Keys to 2008: Randy Johnson

The durability and effectiveness of Randy Johnson will go a long way in determining the fate of the 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks. ALSO: the latest rumors on Conor Jackson, Tony Clark, and Orlando Hudson.

INSIDE PITCH

He turned 44 in September and has undergone three significant back surgeries in his career, including two in the past two seasons. Can Randy Johnson return to even semi-Cy Young form at this late stage in his career?

If he can and the veteran left-hander can stay reasonably healthy in 2008, it could be one of the most important aspects of next season for a Diamondbacks team that won the National League West and reached the National League Championship Series a year or two ahead of schedule.

By all accounts, Johnson should be ready to go when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in mid-February. His rehab from surgery to repair the same herniated disk he had operated on a year earlier has been going well and there is a strong expectation for him to return to a starting rotation featuring ace Brandon Webb, left-hander Doug Davis and Micah Owings, a rookie in 2007.

Still, the Diamondbacks will have a backup plan in place. They probably will bring in at least one more proven pitcher, perhaps even two, just to make sure. Even if management gives Johnson the benefit of the doubt, they realize it's unlikely they can count on the Big Unit for the entire season.

"I think we have to plan as if you can never have enough pitching," general manager Josh Byrnes said. "If Randy's healthy and throwing like he always has, you're always going to have a spot for Randy Johnson in your rotation. But I think it's probably prudent that we plan to be aggressive and get as much pitching as we can."

It's doubtful the Diamondbacks will make a trade to try and snag a front-line pitcher such as Florida's Dontrelle Willis or Minnesota's Johan Santana -- both of whom could be made available for the right price. It is more likely Arizona will seek a more easily obtainable starter via a trade.

Already, possible names have surfaced such as Cleveland's Cliff Lee, the Angels' Ervin Santana and Baltimore's Daniel Cabrera. There is also help on the farm in the form of left-hander Dana Eveland and right-handers Dustin Nippert and Edgar Gonzalez, as well as prospects such as Max Scherzer, and Greg Smith.

NOTES, QUOTES

--1B Conor Jackson, whose name had been circulating in possible trade scenarios as a way to bring some starting pitching back to the Diamondbacks, isn't expected to be dealt. A team official called the chances of a deal involving Jackson "remote" and added that the player's offensive potential is too great to risk moving.  His on-base-plus-slugging percentage from May through the end of the year was .873, which was the best on the Diamondbacks. That's one reason why the team may not dangle him as trade bait for some pitching help.

--LF Eric Byrnes debuted his new national radio show on XM called "Hustle with Eric Byrnes," the latest media endeavor for the outfielder who has his own television show in the Phoenix area.  Byrnes has hosted radio shows in the Bay Area and has done national TV and radio work as a baseball analyst.

"It's my own show, and I have creative liberties to do what I want on the show," Byrnes said. "Each week, I'm not going to sit there and talk baseball for three hours. I can talk about college football, the NFL, college basketball, the NBA. If I want to talk about whatever else, like politics, I'll talk about that."

--1B Tony Clark was fielding free agent offers but still wasn't ruling out a return to Arizona, even though contract talks have stalled with Diamondbacks management.  The Minnesota Twins lead the short list of Clark's suitors.

--RF Justin Upton on the Diamondbacks' playoff run in 2007 and what it will mean to the club in '08: "We're going to fight just like this next year. This team has a lot of upside. This team has a lot of young players and to come into the playoffs and get that experience is priceless."

--2B Orlando Hudson enters his last year of being arbitration-eligible. He likely will sign a one-year deal this winter before testing the free agent waters after the 2008 season. Hudson and his representatives had preliminary talks about a potential multiyear deal at one point during the past season, but nothing firm emerged and no real talks have occurred since, making it likely that next season could be the three-time Gold Glove Award winner's last in Arizona.

BY THE NUMBERS: $75 million -- Amount the Diamondbacks are committed to spending on their payroll in 2008, according to GM Josh Byrnes.

QUOTE TO NOTE:
"It's a good thing we're on the radar now. We stayed under the radar basically through the Cubs series (in the NL playoffs), whereas going into next year we're going in as National League West champions, and that's something to puff your chest out and be proud of. 

"This is my 27th year in pro ball, and teams talk about chemistry and a lot of times it's with groups that have been around for a while. We did it on the fly as we went along and ended up being one of the closest groups I've ever been around, if not the closest." -- Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin.


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