Most people will cite the Jason Grimsley situation as the impetus for the
slide. It's impossible to ignore; teams and players are still feeling the
effects of his bust.
Yet it would be sloppy to simply leave it at that. Veteran players such
as Luis Gonzalez and Johnny Estrada were vocally uneasy about the youth movement
going on around them, and Managing Partner Ken Kendrick threw Gonzo under a bus
when he implied that Gonzo may have been a juicer.
With all of these distractions, we could have expected the Diamondback
players to fall short of expectations. But in fact, the opposite happened.
Orlando Hudson put together a career year despite a slow start, hitting over
.300 since the beginning of June. After hitting .261 last year, Estrada's
.302 batting average came as something of a shock. Everyone knew that
Stephen Drew would eventually be a star, but who would have thought that he'd
post better numbers in the majors than he did at Tucson this year? No one
anticipated Eric Byrnes becoming the first Diamondback to hit 25 homers and
steal 25 bases in a single season, leading the team in both categories on the
year. And even though Gonzalez got off to a slow start, no one should have
expected a career high 52 doubles as he neared 40 years of age.
On the pitching side, Brandon Webb became the best pitcher in the National
League. El Duque might have been a bust, but Josh Byrnes was able to
transform him into Jorge Julio, whom everyone thought was done as a closer.
Julio came in and did a nice job after Jose Valverde had a baffling stretch of
Valverde heads the list of disappointments on the year. On the
offensive side, the only real bust was Tony Clark, and the team wasn't really
counting on him as a key contributor this year anyway. What all this does
is paint the portrait of a team that overachieved, not one that was bogged down
So should we anticipate worse than a .400 winning percentage in 2007?
Not so fast. At ages 26, 29, and 30 respectively, Chad Tracy, Orlando
Hudson, and Eric Byrnes should be the only position player starters older than
24 on opening day. This means that every starter on the offense, even
apparent overachievers Hudson and Byrnes, has a shot at improving on this year's
numbers. A full year of Livan Hernandez should help solidify a ramshackle
rotation and offset the inevitable regression to the mean for Brandon Webb.
These prospects aren't going to become stars overnight. Drew is likely
to hit something of a sophomore slump; he's certainly not going to hit .316 in a
full season next year. But he should still remain an above average
offensive shortstop who also helps the club with his defense. At the same
time, Chris Young and Carlos Quentin are going to hit much better than their
marks of .243 and .253 this year. But how much better remains to be seen.
Obviously, it's way too early to make a prediction for 2007, but the time is
right to evaluate 2006: it was a success. Anyone who thought this was a
playoff team in March is a huge optimist; the fact that they won 76 games and
were essentially tied for third in the NL West should be lauded. Doing so
despite frequent off-the-field chaos is even more impressive. Josh Byrnes
was able to free up a lot of salary and give his young prospects some much
needed experience while still fielding a very competitive team.
Obviously, the Diamondbacks aspire to finish with a better record next
season. But in terms of the holistic improvement of the team, they should
be satisfied with matching this 2006 effort, because the organization looks
fantastically better than it did a year ago today.