As the old saying goes, “to the victor go the spoils.” As defending National League West champions, the Arizona Diamondbacks will not only have a shiny new sign in center field this season at Chase Field, but they will also get the expectations that come with a division title, and the target on their backs that goes with it.
That point keeps being driven home in various circles, especially in the coverage of the team leading up to the regular season’s start on Friday against the San Francisco Giants. Steve Gilbert of MLB.com tackled the topic of whether the team would be able to find success even as a favorite this year in an interesting piece yesterday, and just about every player stood by the assertion that their goal isn’t just to make the playoffs; it’s to make the World Series and win it.
Even national guys like Buster Olney and Ken Rosenthal are on board. Both guys, respected baseball reporters that they are, have picked the Diamondbacks to reach the Fall Classic for the first time since they knocked off the Yankees in 2001. That kind of high praise can set some pretty lofty expectations among a fanbase that doesn’t have a lot of other places to turn (something we will tackle later in the week), but that ultimately isn’t what’s important. What matter is whether the team has the make-up to win in today’s MLB, and whether they have the talent to sustain a grueling 162 game schedule with every team in the game giving them their best shot on a night in, night out basis.
With that in mind, there is a simple question that needs to be asked: can the Diamondbacks find success once again now that they have vacated the underdog role?
My contention is that they can, and there are four key reasons why:
Justin Upton’s Continued Maturation
Already an MVP candidate, the 24-year old Upton has been improving in a lot of key areas in his game. He is bringing his power numbers up without a consequent increase in strikeouts, he is doing more of the little things to help his team win (he got hit by pitches a ludicrous 19 times last season), and he is still very solid defensively despite ending up with 13 errors last season, a career high.
Upton has also shown that he is willing to listen to others in order to help him succeed. Whereas most youngsters tend to try to work through problems on their own, Upton took advice that he got from hitting coach Don Baylor on an off-day last May and ran with it en route to an MVP-caliber season. This kind of maturity is rare in a guy his age, and that can only mean good things for his future.
Their Excellent Defense
In a division with cavernous ballparks like AT&T Park in San Francisco and Petco Park in San Diego, good team defense is crucial, and the Diamondbacks certainly sport a good one.
Outside of Upton, the Diamondbacks’ outfield is a pretty solid entity in left and center as well. New acquisition Jason Kubel may have only played 58 games in the outfield last season, but he only made one error in those games, so his glove is going to be an asset. Even if he falters, Gerardo Parra is more than ready to step in and produce, given he won the Gold Glove last year and all.
Chris Young not only is doing a better job at seeing the ball (he drew 80 walks last year, a career high), but he is also a stellar defender with great range and a penchant for making nearly every play. He only made three errors last year on 401 chances.
Miguel Montero has also made tremendous strides in gunning people out from behind the plate, nailing nearly 37% of would-be basestealers last year. It will be interesting to see whether Paul Goldschmidt and Aaron Hill can nail down the defensive side of things on the right side of the infield, and whether Stephen Drew’s ankle injury hampers his defense.
Kirk Gibson’s “Team-First” Philosophy a Blessing for a Young Squad
“We’re hungry. I think the thing that will be interesting to see is how much determination we have to try and find that magic we had last year, because you’ve got to go find it every year. It doesn’t just fall into your lap.”
Those words coming from a manager in Kirk Gibson whose team led MLB with 48 come-from-behind victories last season. They indicate to observers that he is not going to let them rest on their laurels, and the hard-driving skipper is going to make sure to keep them focused on the ultimate goal of winning a championship.
If there is any doubt as to whether Gibson wants to set a good example for his team in the art of hard work being the ultimate key to success, one need look no further than the way he treats the non-stars on the team. In an interview with Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic, Gibson had an interesting comment that sums it up nicely:
“No guy is bigger than the next. We treat them like rookies at the appropriate time; we have fun with them. But, hey, when we go out there on that field, (expletive), I don’t care if you’ve got half a day in the bigs or 20 years. (Expletive), we’re trying to win.”
That attitude has definitely rubbed off on the players on this club, and with a lot of them locked up to long-term deals, it’s great that they are buying in to this philosophy and that they are invested in the team as heavily as their manager is.
Their Pitching Staff Is Ridiculously Deep
If there is any bigger key to success in the postseason than pitching, there aren’t a lot of people who are talking about it. The Diamondback are tremendously gifted in that area, boasting a starting staff with studs like Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, and new acquisition Trevor Cahill. Youngster Josh Collmenter will round things out, and even if he falters, they still have really solid prospects like Tyler Skaggs who could potentially come up and fill the void.
In addition to their solid rotation, they also are deep in the bullpen too. Not only do they have JJ Putz, who had 45 saves a year ago, but they also have David Hernandez, who filled in when Putz was injured last year and converted 7-of-7 chances during that time. They also have several talented lefties in Craig Breslow and Joe Paterson, and to add even more depth they added Takashi Saito to the mix.
Needless to say, the Diamondbacks are strong in a lot of areas that will be a key to their success in the 2012 season. Whether all of those pieces that are crucial to their postseason chances stay healthy is another story, but if you are judging this team solely on these types of intangibles, then you would have to give them a great shot to take down the division crown, and possibly more.