D-Backs’ focus is all about winning

Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers has a novel message for all those losing teams that value the future over the present:

If you commit to a four- to five-year rebuilding program, that’s what you likely will get.

Towers, upon taking over the Diamondbacks last September, told team president Derrick Hall that he fully expected the team to be .500 or better this season — a rather bold declaration, seeing as how the D-Backs were on the verge of losing 97 games.

But now look at Towers’ club.

The D-Backs, 62-53 entering Tuesday, are the last surprise team standing, one-half game behind the defending World Series-champion San Francisco Giants in the National League West. And to hear Towers tell it, the change in culture under manager Kirk Gibson — the team’s refusal to accept second-class status — was half the battle, maybe more.

Sabermetricians might wince, but Towers recalls Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick saying that he initially believed that the game was 70 percent skill and 30 percent mental — but realizing, as time went on, that it was the other way around.

“If you have the will to win, good things can happen,” Towers says. “Take away the talent aspect — these guys believe. They fully expect to win every night, have all year.

“They could have crumbled and didn’t. They saw the good things that come with overcoming tough situations.”

The Diamondbacks had a dismal spring and then started this season 8-12. They could have caved then, or wilted after shortstop Stephen Drew suffered a season-ending broken ankle on July 20. But even without Drew, the D-Backs remain fifth in the NL in runs per game.

They’re winning with career backups such as Willie Bloomquist and Ryan Roberts, winning despite slumps by Miguel Montero and Chris Young, winning with Justin Upton emerging as an MVP candidate during the season in which he turns 24.

The D-Backs’ surprise Opening Day starter, right-hander Ian Kennedy, is 14-3 with a 3.20 ERA. Their bullpen, bolstered by Towers’ additions of closer J.J. Putz and setup man David Hernandez, is only 12th in the NL with a 3.83 ERA — but that’s nearly two earned runs lower than the 5.74 ERA posted by last year’s club.

“You look at us on paper and say, ‘Ah, they’re really not that good,’” Towers says. “But we’ve done it for 110 games now. We’re short players. But they play hard.”

The D-Backs, before losing two of three at home to the Dodgers over the weekend, were 6-0-2 in their previous eight series, including one in San Francisco. They are the only team in the NL West with a positive run differential, even after Monday’s 9-1 loss to the Astros.

Listening to Towers rave about the effect of Gibson and the team’s coaching staff, you almost expect him to break into “You’ve Gotta Have Heart,” the classic number from “Damn Yankees.”

Sabermetricians might wince, but Towers doesn’t care.

“I don’t listen to that (talk) much,” Towers says. “The numbers people wouldn’t have predicted we would be where we’re at right now. We’re (three) games away right now from surpassing where we finished last year. And it’s the first part of August.”

Rebuilding was never part of the plan.

The plan was to win, and win now.

Thoughts on Dombrowski and Leyland

To dismiss a general manager and/or manager, a team needs a compelling reason. The Tigers not only lacked a compelling reason to dismiss GM Dave Dombrowki and manager Jim Leyland, they had ample justification to give both new deals. Extending their contracts, even at this point of the season, makes sense.

Why allow questions about their respective statuses to linger?

Leyland again will fall under scrutiny – at least from fans and media – if the Tigers again collapse in the second half. But frankly, it’s difficult to find a common thread in those disappointing finishes, other than that Leyland was in charge.

No GM or manager is perfect; even the wisest decision-makers swing and miss. But imagine the Tigers without Dombrowski and Leyland. It’s doubtful they would be in a better place.

Pirates’ Huntington waits his turn

Speaking of general managers in limbo, when will the Pirates get around to extending the contract of GM Neal Huntington? Will they extend him at all?

If the Pirates’ collapse continues and the team finishes with 85 or 90 losses, maybe owner Bob Nutting and club president Frank Coonelly will decide to make Huntington their scapegoat.

That, of course, is the prerogative of ownership, but what about the Pirates’ surprising competitiveness in the first four months? The increase in home attendance of more than 5,000 per game?

Does all that simply not count?

