Monday, October 30, 2006

Looking Ahead: Arizona Diamondbacks

I feel kind of bad about being so hard on the NL Central teams. It's not that they don't deserve it, but it tugs at my conscience to kick otherwise well-run teams (St. Louis, Milwaukee) when they're down (or as down as you can be in the midst of a World Championship parade). I have very little compunction about mocking teams like the Reds, but I hate to be such a Gloomy Gus about the NL Central.
Happily, though, we're moving on to the NL West. Just two years removed from being called the "NL Worst," this division boasts some of the best young talent in the game and could be the strongest division in the league as soon as next year. So we got to move on from a depressing division to a division full of bright futures . . . well, outside of San Francisco.
Never the less, we start with a well-run team, indeed: the Arizona Diamondbacks.

2006 W-L Record: 76-86
2006 pW-pL Record: 80-82
Runs Scored: 773 (7th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 788 (7th in NL)
Free Agents: Miguel Batista, Craig Counsell, Luis Gonzalez

Proj. 2007 Lineup:
1B -- Conor Jackson
2B -- Orlando Hudson
SS -- Stephen Drew
3B -- Chad Tracy
LF -- Eric Byrnes
CF -- Chris Young
RF -- Carlos Quentin
C -- Johnny Estrada

Proj. 2007 Rotation:
Brandon Webb
Livan Hernandez
Claudio Vargas
Edgar Gonzalez
Juan Cruz

Proj. 2007 Closer: Jorge Julio?

