Who Will Bat Cleanup for the Diamondbacks?

No Diamondback spent as many as 50 games in the cleanup spot last year and only one drove in more than 68 runs. Will someone step up as Arizona's primary run producer in 2008?

Eric Byrnes led the Arizona Diamondbacks with 83 RBI last year, but Conor Jackson and Chad Tracy each started more games (46 & 38) hitting fourth than Byrnes (29) did.  Jackson and Tracy were among five Diamondbacks who drove in between 60 and 68 runs, however.

"We're not opposed to matching up," manager Bob Melvin understated during the winter meetings.  "I don't like to get too hooked into one lineup."

Melvin's philosophy fits in well with the 2007 Diamondbacks motto of "Anyone, Anytime" that was first coined by ex-Diamondback Tony Clark.  With Clark's departure, could the 2008 Diamondbacks also lose that slogan and develop into a team with a primary middle-of-the order threat?

If so, the cleanup man is not likely to be Byrnes, who's on the wrong side of 30, or Tracy, coming who's off micro-fracture surgery on his right knee.  Orlando Hudson could have a standout season entering his final year before free agency, but his team-leading .376 on-base percentage would be better served near the top of the order.  The other returning run producers are Jackson, Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew, and Chris Young, each of whom can be expected to improve due to their ages.    

"I think all our guys incrementally have a chance to get better," Melvin said, "and I think offensively just looking at the group, we have status quo right now, and we have a chance to be better next year.  I would expect us to be better."

For a big guy, Conor Jackson has never had significant home run power, with his seasonal career high of 17 coming partly from playing in an extremely home-run friendly minor league park.  He may yet develop into that kind of hitter, but for right now, he's a gap-to-gap guy who hasn't put up his best numbers out of the cleanup spot.

Mark Reynolds actually went 12 consecutive games as the cleanup hitter, most on the team.  It began with that memorable 5-for-5, two homer, and four RBI performance on May 25th that would mark a Diamondbacks high on both hits and total bases (13) for the season.  In his next 18 games hitting fourth, Reynolds would only bat .250 with two more homers and seven more RBI.  His streakiness last season has been well-documented, and he will likely move around the batting order again this season depending upon how he's swinging the bat at the time.

Based on his .370 slugging percentage last year, Stephen Drew would be the last guy Melvin would want to hit in the middle of the order.  He slugged .517 after a late-summer 2006 callup and had a .519 mark throughout his minor league career, however.  

"I don't think you see Stephen Drew hit .237 again," Melvin predicted.  "It's been well-documented that he had pretty tough luck and so forth last year. I think you saw the type of potential Stephen Drew has in the playoffs, and that's the kind of guy we envision going into next year."

As one of very few left-handed batters in a predominately right-handed lineup, Drew's spot in the lineup should be dictated by where the other left-handers are sequenced.

Chris Young  belted 32 homers last year, 11 more than the next most powerful Diamondback, Eric Byrnes.  That makes him an obvious candidate to hit cleanup this year, and his tender age of 24 makes him a good candidate to develop even more power.

"Chris did a tremendous job," Melvin said of Young in the leadoff role.  "Whether or not we feel like we need him in the middle of the order, you know, being that he is a power guy, is still kind of yet-to-be-determined."

Working against Young in that role is the fact that he still hasn't mastered hitting major league breaking pitches.  Batting him leadoff ensures that he sees a majority of fastballs, as opponents do not want someone with his excellent speed on base to start an inning.  Because of this, Young slugged .500 as a leadoff hitter last year, but just .420 everywhere else in the lineup.  Until he proves that he can consistently handle a curveball, Young should not see much time in the heart of the lineup.

We asked farm director A.J. Hinch at midseason which Diamondbacks prospect has the highest power ceiling.  Without hesitation, he told us it was Justin Upton.  At just 20 years old, Upton is years away from reaching that ceiling and won't likely be asked to shoulder the team's offense in 2008.

Prediction:  They don't call Bob Melvin the Mad Scientist because he keeps his lineup card rolled up in a graduated cylinder; he's called that because he experiments with different lineups all the time.  That's unlikely to change until one of the young Diamondbacks hitters proves that he can be a legitimate 30-40 home run threat in the middle of the order.  Upton and Young both have the physical tools to become that type of hitter, but it's likely still a few years down the road.  Expect more of "Anyone, Anytime" in 2008, with regards to both the cleanup role and the offensive stars for each win.

Games Hitting Cleanup: Reynolds 51, Jackson 48, Young 34, Tracy 23, Byrnes 3, Drew 2, Upton 1

Send questions or comments for Keith Glab to future_backs@yahoo.com

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