Huntington had a rocky start to his career as a GM. Rival executives say the Pirates’ farm system isn’t as strong as the Pirates think. But if Huntington must take his share of blame when things go wrong, then he deserves some credit when things go right – particularly when the team’s payroll is only $45 million.

Of course, it’s possible the Pirates already have given Huntington a new deal. The last time they extended his contract, after the 2009 season, they declined to make a public announcement.

The NL: What a league

Enjoy the Brewers-Cardinals series that begins Tuesday night in St. Louis: Quality opponents will be all too rare for the two NL Central contenders in the season’s final 47 games.

The teams face each other nine more times, but the Brewers will play only one other club with a winning record, the Phillies. The Cardinals will play only two such clubs, the Phillies and Braves.

That’s what you get in the NL, where only six of the 16 clubs are above .500. Four of the five AL East teams are above that mark – all the more impressive, considering that they’re playing an unbalanced schedule.

Angels’ Trumbo: adjustment needed

Don’t want to nitpick with Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo, a leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year. But at some point, he will need to draw a few more walks.

Trumbo, 25, has hit 22 homers in 376 at-bats, the ninth-best ratio in the AL. However, he has drawn only 19 walks, and his on-base percentage is only .301.

Angels right fielder Torii Hunter raves about the way Trumbo makes adjustments, so perhaps it’s only a matter of time before he improves his strike-zone judgment.

But Chris Davis, recently traded from the Rangers to the Orioles, is an example of hitter who displayed similar weaknesses and eventually was exploited.

Davis hit 17 homers in 295 at-bats in 2008, but drew only 20 walks. The following year, he hit 21 homers in 391 at-bats, drew only 24 walks – and struck out 150 times.

He has struggled to regain his professional footing ever since.

Big Papi a fan of Rangers’ Hamilton

It’s rare to hear one star player speak in awe of another, but Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz says he is amazed by Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton.

The two were in the same group during batting practice at the All-Star Game, along with the Rangers’ Adrian Beltre and Yankees’ Robinson Cano.

Hamilton, Ortiz says, kept hitting home runs “pow-pow-pow” off the scoreboard in center field at Chase Field.

“We looked like Little Leaguers,” Ortiz says. “Like we were playing A ball.”

Ortiz still remembers Hamilton’s mind-boggling performance during the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium.

“You never get tired of watching guys hit home runs, but he had me tired,” Ortiz says. “I was like, ‘I’m out of here.’ My neck was hurting seeing him balls 500 feet with every swing.”

Indians’ Kipnis: Making the transition

Forget Jason Kipnis’ hitting, the fact that he became the first major leaguer since Taylor Teagarden to hit five home runs in his first 13 games.

To Indians officials, the most impressive thing about Kipnis is the athleticism he showed when the team moved him from the outfield to second base after the 2009 season.

Kipnis, 24, had not played the infield since his freshman year at Kentucky (he later transferred to Arizona State). Yet, he made the transition with relative ease – a testament not only to his physical talent but also his mental strength.

The Indians, meanwhile, need to regroup after a 3-4 trip to Boston and Texas in which all four losses came in the opponents’ final at-bat.

The team has 12 games remaining with the Tigers, starting Tuesday night in Cleveland and concluding with three games in Detroit the final week of the season.

A breather is coming for the Indians in late August – an 11-game homestand against the Mariners, Royals and Athletics, three of the five worst teams in the league.

Where have you gone, Trayvon?

Outfielder Trayvon Robinson seemed like the perfect Dodgers prospect. He’s from Los Angeles. He’s loaded with tools. Baseball America ranked him as the 10th-best prospect in the Dodgers’ organization.

So, why did the Dodgers trade Robinson to the Mariners as part of the three-team deal that sent Erik Bedard to the Red Sox?

For one thing, the Dodgers liked what they got back – Triple-A catcher Tim Federowicz fills a gaping void in the organization, and minor league right-handers Stephen Fife and Juan Rodriguez both could pitch in the majors.

What’s more, Robinson is not a sure thing.

He had 26 homers at Triple-A Albuquerque, but power often is deceptive in the Pacific Coast League. Perhaps more telling is that Robinson struck out 122 times in 368 at-bats. And that he stole only eight bases in 14 attempts after previously putting up big stolen-base numbers.

