Manager Kirk Gibson's first spring training as a major league manager has been heavy on the detail work -- pickoff plays, situational hitting, defense -- that he and his All-Star coaching staff believe are necessary to get the Diamondbacks out of the NL West cellar.
Gibson has attempted to build a layered offense that has "a little something" for every situation, as he likes to say, instead of simply relying on the home run to generate runs. The D-backs were dreadful at putting the ball in play and moving runners last season, and Gibson has made it a priority not to let that occur again.
The D-backs entered the spring with a lot of building to do, and it remains to be seen how the newcomers take. Closer J.J. Putz and David Hernandez were added on the first day of the winter meetings to strengthen a bullpen that had the worst ERA in the majors and blew 24 save chances last season. While Hernandez had pitched well, Putz made only two spring appearances before being shut down with back stiffness March 18th. He did not believe it was serious, but the bullpen does not need any setbacks as it attempts to improve on a 5.74 ERA from 2010.
Returning regulars Stephen Drew, Kelly Johnson, Miguel Montero, Justin Upton, and Chris Young have played well. Upton, healthy after missing the last month of 2010 with a shoulder injury, appears to have taken to the approach of new hitting coach Don Baylor, who was Chipper Jones' hitting coach when the Braves star was the National League MVP in 1999.
The first base job appears wide open two weeks before the start of the regular season. The candidates are Russell Branyan, signed to a minor league deal the week camp opened, Brandon Allen, and Juan Miranda. Branyan had swung the best bat, and he could replace some of the home runs lost with the departures of Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche. Allen and Miranda are superior defenders, and have also hit well this spring.
Gerardo Parra is challenging Xavier Nady for the starting left field job, the only other position open. Parra was off to a strong start after undergoing a serious offseason conditioning program. He has the best outfield arm on the team, getting a career-high nine assists last season while playing two-thirds of the time. Nady got off to a slow start at the plate, and still hasn't regained his arm strength after his second Tommy John surgery in mid-2009.
Ian Kennedy was named the Opening Day starter in mid-March for a young staff that still has two spots to fill behind Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders entering the final two weeks of spring training. Armando Galarraga, Barry Enright, and erstwhile reliever Aaron Heilman are the primary competitors, so the rotation would be set -- if not necessarily overpowering -- if Heilman were returned to the bullpen. Enright has minor league options if the D-backs want Heilman in the rotation. Candidate Zach Duke suffered a broken hand when he was hit by a line drive in an early-spring game, and he is not expected to return until May.
The D-backs' strength is their young offensive talent -- Johnson had a career year in 2010, Young has 30-30 potential, and Drew quietly goes about his business on both sides of the ball. Is this the season uber-athletic Upton breaks out? He is only 23, after all.
It would be hard to call the D-backs a contender at this stage, but isn't that what many were thinking about San Diego at this time last year?
--RHP Ian Kennedy was named the Opening Day starter on March 15, quite a climb for a pitcher who missed most of 2009 with an aneurysm under his right arm. "It's something you dream about as a little kid, to be that Opening Day guy. It's a big honor," said Kennedy, chosen ahead of RHP Daniel Hudson and LHP Joe Saunders. Kennedy went 9-10 with a 3.80 ERA last season, and his peripheral numbers sparkled. He held opponents to a .228 batting average, the eighth-lowest average by an NL starter and better than Josh Johnson and Tim Hudson.
--LHP Zach Duke, a front-runner for the No. 4 spot in the rotation after being acquired in the offseason from Pittsburgh, is expected to miss six to eight weeks after suffering a broken pitching hand when he was struck by a line drive March 9. His loss means that two of RHP Armando Galarraga, RHP Barry Enright, and RHP Aaron Heilman will open the season in the rotation.
--The D-backs plan to use Glenn Sherlock as their third base coach while Matt Williams recovers from a broken left foot suffered in early March. It will be Sherlock's second stint there -- he moved from first base to third base after manager Bob Brenly was fired in 2004 and Al Pedrique was promoted from third base coach to manager. Williams, in his first season as third base coach after handling first base last year, will remain in the dugout until he is ready to return, perhaps in mid-April. The D-backs were denied permission to add a seventh coach while Williams recovers, so bullpen catcher Jeff Motuzas also will handle Sherlock's role as bullpen coach.
--1B Russell Branyan will force the D-backs' hand on picking a first baseman, at least partially, because he has an out in his minor league contract that permits him to become a free agent if he is not the major league roster by March 25. Brandon Allen and Juan Miranda are the other candidates at first. Branyan, who hit 56 home runs between 2009 and 2010, was hitting .444 with three homers in his first 36 spring at-bats. Manager Kirk Gibson has mentioned Branyan as a possible candidate to hit cleanup if he makes the team.
