D'Backs Set: Time to Preview

D'Backs Set: Time to Preview

The key to the Diamondbacks season? Where to start? The rotation will have questions as long as Russ Ortiz's name is penciled in, Conor Jackson will have to have success to justify him starting over Tony Clark, Chad Tracy must prove he can throw from third, the bullpen must prove it can throw at all...had enough? We're just getting started.

    A day after the Diamondbacks announced the order of their top four
starters in the rotation, the fifth starter job was determined by
default when left-hander Brad Halsey was traded to Oakland for
right-hander Juan Cruz.
    Cruz likely will start the season in Arizona's bullpen, which opens
the door for Claudio Vargas to take the No. 5 slot in the rotation
behind right-handers Brandon Webb, Orlando Hernandez, Miguel Batista
and Russ Ortiz.
    "Josh and I haven't sat down today and talked about stuff, but if
you're handicapping, there's a tremendously high percentage that
Claudio's in the rotation," manager Bob Melvin said, referring to GM
Josh Byrnes.
    Vargas gives the Diamondbacks an all-right-handed rotation,
something the club would prefer not to have.
    "But if you have better right-handers, than you go with the
right-handers," Melvin said. "And Claudio can get lefties out. ... All
of our guys, we feel, can get left-handers out."
    Cruz, 27, reached the majors in his early 20s while climbing up
through the Cubs' system and is known for his strong velocity (the
Diamondbacks measured him at 97 mph) and excellent changeup. He has
been used almost strictly in relief the past four seasons, which
included a stop in Atlanta, but he became a starter again after being
optioned to Triple-A Sacramento last season.
    There, he went 5-1 with a 2.40 ERA in 13 starts, where he notched 90
strikeouts and issued just 28 walks. Melvin indicated Cruz could be a
spot starter while primarily would work as a long reliever.
    "It certainly wasn't anything Brad did or didn't do," Byrnes said of
making the trade. "It was more that Juan Cruz probably fits our club a
little better, if for no other reason than he has a chance to help us
as a starter or reliever. He's done both with success in the big
leagues. Last year was sort of a bump in the road, but he was very good
in Triple-A. Very good in Triple-A. And he's had a good spring."
    Ortiz, who has a $7 million salary this season, sounded a little put
off by being tabbed as the No. 4 starter, but he didn't try to make a
big deal out of it.
    "I would like to feel I can pitch anywhere in the rotation," he
said, "but it's not my decision. What can I do about it? I'm going to
pitch every fifth day like everybody else. Things can change throughout
the year. There's going to be days off, there's going to be rainouts,
guys might have to miss a start."
    SEASON PREVIEW: Although the Diamondbacks purged an awful lot of
power from their lineup with the trade of Troy Glaus to the Toronto
Blue Jays, one of the players the Diamondbacks got back in the deal
says Arizona won't have any problems manufacturing runs in 2006.
    Second baseman Orlando Hudson believes the Diamondbacks still have
so much pop in their bats despite the loss of Glaus, who clubbed 27
homers a year ago, they should erect a turnstile at home plate.
    "Personally," Hudson said, "I think this club is capable of putting
up seven to 10 runs a game. And I think we can hit for power, too.
Hopefully me and 'Couns' (shortstop Craig Counsell) just get on base
with singles, staying in the gaps and drawing some walks for the big
dogs behind us."
    That would be third baseman Chad Tracy, left fielder Luis Gonzalez,
right fielder Shawn Green and the first baseman tandem of Conor Jackson
and Tony Clark. All five hitters are capable of producing 25-plus home
seasons, but whether they actually do it remains to be seen.
    The Diamondbacks' offense should be just fine, regardless, with
tougher at-bats thrown at opposing pitchers by the likes of Hudson,
Jackson, catcher Johnny Estrada and center fielders Eric Byrnes and
Jeff DaVanon.
    As for the power, Arizona showed plenty in spring training, ranking
at the top of National League clubs in home runs hit. Not that homers
are the key to a successful season. The Diamondbacks hit 191 in 2005 --
the third most in the NL behind Cincinnati and the Chicago Cubs -- and
they still finished 77-85.
    "I think we can surprise and be able to hang around in a division
where there doesn't really look to be a clear-cut, runaway favorite,"
general manager Josh Byrnes said. "If we feel the need to be aggressive
in July (at the trading deadline), we will because we have payroll
    If the Diamondbacks are planning on spending any money, it will be
all about pitching. Ownership has let Byrnes know he can shop for
another starting pitcher via trade whenever he deems it necessary, and
the phones are usually ringing at Chase Field.
    Ken Kendrick, the club's managing general partner, said Arizona
isn't willing to part with any of its top prized prospects for
immediate pitching help. The organization is enthralled with the
opportunity to watch the likes of shortstops Stephen Drew and Justin
Upton, outfielders Carlos Quentin and Carlos Gonzalez, along with
Jackson and catcher Miguel Montero develop in the system and gradually
make their way to the majors in Diamondbacks uniforms.
    PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: 3B Chad Tracy is back at the position he
feels most comfortable after splitting last season between first base
and right field, which he said caused too many sleepless nights. That
comfort level alone should only help his already fine-tuned hitting
stroke, which enabled his average and power to jump from .285 and eight
home runs his rookie season in 2004 to .308 and 27 homers last season.
He'll be hitting in the No. 3 hole, behind SS Craig Counsell and 2B
Orlando Hudson.
    ON THE DECLINE: Just three years removed from a 21-win season with
Atlanta in 2003, RHP Russ Ortiz has fallen on hard times and is doing
everything he can to wipe out last season's disappointing effort, when
he went 5-11 with a 6.89 ERA. Problem is, he hasn't looked any better
this spring and is still trying to be too fine with his pitches. He
claims to have a different mental makeup this season as far as his
approach goes, so perhaps he can get it right. If not, this will turn
out to be one very bad and expensive free agent pickup.

