D-backs Transition To Offense-First Club

D-backs Transition To Offense-First Club

Although the Arizona Diamondbacks pitching staff received a much more thorough overhaul than their lineup did this winter, it has become evident that their offense will improve more than their pitching will from a disappointing 2009 season on both sides of the ball.

The Diamondbacks used the first day of spring training to appoint Dan Haren the opening-day starter and recovering Brandon Webb as the number three starter.

As it turned out, it was a cart-before-the-horse exercise. Webb is on a slower track than everyone but his doctor anticipated following August shoulder debridement surgery, and he has set a goal of returning in late April or early May. He had not thrown to hitters entering the final week of spring training.

That obviously hurts the D-backs' chances of contending, inasmuch as Webb was the mainstay of the rotation in 2006-08 -- finishing first, second, second in NL Cy Young voting in those years. With Haren and newly acquired Edwin Jackson, Webb, at least in theory, gives Arizona a top three that could match any in the league.

The rest of the rotation is relatively young and unproven. Ian Kennedy, Rodrigo Lopez and Billy Buckner now appear to round out the front five behind Haren and Jackson. While Kennedy, a former first-round draft choice, appears to have the tools, only Lopez has performed consistently at the major league level, and that was before 2007 Tommy John surgery. Kris Benson was signed to a minor league contract as insurance when the length of Webb's absence was determined.

Closer Chad Qualls returns to the role after missing the final month of 2009 with a dislocated left kneecap, and he has looked healthy this spring. Veteran setup men Aaron Heilman and Bob Howry were knocked around some in spring training, but the D-backs are banking on their track record of major league success. Juan Gutierrez may emerge as the top setup man of the bunch after a strong September in which he filled in admirably for Qualls as closer.

At the same time, the D-backs saw positive spring results out of a lineup that includes first baseman Adam LaRoche and second baseman Kelly Johnson, a pair of free agent signees. LaRoche claimed the cleanup spot between number three hitter Justin Upton and number five Mark Reynolds, and that trio that combined for 95 homers and 271 RBI last year. With catcher Miguel Montero coming off a career season and likely to hit sixth, the D-backs have a balanced right-left-right-left bunching in the middle of the order to work against situational pitching changes.

The D-backs consider left fielder Conor Jackson another new addition, in essence, because he missed the final five months of 2009 with "valley fever." Jackson has had a great spring, and he is one of the few D-backs who works counts and stays within himself at the plate. A former cleanup hitter, Jackson is likely to hit second as a table-setter for the big bats behind him.

Shortstop Stephen Drew and outfielder Chris Young have also flashed offensive potential. Drew was the third shortstop in major league history to have at least 40 doubles, 10 triples, and 20 homers in a season when he did it in 2008, and Young was the first rookie in major league history to have at least 30 homers and 25 stolen bases in 2007.

If all that translates into a bunch of 8-6 games, it would not be surprising.

THE DIAMONDBACKS WILL CONTEND IF... RHP Brandon Webb's recovery time is shorter rather than longer, so that he returns in early May to provide stability and quality to a rotation that needs him. OF Chris Young reverses a 2009 spiral and returns to 20-homer, 20-stolen base form. SS Stephen Drew and 2B Kelly Johnson have typical offensive seasons, not subpar ones as each had last year. RHP Ian Kennedy adds quality depth to the bottom of the rotation. The defense improves.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: RF Justin Upton was given a four-year, $51.4 million contract before the start of spring training in a move that should make the regression theorists proud. Upton, still only 22, had a breakout season with 26 homers and 20 stolen bases in 2009, and he should only get better. He is a thoroughbred -- big, fast, strong, and hungry.

ON THE DECLINE
: It seems unfair to pick on rehabbing Webb, who made only one start in 2009 and will be delayed at least a month out of spring training while returning from August shoulder surgery. The return date is only a guesstimate, and the D-backs may be grateful to get 10 wins and 150 innings out of him.

SNAKE BYTES

--C Miguel Montero has done daily work on defense on a back field this spring to refine his transfer and release. All of his nine errors last year (second in the majors among catchers) were throwing errors on stolen-base attempts. "He's been very religious about being out there every day. He has plenty of arm and plenty of athleticism," manager A.J. Hinch said. Montero, who won the starting job last season, hit .294 with 16 homers and 59 RBI in 2009.

--RHP Ian Kennedy has become the clear favorite to open the season as the number 3 starter behind RHP Dan Haren and RHP Edwin Jackson after throwing five shutout innings and striking out eight against a typical trip-to-Tucson lineup presented by San Diego on March 22. Manager A.J. Hinch described the outing as "excellent."  Kennedy went 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in his first four spring starts, and he had 10 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings.

--OF Justin Upton was removed from the March 24 game against the White Sox with a sprained left ankle and did not play March 25, but it wasn't that serious -- Upton stole second base and went to third on an overthrow after suffering the injury when lunging to reach the first base bag on an infield single against. Upton hit his fourth home of the spring when he returned to lineup March 26.

--RHP Billy Buckner had consecutive bad outings in late March, allowing 16 hits and 14 earned runs in two starts, and he may have fallen behind RHP Rodrigo Lopez in the competition for the number 4 starter spot. Since the D-backs do not need a fifth starter until April 17, the loser of that battle could open the season at Class AAA Reno.  Buckner is 2-3 with a 11.66 ERA overall this spring.

--Veterans C Chris Snyder and INF Augie Ojeda are available in the right deal as the D-backs consider attempts to upgrade their pitching depth. Snyder will make $4.5 million this year and $5.5 million in 2011. Ojeda will receive $825,000 this season.

DIAMOND STAT: 2 -- Spring training games in which LF Conor Jackson led off, through March 26. He opened each game with a hit.

QUOTABLE: "I'm waiting for one of those guys in the group, either in the bullpen or the starters, to come up and grab these spots. They are open for the taking." -- D-backs manager A.J. Hinch, on the final two or three pitching jobs.


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