The 04 D'Backs infield was supposed to be the new and improved, revamped, redone strength of this club. While the outfield was supposed to be familiar, the infield was supposed to make your jaw drop. The addition of Richie Sexson was the big right handed power bat the Diamondbacks needed, and allow opening day third base starter Shea Hillenbrand to hit lower in the lineup and not worry so much about the power numbers. Alex Cintron was coming off a very good rookie season where the great glove work was expected, the above average bat was a surprise, and in what seemed the steal of the year future Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar had come to Arizona for the bargain basement price of $1 million to be a sure handed defensive leader and maybe recapture some of that magic that was sending him to Cooperstown.
But the real strength of the Diamondbacks infield was its depth. If Sexson needed a break Hillenbrand or the ageless Carlos Baerga could spell him. Alomar was older, Cintron was younger, both would need a breather now and again, and Matt Kata's 2003 had shown he could be a very effective switch hitting utility man. And Chad Tracy was down in Tucson reminding people an awful lot of a young Wade Boggs.
Then the injuries started. Alomar was hit by a pitch and broke his hand. In the same series where Sexson hit the longest home run in Bank One Ballpark history (an underestimated 507 feet) he dislocated his shoulder for the first time on check swing. Kata and Baerga both went down for extended periods of time and Cintron's '03 numbers were a distant memory in '04. What was supposed to be the reason for hope became the symbol of what could have been.
Richie Sexson played in 23 games for the Diamondbacks. He hit nine home runs and drove in 23 RBI. Projected out to a 162 game season those numbers are incredible. 63 home runs and 161 RBI. Those are numbers that would have silenced all the talk about the D'Backs giving the Brewers too much. Those numbers, even with his .233 batting average, would have inspired MVP talk.
But he played only 23 games. The dislocated shoulder sidelined him for a couple weeks, he came back and did it again. Done for the season, major surgery and free agency on the horizon, the D'Backs turned to plan B. That meant bringing up rookie Chad Tracy and moving Hillenbrand to first base. And the Shea-Hey kid did not disappoint. By far the most productive hitter in the lineup Hillenbrand hit .322 with 11 home runs and 70 RBI. The knock on Hillenbrand has always been that he does not have enough power to play a corner infield slot, and that might be the case, but the fact remains that he was the only consistent bright spot in the Diamondbacks order.
If the Diamondbacks resign Sexson, and they will make every effort to do so, then Hillenbrand could be the odd man out. Tracy is a cheaper, younger alternative from the left side of the plate, and while Tracy also lacks the power one traditionally expects out of a corner infielder, Hillenbrand is already the player he is going to become, and Tracy is still young enough to develop power.
I will be honest, I couldn't believe it. Robbie Alomar. Probably the best second baseman of the 1990s was coming to the Diamondbacks, and he was coming cheap. Plagued by injuries most of the 2002 and 2003 Alomar was looking for a chance to prove he could still play everyday and be effective. It was a one year deal, for just $1 million dollars. Joe Garagiola Jr. was a genius as far as I was concerned. Even a mediocre Alomar was an asset. A smart ballplayer who could help mold Cintron into the star some in the Diamondbacks organization were hoping he'd become, a switch hitter who didn't strike out often, with some pop, a Gold Glove caliber guy. It was brilliant.
But like Sexson, it was just not to be. Alomar came back late in the year and eventually was traded to the White Sox, so he played in only 28 games for the Diamondbacks. Like Sexson, when he was on the field he was exactly was we were hoping for. Three homers and 14 RBI translates into 17 homers and 81 RBI to go along with a .327 average from a top of the order guy. Any team in the league would take that, and the Diamondbacks could certainly have used it.
After Alomar the 2B job became Matt Kata's. While Kata's rookie year numbers were fine for a young utility guy (.257/7/29 in 288 at bats in '03) for a starting second baseman, especially one in a bit of a sophomore slump, they just wouldn't do. Not that it mattered much, because soon enough Kata would also find himself a spot on the DL, this time after just 38 games. Next stop, the minors.
Scott Hairston has been on everybody's watch list. The son of a former major leaguer and brother of the Baltimore Oriole's Jerry Hairston Jr., Scott Hairston was supposed to be the new generation of second baseman. Big, strong, with speed and power to all fields. For awhile it looked like he might live up to the hype. His finishing numbers (.252/13/27) were respectable in just a little over a half year of work, but the 81 strikeouts in 326 at bats were not going to work for a top of the order hitter. Worse yet, Hairston couldn't catch the ball. In fact the defense (11 errors in less than 400 chances) was such an issue they actually tried him in the outfield, and eventually he outright lost his 2B job to the combo of Alex Cintron and Andy Green.
