez in a trade with Detroit that sent off Karim Garcia. The gross inequality of the deal would soon become apparent.
This time, all the money spent paid off. The Arizona payroll skyrocketed up to $68.7 million in 1999, making them 3rd in the NL behind only Atlanta and Los Angeles. But it worked and thensome; the 3 million+ who came to the BOB in 1999 saw history in the making as the Diamondbacks went 100-62 and cruised to the NL West title; they saw an expansion franchise making the postseason in its 2nd year of existence, a new record.
The team sported all-around talent and a balanced attack. Their 5.60 runs per game was 1st in the NL, better even than the Rockies. And despite their ballpark, Arizona's pitching and defense limited the opposition to 4.17 runs per game, tied for 2nd in the NL. Only the Braves were better.
While Travis Lee and free agent Finley slumped (his 34 HR were offset by a .336 OBP), veterans Bell and Williams picked up the slack; Bell with 38 HR and Williams with 35. Right fielder Tony Womack made a lot of headlines with his 72 stolen bases, but this just exposes the baseball media's bizarre fascination with stolen bases. While Womack's 72-for-85 stolen base performance was amazing, stealing bases was the only thing that Womack could do on a baseball field. Womack was similar to Vince Coleman in that his skills at stealing bases made him a star in spite of the fact that he couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. Womack hit a truly dismal 277/332/370 in 1999 and currently sports an awful 273/316/356 career batting line. His defense in right field wasn't good (and it's even worse at second base), but Womack still gets work in the majors; after getting kicked out of New York and Cincinnati, Womack is currently wasting at-bats with the Cubs, thanks most likely to Dusty Baker, a manager who has shown a remarkable ignorance of how runs are actually scored.
But I digress. The real superstar fueling the '99 Diamondbacks was Randy Johnson. In the midst of a hitting renaissance, Johnson posted a 2.48 ERA in 271.2 IP, walking 70 batters and racking up an ungodly 364 strikeouts, good for 3rd on the all-time list behind Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax.
As a side note, it must be said that it took Ryan and Koufax 326 and 335.2 innings, respectively, to set their strikeout records. And the truly all-time strikeout kings come from the 19th century, when people were still throwing 500 innings in a year. A better measure of strikeout effectiveness (which also adjusts for a pitcher's era) is strikeouts per 9 innings. The top 10 single seasons of strikeouts per 9 innings are listed on www.baseball-reference.com. Randy Johnson holds first place, with 13.41 K/9 in 2001. He also holds 4th place, and 5th place . . . and 6th place, and 7th place . . . In fact, Johnson holds 7 of the top 10 positions on the single-season list. Only Pedro Martinez (1999 and 2000) and Kerry Wood (1998) share the space with him. This gives us an idea of just how historically amazing Randy Johnson truly is.
The Diamondbacks didn't have much behind Johnson in the starting rotation, but they did have a strong bullpen. Matt Mantei, obtained from Florida, took over as closer and managed 22 saves with a 2.79 ERA. The bullpen was rounded out by veterans Swindell (2.51 ERA), Olson (3.71), Darren Holmes (3.70) and Dan Plesac (3.32).
The D-Backs went into he 1999 postseason as history-makers and left as disappointments. Ace Johnson only got one start in the 4-game NLDS loss to the Mets, a Game 1 loss that saw him allow 7 ER in 8.1 IP. The D-Backs made it close in Game 4 at Shea Stadium, but the Mets sent the game into extra innings and won it in the 10th inning on a walk-off, series-ending homer by backup catcher Todd Pratt.
The '99 postseason was a setback, but it looked like the Diamondbacks had arrived as true contenders in the NL. It was thus a big disappointment when the 2000 club struggled to an 85-77 finish. Despite the presence of a juggernaut outfield of Gonzalez, Finley and the unlikely Danny Bautista (317/366/511), the D-Backs were short on offensive depth, with veterans Bell and Williams starting to show their age. And despite another historic Cy Young season from Randy Johnson (2.64 ERA, 177 ERA+, 248.2 IP, 347 K), the team was still struggling to fill out the starting rotation behind him. Brian Anderson was a reliable arm (4.05 ERA), but not the kind of guy you want as your #2 starter behind a Cy Young winner. With Reynoso and Daal tanking and Stottlemyre's career essentially over, Colangelo decided the time had come to take on more money. This time it was via trade, a trade that sent Curt Schilling from Philadelphia in a cost-cutting move that netted the Phillies disappointments Daal and Travis Lee, as well as young pitchers Nelson Figueroa and Vicente Padilla. The team soon signed Schilling to a contract extension that would pay him $20 million for his last two years in Arizona. While Schilling pitched well for the team down the stretch in 2000 (3.69 ERA in 13 starts), it wasn't soon enough to turn around the season. But the Schilling deal would pay big dividends in the coming years.
