Standing pat not an option for D-backs
PHOENIX – Consider it the natural progression of a competitive spirit.
Like most species of sharks, which must swim constantly to live, the Diamondbacks refused to stay in one place over the winter, however comfortable it might have seemed.
While winning the NL West in 2011 was good, it was not good enough.
“We’re not looking just to win divisions and get knocked out in the first round [of the playoffs]," general manager Kevin Towers said.
So, the D-backs re-signed a handful of their veteran free agents and aggressively went after several newbies – Trevor Cahill, Jason Kubel, Takashi Saito and Craig Breslow among them – in order to take the next steps.
“We think adding another bat and another strong arm in the rotation to allow our young pitching corps we have to develop in the minor leagues will help. We’re hoping that still keeps us a division winner and takes us deeper in the postseason,” Towers said.
It means the D-backs aren't where they want to be, which is wearing a target on their backs.
Not yet, if you ask manager Kirk Gibson.
“It says Gibson, and there is a 23 on my back.”
World Series champion St. Louis is the team that everyone, including the D-backs, are trying to emulate this year.
It is an ever-fluid process. The D-backs’ 29-game improvement to the division title was built on career years (so far) from a half-dozen players: Nos. 1-2 starters Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, closer J.J. Putz, catcher Miguel Montero, third baseman Ryan Roberts and right fielder Justin Upton. Gerardo Parra emerged as a defensive force. David Hernandez found his niche as a setup man and emergency closer.
The D-backs never lost a game in which they trailed after eight innings. They had a major league-high 48 come-from-behind victories. It seems unfair to expect the same kind of seasons and the same kind of numbers. Enter former 18-game winner Cahill, middle-of-the-order bat Kubel and shutdown setup man Saito.
“To win divisions, you have to have two or three guys who have big years for you. We’re going to need that again,” Towers said.
“With a veteran guy, you have a pretty good idea of what you are going to get. With young players, it is somewhat a crap shoot. You are hoping it is two or three different guys that have career years this year that didn’t have them last year. Who knows? Maybe it’s Daniel Hudson. Maybe it’s Kubel. I don’t know because we haven’t started yet, but that’s important.
“I think if all of our guys just have normal seasons, we are going to be a very competitive team if we are able to keep our core guys healthy on the field.”
Kennedy and Hudson combined for 37 victories last season, the most of any 1-2 punch in the NL. Putz converted every save opportunity he had in the second half. Upton and Chris Young benefited from working with hitting coach Don Baylor and had 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases apiece, and Roberts was one homer and two stolen bases short of joining them while blossoming in his first season as a major league regular. Shortstop Willie Bloomquist filled in solidly after Stephen Drew suffered his season-ending ankle injury.
It was a magical season, and even the D-backs know it cannot be duplicated exactly, another reason for the gentle roster tweaks.
Towers has done it before as San Diego’s general manager. After the Padres won the NL West in 2005, he acquired Adrian Gonzalez and right-hander Chris Young from Texas and signed Mike Cameron, helping the Padres repeat in 2006. Veterans Greg Maddux and David Wells were added in 2007, and the Padres came within a game of a three-peat in 2007 before Cameron and Milton Bradley suffered season-ending injuries on the same day in mid-September.
“We know we have to create the magic that we had last year," Gibson said. "It is not going to be the same. It’s going to be different. We have to be alert to what kind of team we might be differently from last year. It’s my job – and the staff and the front office – to figure out what roles everybody is best for each other.
“We want to put them in positions they can succeed in. At the same time, we’re trying to expand the abilities of these guys every day. We know what they are today. How can we make them better? How can we better prepare them? I think we know we’re good, but we understand we have to carry the lunch bucket every day.”
Differently equipped, prepared after a season in the race last season, the D-backs go off to work again. The one constant will be the 27-out mentality that led to so many comeback victories, culminating with Roberts’ fist-pumping home run trot after his grand slam capped a six-run 10th inning for a 7-6 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on the penultimate day of the regular season.
“It’s a tremendous commitment, mentally and physically, we will encounter," Gibson said. "Why we get excited about that, I’m not sure, but we do. That’s what special about putting groups together. Many people wouldn’t enjoy doing that every day, but I’m almost 55 and I love it. The team loves it. That’s who we want to be.”