Robinson, who turns 24 on Sept. 1, could prove the Dodgers wrong; he robbed the Angels’ Torii Hunter of a home run with a spectacular catch in left field in his Mariners debut. Federowicz, meanwhile, has yet to show that he can hit, and might develop into nothing more than a backup.

Still, outfielders always are in plentiful supply while the Dodgers’ two catchers, Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro, “boast” a combined on-base percentage of around .275. Robinson could haunt the Dodgers, but the team obviously felt it necessary to make this move.

The value of Yankees’ Nunez

Here’s something to consider when pondering the trade value of rookie infielder Eduardo Nunez, who has been an important contributor for the Yankees this season:

If Nunez was an everyday shortstop, he might be one of the 10 most productive players at the position, at least offensively.

Sound extreme? Well, the position is not nearly as strong as it used to be.

Clint Barmes’ .714 OPS is the 10th highest among current shortstops who project to make at least 400 plate appearances. Nunez, meanwhile, has a .733 OPS in 214 plate appearances. While he might be exposed if he played more regularly, he also shows signs of becoming an offensive force.

Defensively, Nunez remains a work in progress – he has made 10 errors in 35 games at short. But how many teams would view him as an upgrade? How many would prefer him as a low-cost alternative to free agents Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes and their age/injury questions?

The Yankees declined to add Nunez to their offer for Cliff Lee last season and resisted trading him this season. Granted, he may never be more than a super-utility man for New York. But it’s easy to understand why the Yankees regard him so highly.

Around the horn

•Is it possible that Adrian Beltre is more valuable to the Rangers than Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are to the Yankees?

Well, the Yankees were 14-4 without Jeter, and they’re 18-9 without Rodriguez. The Rangers, meanwhile, are only 8-8 without Beltre, who reinjured his left hamstring Saturday and will miss three more weeks.

Such records are not solely attributable to the absence of one player, but the Rangers clearly are a better team with Beltre. They miss his presence in the lineup, his defense at third, his day-to-day intensity.

•Speaking of the Rangers, lefty Matt Harrison became their fifth 10-game winner Monday night. The Braves, Phillies, Yankees and Tigers are the only other teams with even three.

Wins obviously are not the best measure of pitching effectiveness, but give the Rangers credit for the durability of their rotation. They have used the same five starters all season, with the exception of three spot starts from righty Dave Bush.

The five 10-game winners – Harrison, Alexi Ogando, C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland – took very different paths to this point, but all made their first major league start with the Rangers.

•One AL executive says it’s unfortunate that Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos often is compared to the team’s top outfield prospect, Mike Trout.

Bourjos, the executive says, is a terrific player himself.

“He’s a shut down center fielder who will develop more with the bat,” the exec says. “I don’t think he’ll ever be a great hitter, but he’ll still get 15-20 hits a year with his legs. He has game-changing speed.”

•The Phillies’ depth is evident not just in their pitching staff, but also among their position players. Some scouts see outfielder John Mayberry as a potential late bloomer in the Jayson Werth-Michael Morse mold.

Mayberry, 27, is the same type of tall, rangy right-handed hitter as those two veterans. He could be an ideal platoon partner for Domonic Brown next season in left field, with Shane Victorino in center and Hunter Pence in right.

•Phillies Single-A outfielder Domingo Santana could be an intriguing possibility for the Astros as the player to be named in the Pence trade.

Santana, 19, is a raw talent with tremendous power, a high-ceiling type who might be worth a shot for the Astros if the Phillies are willing to part with him.

“Reminds you of Vladdy,” one scout says.

•Believe it or not, Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija is starting to look like a viable candidate for the team’s 2012 rotation.

Samardzija, 26, has enjoyed a breakthrough of sorts the past two months, averaging nearly a strikeout per inning and posting a 2.32 ERA in 29 relief outings.

He still needs to reduce his walk rate, but no longer does Samardzija resemble a lost cause.

•And finally, here is the stat that shocked me most when poking around the Internet on Tuesday morning:

The Mets are fourth in the NL in runs per game – and first in the NL East.