Considering that the 2000 club's payroll had risen again, this time to over $81 million (3rd in NL), there would be some accountability for the 2000 disappointment. Despite his energetic role as team-builder, manager Showalter got the axe in October, with the chief complaint being that he kept the team too tense (a similar story heard during his days as captain of the Yankees). The job went to the chief complainer, broadcaster Bob Brenly, who would take the helm in time for the 2001 season.
It was more free agent fun during the 2000-2001 offseason. The biggest names coming in were first baseman Mark Grace and right fielder Reggie Sanders. Grace was a veteran team leader with the Cubs for years who left when the team preferred to give his job to a cheap 1B prospect. Sanders was a nomadic hitter-for-hire who was never great, but was good enough to keep getting jobs as a starting outfielder. There were worries that the team had come to rely too much on free agency, making the team not only too expensive but too old. These fears seemed justified when hitters like Bell and Williams made an immediate impact, then started to deteriorate with age. Indeed, the average hitter on the 2001 team was 31.9 years old, the oldest in the league. Their pitchers were 30.9 years old, 3rd-oldest in the league. The franchise was still waiting to produce a useful player from its farm system. Was this team really fundamentally sound in the long run?
2001 gave a striking answer to that question: the team was very sound, although the long run was still yet to come. But the short run showed a 92-70 record that was good enough for the NL West crown -- a bare 2 games ahead of San Francisco. The lineup was generally strong, with their 5.05 runs per game 3rd in the league. Free agent Grace proved that he had at least one year of stardom left (298/386/466), but the mega-star was left fielder Gonzalez. Gonzalez had already experienced a career renaissance in Arizona, hitting like an All-Star for the first time ever. But in 2001, he ascended to the next level. He hit for a 325/429/688 line, amazing under any circumstances. But the number that caught everyone's eye was his 57 home runs. Gonzalez was part of the year-long chase to break Mark McGwire's record, and thus became a true superstar (while Karim Garcia dwelt in mediocrity). The only downside was that despite his 57 dingers, Gonzalez finished 3rd in the home run race -- behind Sammy Sosa's 64 and Barry Bonds' record-breaking 73.
If it was possible, though, the performance of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling dwarfed even that of "Gonzo." Schilling went 22-6, posting a 2.98 ERA in 256.2 IP with 293 K against just 39 walks. But Johnson was even better -- 21-6, 2.49 ERA, 249.2 IP, and 372 K (just one short of the record) against just 71 walks. They finished 1-2 in the Cy Young race, with Johnson winning his third straight. Their brilliant performance drew comparisons to Koufax/Drysdale as one of the dominant pitching duos of all time, a comparison that has a strong basis in fact.
The dominance continued into the postseason, as the team beat the Cardinals in a tense, 5-game NLDS. Curt Schilling pitched a complete game in the finale, allowing just one run, but he was matched by St. Louis' Matt Morris, and the game was tied going into the bottom of the 9th. After a failed suicide squeeze saw the potential winning run out at home, Tony Womack saved the day with an RBI single that won the series for Arizona.
The NLCS against Atlanta was a relative cakewalk; Johnson and Schilling made 3 starts between them and won all 3, allowing just 3 ER in 25 IP and striking out 31. The true test would come in the World Series, one for the ages, against the vaunted New York Yankees. The Yankees had won the past 3 World Series and were considered by many to be the favorites, despite the possibility of Arizona getting 5 starts from the Schilling-Johnson duo.
