Can D'backs repeat?
The Diamondbacks are in it to win it, again, although they will no longer be able to sneak up on the NL West after their stunning worst-to-first run to the division title in 2011. General manager Kevin Towers made several key offseason moves, trading for quality starter Trevor Cahill and signing free agent outfielder Jason Kubel to a team that returns virtually all of the other elements that produced a 29-game improvement from the previous year. The D-backs must be considered a top contender to repeat.
The D-backs benefited from career years from the top four in their starting rotation last year, and there is no reason to believe that after a slight remake they cannot put up a reasonable facsimile this time around. Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders, Josh Collmenter and newcomer Cahill fit Towers’ M.O. — they throw strikes and are not afraid to use their defense. Kennedy, who was one of three 20-games winners in the majors last season at 21–4, finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting, and discerning voters could have moved him up a notch considering that he pitches in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the majors. Hudson, acquired in a 2010 trading deadline deal from the Chicago White Sox, won 16 games in his first full season in a major league rotation and finished eighth in the league in fewest walks per nine innings. Cahill, acquired from Oakland for prospects Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill and Ryan Cook, has won 40 games in his three major league seasons, and he is only nine months older than Parker. Cahill won 18 games in 2010 before falling to 12 last season, which he believed was a direct result of getting away from a curveball that he plans to throw more often this year. Saunders was re-signed to a one-year deal in January. He went 12–13 with a 3.69 ERA and tied a career-high with 33 starts in 2011. Collmenter, a funky righthander whose ultra-overhand delivery is a result of throwing hatchets as a youngster in the woods of Michigan, won 10 games despite not entering the rotation until May 14. Collmenter commands an 87 mph fastball and a 78 mph change with devastating effectiveness.
Everything Towers has touched recently has turned to gold, and the retooled bullpen is the prime example. Closer J.J. Putz had a career-high 45 saves after signing a two-year, $10 million free agent deal in the winter of 2010. He proved to be a steal, and his numbers might have been even better had he not missed a month with right shoulder tendinitis. When Putz, a sinker-changeup guy, was out, setup man David Hernandez filled in seamlessly, converting all seven of his save opportunities during that stretch. He and Putz were the principal reasons the D-backs’ bullpen ERA dropped more than two runs from 2010 to 2011. Towers did not stand pat, signing free agent Takashi Saito, who will start the season on the DL, and acquiring lefthander Craig Breslow in the Cahill deal. Saito missed half of 2011 with a variety of ailments but was his normal effective self when he got on the mound, although he is more of an every-other-day pitcher at age 42. Breslow gives the D-backs a second lefthander to pair with specialist Joe Paterson, who set a franchise record with 19 consecutive scoreless appearances to start the season last year. Breslow is considered a one- or even two-inning guy. Sidearmer Brad Ziegler will begin his first full season with the D-backs after coming over at the trade deadline. Righthander Bryan Shaw, one of seven D-backs who made the jump from Double-A Mobile to the major leagues last season, enters spring training expected to contribute in the seventh after a strong finish.
Shortstop Stephen Drew suffered a fractured right ankle when his spikes caught in the dirt around home plate against Milwaukee on July 20, and his status is still uncertain on Opening Day. Willie Bloomquist, who stabilized the infield after coming over from Kansas City to replace the injured Drew, will fill that role again to start the season. He can run and gets the job done on defense. Second baseman Aaron Hill will begin his first full season with the D-backs after making a big splash following his acquisition from Toronto last August. Hill improved the D-backs’ middle infield defense, and his bat was a plus. He may not be a 36-homer guy any longer, but his line drive bat plays well at Chase Field.
Paul Goldschmidt will take over first base full time after continuing his power ascent with a strong two months following his promotion from Double-A Mobile last Aug. 1. Including the playoffs, Goldschmidt hit a combined 40 homers last year. But unlike many power hitters, he’s not pull-happy, and his triple that clinched the NL West title last year came to right-center field. Third baseman Ryan Roberts put up a career year — 19 homers, 18 stolen bases — in his first full season in the majors after making the team when Geoff Blum suffered a knee injury in spring training last year.
Justin Upton looks to build on his breakout season, and there is no reason to believe he cannot. With the help of hitting coach Don Baylor, Upton tweaked his batting approach on a day off in Houston late last May and took off afterward, finishing fourth in the NL MVP balloting. With a rare combination of power and speed, he set career highs in almost every offensive category in his first 30-homer, 20-stolen base season. He also grades out high in outfield range. Chris Young is another superior defender, especially valuable in spacious Chase Field, and has a franchise record three 20-20 seasons, reaching that level despite a thumb injury that he played through in the second half last year. Kubel, who signed a two-year, $15 million free agent deal in the offseason, will add stability to what has been a revolving door in left field. His bat is his best asset, and his all-fields approach should work better at hitter-friendly Chase Field than at Minnesota’s Target Field.