    --Commissioner Bud Selig said the Diamondbacks will get to host an
All-Star Game, but the earliest the event would come to Chase Field
probably would be 2011, when the ballpark is 13 years old.
    "Phoenix is definitely on my radar screen," Selig said. "I'm not
ready to make a decision, but I can assure you that Phoenix is
definitely on my screen."
    --RHP Brandon Medders, slowed all spring by a muscle group strain
below his throwing shoulder, will likely pitch in a minor league game
Tuesday, according to manager Bob Melvin.
    Medders, who had 1.78 ERA in 27 relief outings for Arizona in 2005,
likely will start the season on the 15-day disabled list, but it will
be backdated and he could be available to the Diamondbacks as early as
April 8, so long as he doesn't pitch in a Cactus League game.
    --Former 1B Mark Grace, who retired with the Diamondbacks following
the 2003 season and enters his second year as the team's television
analyst, said steroid use was prevalent during his playing career and
he saw it, first hand.
    "There were a lot of guys doing it," Grace said during an interview
last week with Sporting News Radio. "I saw it with my own eyes. It was
pitchers, it was catchers, it was outfielders, it was infielders. There
was a lot of it going around. I had it offered to me many times."
    He indicated former Cubs teammate Sammy Sosa, who made $17 million
last season but is now out of baseball, may have been a user.
    "Sammy's just one of the guys of many that are red-flag guys," Grace
said. "Do we have proof? Nope. But you certainly have suspicions."
    --UT Damion Easley, bothered by tendinitis in his right elbow, could
be back in the lineup and able to take the field Tuesday. Easley has
been able to hit, but he was given a few days off to rest his throwing
    --Manager Bob Melvin on 40-something-year-old RHP Orlando Hernandez
getting thrown out while attempting to steal second base after drawing
a walk in Saturday's game against the Angels: "They were playing back
behind him and he was kind of on his own there." And no, Melvin added,
"El Duque" doesn't have the automatic green light to steal.
    BY THE NUMBERS: 6,032 -- Total number of regular-season runs scored
by the Diamondbacks during their first nine MLB seasons.
    6,035 -- Total number of regular-season runs scored by Arizona's
opponents during the club's first nine MLB seasons.
    QUOTE TO NOTE: "With what Tony did for us last season, it's very
difficult to come in unproven and say, 'You're our starting first
baseman.' But I've seen it this camp. I've seen what everybody's been
talking about. He has power to all fields, he lets the ball travel. You
look at his numbers, and they were just stupid in the minor leagues."
-- Manager Bob Melvin on Conor Jackson, who will be Arizona's starting
first baseman ahead of Tony Clark.

