Could it be just luck for D-Backs?

With Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling out, a number of rookies have led Arizona back into contention.

Originally Published: July 2, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

... I don't think the Giants will be quite as good as the Diamondbacks ...
    -- ESPN.com columnist, April 2

... the Diamondbacks probably aren't going to win another division title ... for the Diamondbacks, the wild card is where the action remains.
    -- same ESPN.com columnist, April 16

So who is this idiot, who changed his mind after a mere two weeks of a six-month season? I am he, and he is me.

Brandon Webb
Starting pitcher
Arizona Diamondbacks
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G IP W-L BB SO ERA
12 77.0 4-2 22 58 2.10

But you have to go with the evidence that you've got, and when April 16 dawned the Diamondbacks were already 10 games behind the first-place Giants. Oh, and Randy Johnson had already been hammered twice. There simply wasn't any evidence to suggest that the Diamondbacks could make up 10 games against a pretty good team. And when Johnson hit the DL with a knee injury and Curt Schilling went down with an appendix injury, the sky didn't exactly turn from overcast to sun-shiny.

And yet, even after losing Tuesday night the Diamondbacks are only five games behind the Giants, and they're very much a part of the pennant race. How?

  • Brandon Webb is 4-2 with a 2.10 ERA. Yes, Webb entered this season as one of the Diamondbacks' top prospects, but 1) his lowest ERA in the minors was 3.24, and 2) if the Diamondbacks really thought he was so good, then why did he start the season with Triple-A Tucson?

  • Jose Valverde is 1-0 with nine saves and a 1.29 ERA. Yes, Valverde entered this season as a decent prospect, but 1) his ERA with Tucson last season was 5.85, and 2) if the Diamondbacks really thought he was so good, then why did he start the season with Tucson?

  • Miguel Batista's been outstanding, posting a 2.91 ERA while allowing only four home runs in 96 innings.

  • 35-year-old Luis Gonzalez is playing brilliantly again -- not as good as 2001, but better than 2002 -- and 38-year-old Steve Finley is playing nearly as well.

  • Rookies Matt Kata and Robby Hammock -- nobody's idea of Grade A prospects before the season -- have been forced into the breach and both have produced in limited duty, combining for seven homers and 24 RBI in only 135 at-bats. More critically, Alex Cintron has an 864 OPS in 42 games ... after never posting an OPS higher than 781 in the minor leagues. Cintron's only 24 and he has a chance to be a good player for a long time, but he's not anything like this good.

    Alex Cintron
    Shortstop
    Arizona Diamondbacks
    Profile
    2003 SEASON STATISTICS
    AB R HR RBI OBP AVG
    161 32 7 24 .349 .304

  • Veterans Chad Moeller, Carlos Baerga, and David Dellucci have all been productive in part-time roles.

    In addition to losing Johnson and Schilling, the Diamondbacks have also

  • lost three third basemen  Matt Williams, Craig Counsell, and Shea Hillenbrand -- for varying periods of time,

  • traded one of their best pitchers (Byung-Hyun Kim) for a third baseman (Hillenbrand) who played only nine games before going on the disabled list, and

  • somehow decided that both Tony Womack and Danny Bautista were worthy of regular duties.

    Aside from Gonzalez and Finley, most of the Diamondbacks' best hitters are newcomers ... which is good, because many of the holdovers have been terrible.

    Catcher Rod Barajas? .263 on-base percentage.

    First baseman Mark Grace? .206 batting average.

    Shortstop Tony Womack? .270 on-base percentage.

    Outfielder Danny Bautista? .301 on-base percentage, .329 slugging percentage.

    Outfielder Quinton McCracken? .200 batting average.

    I cherry-picked the stats for effect, of course, but it's not like there were good stats to ignore. All five of these players were expected to make significant contributions this season, and all five have done almost nothing.

    Jose Valverde
    Relief pitcher
    Arizona Diamondbacks
    Profile
    2003 SEASON STATISTICS
    G IP W-L SV SO ERA
    14 14.0 1-0 9 18 1.29

    That's a hell of a thing, really. You invest a lot of money in a couple of old pitchers, and they don't produce (because they're hurt). You also invest a number of roster spots in replacement-level players (i.e. Proven Veterans), and they play worse than replacement-level players. And still, somehow, you win. Somehow, you've got almost exactly the same run differential as the team in first place.

    How have they done it? Luck.

    Yes, they've been lucky (not that there's anything wrong with that). They've asked big things of seven rookies -- Webb, Cintron, Valverde, Katta and Hammock, plus first baseman Lyle Overbay and pitcher Andrew Good -- and all seven have produced. That just isn't supposed to happen, especially considering that not even one of these young squires was considered a Grade A prospect before this season (though Overbay wasn't far off). The truth is that most of these guys, and perhaps even all of them, are soon going to discover that playing major-league baseball isn't really this easy.

    And the Diamondbacks could still win this thing. They're within shouting distance of first place, even though the best pitcher on the planet has won exactly one game this season. They're five games out of first place, even though another great pitcher has missed almost half the season with various ailments. The Diamondbacks are probably going to have both Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in the rotation after the All-Star break, and they're going to be in the hunt.

    On the other hand ... while five games is not an insurmountable lead, neither is it inconsiderable. Most teams that open July looking at a five-game deficit do not finish in first place. They've done great to get where they are ... and they'll have to continue to do great, to get where they want to be.

    *********

    Before we leave the subject of National League faits accomplis that might not be, the Phillies now trail the Braves by only four-and-a-half games, and the Phillies actually have a better run differential. The Phils have scored 54 fewer runs than the Braves have scored, but they've also allowed 75 fewer.

    Which is to say that there's been no fundamental difference, at least in terms of runs scored and runs allowed, between the Phillies and the Braves, just as there's been no real difference between the Royals, Twins, and White Sox, or between the Giants, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks. Every team in the major leagues has now played at least half their schedule, but I'm convinced of only one thing: the Yankees are a real good bet to win their division. About everything else, this idiot reserves the right to change his mind.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book and Rob's upcoming book signings in Seattle (June 28), Portland (June 30), and Denver (July 9), visit Rob's Web site.

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