By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (51-111) - Fifth Place (NL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: 1B - Tony Clark; SS - Royce Clayton; 2B - Craig Counsell; OF - Jose Cruz Jr.; SP - Shawn Estes; 3B - Troy Glaus; OF - Shawn Green; SP - Brad Halsey; SP - Russ Ortiz; SP - Javier Vazquez
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: OF - Danny Bautista; RP - Jeff Fassero; RP - Casey Fossum; INF - Shea Hillenbrand; SP - Randy Johnson; RP - Matt Mantei; RP - Stephen Randolph; 1B - Richie Sexson; RP - Steve Sparks
PROJECTED LINEUP: Craig Counsell (2B); Royce Clayton (SS); Luis Gonzalez (LF); Troy Glaus (3B); Shawn Green (RF); Jose Cruz Jr. (CF); Chad Tracy (1B); Koyie Hill (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Javier Vazquez (RHP); Russ Ortiz (RHP); Brandon Webb (RHP); Shawn Estes (LHP); Brad Halsey (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Greg Aquino (RHP)
MANAGER: Bob Melvin
The Diamondbacks have nowhere to go but up from last season's brutal performance, when they went 51-111 and set a franchise record for defeats. Five-time Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson departed for the Yankees and first baseman Richie Sexson is also gone. However, managing partner Ken Kendrick announced during the winter meetings that the team had $250 million of capital to work with, and the team made a few splashes in the free-agent market with the signings of shortstop Royce Clayton, pitchers Russ Ortiz and Shawn Estes, third baseman Troy Glaus, not to mention getting Javier Vazquez, Jose Cruz Jr. and Shawn Green through trades.
The offseason was a managerial mess for Kendrick's club, as Wally Backman was hired only to be let go four days later after it was revealed he faced numerous legal and financial problems. In stepped Bob Melvin, who was canned as skipper of the Mariners following last season.
The Diamondbacks led the National League with 139 errors, had over a dozen players on the disabled list, and fired manager Bob Brenly in mid- season. On the bright side...it's a new season.
Although he's not really a home run hitter, first baseman Chad Tracy has the strong defensive abilities and contact hitting to make him an impact player with the Diamondbacks. Not only that, but since he'll only be 25 come May and has a good lefty bat, there's opportunity for him to move up the ladder in the lineup.
Counsell returns to familiar grounds, as he was with Arizona from 2000-03. The last time Counsell played second base for an entire season was 1998 when he was with the Marlins. As a hustler who breaks his butt on every play, Counsell may not hit well for average, but his defense is above average and he is still smart running the bases, and should steal 15-plus bases. He was a member of Arizona's 2001 World Series championship team and also played a key role in the Marlins' shocking 1997 run to the title, but there will be no championship run this year after signing a two-year deal with Arizona this winter.
Clayton committed just nine errors last year, tied for second-fewest among all major league shortstops. He fanned a career-high 125 times last season. Look for his average to dip, as he played in Colorado last season and hit just .259 outside Coors Field. That won't bode well since he's expected to bat second in the lineup.
At four years and $45 million, Glaus will be pressured to perform at the level he was at from 2000-02, when he averaged 39 homers and 107 RBI. He's played in just 149 games over the last two seasons because of injuries, but on the plus side, he's recovered from shoulder surgery and should enjoy being the center of attention.
Youngsters Koyie Hill and Chris Snyder were battling for the starting catcher's spot late in spring training. Combined, the two have played in only 45 major league games, but they are similar players. Both have power and are solid defensively, but Hill is a switch-hitter.
Green will provide much-needed pop, and he's a career .314 hitter with 14 homers and 40 RBI at Bank One Ballpark. Once on the cusp of MVP-type numbers (49 HR, 125 RBI in 2001; 42 HR, 114 RBI 2002), Green's production has waned in the last two seasons. He did smash 28 homers last year, but his .266 average was the lowest of his career for a full season. He'll also provide some steady defense to the right corner at the BOB, with his Gold Glove performance in 1999.
