- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If you had seen the Arizona Diamondbacks at their best last April, it would have come as no surprise that a Phoenix-area sports franchise wound up playing for a championship at the end of the 2008 season.
But who could have predicted that team would be led by Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald?
The young Diamondbacks, oblivious to expectations and immune to scouting reports, posted a 20-8 record in April 2008 to take an early lead in the National League West. They led the majors in doubles, triples, slugging percentage, swagger, youthful exuberance, first-pitch fastballs crushed and corneas singed in the scouting section. And with Brandon Webb and Dan Haren anchoring the rotation and lots of power arms at the back end of the bullpen, the possibilities seemed limitless.
Heck, even pitcher Micah Owings slugged .632 in April. His batting practice home run count was surpassed by only the number of Babe Ruth comparisons he elicited.
But first impressions failed to stand the test of a long, parched summer in the desert. The Diamondbacks dropped five of six meetings with the Manny Ramirez-led Dodgers in August and September to finish two games out in the division. In a challenging offseason for the franchise, Randy Johnson, Orlando Hudson, Adam Dunn, Brandon Lyon, Juan Cruz and chief executive officer Jeff Moorad all hit the road.
Chalk it up as a learning experience for the Diamondbacks, who took a crash course in reality after losing to Colorado in the NL Championship Series in 2007.
"Last year was a psychology shift," general manager Josh Byrnes said. "We surprised people by winning a competitive race and getting to the NLCS. Now all of a sudden, everyone expected us to run away with the division. As soon as that 'crowning' happened, we just didn't play well in May and June. We got stuck in this rut that we really never got out of."
When the Diamondbacks assembled for spring training in February, manager Bob Melvin didn't spend much time rehashing the team's disappointing finish. The players had done enough navel-gazing and introspection while going 62-72 over the final 134 games.
"I'm not sure whether it was the league knowing us a little better or us playing with a little more doubt or a target on our back," Melvin said. "Whatever the case, it was a different feeling."
Still, a glance at the competition suggests the Diamondbacks should be taken seriously in the NL West. Their core of former Baseball America darlings is a year older, smarter and better acquainted with the demands of a 162-game season. Webb and Haren should be good for at least 440 high-quality innings, and Chad Qualls locked up the closer job by converting his last seven save opportunities and throwing 13 shutout innings in September.
But new faces need to acclimate and old questions must be answered for the Diamondbacks to show they're for real. Felipe Lopez, who replaces Hudson at second base, has a reputation as a talented and underachieving head case. His strong finish in St. Louis this past season was noteworthy for a .452 batting average on balls in play in August and a .446 mark in September. Good luck to Lopez in finding that many holes over an extended period.
Jon Garland, who signed a one-year, $7.25 million deal with a mutual option for 2010, will be counted on to fill the rotation void created by the departure of Johnson to San Francisco. Garland has added a cut fastball and a knuckle curve to his repertoire. His declining strikeout ratio and penchant for throwing fly balls might not be problematic in road games at San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but they don't bode very well for Chase Field.
The Diamondbacks have been careful this spring with starters Doug Davis (triceps irritation) and Max Scherzer (shoulder inflammation), but management is optimistic both pitchers will be fine. If not, say hello to fill-in candidates Yusmeiro Petit, Billy Buckner, Travis Blackley and Juan Gutierrez.
The Arizona clubhouse will have a slightly different feel this season with the absence of Hudson, whose energy and nonstop yapping helped put everyone at ease. Hudson was a nice complement to the quiet, earnest group of young Diamondbacks who report to work each day sans flair. When Hudson and Eric Byrnes both went down with injuries last season, the team lost a certain edge.
Byrnes became the franchise's signature player when he signed a three-year, $30 million contract in August 2007. This spring, his life is an exercise in minutiae. One day, Byrnes makes news when he's busting it down the line in a drill; a few days later, he's making turns or playing in a minor league game. A big leaguer hasn't received this much ink for running the bases since the Mets' front office was obsessing over Jose Reyes' stride mechanics.
Some Diamondbacks people reportedly weren't thrilled when Byrnes chose the rehab route over surgery for his two torn hamstrings, but everyone is in sync now. The company line is that Byrnes performs best when people doubt him and he's forced to compete for playing time. That was his M.O. when he played for Oakland and he'd head to the Dominican Republic each winter in search of camaraderie and at-bats. Byrnes was so popular in the Dominican, the fans there called him "Captain America."
"If someone is struggling, they know they're just not going to be out there every single day no matter what," Melvin said. "There were times I couldn't give Chris Young a day off last year. I didn't have the players to do it."
Melvin also has enough lineup versatility to play matchups this season. If the Diamondbacks are facing a left-hander, Melvin can play Byrnes in left field and switch-hitter Tony Clark at first base. If a tough righty is pitching, he can use Clark at first base, start Miguel Montero at catcher in place of Chris Snyder, shift Chad Tracy from first to third and give the power-hitting, strikeout- and error-prone Mark Reynolds a rest.
Reynolds isn't the only Arizona hitter who needs to work on selectivity. Last season, the Diamondbacks ranked 19th in baseball with a .327 on-base percentage and second to the Marlins with 1,287 strikeouts.
"Early in the season, I was seeing good pitches and I was hitting them," Upton said. "Once teams started to get a feel and switch up the game plan, it was a little tougher. They definitely started to mix it up a lot more."
It was telling recently when Johnson, so familiar with his former teammates' flaws, whiffed seven D-backs in a Cactus League game without throwing a single splitter. Astute pitchers have come to realize they can carve up the Arizona lineup without offering anything too appetizing.
Experience has taught the young Diamondbacks that success is fickle. In 2007, Arizona was 32-20 in one-run games. In 2008, the D-backs dipped to 22-23 in the close ones. Their overall win total decreased from 90 to 82 even as their run differential improved from minus-20 to plus-14.
"I think everybody in our group is disappointed in the way the season ended last year," Melvin said. "I think our guys will be a little hungrier and a little more driven."
The disappointment clung to Webb when he returned home to his native Kentucky for the winter and hung on Upton when he traveled to Florida to help his brother B.J. rehab from shoulder surgery. Young players might be a tad more resilient, but the pain of unfulfilled expectations cuts just as deeply.
When Ramirez signed his two-year deal with the Dodgers recently, he made a point of saying there's "unfinished business" to address in Los Angeles. They know all about that concept in Arizona.
If the Diamondbacks are going to show they're for real in the NL West, new faces need to acclimate and old questions must be answered.