Mindful of what the Diamondbacks accomplished in their worst-to-first 2011, manager Kirk Gibson was not about to discount any of the NL West teams when he was asked to identify the top contenders to unseat the D-backs this year.
What team presented the greatest challenge? Was it San Francisco, with its roster additions and apparent return to health?
"Time will tell," Gibson said. "We know their pitching is good. We don't take them lightly. We don't take anyone lightly."
"I consider everybody to be (in contention). You get in trouble when you (pick one). Then you let your guard down against someone else. They all try. They are all working very hard."
San Francisco, which won the World Series in 2010, was a slight favorite to win the division in an early line put out by Allpro.com. The Giants were a 7/5 favorite, just ahead of the D-backs, who were listed at 8/5. Colorado was 9/2, Los Angeles was 11/2 and San Diego was 30-1.
The D-backs made a 29-game improvement to 94-68 while winning the division by eight games last season, the first full season under general manager Kevin Towers and Gibson.
"Nobody knows who is going to be the team. Look at the past several years. You can speculate all you want. In my mind, they are all good," Gibson said. "People maybe don't understand how strong the division is."
Gibson was asked about the new playoff format, in which one more wild card team was added. The two wild card teams will meet in a one-game playoff, with the winner meeting the NL division champion with the rest record in the next round.
"Honestly, it doesn't do anything for me," Gibson said. "I'm going to try to win the division. If that is a fall-back stance, then we will utilize it. Broader, we want to make the playoffs to give ourselves a chance to do what the Cardinals did last year. That's our goal. We're not expecting anything easy."
--SS Stephen Drew has progressed from an early spring training regimen of two days of workouts followed by one day off to three days of workouts and one day off. He has yet to participate in a spring training game, the D-backs proceeding with all deliberate speed. He appears unlikely to be ready for the regular season.
--LHP Tyler Skaggs, one of the team's top pitching prospects, gave up a grand slam and walked four in his spring debut in relief March 7, when he lasted only 2/3 of an inning against Cleveland. Skaggs reported no pain in his left shoulder after being scratched because of soreness from what was to have been his first appearance March 3.
--3B Ryan Roberts, who has job security in spring training for the first time in his 10 professional seasons, had three hits in his first six games – all home runs. He hit a three-run homer in an 8-5 victory over Seattle on March 10. He went 3-for-15 with six RBI. IF Geoff Blum and IF John McDonald are the primary backups at third base entering spring training.
--RHP Trevor Cahill admitted to some nerves when he made his spring training debut with the D-backs, who acquired him over the winter for RHP Jarrod Parker, OF Collin Cowgill and RHP Ryan Cook. Cahill gave up three runs on four hits, two homers, while striking out three in two innings against Cleveland on March 7. "You can tell yourself to relax and everything, but no matter what you get a couple of butterflies going when you're out there," Cahill said.
DIAMOND STAT: 7 -- Consecutive batters top D-backs prospect RHP Trevor Bauer retired in his first two spring training starts before giving up a base runner.
QUOTABLE: "You hear them coming, and I'm not going to test them. I don't think I'm allergic, but I'm not going to let 20 or 30 get to me to find out." -- CF Chris Young, who called time out and moved to left-center field after a swarm of bees gathered in center and forced a 41-minute delay in the second inning against San Francisco on March 4.
In a division heavy in pitching, the D-backs chose bulk by acquiring Cahill in a trade with Oakland and re-signing their own free agent, Saunders, after non-tendering him at the December deadline for arbitration-eligibles. All five pitchers in the projected rotation logged career highs in innings last season, and it will be instructive as to how they recover. Cahill won 18 games in a pitchers' park in 2010 before sliding back somewhat last season, but he also has a 200-inning season under his belt and 40 major league victories before the age of 24. Collmenter is the least proven of the bunch and will need to post numbers similar to last season to hold off the young, talented arms in the system.
General manager Kevin Towers knows bullpens, as was evidenced by his moves in the winter of 2010. Free agent signee Putz had a career-high 45 saves last season, trade acquisition Hernandez was equally effective in the closer's role when Putz missed a month, and Rule 5 signee Paterson was effective as a situational specialist. The additions of Saito and Breslow further deepened the bullpen while adding another left-hander, and youngster Shaw has killer stuff. Former closer Saito, 42, was used only once in back-to-back situations last year, and his health bears monitoring.
Manager Kirk Gibson used 118 lineups last season and could juggle pieces similarly this year, especially if Drew is not ready for the start of the season after sustaining a severe right ankle injury July 20. Newcomer Kubel and Goldschmidt, in his first full season, could find themselves in the middle of the order. Upton, Montero, and Roberts had career years in 2011, and Roberts' was somewhat unexpected. He moved from being on the bubble to make the team in spring training to winning the starting third base job in May. Can all three do it again?
TOP ROOKIES: RHP Trevor Bauer of UCLA was the third pick in the 2011 draft, when he was considered the pitcher closest to the major leagues, and he could barge his way to the bigs after averaging 15.1 strikeouts per nine innings in seven minor league starts. LHP Tyler Skaggs is in the same boat, as he won the 2011 FutureBacks.com Pitcher of the Year Award. His first full year in the organization after being acquired in the Dan Haren trade was split between Hi-A Visalia and Double-A Mobile. He went 9-6 with 2.96 ERA and 198 strikeouts in 158 1/3 innings.
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