--3B Melvin Mora (neck soreness) returned to the lineup March 16th after missing eight days. He was hurt when car he was driving was rear-ended as he drove to the D-backs' practice facility March 7th. Mora, signed as a free agent over the winter to become the starter at third, said he was still feeling some soreness and was receiving massage and electric stimulation treatment. The day he returned, he was hit by a pitch in the right wrist by Angels RHP Jered Weaver. "I've been hit by everything," Mora said.
DIAMOND STAT: 9 -- Consecutive spring training losses before the D-backs scored four runs in the ninth inning for an 8-5 victory over Seattle on March 18th.
QUOTABLE: "You're always worried. You certainly don't want your closer to go down." -- D-backs manager Kirk Gibson, after closer J.J. Putz was scratched from a scheduled appearance March 18th with back tightness.
ROSTER REPORT: The Diamondbacks suffered through a nine-game losing streak in spring training, not a good start for a team that is trying to learn how to win again after successive last-place finishes in the NL West. The hitters seems to have taken to Don Baylor's "let your hands do the work" hitting approach, although the rotation suffered a blow when likely No. 4 starter Zach Duke suffered a broken hand when hit by a line drive. Duke is expected to miss up to two months.
1. RHP Ian Kennedy
2. RHP Daniel Hudson
3. RHP Joe Saunders
4. RHP Armando Galarraga
5. RHP Barry Enright
Kennedy was named the Opening Day starter on March 15, and he deserved it based on his work in 2010, his first season with the D-backs and his first in a major league rotation. Kennedy commanded a fastball/changeup mix to go 9-10 with a 3.80 ERA last season, averaging 7.79 strikeouts per nine innings and holding opponents to a .228 batting average. Hudson had a strong final two months last year, going 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA in 11 appearances for Arizona -- all quality starts. Saunders will be the only left-hander in the rotation for the first month or so after LHP Zach Duke suffered a broken hand, an injury that seems to assure Galarraga a spot in the rotation. Enright is battling with RHP Aaron Heilman, who re-signed with the team after being told he could compete for a starting job.
RHP J.J. Putz (closer)
RHP David Hernandez
RHP Juan Gutierrez
RHP Sam Demel
RHP Aaron Heilman
LHP Joe Paterson
LHP Mike Hampton
Putz was scratched from his third scheduled spring appearance when he felt back stiffness on March 18th. It iss not believed to be serious, but if it turns out to be major, it would be hard to imagine any more sobering news for a team that made rebuilding the bullpen a priority. Hernandez and Gutierrez each have closer's experience and a closer's fastball/slider repertoire, and they will be the primary setup men. Demel has pitched well this spring and will be counted on in key situations. Funky Rule 5 southpaw Paterson looked good in early trials. He would give the D-backs a lefty specialist they have not had since Mike Myers years ago. Hampton has had some success reinventing himself as a reliever, but carried an 11.88 spring ERA into the final two weeks of spring training.
1. CF Chris Young
2. 2B Kelly Johnson
3. SS Stephen Drew
4. RF Justin Upton
5. 1B Russell Branyan
6. C Miguel Montero
7. 3B Melvin Mora
8. LF Gerardo Parra
The lineup began the spring as a science project, and the experimentation continues. Decisions, decisions. About the only certainty is that Upton will hit third or fourth as as power/speed threat. The D-backs do not have a traditional leadoff hitter. Potential 25-25 guy Young has the power to hit lower in the order but the speed to disrupt opponents from the top of the lineup. Gibson has talked about hitting Upton and Young back-to-back. Johnson is coming off a career year, and he finished 2010 hitting third. He and Drew could move back and forth at the top of the lineup. Branyan, a minor league invitee who signed two days before position players reported, had hit fourth often in spring training. He adds some of the pop lost when Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche left, and has been among the club's best hitters all spring. Parra has been very impressive this spring, which should earn him the bulk of hte playing time in left.
C Henry Blanco
INF/OF Willie Bloomquist
1B/OF Xavier Nady
1B/OF Brandon Allen or 1B Juan Miranda
INF/OF Geoff Blum or INF/OF Ryan Roberts or INF Tony Abreu
Blanco, who has thrown out 40 percent of the runners attempting to steal in his career, has brought the kind of veteran presence general manager Kevin Towers was looking for. He had led a group of players in 6:15 a.m. training sessions. Bloomquist may be the second-best center fielder and the second-best shortstop on the team, and he can still steal a base. Nady has not regained his arm strength after two Tommy John surgeries. The backup first base spot and the final reserve infield spot were up for grabs in Towers' rebuilding process, although veteran Blum was considered a lead candidate. Miranda and Abreu are out of options, so they could be traded if they don't make the 25-man roster.
--LHP Zach Duke (broken left hand) was hit by a line drive March 12th. He will be out until May.
--RHP J.J. Putz (back stiffness) was scratched from a March 18 appearance. The ailment is believed to be minor.
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