MLB Handicapping: Can Arizona Diamondbacks Stay in First?
by Trevor Whenham - 8/19/2011
In March I twice sat in the beautiful new spring training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks in Scottsdale to watch them play. Both times I was left with the same strong impression — this is a very lousy baseball team. I certainly didn’t think they were a playoff team. Heck, I didn’t think they were a .400 team based on how they looked. Part of what makes baseball so endlessly fascinating, though, is that strange things can — and often do — happen. Manager Kirk Gibson has managed o capture some real magic, and this team that looked like it had a world of issues has suddenly turned into a powerhouse that is on a collision course with the playoffs. Bizarre.
So, how are they doing it? And, more importantly, can they keep it up? Here’s a look:
Ian Kennedy - How strange is it to think that the Yankees are in the midst of some pretty serious pitching issues, and yet the Diamondbacks are being led by the phenomenal play of a prospect that the Yankees drafted and then basically gave up on.
Kennedy was not supposed to be the ace of this staff coming into the season, but he’s not only that right now but also a very legitimate Cy Young contender. He has been an absolute beast, and he has instilled confidence in his team when he plays, and in the rest of the rotation as well.
Rookie Josh Collmenter has been surprisingly good as well, and Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders have done their jobs.
This was a totally overhauled rotation that has mostly been very good. The big exception has been the fifth starter position. It has been a revolving door and has yet to be resolved. there is a good deal of pressure to call up recent draft pick and future ace Trevor Bauer of UCLA to fill the spot, but hopefully sense will prevail on that front.
The good news for the team is that if they can hold on and make the playoffs the fifth starter is no longer relevant. The biggest concern with this rotation has to be that Kennedy and Collmenter are overachieving expectations so much. A downward adjustment seems inevitable, and if it happens down the stretch of the regular season then things could get ugly.
Kirk Gibson — If Gibson isn’t the leader for Manager of the Year then he should be. If you remember him as a player you remember how incredibly tough he was. That hasn’t changed as a manager.
When he took over as interim manager in the middle of the season last year he took the reins of a team that was relaxed and unaffected by losses. He aggressively changed that, and he has this largely young and unproven team believing in themselves and playing like little clones of Gibson — never quitting and always playing with intensity.
He’s the biggest reason for anything this team achieves this year. He’s the biggest thing in favor of this team’s continued success as well. There are few guys who were better at getting fired up for the playoffs as a player, and he won’t let this team take a second off in their pursuit of that goal here.
Kevin Towers — If Gibson is the top coach in the sport this year then Towers is the top executive. He joined this team and immediately set about aggressively fixing it. He has fearlessly made every move he deemed fit. That has set the tone for this team, and has them focused and fighting for their jobs — in a surprisingly positive way.
The best example of his effectiveness is his bullpen. It was a total disaster last year, and it wasn’t where it needed to be at the start of the season, either. Four of the seven pitchers in the pen at the start of the season are no longer there, the bullpen ERA is down two runs from last season, and what was a massive liability is now a strength.
What Towers has done could have backfired badly, but it hasn’t, so he deserves real credit.
Justin Upton — Ever since we first heard about Upton we have heard about how incredibly talented he is and how much potential he has. Now we are getting to see that talent, and that potential has been reached. Upton is officially a superstar, and he is a serious MVP candidate.
It’s striking that he has been able to do what he has done — and he has been improving as the season has gone along — despite being the only major star on the roster of journeymen and youngsters. He’s been very good at the plate, and he has been a key cog in what has been a very sound defense as well.
There has to be an immense amount of pressure on Upton, but if he can hold up under that strain then he has a chance to be a part of something special.
As unlikely as it might seem on paper he is one of the many reasons that I have started to believe more and more in this team as the season has progressed. If Chris Young and Kelly Johnson can remember how to hit again and can help carry the offensive load then this offense is more than good enough to win.
The Giants — I feel good about this team for a lot of internal reasons like we have discussed, but perhaps the biggest reason to believe in their success is the team chasing them.
They are opening ground on the Giants, and the way San Francisco has been playing that can certainly continue. The Giants have struggled, and it’s all about their offense. In short, it is terrible.
Seattle is the only team in all of baseball that has scored fewer runs. That offensive ineptitude is more than just a fluke at this point, and it has seriously handcuffed their very effective starting rotation. The Giants look less and less like a division winner with every game, and that only serves to further strengthen Arizona’s chances.
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