The Good News:
Any time a team can get rid of tens of millions of dollars in salary and improve, they're doing something right. It's unfortunate that the team's relationship with Luis Gonzalez had to end this way, and while he did mean a hell of a lot to the franchise, it really is best for the team to replace the expensive 39-year-old with a better, younger player. The same could be said for Craig Counsell, who's still good enough to start in the middle infield, but is superfluous with the emergence of Stephen Drew. Hopefully, both players will get good spots on other teams and everyone will end up happy.
Other expensive mistakes made by previous management include Shawn Green, Russ Ortiz, and to a lesser extent, Troy Glaus. Green wasn't so expensive -- Los Angeles was picking up a good deal of his salary -- but the friendly Arizona ballpark was hiding a ballplayer whose skill set was evaporating quickly. We'll never really know what suddenly turned Green into a 40-homer MVP candidate at age 26 or what stole his power away at age 31. Suspicious people would suggest steroids. While I'm as realistic/cynical as the next guy, it's hard to look at the 6'4", 190-pound Shawn Green and see this generation's Jose Canseco.
Russ Ortiz never had any sort of power spike; in fact, all of his "vital signs" were degenerating quickly as he entered free agency. Never the less, the D-Backs gave him gobs of money to become one of the biggest free agent busts ever. The new ownership decided Ortiz would be most valuable to the team if he didn't pitch, or take up a roster spot. So they released him in the summer of 2006 and ate the rest of his big contract. The saddest part of it all was that the D-Backs, like King Oedipus, didn't see the impending tragedy in Ortiz that was perfectly obvious to everyone -- everyone with two eyes, that is. (Greek tragedy humor --available exclusively at Aaron's Baseball Blog).
Glaus was expensive, coming in during the same offseason spending spree as Ortiz. But unlike Ortiz, T-Glaus was productive, hitting 258/363/522 in 2005. But it was poor foresight to sign a free agent third baseman -- the D-Backs already had a third baseman playing at first in Chad Tracy, and a perfect replacement for him in Conor Jackson. If you have two good, young corner infielders making the league minimum, you don't need Troy Glaus. The 'Backs realized this and traded him to Toronto, getting a good haul in exchange with Miguel Batista and Orlando Hudson. The Blue Jays weren't short of corner infielders, either, but we'll leave that puzzling decision for our American League blog.
What enabled the 'Backs to cut away so much payroll was the development of their young players. The first to arrive was Chad Tracy, a tough player in that he doesn't hit well enough to play first or field well enough to play third. But with Conor Jackson arriving at first, the 'Backs decided to err on the side of offense and live with Tracy's work at third. And his defense isn't really that bad, and if he keeps hitting like his 2006 line of 281/343/451, he's a perfectly acceptable compromise.
Jackson was a highly-touted prospect with precocious plate discipline. Jackson's "old player skills" -- power and patience, with little athleticism or contact hitting -- may not bode well for later in his career, but for now, he should be a good young first baseman for the team (291/368/441 in '06).
I mentioned before that the 'Backs got second baseman Orlando Hudson in the Glaus deal. The odd part of the deal was that the Blue Jays traded for a corner infielder -- of which they already had three or four -- and in the process gave up a good middle infielder -- of which they had exactly zero. And while the Jays young replacements continued to struggle in the middle infield, Hudson quietly had another fine year in Arizona. He may not look sensational -- he's a career 275/335/428 hitter who improved to 287/354/454 in his first season in Arizona. But when you're getting that production from the best defensive second baseman in baseball (19 FRAA in '06, with at least 15 FRAA in every full season of his career), you've got an underrated gem. Hudson is especially valuable for Arizona, whose top pitcher (Brandon Webb) gives up nearly 2/3 ground balls.
The club got good production and fine defense from Counsell at shorstop in '06, but will be letting him walk as a free agent this year. They'll be doing this because they have 23-year-old Stephen Drew to take his place. Drew, younger brother of Dodger outfielder J.D., is a big-time prospect who came roaring out of Florida State to make it through the minors and into the starting lineup in one-and-a-half seasons. Drew hasn't reached his full potential yet, but it's encouraging that in his 58 major league games this past year, he hit 316/357/517. Drew can handle shortstop, and with his power he has a lot of people excited about his future.
The Arizona outfield is no less exciting. The centerpiece is center fielder Chris Young. The D-Backs got him from the White Sox in the Javier Vazquez deal. It's understandable that the White Sox, with more than one major league-ready center fielder, would be prepared to trade one of them away. But the general consensus in the year since that trade is that the White Sox got rid of the wrong guy. Young is an exciting all-around prospect, with power, plate discipline, speed, and defense. He's only 23 years old next year, and like Drew, has already made it to the big leagues. Young's time in the majors was less successful -- he hit only 243/308/386 -- but that was in a mere 70 ABs. And even if he does have a bit more developing to do, he's got nothing left to prove in the minors and is the best (and cheapest) choice for the organization.
Right fielder Carlos Quentin's numbers are jaw-dropping even in the hitter-friendly minor league system that the Diamondbacks enjoy. Quentin started the minors in 2004 at high A-Ball and hit 310/428/562. He was promoted to Double-A in mid-season and hit 357/443/533 there. He spent the entire 2005 season in Triple-A Tucson and destroyed the PCL to the tune of 301/422/520. With Gonzalez and Green still clogging things up, Quentin started out 2006 in Triple-A, but got promoted to the bigs after hitting 289/424/487 in his first 85 games. He played 56 games with the big club, hitting 252/339/534. He's already shown power with the big club, and his minor league stats suggest a wide range of offensive skills. He hits for a good average, draws walks, and almost never strikes out despite good power. He is, in other words, a gift-wrapped major league right fielder waiting to be unwrapped for next year. He, along with Young, has the potential to break out big-time in 2007. He's also still a wee lad, just 24 years old. It's because of players like this that I get so optimistic about the D-Backs' future.
The only downside is that with Gonzalez gone, the sub-par Eric Byrnes will be slotted in left field. Byrnes shares Ryan Freel's unfortunate predilection for high-speed collisions with outfield walls, and at age 31, he isn't going to get any better. Byrnes' 2006 "improvement" was tied up entirely in his power; he hit 267/313/484, which looks suspiciously like a poor hitter taking advantage of the cozy Arizona park. The only good news here is that Byrnes isn't expensive, and the 'Backs have enough production from the rest of the lineup to compensate.
At catcher, the 'Backs have capable, tolerable Johnny Estrada. GM Josh Byrnes wisely nabbed Estrada from the Braves for a pair of non-essential relief arms in early 2006, after the D-Backs' other catching prospects had failed miserably in '05. Estrada provided welcome stability behind the plate and should do so again in 2007. Whether he will be in Arizona is questionable; the 'Backs look like they finally have a young catcher ready for success in Miguel Montero, who had a good year even by Triple-A Tucson standards in 2006 (321/396/515). The Backs may choose to stick with Estrada and phase Montero in, or they may just trade him now and give the job to the youngster. It's really a win-win scenario when you have more major league catchers than you need.
Pitching-wise, it's a less optimistic story. Granted, the 2006 squad managed a 4.48 ERA, which is respectable in that park. But they'll be losing a big part of that in Miguel Batista, who will provide his LAIM (league-average innings-muncher) services elsewhere. They will be returning ace Brandon Webb, who finally got some well-deserved recognition in 2006 with a performance that may earn him a Cy Young. Webb, a Kentucky native, improved upon a solid 2005 by managing an excellent 3.10 ERA in 235 innings, posting a fine 50:178 BB:K ratio. It's true that Webb's Cy Young case is mainly due to the weak field in 2006, but he's also a fine pitcher with a solid track record who should be pitching well in Arizona for some time to come.

