2008 Diamondbacks Feature Familiar Cast

Brandon Lyon is the new closer (Dave Miller/AP)

Dan Haren replaces Livan Hernandez, Chad Qualls and Brandon Lyon slide in to fill Jose Valverde's void, and Tony Clark is gone. Otherwise, the 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks closely resemble last year's NL West Champions.

INSIDE PITCH

The Diamondbacks made Oakland right-hander Dan Haren their No. 1 offseason target, and with Haren in the rotation, they believe they have the pitching in place to make a strong defense of their 2007 title in the invigorated NL West.

Haren came aboard during a Dec. 14 trading frenzy in which the Diamondbacks made three deals involving four teams and 14 players but lost only one 2007 contributor, closer Jose Valverde. It was, however, a numerically significant loss, inasmuch as Valverde led the major leagues with 47 saves last season.

The Diamondbacks filled the closer spot internally by promoting setup man Brandon Lyon, who was spectacular in that role the first six weeks of the 2005 season (14 of 15 in save opportunities) before suffering a strained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He did not have the elbow surgically repaired, but he sat out three months.

Otherwise, the Diamondbacks enter spring training with virtually the same group that had an NL-best 90-72 record while becoming the first team in major league history to have the best record in its league with a negative run differential (minus-20).

The Diamondbacks were last in the NL in batting average and were 14th in runs last season but anticipate continued, natural improvement as young position players such as first baseman Conor Jackson, shortstop Stephen Drew, third baseman Mark Reynolds, center fielder Chris Young and right fielder Justin Upton continue to get experience. Among them, only Jackson has as much as two years' major league service time. Reserve first baseman/top pinch hitter Tony Clark left via free agency, and the Diamondbacks must fill his big shoes, especially in the clubhouse.

Randy Johnson's health remains an issue after his August surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back, the same disk that was surgically repaired in October 2006. The Diamondbacks believe the extra two months will make a difference.

Tony Pena and newcomer Chad Qualls will be the setup men on a team that enters spring with maybe two jobs open: One in the bullpen and one as a stopgap until Chad Tracy gets healthy.

WHERE, WHEN: Tucson Electric Park, Tucson, Ariz. First Cactus League game is Feb. 28 against the Rockies.

TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: LHP Randy Johnson may seem an odd choice, inasmuch as he is a Hall of Famer-in-waiting, but Johnson was dominant when he was healthy last season. In a period of five starts a year ago, he went 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA and 42 strikeouts and four walks over 29 2/3 innings. He will enter the season with two more months to recover from a back surgery than he had last year, and that could make all the difference.

TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: It is not that RF Justin Upton does not have all the tools. He was the first player taken in the 2006 draft, and he was considered a better prospect than older brother B.J., who hit 24 homers and had 22 stolen bases with Tampa Bay in his first extended playing time in 2007. But Justin Upton had only 259 at-bats above Class A while shooting through the minor league system.  He hit .221 in with 13 extra-base hits in the majors, and he had 37 strikeouts 140 at-bats.

AUTHORITY FIGURES: Bob Melvin received a contract extension that will take him through 2010, as the front office turned a 2009 option in a guaranteed year and added another year to the deal in the offseason. Melvin was the 2007 NL Manager of the Year after leading the young Diamondbacks to the NL West title despite the fact the team scored 20 fewer runs that it gave up. Pitching coach Bryan Price, who has been with Melvin since their days in Seattle, was named the major league coach of the year by Baseball America for his work last season. Third base coach Chip Hale is considered to have major league managing potential.


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