Alex Cintron? Yeah him. Cintron, the established shortstop for the Diamondbacks played 19 games at second this season, and it was not necessarily because of all the second base problems. Sources inside the front office say the Diamondbacks are disappointed in Cintron's performance this season, disappointed enough that they made Stephen Drew their #1 pick in this year's amateur baseball draft. Drew is a SS that many project as a future superstar, combining speed, power, defense and a baseball pedigree (his brothers are the Atlanta Braves' JD Drew and Tim Drew) that is pretty much impossible to find. Cintron at 2B might be an answer if Hairston's defense doesn't improve dramatically and Drew gets signed and makes the big league squad in the spring.
HAIRSTON: C+ (but with off season extra credit in defense he could become a B)
Alex Cintron gets points just for staying healthy. In a season where it seemed everybody was hurt Cintron played in 161 games, 133 of those at short. Though his numbers were down, he was generally pretty sure handed, and in fact according to many his numbers in '04 (.259/4/45 as a shortstop) were just about what they had expected from him last season. Problem is there are several good shortstops in the D'Backs organization, including Drew, but also including Sergio Santos, whom Baseball America named the D'Backs top prospect entering the 2004 season. For now the conventional wisdom says Cintron is the '05 opening day second baseman, but that could change in a hurry.
In addition to Drew and Santos, Jerry Gil was brought up from Tucson and showed exactly what he is, a very very very good defensive SS who doesn't hit a lick. His .165 average will not keep him in the bigs for long, but assuming he's willing to bring a glove for 2B, SS, and 3B he might find a job in the majors as a utility man.
CINTRON: B- (just for staying healthy)
GIL: C- (just for his defense)
Right now it seems like this position is more solidified than any other as far as next year is concerned. No, Chad Tracy is not going to hit 35 home runs, but as a left handed hitter who produced at a .283 clip in his rookie season Tracy seems to be a very viable candidate to own the job next season. Even if the D'Backs resign Sexson and want to hold onto Hillenbrand, it seems like the perfect situation for a platoon (especially when you consider Tracy hit only .215 against left handed pitching), with Hillenbrand facing lefties and Tracy starting against right handers.
For Diamondback fans Tracy might have been the most pleasant surprise of the season. When he was first brought up it seemed as if he was a stop gap, just someone to fill the spot. But after being called up on April 22nd Tracy made it virtually impossible to sit him down. Starting with his debut 4-8 performance, he hit .455 for the rest of April, and was still over .400 going into the second week in May. He cooled off, but still put the bat on the ball and made productive outs, striking out only 56 times in his 460 at bats in 2004.
Tracy is just one of the those classic ball players. He doesn't do anything particularly well, but he does everything above average except throw the ball. Which does bring up a glaring weakness throughout the Diamondbacks infield. Defense could become a real problem. Neither Sexson nor Hillenbrand is a wizard over at first, and with the exception of Cintron none of the people likely to be back next season have shown much of a penchant for the defensive side of the game. Andy Green and Tim Olsen both saw a little time at third, but outside of utility duty neither appears to be ready for the big time.
The wild card here is Robbie Hammock. A fan, clubhouse, and front office favorite one of the main reasons Hammock has stuck with the big club is that no matter where he goes (he spent time in left field, right field, third base, and behind the plate, and if he hadn't been injured he probably would have been the first choice to fill in for Alomar after the second basemen broke his hand) he plays solid, dependable defense. When healthy he's been a decent hitter, and more to the point a clutch hitter, and he plays hard every single day, an example that many of the other Diamondbacks could learn from.
HAMMOCK: B (when healthy)
The Diamondbacks infield was literally completely different at the end of the season as it was at the beginning, and it had nothing to do with performance. The injuries to Sexson and Alomar were the first steps down toward the basement of the NL West, and they were also the first steps toward the Tucson Sidewinders, who the end of the year D'Backs resembled. What this infield looks like next season is anyone's guess. The first domino to fall will be Sexson, if he resigns then the next question is what to do with Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand's fate is directly tied to Tracy's, Tracy's to Hammock's, Hammock's to Cintron's, and so on and so forth. Should be an interesting off-season.
Monday will feature a three part series breaking down the bullpen, starting rotation, and the catchers, so check in with FutureBacks.com and see who makes the grade and who gets summer school.