The Bad News:
Behind Webb, things in the starting rotation get a little hairy. The club acquired Livan Hernandez at the trading deadline and will have him for another year in 2007. Hernandez managed a solid 3.76 ERA with the team, although his 26:39 BB:K ratio indicates that he may still be the disappointing guy who started out the season with a 5.34 mark in Washington. While he may not be that good, Hernandez is the most durable starter in baseball, which is good news for a staff that may be working in some projects and rookies in the #3-5 spots.
Speaking of projects, you have Juan Cruz. Cruz used to be a highly-regarded starter in the Cubs system, but amazingly, some time spent under Dusty Baker didn't do his career any favors. He found some success in Oakland as a relief pitcher, but after coming to the Diamondbacks, the club tried to resurrect him as a starter to fill out their weak rotation. Cruz did tolerably well -- his 4.18 ERA in 15 starts and 16 relief appearances masks a lot of inconsistency, but he did notch 88 strikeouts in his 94.2 IP. He's not a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination, but even a makeshift starter would be a blessing for this club.
Claudio Vargas isn't really a project, I guess; he's a 28-year-old with a 4.92 career ERA that accurately represents his abilities. But he is able to stay in ballgames and pitch some innings, and even a Livan Lite could work as a fifth starter on this club.
The club has a few other options. Edgar Gonzlaez and Enrique Gonzalez are not only confusing to tell apart on the scoresheet, they're both pitchers who have yet to translate their minor league success to the majors. They've got some other young pitchers in their system who could start in the majors -- Dustin Nippert or Adam Bass -- but you couldn't really expect them to be much better than either Gonzalez. While the D-Backs could go out and get a #3 pitcher -- or just re-sign Batista -- they may decide to be fiscally conservative (for a change) and just do the best they can with what they've got in Spring Training. I'm not sure which would move be the right one -- the lower minors don't look much more promising than the high minors in terms of pitching prospects -- but at the same time, I can understand an unwillingness to spend $8 million a year for the likes of Jeff Suppan. Unfortunately, it might take free agency to improve the Arizona rotation -- unless they can swing a good trade.
The Ariz0na bullpen is a work in progress, but in a more positive sense than the rotation. The closer's role is still open, although the club will likely opt for Jorge Julio. Julio won't help you much (career 4.20 ERA), but he won't kill you either. And the 'Backs got good work in the 'pen from Luis Vizcaino, Brandon Lyon, and Brandon Medders last season. Combine that with whichever E. Gonzalez is left out of the rotation and some minor league possibilities, and you should end up with a P.A.B -- perfectly acceptable bullpen.

Offseason Game Plan:
Have a cup of coffee and read a nice book. Seriously, though, the Diamondbacks have little to gain from the free agent market apart from the occasional role player. While a #3 starter would be good, my hunch is that the D-Backs will save their money and go with what they've got. This puts them in the enviable position of getting to sit back and watch other teams scramble to save their dying teams (most notably San Francisco) while most of their hard work is already done.
This isn't to suggest that the front office should be idle or complacent. On the contrary, Byrnes should keep his ear to the ground for any good pitchers on the trading block. The 'Backs should be willing to work from a position of strength and improve their pitching staff, but they also don't have any truly pressing need to do so. Their offense alone should make them contenders in a division where 90 wins could mean a trip to October. But it will take some smart work in putting together a patchwork pitching staff to get them that far. Especially since their division rivals in Los Angeles have some good young talent of their own.

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