Traded from Tampa Bay, Cruz could be a defensive liability, and he's only an average hitter. However, the Diamondbacks right now don't have a better option in center. He could be pegged to hit lead-off, even though his career on-base percentage is just .318 when batting first.
It's been a long road back for Luis Gonzalez, who missed the last two months of the season with an elbow injury and then underwent Tommy John surgery. The 37-year-old, who will occupy left field for a seventh straight season for the Diamondbacks, is one of the toughest players in the game. Since it appears he's fully recovered, expect more power numbers from Gonzo this year, as he struggled with a .259 average with 17 homers last year. He should be closer to his 2003 stats (.304, 26 HR, 104 RBI).
The Diamondbacks indicated they would only trade the Big Unit to get better, and they did just that with his blockbuster to the Yankees. Ortiz (15-9) and Vazquez (14-10) have the ability to eat up innings, and Estes (15-8) is coming off one of the strongest seasons in his career. Brandon Webb is the lone regular back from last year's rotation. The problem with the Diamondbacks this year though is Webb (119), Ortiz (112) and Estes (105) walked the most batters in the National League last year.
Vazquez logged a 4.91 ERA last year, but that isn't half the story. As the likely No. 1 starter for the D'Backs this season, the 28-year-old righthander was brutal after the All-Star break with a 6.92 ERA. He had trouble with location. On the positive side, he's going back to the National League, where he has a success track record with 16 wins in 2001 and a 3.24 ERA in 2003.
One of the most durable pitchers in the majors, Ortiz has never landed on the disabled list and is consistently over 14 wins and 200 innings a season. His ERA rose to 4.13 last year, the highest since 2000, but he was the beneficiary of a good offense in Atlanta. He may not be as fortunate in Arizona.
Webb made a small challenge for NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2003, but there was immense pressure on him last season working from the second spot behind Johnson. It's amazing that the sinkerballer's ERA was just 3.59 last year, considering he topped the NL in walks. Stepping down to the third spot could help to reverse his record (7-16) from 2004.
I'm still questioning how Estes was able to win 15 games last season despite a 5.84 ERA, 223 hits and 30 homers allowed. The answer is simple...Coors Field. The southpaw was reliable last year, not landing on the DL, and that should help Arizona in knowing they have a solid No. 4 guy.
Lefthander Brad Halsey, acquired from the Yankees, is unlike Ortiz, Webb and Estes in that he limits his walks and can dominate lefties. However, the 24- year-old's 6.47 ERA is evidence enough that the Yankees weren't willing to take a chance on him, then why are the Diamondbacks?
Closer Greg Aquino, a former minor league shortstop who started pitching in 1999, is part of a bullpen that figures to be weak. Aquino converted his first 10 save chances last year, stepping up when Matt Mantei and Jose Valverde were hurt. Righthanders Mike Koplove and Brian Bruney are deemed the set-up men, along with lefthander Randy Choate, who will be used mostly in match-up situations. Valverde, who underwent late-season surgery to repair a partially torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, could step in as the closer if Aquino can't get the job done. However, Valverde struggled with his location this spring. Oscar Villarreal was being given a chance to start, but faltered and will now work in long relief.
Luis Terrero may get an opportunity to play in center if Cruz falters. Terrero also has exceptional speed off the bench and has shown to be a good defensive player with a strong arm. Quinton McCracken can play a variety of positions, as can Scott Hairston. Switch-hitting Alex Cintron and second baseman Matt Kata also figure into the bench plan for Melvin, as does slugging first baseman Tony Clark.
Could 2005 mark a monumental turnaround for the D'Backs? They've done it before. In 1998, their first year in the league, they went 65-97. A year later they won a franchise-record 100 games and captured the NL West. At this point though, challenging for the division title, or even a .500 record, seems far- fetched.