>3 Questions: Arizona Diamondbacks

>By The Common Man

Four years ago, the Diamondbacks were a surprising 90 win playoff team, whose young talent all came together at the right time for a postseason run. Chris Snyder, Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, Chris Young, and Carlos Quentin were all under 27 and considered building blocks. Alberto Callaspo (24) couldn’t crack the starting lineup. And Miguel Montero (23) and Justin Upton (19) were seen as major prospects and potential franchise players on the way up.

But then a funny thing happened. The team stagnated. They won 82 in 2008, finishing two games out in the NL West. Then came dispiriting 92 and 97 loss campaigns in 2009 and 2010 respectively. The D-Backs were headed in the wrong direction and their bright young talent was not developing as expected. And as their offense remained mediocre, the team’s pitching collapsed.

There were questions about how much control young GM Josh Byrnes had over his team, and how much ownership was interfering. There were questions about his hand-picked manager, AJ Hinch. Now, both are gone, replaced by former Padres guru Kevin Towers and World Series hero Kirk Gibson. But the questions remain for a team that has frustratingly refused to live up to its potential.

Question 1: Overall, the staff wasn’t terrible in 2010. Will that continue?

Former aces Dan Haren and Brandon Webb are gone. In their wake Ian Kennedy and Joe Saunders will lead a rag-tag group of survivors across the desert wasteland. 24 year old Daniel Hudson, who went 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA across 11 starts after being acquired for Edwin Jackson, will be essential in the rebuilding process. Barry Enright, tentatively penciled into the #4 spot, looks like a disaster waiting to happen with a 0.56 GB/FB ratio and only 4.5 K/9. His .254 BABIP in 2010 is completely unsustainable. If he’s lucky, he’ll grow up and turn into Zach Duke. Coincidentally, rounding out the rotation is Zach Duke, who is going to make $5 million this year and was below replacement level in 2010.

This is essentially a year of treading water in Arizona while the Diamondbacks wait to see how prospect Jarrod Parker comes back from Tommy John surgery. As currently constructed, this is a below average rotation, which could become disastrous if any of Kennedy, Saunders, or Hudson are not able to deliver as advertised.

Question 2: Is the bullpen fixed?

Last year, the Diamondbacks sported the worst bullpen in the Major Leagues, featuring a 5.74 component ERA. They lost 32 games, blew 24 save opportunities, and allowed 41% of inherited runners to score (league average was 32%). To address their serious need on the back end, the Diamondbacks have acquired JJ Putz and Mike Hampton via free agency and David Hernandez and Kameron Mickolio from the Orioles via trade. It’s a risky strategy. For one thing, Putz and Hampton have extensive injury histories. Neither should really be counted on to last the full season. The best case scenario is for one or both of them to last until June or July, and then to flip them for additional help. Mickolio is probably as fungible as they come, but Hernandez does have upside as a reliever and could be a potential closer in the long-term. Otherwise, the team is bringing back the torture-porn that was Juan Gutierrez, Blaine Boyer, Esmerling Vasquez, and Sam Demel, and Arizonans seem powerless to stop them.

So, um, no the bullpen is not fixed. The good news is that Kevin Towers’ greatest strength in San Diego was his ability to consistently build good bullpens on the cheap.

Question 3: Is there hope?

Not for 2011, sadly. Towers traded away 3B Mark Reynolds at the worst possible time, when his value was at an absolute bottom. And he got back one good reliever for it, and one question mark. The only hopes for significant growth are Justin Upton and 1B prospect Brandon Allen. The rebuilding process is going to be slow and there’s a good chance the Diamondbacks will have to go down before they come back up for more. Kelly Johnson is going to be on the block all year and Stephen Drew will probably follow him before the year is out. Joe Saunders, too, will likely be used to fetch back young talent.   It’s going to be a long, hot summer in the desert.  But at least it will be a dry heat, right?

To read other installments in the 3 Questions series, click here.