Finally healthy, Miguel Montero put up a career year, both offensive and defensively. Montero settled into the cleanup spot midway through the season, and strong offensive numbers helped him to his first All-Star Game. Somewhat overshadowed was a significant improvement in his mechanics behind the plate, especially in his footwork. Montero threw out 36.8 percent of the runners who attempted to steal on him, the best percentage in the majors last year.
Gerardo Parra, who won his first Gold Glove in left field last year, will be a handy fourth outfielder after the offseason acquisition of Kubel. Parra has the best outfield arm on the team, and the D-backs expect him to fill in at all three outfield spots. Bloomquist is a reliable multi-tasker who can play the middle infield and every outfield position. Once Drew returns, Bloomquist will immediately improve the bench. John McDonald is another veteran shortstop whose glove is his primary asset. Veteran catcher Henry Blanco had eight homers in 100 at-bats last season and proved to be a strong clubhouse presence, and he also is credited with helping Montero on the defensive side. Veteran Lyle Overbay returns to mentor Goldschmidt and provide a left-handed bat when the D-backs want to load up against a righthander.
Managing partner Ken Kendrick and president/CEO Derrick Hall have put the right pieces in place. Towers added exactly the right pieces on the field and brought an immediate change to the clubhouse chemistry in his first full season. His best move was retaining manager Kirk Gibson, who spent the last half of 2010 as the interim manager. Gibson’s all-baseball, all-the-time approach was a night-and-day change from the laissez-faire approach of the previous regime, and the 27-out mindset helped the D-backs record 48 come-from-behind victories. Gibson justly deserved his NL Manager of the Year award. Ownership has shown a willingness to spend money at the trade deadline, and Towers always seems to find a good fit.
The D-backs are in a great position to defend their NL West title. They have no bad contracts, a youngish group of core position players and pitchers, and a minor league farm system that is deep in prospects, especially pitchers. Career years from a half-dozen players certainly played into their unexpected 2011 success, but with Gibson calling the shots you can be sure that there will be no complacency moving forward. This is a team with its best days still ahead.
SS Willie Bloomquist (R)
Hit safely in 46 of 57 starts at shortstop; added 20 stolen bases, second-most in his career. Filled in after Drew’s injury last season, and will pick up there now.
2B Aaron Hill (R)
Hit .315 with 12 doubles and 16 RBIs in 33 games after joining the D-backs in August.
RF Justin Upton (R)
A two-time All-Star who could be on the cusp of superstardom; turns 25 in August.
C Miguel Montero (L)
Led National League catchers with 36 doubles, 86 RBIs and .471 slugging percentage in 2011.
CF Chris Young (R)
Added a more discerning eye to his toolbox by drawing a career-high 80 walks last year.
LF Jason Kubel (L)
Averaged 19 home runs, 79 RBIs in last five seasons as an outfielder/DH in Minnesota. His shortcomings on defense may allow Parra more playing time.
1B Paul Goldschmidt (R)
Two of first three major league homers were against Cy Young winners Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee.
3B Ryan Roberts (R)
The most unexpected surprise a year ago, when he set career highs in virtually all categories.
OF Gerardo Parra (L)
Great arm, good range; should see time at all three outfield spots after 2011 Gold Glove year.
1B Lyle Overbay (L)
The only member of both the 2001 and 2011 D-backs’ NL West division winners.
SS John McDonald (R)
Smooth glove man who gives the D-backs a third option at shortstop.
C Henry Blanco (R)
Has thrown out a remarkable 41.3 percent of potential base-stealers in his career.
UT Geoff Blum (S)
Can play anywhere and will be valuable off the bench.
SS Stephen Drew (L)
Still not recovered from bad ankle injury that limited him to 86 games, a career-low since becoming a regular in 2007.
RH Ian Kennedy
Went 10–0 against NL West, including 3–0 against both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
RH Daniel Hudson
Had 16 victories and won a Silver Slugger in his first full year in a major league rotation.
RH Josh Collmenter
Rookie season included three stretches of at least 13 consecutive scoreless innings.
RH Trevor Cahill
Has 40 major league victories before reaching his 24th birthday, all with the Oakland A’s.
LH Joe Saunders
Re-signed with th Diamondbacks in January; pitched over 200 innings, with a 1.31 WHIP, in 2011.
RH J.J. Putz (Closer)
Converted first 16 save opportunities, later had a run of 24 straight.
RH David Hernandez
Hard thrower held opponents to .193 batting average; lefties hit only .171.
RH Takashi Saito
Offseason selling point? He shut out the D-backs in three playoff appearances.
LH Craig Breslow
Has averaged 73 appearances in the last three seasons, almost all with Oakland.
RH Brad Ziegler
Held opponents scoreless in 19 of his 23 appearances after joining the D-backs.
LH Joe Paterson
Made 19 consecutive scoreless appearances in his first major league season.
RH Bryan Shaw
Conversion to the bullpen two years ago has paid dividends for the 2008 second-round pick.