Most people will cite the Jason Grimsley situation as the impetus for the slide. It's impossible to ignore; teams and players are still feeling the effects of his bust.
Yet it would be sloppy to simply leave it at that. Veteran players such as Luis Gonzalez and Johnny Estrada were vocally uneasy about the youth movement going on around them, and Managing Partner Ken Kendrick threw Gonzo under a bus when he implied that Gonzo may have been a juicer.
With all of these distractions, we could have expected the Diamondback players to fall short of expectations. But in fact, the opposite happened. Orlando Hudson put together a career year despite a slow start, hitting over .300 since the beginning of June. After hitting .261 last year, Estrada's .302 batting average came as something of a shock. Everyone knew that Stephen Drew would eventually be a star, but who would have thought that he'd post better numbers in the majors than he did at Tucson this year? No one anticipated Eric Byrnes becoming the first Diamondback to hit 25 homers and steal 25 bases in a single season, leading the team in both categories on the year. And even though Gonzalez got off to a slow start, no one should have expected a career high 52 doubles as he neared 40 years of age.
On the pitching side, Brandon Webb became the best pitcher in the National League. El Duque might have been a bust, but Josh Byrnes was able to transform him into Jorge Julio, whom everyone thought was done as a closer. Julio came in and did a nice job after Jose Valverde had a baffling stretch of ineptitude.
Valverde heads the list of disappointments on the year. On the offensive side, the only real bust was Tony Clark, and the team wasn't really counting on him as a key contributor this year anyway. What all this does is paint the portrait of a team that overachieved, not one that was bogged down by distractions.
So should we anticipate worse than a .400 winning percentage in 2007? Not so fast. At ages 26, 29, and 30 respectively, Chad Tracy, Orlando Hudson, and Eric Byrnes should be the only position player starters older than 24 on opening day. This means that every starter on the offense, even apparent overachievers Hudson and Byrnes, has a shot at improving on this year's numbers. A full year of Livan Hernandez should help solidify a ramshackle rotation and offset the inevitable regression to the mean for Brandon Webb.
These prospects aren't going to become stars overnight. Drew is likely to hit something of a sophomore slump; he's certainly not going to hit .316 in a full season next year. But he should still remain an above average offensive shortstop who also helps the club with his defense. At the same time, Chris Young and Carlos Quentin are going to hit much better than their marks of .243 and .253 this year. But how much better remains to be seen.
Obviously, it's way too early to make a prediction for 2007, but the time is right to evaluate 2006: it was a success. Anyone who thought this was a playoff team in March is a huge optimist; the fact that they won 76 games and were essentially tied for third in the NL West should be lauded. Doing so despite frequent off-the-field chaos is even more impressive. Josh Byrnes was able to free up a lot of salary and give his young prospects some much needed experience while still fielding a very competitive team.
Obviously, the Diamondbacks aspire to finish with a better record next season. But in terms of the holistic improvement of the team, they should be satisfied with matching this 2006 effort, because the organization looks fantastically better than it did a year ago today.