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Keeping 2 aces is the D-backs' best bet

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Keeping 2 aces is the D-backs' best bet

Postby wrveres » Mon Nov 17, 2003 7:15 pm

Ken Rosenthal wrote:11/17/2003
Most teams can't boast of one true ace, let alone two. The Diamondbacks entered an uncertain offseason knowing they had the advantage of keeping Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling together for one more season. A trade of Schilling would weaken them immeasurably, no matter how they reallocate his $12 million salary.

The Diamondbacks intend to reduce their payroll from $94 million to an estimated $80 million next season and $55 million in '05. Their main target at last week's general managers meetings was high-priced Brewers first baseman Richie Sexson. But the team apparently could not acquire Sexson and hit its payroll number without trading Schilling.

Why not acquire a less expensive hitter and take one last shot with the dominant pitching intact?

Schilling, who just turned 37, says he's content to spend one more season in Arizona before departing as a free agent, and the Yankees or Phillies won't offer a killer package for him if they already are granting the Diamondbacks payroll relief. The only valid reason to trade Schilling is if the D-backs are facing greater financial pressure than they care to admit, a possibility under Major League Baseball's new debt-service rule.

Rival executives take delight in the Diamondbacks' predicament, which is largely of their own making. Owner Jerry Colangelo still was spending freely as recently as eight months ago, when he awarded lucrative contract extensions to Johnson and outfielder Luis Gonzalez. Those two players will be paid a combined $26 million in 2005, accounting for 47 percent of the team's projected payroll.

Arizona will find it difficult to compete in the N.L. West under those conditions, and an immediate trade of Schilling only would accelerate their rebuilding process in the fickle Phoenix market. Schilling's impact extends far beyond his wins and strikeouts. The loss of his innings would force the team to ask more of unreliable middle relievers. It would increase the urgency for Johnson to stay healthy at age 40. And it could lead the Diamondbacks to rush their top pitching prospects.

No question, the D-backs need more offense; they ranked 10th in the N.L. in runs and 12th in homers last season, unacceptable results for a team that played half its games at hitter-friendly Bank One Ballpark. Their division rivals, the Giants and Dodgers, also are in pursuit of Sexson, making his potential acquisition that much more significant. But Sexson will make $8.6 million next season, then become a free agent. Why add him for perhaps only one season if Schilling is gone?

As one N.L. West general manager puts it, "Sexson may hit 50 home runs, but we'd take our chances not having to face Schilling four or five times a year."

Without Schilling, the Diamondbacks' rotation still would include Johnson, Brandon Webb and Elmer Dessens, plus the team could re-sign Miguel Batista or add a less expensive veteran while returning reliever Oscar Villarreal to a starting role. That group, with Chris Capuano, Andrew Good and Edgar Gonzalez as fallback options, might be good enough to compete. But would it get Arizona to the postseason or help it win a playoff series? Doubtful.

Thus, the Diamondbacks need to create enough payroll flexibility for one last push with their aging core. The team is finding it difficult to move closer Matt Mantei, who is owed $7 million in '04. But outfielder Danny Bautista, second baseman Junior Spivey and infielder Craig Counsell will be paid a combined $9.5 million. Moving some combination of those players would clear enough money for a hitter such as Sexson, and the D-Backs could replace every one of them with a talented younger part.

That's the most intriguing thing about this team: It is in a better position than most clubs to scale back financially, given the strength of its farm system. Shortstop Alex Cintron and catcher Robbie Hammock are set to become regulars. Jose Valverde showed last season he could replace Mantei, and Matt Kata demonstrated he could replace Spivey or Counsell. Three other youngsters who did not play in the majors -- second baseman Scott Hairston, third baseman Chad Tracy and reliever Brian Bruney -- could crack the roster in '04.

Hairston, described by one scout as "the biggest hot dog in Class AA," is a strong offensive player who could be adequate at second. Tracy, another outstanding hitting prospect, is an option at first or even right field. Bruney could fill a void if Villarreal joins the rotation.

"These are guys who very, very soon are going to demand to be heard at the major league level," Diamondbacks general manager Joe Garagiola says. And there are more prospects behind them; one scout says the Diamondbacks' Arizona Fall League contingent, which included Hairston and Bruney, was perhaps the best he saw.

It is not difficult to envision the Diamondbacks rapidly maturing into the N.L. West's version of the Marlins, A's or Twins, but such potential offers no guarantees. Schilling and Johnson combined for only 42 starts last season because of injuries, but they're the Drysdale and Koufax of this generation, a combination no other team can match. A wise team wouldn't separate them until it had absolutely no choice.
25                "Love the Padres"
Rafael

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