The Diamondbacks completed a host of offseason moves to make certain to distance themselves from their dismal 70-92 finish last year, including breaking the budget. They believe they have the pieces to contend again.
It all starts with Brandon Webb, who pitched only four innings in 2009 because of a cranky shoulder that finally required surgery in August. The D-backs picked up Webb's $8.5 million option before seeing him throw, but they believe he is coming along and again will be a top-of-the-rotation force with Dan Haren.
If Webb is healthy, the rotation is all but set, with only the fifth starter's job to be settled. It is the only major competition as camp opens. Newcomers Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, acquired in a three-team trade at the winter meetings, will slot 3-4 in the rotation. Billy Buckner, non-roster invitee Rodrigo Lopez, Bryan Augenstein, Cesar Valdez, and Kevin Mulvey are the top candidates for the final job. Buckner was 2-1 with three quality starts and a 3.93 ERA in September and October, giving him a leg up.
The D-backs' mainly youthful bullpen had a 4.61 ERA last year, so veterans Bob Howry and Aaron Heilman were added to specifically address the experience issue. They, closer Chad Qualls, and Juan Gutierrez are bullpen locks. The other three relief spots -- the D-backs like to carry 13 position players and 12 pitchers -- are in competition, although Clay Zavada stands a good shot as he looks like the best left they have.
Webb's is not the only recovery to monitor -- Qualls missed the final month of the season with a fractured left kneecap, but is expected to be full-go when spring training begins. If he can't close, Gutierrez would step in. Gutierrez was 9-for-9 in save opportunities after Qualls was injured last year.
The late signing of free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche pushed the D-backs' 2010 payroll to about $79 million, a few million more than projected, but the team figures it is $6 million well spent to add to a lineup that was only so-so last season despite 44 home runs from third baseman Mark Reynolds. LaRoche, who has averaged 26 homers and 86 RBI the past four seasons, will take over the cleanup spot from catcher Miguel Montero, who had a breakout year in 2009 after previous starter Chris Snyder suffered a back injury that cost him most of the second half of the season.
Justin Upton, LaRoche, Reynolds and Montero will form the heart of the order, and the return of Conor Jackson also should help. The nucleus of the offense is young and, theoretically, still learning, so the vast number of strikeouts may decrease. Reynolds has set the major league record in each of the past two seasons.
The D-backs were brutal on defense in 2009, and their 124 errors (second highest in the NL, second highest in franchise history) were only part of the story. They had far too many lapses in concentration or failures to properly execute fundamental plays. Manager A.J. Hinch has said he will stress defense in his first spring.
WHERE: Tucson Electric Park, Tucson, Ariz. The D-backs will spend their last spring in south Tucson, adjacent to the down-home Ajo Cafe (breakfast and lunch only), as the only inhabitant of a two-team complex after the White Sox bolted to Glendale, Ariz., last year. The D-backs, who began playing in Tucson in 1998, and Colorado will share a new spring facility in Scottsdale beginning in 2011.
TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: OF Chris Young had a miserable 2009, hitting a career-low .212 with 15 homers and 42 RBIs But after being sent to the minors in mid-August with a batting average under .200, Young seemed to regain his confidence and his stroke upon his return, hitting .278 with eight homers and 14 RBI in the final five weeks of the season. He may never hit .300, but the D-backs will take the guy who was the first rookie in major league history to have 30-plus homers (32) and 25-plus stolen bases (27) in 2007, when he hit .237 and fielded his position well.
TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: The D-backs are counting heavily on the complete recovery of RHP Brandon Webb, the linchpin of their rotation and, really, of their team. But Webb has only thrown off a mound once following August shoulder surgery, and it will take him a while to build up arm strength and feel. Webb finished first, second, and second in the NL Cy Young voting in 2006-08, but it might not be realistic to expect to see that pitcher this season, especially early on.
AUTHORITY FIGURES: After the Diamondbacks fired manager Bob Melvin on May 9 following a 12-17 start, A.J. Hinch did not fare much better, as his team sputtered to the finish line in his first season as a manager at any level. (He had been the D-backs' director of minor league operations.) The team went 58-75 with Hinch in charge. A former major-leaguer, Hinch is smart, enthusiastic and well-prepared, and he seemed to handle the new post well. He spent time this offseason at Chase Field with the players in informal workouts with an eye toward strengthening their bond. Matt Williams and Bo Porter have joined the coaching staff, replacing Chip Hale and Lorenzo Bundy.
-- RHP Brandon Webb threw off a mound for the first time in about 11 months at a February 9 bullpen session at Chase Field, attended by manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. "I am right where I expected to be," Webb said. "Having not been on the mound in a year, I am pleased with how I felt." Webb underwent shoulder surgery in August, and it is unclear if he will be ready to regain his lead spot in the rotation at the beginning of the year.
-- C Chris Snyder was offered in trade proposals in the offseason, in part because his contract gives him a guaranteed $11.25 million over the next three years and he has fallen behind C Miguel Montero in the pecking order, but the D-backs have no immediate need to move him. "We were able to expand the budget a bit and get creative … so that his salary still fits. We are a better team with a catching duo of Snyder and Miguel Montero," Diamondbacks president/CEO Derrick Hall Hall said.
-- The D-backs will play an exhibition game in Hermosillo, Mexico, on March 14 against the Colorado Rockies, the third consecutive year they have played a spring game at Hector Espino Stadium. Hermosillo is about a 60-minute flight from the D-backs' spring training site in Tucson. The D-backs are attempting to cultivate the market in northern Mexico, and they usually place several of their players in Hermosillo in the Mexican winter league.
-- Former D-backs LHP Randy Johnson had a personal-services clause in his contract that calls for him to work for the team after his retirement, but the D-backs do not want to rush things. "One thing we both agreed on is that it will probably be best for him to take this first year off to spend with his family," Diamondbacks president/CEO Derrick Hall said. The sides are working to establish a position suitable to both.
DIAMOND STAT: 20—New players on the D-backs' 40-man roster.
QUOTABLE: "It was good to get him into the next phase of his rehabilitation. He looked comfortable. This is a positive sign." —Manager A.J. Hinch, on rehabbing RHP Brandon Webb's mound session on Feb. 9.
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