    The Diamondbacks surprised even themselves with the amount of
offense that continued to pile up in spring training, at one point
batting almost .400 as a team halfway through the Cactus League
schedule. But pitching has, will and forever be the biggest question
mark facing this organization. The mantra is for the starters to give
the club seven innings every time out, but the bullpen could be dead
tired by the end of April.
    1. RHP Brandon Webb
    2. RHP Miguel Batista
    3. RHP Russ Ortiz
    4. RHP Orlando Hernandez
    5. RHP Claudio Vargas
    Brandon Webb seems confident in his ability to take over as staff
ace, and outside of one bad outing this spring, he has pitched
masterfully. But there are unknowns with the next three pitchers behind
him: Veteran Russ Ortiz has been hit-and-mostly-miss since arriving
here a year ago, Miguel Batista is switching from closer to starter
status and hasn't built up his arm strength because of being underused
in the WBC, and Orlando Hernandez probably won't be able to chew up as
many innings as a team would hope.
    The No. 5 man, RHP Claudio Vargas, will have to continue to stave
off RHP prospect Dustin Nippert, who got a late season look-see in
2006. But Arizona isn't afraid to make a move to bolster the rotation,
although if teams are calling about any of their elite prospects, they
can forget it.
    RHP Jose Valverde (closer)
    RHP Luis Vizcaino
    RHP Jason Grimsley
    RHP Brandon Lyon
    LHP Terry Mulholland
    RHP Jeff Bajenaru
    RHP Juan Cruz
    Realizing how much they gained by having Tim Worrell around during
the second half of last season, the Diamondbacks made sure they brought
in veteran help -- thus, the signings of Jason Grimsley and Terry
Mulholland and the trade that got them Luis Vizcaino. They haven't
necessarily stood out in spring training, but over the long haul, they
should help an otherwise still mostly young 'pen.
    Jose Valverde's velocity is steady and he's added a two-seam
fastball that's been getting some decent results. He should be fine in
the closer's role, and his personality fits the bill perfectly. Brandon
Medders should work his way into the mix after being slowed most of
camp with a muscle strain below his right shoulder. He could start the
season on the DL.
    Greg Aquino, who has had time in the closer's spot, could push Jeff
Bajenaru, acquired from the White Sox for infielder Alex Cintron, for a
spot in the 'pen. Juan Cruz was a late spring acquisition from Oakland.
He was strong in Triple-A last year, poor in the majors.
    1. SS Craig Counsell
    2. 2B Orlando Hudson
    3. 3B Chad Tracy
    4. LF Luis Gonzalez
    5. RF Shawn Green
    6. 1B Conor Jackson
    7. C Johnny Estrada
    8. CF Eric Byrnes
    On days Counsell needs a rest -- which could be frequent if the
labrum tear in his right shoulder gets worse or continually fatigued --
manager Bob Melvin will use Byrnes, extra outfielder Jeff DaVanon or
perhaps Hudson in the leadoff spot.
    Tracy, batting third, could have another big year and might be in
position to challenge for a batting title. There are some familiar bats
in the middle of the order in veterans Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green,
both of whom admit they could have been a lot more productive last
season, and the wild card is Jackson, getting his first taste of real,
everyday play in the majors.
    Arizona upgraded its offense by acquiring Estrada from the Braves.
The former Silver Slugger and All-Star might find himself batting in
the No. 2 slot at times this season.
    C Chris Snyder
    1B Tony Clark
    INF/OF Damion Easley
    OF Jeff DaVanon
    INF/OF Andy Green
    Tony Clark, coming off a monster season in which he hit 30 home runs
and had 87 RBIs, will get plenty of at-bats. But Melvin loves the
chance to bring him off the bench when the game's on the line, where
Clark usually shines.
    DaVanon could challenge Byrnes for the starting job in center and
will be used often for his defense and ability to get on base. Easley
will back up Counsell at short and can play right field as well. Green,
the reigning MVP of the Pacific Coast League, looks like a lock to make
the roster and can play second, third and left field, although he also
played shortstop and center at Triple-A Tucson.
    ROOKIE WATCH: 1B Conor Jackson has eased in nicely and was crushing
the ball to all fields and showing no glaring deficiencies in the
field. SS Stephen Drew was getting regular starting assignments in
spring because of injuries to Craig Counsell and Damion Easley and has
thoroughly impressed manager Bob Melvin, who has repeatedly said, "If
he's here, he plays." RF Carlos Quentin has shown amazing presence at
the plate with his patience and ability to produce even in poor
pitch-count situations. He's ready for major league pitching and won't
stay in Triple-A Tucson for long.
    MEDICAL WATCH: SS Craig Counsell is playing with a "slap" tear to
the labrum in his right shoulder, which forced him to miss about three
weeks of camp. So far, it hasn't affected his hitting, but time will
tell how much it affects his throwing in the field. UT Damion Easley
has been bothered by tendinitis in his right elbow, but it isn't
thought to be a long-term problem. CF Chris Young, earmarked to start
the year in Triple-A Tucson, spent most of spring recovering from
surgery to repair a broken bone in his right hand. RHP Brandon Medders
has been limited to bullpen sessions on the side because of a
spring-long problem with a muscle group strain below his right
shoulder. He could start the season on the 15-day disabled list.

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