Diamondbacks Are Legitimate Contenders

How many experts need to make a team their sleeper pick to contend before that team can no longer be considered a sleeper? Many prognosticators see the Arizona Diamondbacks as legitimate contenders in the NL West, although the team would rather operate under the radar. ALSO: Find out why Orlando Hudson and Chad Tracy may be primed for big seasons.

INSIDE PITCH

The Diamondbacks don't need this. They didn't want it, either. With a young starting lineup featuring an average age of 25 or so, the last thing they hoped to hear entering the season was a slew of rave national reviews stating they could be an upstart or even a legitimate contender in the National League.

But that's what many of the pundits are speculating, thanks to a deep organizational talent pool that finally has arrived and a refined starting rotation with the addition of left-handers Randy Johnson and Doug Davis, who join reigning Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb and Livan Hernandez to rival that of anything in a revamped NL West.

"The division got better, especially pitching-wise, and by the first week of spring training, I already saw some of the experts choosing us to finish second in the NL behind the Mets," Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall. "That's great, but honestly, I think we'd rather sneak up on people and operate a little under the radar."

Arizona might be one of the most intriguing teams in baseball in 2007 because of its starting pitching and the plethora of top-flight prospects getting their chance to shine after a brief taste of the majors last season.

That talent includes the likes of shortstop Stephen Drew, the younger brother of Boston's J.D. Drew, who seems to have emerged as the Diamondbacks' potential leadoff hitter; center fielder Chris Young, a five-tool player; and right fielder Carlos Quentin, who might end up as Arizona's cleanup hitter once he fully recovers from a slight labrum tear in his left, non-throwing shoulder.

They join a group that includes Gold Glove second baseman Orlando Hudson and slick-hitting corner infielders Chad Tracy and Conor Jackson, plus promising young catcher Miguel Montero and left fielder Eric Byrnes, who at 31, is the veteran of the group.

The younger players have proven themselves at every level to date, and although they may face an adjustment period as a group, the sheer talent within should carry them well over the course of the season. There were concerns as to how much run production the Diamondbacks may achieve, but they ranked among the top teams in the majors this spring in virtually every offensive category.

"We know that 1 through 8, we all can hit and we can do a lot of damage," said Jackson, the starting first baseman. "Defensively, we're solid. And our starting pitchers all have great track records."

Hernandez and Davis looked mediocre in spring training, and Johnson didn't begin pitching in actual games until late March as he rehabbed from October back surgery, "but when the put the lights on, it's going to be different," Hernandez said of the start of the regular season.

Johnson, 43, will open on the disabled list but should be ready to pitch at some point in April, and he eventually will settle in behind Opening Day starter Webb in the rotation, to be followed by Hernandez and Davis and one of a handful of young candidates who have been battling for the fifth spot.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: 2B Orlando Hudson became an instant hit in the desert last season during his debut year with the Diamondbacks. He earned a Gold Glove, becoming just the sixth player in history to win one in both leagues, and he cleaned up deep in the batting order with a surprisingly torrid summer. He could put up big numbers this season, now that he's more comfortable in Arizona and has emerged as a leader on the team. He helped the Diamondbacks set a single-season record for double plays, and, teamed for a full season with accomplished young SS Stephen Drew, more records may await.

ON THE DECLINE: RHP Livan Hernandez didn't look good at all during spring training.  Although spring numbers don't always mean much, it could be trend that carries into the season. He provides durability with a rubber arm, but if he doesn't produce a serviceable season, the Diamondbacks might not have a chance to contend for anything.

INSIDE EDGE: The Diamondbacks may be too young for outsiders to consider them a legitimate playoff contender, but one thing about this group is that it's hungry. Youngsters such as Chris Young, Carlos Quentin, Stephen Drew and Conor Jackson aren't taking their lofty starting status for granted. They don't big-league it when it comes to the mundane, which is a good sign of things to come.

NOTES, QUOTES

--RHP Jorge Julio, who had become a spare part in the bullpen, was traded to the Florida Marlins for RHP Yusmeiro Petit.

--LHP Randy Johnson made his spring training debut March 24 in a "B" game against the White Sox in Tucson, pitching three sharp innings. Johnson is rehabbing from October back surgery to repair a herniated disk. He is expected to join Arizona's rotation at some point in April.

--Of all the players who have lavished high praise this spring on new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, 3B Chad Tracy might have the most "thank yous" to say.

Seitzer has worked wonders with the normally proficient-hitting Tracy, uncovering small gems here and there since the start of camp that have left the third baseman both speechless and glowing with confidence.

There have been tiny intricacies in his swing, and there have been some bold, new approaches, too. The biggest has been getting out of the rut of always trying to pull the ball, which is what Tracy did much of last season when his batting average and home run totals dipped from their 2005 levels.

After a 1-for-13 start to the spring, Tracy began clicking, even though he says, "I'm looking for the approach, not the results." The numbers are adding up, however, and Tracy could be poised for a banner season, likely hitting in the No. 3 spot in manager Bob Melvin's expected revolving lineup.

One thing Seitzer saw early in Tracy's swing from previous seasons was that the player's front shoulder was constantly flying open. Even then, Tracy managed to collect hits at a rapid rate. But that's because Tracy hit with confidence, even during stretches when he was slumping. "There was a look on a man's face who knew he was going to rake every time he got in the box," Seitzer said.

Tracy still has the look, and he's spraying the ball to all fields instead of trying to hit flyballs over the outfield walls. Tracy said that will be his chief goal all season.

"I think he's about as close to back as he could be," Seitzer said.

--2B Orlando Hudson can hit just about anywhere in manager Bob Melvin's lineup, and with the way Melvin plans to mix things up this season, that may end up being the case for Hudson. But he might not make too many starts in the leadoff spot after he told Melvin he tends to put too much pressure on himself when he bats first and doesn't feel all that comfortable there.

"Certain guys are going to be more comfortable in different spots in the lineup," Melvin said, adding Hudson won't have a problem batting leadoff if he is told he's being slotted there.

--1B Conor Jackson got a good jump on spring training by spending two months working on his defense with third base coach Chip Hale and Diamondbacks 3B Chad Tracy. Jackson has made it a point this season to improve his defense, even though it's his bat that means the most to the Diamondbacks.

"He is so willing to learn, and that's the key," Hale said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Sure, there are things I wish I had known back then, but you can say that about anything. I wish I would have known more about Microsoft or Starbucks back in the day. I would have invested a lot of money." -- LHP Randy Johnson, reminiscing about his early pro career.

 

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