It got off to a great start for Arizona; they took Game 1 9-1 behind Curt Schilling and then won Game 2 thanks to a Randy Johnson shutout. But things changed when the Series went back to New York. Starter Brian Anderson held his own against Roger Clemens, but the Yanks squeaked out a 2-1 victory.
Things brightened up in Game 4 when the D-Backs got a great start from Schilling and took a 3-1 lead into the 9th. The Diamondbacks had Byung-Hyun Kim was on the mound. Kim was signed out of South Korea in 1999 and had quickly established himself as a premiere relief pitcher with his unorthodox sidearm motion. He had been brilliant as the Arizona closer during the regular season, but it wasn't his day. Tino Martinez tied the game with a home run in the 9th inning, sending the game into extras. Despite the fact that he had already pitched two innings, Brenly sent Kim out to the mound in the 10th (one of many questionable moves the Arizona skipper made during the Series). Derek Jeter added more to his "clutch" aura when he hit a walk-off home run to tie the Series 2-2.
Game 5 was hideous deja vu for Arizona. They got a great start once again, this time from Miguel Batista, who shut out the Yanks for 7.2 innings. With the team leading 2-0, Brenly sent Kim to close out the 9th. And after giving up a leadoff double, Kim gave up a home run to Scott Brosius, which tied the game. It was a horrible two days for Kim, who was otherwise brilliant in 2001. Brenly took a lot of second-guessing for his decision to send Kim out again after allowing the Game 4 homer, but this is the worst kind of second-guessing. Kim was his closer and had done the job brilliantly throughout the regular season. Every closer has an off day, and you don't give up on them afterward, even if it happens in October. On this point (at least), I'll stick up for Brenly. Game 5 went into extra innings, but the Yankees won in 12, taking a 3-2 Series lead.
The more romantically-inclined baseball writers (read: all of them), took this as a sign of fate; September 11 was barely 6 weeks past, and it seemed like the perfect story for the Yankees to win the World Series. The unlikely comebacks in Game 4 and 5 (not to mention the eerie similarities) seemed to prove it: the Yankees were fated to win the World Series. Not just for New York . . . but for America.
But this is baseball; it's a sport, not a Greek tragedy. And when the Series returned to Arizona for Game 6 it left the world of media fancy and returned to the world of realism.
This was dramatically displayed by a 15-2 thumping of the Yankees in Game 6 that evened the Series 3-3. But although it was a great victory, there were still mistakes being made. Despite the fact that the D-Backs got out to a huge lead, manager Brenly left starter Randy Johnson in the game. It became clear, when Arizona led 15-0 in the 4th, that the game was a foregone conclusion. It seemed prudent for Brenly to take out Johnson early in order to save him for a possible relief appearance in the crucial Game 7. But despite the fact that even Rick Vaughn could protect a 15-0 lead, Brenly left Johnson in all the way through the 7th inning before taking him out. It's a point energetically pointed out by Rob Neyer, and although the move didn't end up costing the Diamondbacks, it very well could have.
It was winner-take-all in Game 7 with Roger Clemens facing Curt Schilling. This was turning into a World Series for the ages, and it seemed as though America was watching. It was a true pitcher's duel, but Clemens was just a bit better. A solo homer by Alfonso Soriano gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the 8th, forcing Schilling out of the game. Brenly brought in Randy Johnson to close out the 8th (with the seemingly-mutant Johnson pitching on 0 days rest). But Joe Torre brought in ace closer Mariano Rivera in the 8th inning, which certainly seemed to be the end of it for Arizona. Not only was Rivera an ace, but he seemed to save his best pitching for October. Rivera had already thrown 5 shutout innings in the Series, and he put on a display in the 8th inning, striking out the side. Johnson retired the Yankees in the 9th, but the Diamondbacks were down to their last 3 outs against Rivera in the 9th.
It started out innocently. Mark Grace led off the inning with a single. The next batter, catcher Damian Miller, bunted Grace to second, but was safe at first when Rivera made a throwing error. Jay Bell came up next as a pinch-hitter and tried to sacrifice the runners over, but Rivera was able to throw out the runner at third. With runners on first and second and one out, it was again Tony Womack who played the hero, doubling to right and tying the game, with Bell stopping at third base. Rivera again seemed to feel the pressure when he hit Craig Counsell with a pitch, loading the bases. After that, Luis Gonzalez came up. With one out, the infielders came in to keep the Series-winning run from scoring. Rivera threw a pitch that jammed Gonzalez; it was a blooper into center field, but it was enough to get past the drawn-in infield. Bell scored from third, and the Arizona Diamondbacks had won one of the most exciting World Series ever played. To honor their pitching co-dominance, Schilling and Johnson were named co-MVPs of the Series.
It seemed impossible to follow up such an amazing season, but the D-Backs came close in 2002, going 98-64 and winning the NL West. Johnson and Schilling were as sharp as ever, with the Big Unit taking home a record-tying 4th consecutive Cy Young Award. Johnson also earned the "Pitcher's Triple Crown" by leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. It was much the same team that returned to October, again facing the Cardinals in the NLDS.
What followed was a complete upset. Johnson got blown out in Game 1, and the Cardinals won 12-2. Schilling pitched well in Game 2, but was matched by Chuck Finley, and the bullpen allowed the go-ahead run in the 9th, as St. Louis won 2-1. Having defeated both Johnson and Schilling, it was thus anti-climactic when the Cardinals defeated Miguel Batista 6-3 in Game 3, completing perhaps the most unlikely sweep in the short history of the NLDS.
Arizona fans didn't know it at the time, but 2002 was the last hurrah for the teams that had been so strong since 1999. Injuries hampered first both Johnson and Schilling in 2003 and although Johnson bounced back with a 2004 that almost (ahem, should have) won the NL Cy Young, Schilling was already gone; traded to Boston in a salary dump. Johnson would follow in the 2004-5 offseason, going to New York.
There was some hope for the 2003 team, even as their Dynamic Duo struggled with injuries. With veterans Bell, Williams, and Grace long gone, a group of young players -- dubbed the "Baby-Backs" -- came on the scene, helping the team to a respectable 84-78 finish. The most prominent of these were first baseman Lyle Overbay (276/365/402), second baseman Junior Spivey (255/326/433), shortstop Alex Cintron (317/359/489), and relievers such as Oscar Villarreal (2.57 ERA, 80 K in 98 IP) and Jose Valverde (2.15 ERA, 71 K in 50.1 IP).
But the best Baby-Back of them all was also the first real star to come out of the franchise's farm system. Starting pitcher Brandon Webb brought his sinker and his penchant for LOTS of ground balls to the majors in 2003. The Kentucky native's 10-9 record was belied by a 2.84 ERA and a fabulous 68:172 BB:K ratio in 180.2 IP. Webb finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting, behind flashier (though not necessarily better) players Dontrelle Willis and Scott Podsednik. Webb regressed in 2004, allowing a league-high 119 walks against 164 K in 208 IP. But he managed a good ERA (3.59), and his 7-16 record was more a product of the team he was playing for (we'll get to them in a minute). Webb bounced back with a fine 2005 that saw him establish himself as one of the best young pitchers in the game. Again, his W-L record was deceiving (14-12), but Webb posted a 3.54 ERA (124 ERA+) and put his 2004 wildness behind him, walking only 59 against 172 K in 229 IP. 2006 has thus far been very kind to the 27-year-old, who is currently making a bid for the Cy Young Award with an 8-0 record and a 2.01 ERA.
So while 2003 was a setback, the presence of a strong group of young players meant that there was no reason to panic in Arizona. Sure, the team was trading away its more expensive players (Steve Finley, Curt Schilling), but how bad could that be?
As it turned out, very bad. Very, very bad. Very, very, very, oh-my-God-so-TERRIBLY bad.
A sign of things to come was a move by GM Garagiola that soon become known in infamy as the "Sexson trade." Garagiola, seeking an impact hitter, traded for Milwaukee first baseman Richie Sexson, despite the fact that 2004 was Sexson's last season before reaching free agency. So unless he could negotiate a contract extension, Arizona would only be "renting" Sexson for one season (which is exactly what happened). But that wasn't the worst thing. The worst thing was how much Garagiola gave up to get Sexson. I can't imagine WHAT Brewers GM Doug Melvin slipped into Garagiola's drink to convince him to line up the Arizona players and let Melvin take his pick, buffet-style, but here's a list of the players Arizona gave up in exchange for Sexson (see also previous entry on the Brewers):
Junior Spivey, Craig Counsell, Lyle Overbay, Chad Moeller, Chris Capuano, Jorge de la Rosa
So most of what kept the Diamondbacks competitive in 2003 (84-78) was gone to the Brewers for Sexson -- who only appeared in 23 games before suffering a season-ending injury.
So not only were the Diamondbacks without the players listed above, they were also without the impact bat that was supposed to replace them (although how a good first baseman can replace a good shortstop, good first baseman, decent second baseman, and good pitching prospect all by himself is beyond me). How did they fare?
They went 51-111.
To put that into context that is -- you read it right -- one hundred and eleven losses. That's not just a bad year, that's a 2003 Tigers/1962 Mets type of bad year. That's the kind of bad year that stains a franchise for years to come. The last NL team to lose more than 111 games was the 1965 New York Mets, who went 50-112. So the 2004 Diamondbacks were the worst National League team since the worst years of early Met history. That's the kind of fact that makes you shudder.
The Diamondbacks were bad in a diverse way; they had bad hitting, bad pitching, and bad defense. Their 3.80 runs scored per game was the worst in the league, even worse than the lame-duck Montreal Expos. Their 5.55 runs allowed per game was 14th-worst in the league. Only the Reds and Rockies were worse, and the Rockies at least have their ballpark as an excuse. Arizona's ERA+ in 2004 was 89, an awful number that ranked them 15th in the league. They were simply lucky that the Reds chose that moment to field the worst pitching staff in franchise history (Cincinnati's ERA+ was 77). And yes, the D-Backs also led the league in errors with 139 for the league's worst fielding percentage (.977). The more accurate metric of Defensive Efficiency ranks them as 15th in the NL -- slightly better than the Rockies, which is about as dubious a compliment as there is.
Upper management's response to the fiasco was about what you'd expect -- absolute panic. Brenly didn't survive the season, getting replaced by interim skipper Al Pedrique. After the season, it was owner Colangelo who got the ouster by the team's board of directors. He was replaced by Jeff Moorad, a former superstar player agent. It was an odd arrangement that saw an agent switch sides to management -- something akin to an Israeli partisan hanging a picture of Yasser Arafat in his den. When asked about a possible conflict of interest -- Moorad had represented players such as Arizona star Luis Gonzalez -- the commissioner's office saw no problem. In other news, the Institution for Wolves saw no misconduct by the Big Bad Wolf in the Little Red Riding Hood affair.
Ownership, along with GM Garagiola, decided that the best way to put 2004 behind them was on the free agent market. So despite trading away Randy Johnson to lower payroll, they turned around and raised payroll with the signing of questionable free agents Troy Glaus and Russ Ortiz to big-money contracts. Glaus was a great hitter when healthy, but his playing time had been limited while with the Angels. That and his poor defense at third was enough to make him a poor choice for a big-money investment.
Ortiz, on the other hand, just wasn't that good under any circumstances. Ortiz is the textbook example of a pitcher whose circumstances made him look good, while he himself wasn't. Ortiz had amassed a lot of wins in his career, yes; but Ortiz had spent his career with the Giants and Braves, two perennial NL powerhouses of the era. In fact, let's take this opportunity to compare Ortiz's W-L record to that of his team:
1998: S. F. Giants (89-74); Ortiz (4-4)
1999: S.F. Giants (86-76); Ortiz (18-9)
2000: S. F. Giants (97-65); Ortiz (14-12)
2001: S.F. Giants (90-72); Ortiz (17-9)
2002: S.F. Giants (95-66); Ortiz (14-10)
2003: Atlanta Braves (101-61); Ortiz (21-7)
2004: Atlanta Braves (96-66); Ortiz (15-9)
2005: Arizona D'Backs (77-85); Ortiz (5-11)
Some coincidence: Ortiz's first losing season as a pitcher comes during his season with a losing team. Now not all of Ortiz's value is tied up in his team; he is a generally good pitcher. But he fooled most of the baseball world -- who are still too easily fooled by these things -- that he was a great pitcher, based mostly on his W-L record. Not only that, but it must be said that the Braves and Giants generally had a strong defense behind Ortiz; he wouldn't be so lucky in Arizona.
As if all that weren't enough, the D'Backs should have been troubled by Ortiz's last season in Atlanta. Yes, he went 15-9, but see above: his team went 96-66 and the 2004 Braves had a good defense. But Ortiz turned 30 that year, and his skills were starting to deteriorate. He allowed 112 walks against just 143 strikeouts; the worst BB:K ratio of his career. And a pitcher's walk rate and strikeout rate are much more closely tied to his actual level of talent than wins, losses, and even ERA (Ortiz's 2004 ERA was a decent 4.13). A clever eye would notice that Ortiz's "peripherals" (stats such as walk rate and strikeout rate) showed a pitcher on the decline. But either the Diamondbacks did not see these things or they chose not to see them. They paid the price not only in dollars -- $7.4 million, about twice as much as a league-average pitcher is worth, let alone one whose stats show a steep drop ahead -- but on the field. Ortiz's 2005 was cut short by injuries to just 22 starts and 115 innings pitched. That was merciful -- because he posted a 6.89 ERA and walked more batters (65) than he struck out (46). While injuries go away, bad pitching does not -- especially if you're 32 years old; and now the D-Backs are stuck with the rest of Russ's contract.
But even considering all of that, anything would be better than 51-111. And the D-Backs were a lot better than that; they went 77-85 and finished 2nd in the awful NL West. It wasn't without some pre-season controversy, though. The team signed Wally Backman as their new manager, but apparently didn't do much of a background check on the candidate. It was up to local media to point out that Backman had been convicted of physical harassment and drunk driving in his days as a minor league manager. This was a huge management gaffe, which left the team no choice but to cut ties with Backman and choose Bob Melvin to run the team. It was perhaps a fitting footnote to such a season that was embarassing on-the-field to see the front office made to look like fools and incompetents.
But the 2005 team wasn't as good as it looked. This was partially due to the weak competition in their division, but is also suggested by the team's Pythagorean W-L record. Judged by runs scored and allowed, the 2005 D-Backs should have gone 66-96. Instead, they went 77-85, outperforming their Pythagorean projection by a historic 11 wins. This could be due to great on-the-field management and "clutch" hitting, or it could be a sign that it's very, very hard to revamp a 111-loss team in just one season.
Team highlights included the development of talented corner infielder Chad Tracy (308/359/553), the good health of Glaus (258/363/522), and the unlikely renaissance of platoon first baseman Tony Clark (304/366/636 with 30 HR). Pitcher Javier Vazquez, obtained from New York in the Johnson trade, was a bit more disappointing, posting a 4.42 ERA despite 192 K in 215.2 IP. The culprit was likely his 35 HR allowed. The pitching slack was picked up by Webb and closer Jose Valverde. Free agents Ortiz and Shawn Estes weighed down the rotation, and what had looked like a great young bullpen had by and large fizzled out.
More change was in order for the 2006 season. GM Garagiola was out, replaced by Boston Assistant GM Josh Byrnes, a widely-respected young executive with a fine reputation. Byrnes' focus thus far has been to prepare for the arrival of the fruits of their stacked farm system. Expensive third baseman Troy Glaus was traded to Toronto for second base glove whiz Orlando Hudson and former D-Back Miguel Batista. To replace Glaus, Byrnes shifted 1B Chad Tracy to third, making room for vaunted first base prospect Conor Jackson. To fill the gaping hole at catcher, Byrnes traded away two relief arms for Atlanta backstop Johnny Estrada. He also brought in Eric Byrnes and Jeff DaVanon as temporary fixes in the outfield. Byrnes traded the disappointing Vazquez to the White Sox for starter Orlando Hernandez (whom he recently sent to the Mets for reliever Jorge Julio). So while there are still expensive former stars such as Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green still on the payroll, Byrnes has managed to assemble a competent, competitive team without making any expensive, long-term commitments (with the exception of the untradable Russ Ortiz). They've paved the way for the arrival of young players like Jackson while keeping the pitching staff strong with the likes of Webb and Batista. The NL West is an up-for-grabs division right now, and Arizona's deep farm system and keen GM make them favorites for a return to glory sometime in the near future.
Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.
Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups by Rob Neyer