If you stumbled into a smoke-filled book on the Las Vegas Strip last season and laid a crisp Benjamin Franklin on the Arizona Diamondbacks to win the NL West chances are you made out like a bandit. According to Sportsbook.com, the baby 'Backs were +1500 to take the division. Brandon Funston had better oddds of sealing the deal with Sophia Vergara.
Though blessed with a talented nucleus, newly hired GM Kevin Towers and rookie manager Kirk Gibson seemingly had an uphill battle. The club, a 97-loss team the year before, was clearly a work in progress. Justin Upton, largely impatient in 2010, was still deep in the maturation process. The remaining lineup was littered with question marks. And the pitching staff, young and unproven, was expected to struggle, mightily.
Implausibly, though, the D'Backs proved naysayers wrong. An opening day extra-inning win in Colorado immediately established the tenor. Upton jacked a three-run homer. Ian Kennedy went six strong. And J.J. Putz slammed the door with a flawless 11th. Additional intradivisional foes San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego soon experienced similar outcomes. Come October, Arizona tasted the bubbly, finishing the regular season at 94-68, a remarkable 29-game reversal from 2010.
Much of the franchise remains intact entering camp at Salt River Fields. Its most notable moves this offseason: 1) Re-signing Aaron Hill, 2) Penning Jason Kubel to a 2-year deal, 3) Dealing top pitching prospect Jarrod Parker and outfielder Collin Cowgill to Oakland for hurlers Trevor Cahill and Craig Beslow.
To help owners decipher the meaningful from the meaningless, here are four Pressing Questions about the Snakes heading into spring training:
Upton took a significant step forward last season. Still a tyke at 24, he's on the precipice of greatness. Will 2012 be the last chance over the next decade you can draft the emerging slugger outside the top-five?
Without question, Upton is a budding superstar. After an injury marred 2010, he stayed healthy in '11 and made noticeable improvements in several categories. He greatly reduced his strikeouts ('10 K%: 26.7, '11: 18.6), turned on more pitches and got more air under the ball. The 122nd-best commodity on the virtual diamond two years ago, he rocketed into the top-20 last season, finishing with a .289-31-88-105-21 line. Impressively, many of his 31 jacks were unmistakable bombs. According to HitTracker he was second only to Mike Stanton in no doubters with 12.
[Jeff Passan: Diamondbacks GM doesn't care what Arizona's foes think or do]
Many projection services predict the former No.1 overall pick will plateau in 2012, which, at his current 8.8 ADP, suggests a profit margin would be small at best. However, because of his incredible natural gifts and still youthful age, it's safe to assume the outfielder is just getting started. If he can continue to destroy interior offerings, pitches that used to jam him routinely in the past, the sky's the limit. It's conceivable Upton could venture into 40-100-100-25 territory in the very near future, possibly as early as this year.
Because of his hefty $28-$32 price tag in mixers, most prospective buyers will be pushed to the limit. But since he's still not yet reached his career summit, shelling out another Washington or three is a sage move on draft day. This time next year, Upton could command upwards of $35-$40 in auctions.
Awwww Schmidt! After his impressive two-month stretch last year, is Paul Goldschmidt poised for a breakout campaign in his first full season?
As his last name implies, Goldschmidt will be a precious commodity to own this season. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound masher is a blend of herculean power (419.4 feet/home run average in '11) and surprising speed. Though he'll likely pile up the Ks, most scouts believe his recognition and adjustment skills are better than advertised. Occasional turbulence will occur, but he should produce steady numbers over much of the season.
Last year, Goldschmidt stood out late in the year. After humiliating Double-A pitchers for most of the season, he bypassed Triple-A en route to an early August big league promotion. His production translated instantly. Over 156 at-bats, he totaled a .250 BA with eight homers, 26 RBIs and 28 runs. He also chipped in four steals. On a per game basis, he ranked in the same tier as roster mainstays Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Rickie Weeks and B.J. Upton. Extrapolate his 2011 effort over 550 at-bats (.250-28-92-90-14), and the rising star is essentially a cheaper version of Stanton. It's highway robbery you can get him around pick No. 147 in average mixers. Undoubtedly, he'll be one of the more profitable mid-round picks this year.
Hill jacked 62 homers with Toronto from '09-'10. However, last year, he traveled to souvenir city just eight times in 420 at-bats between Canada and 'Zona. In his first full-year in the desert, is he a viable rebound candidate?
In brief, probably not. The D'Backs re-signed Hill to a 2-year extension at an economical $5 million per back in November. With little competition at second, he is expected to man the pivot every day. Chase Field's hitter-friendly atmosphere lends some hope for a turnaround. However, several disturbing trends have emerged in Hill's profile in recent years, downturns that likely won't be immediately rectified.
Under the microscope, the infielder has deteriorated rapidly. During his breakthrough campaign with the Jays in '09, he posted a .213 ISO and 14.9 HR/FB percentage. Last year, those marks checked in at .110 and 4.2 respectively. His ability to apply bat to ball remains strong (85.3 CT% in '11), but his dwindling success against fastballs and proneness to pop-ups greatly hinder his overall production.
When in the throws of passion, never, ever peel the plastic sheathing off a Finest card. …Because of the home environment, his homer total should easily eclipse double-digits, though a return to the 25-plus level is highly unlikely. Still, since he has 15-20 SB potential, Hill will be a useful MI in deeper mixers. Called out around pick No. 231 in early drafts, he's a decent late-round grab who carries minor risk.
Side-by-side, Hudson and Cahill were near mirror images of one another in 2011. Both were double-digit winners. Both eclipsed 200 innings. Both posted K/9s around 6.50. But despite their similarities, one will likely outdistance the other in overall value in 2012.
Put your money on Hudson.
Cahill's high ground-ball rate and climbing K/9 are positive indicators. However, his susceptibility to free passes (3.55 BB/9 in '11) and sharp downturn in fastball effectiveness are concerns. Moving from the heavy air of Oakland is also worrisome.
Hudson, meanwhile, has a higher ceiling. Evident in his solid strikeout production as a farmhand in the White Sox system, he's not yet reached his K/9 peak at the big league level. That combined with a more polished approach (2.03 BB/9 in '11) arrow to continued growth and success. If he again surpasses 200 IP, it's possible he could push 200 Ks this year. Throw in a projected ERA in the low-3s, and he's definitely worth every penny at his current 87.8 ADP.
Farm Aid. What Snakes in the grass should owners be mindful of?
Southpaw Tyler Skaggs has ace-quality stuff. Over 158.1 innings last season between High-A and Double-A, he amassed a drool-worthy 11.27 K/9. His 2.79 BB/9 was equally impressive. If Josh Collmenter struggles, the lefty is waiting in the wings. … Trevor Bauer, the third overall pick in the 2011 draft, is another power arm to watch closely. At two levels last year, he notched a 46:12 K:BB split over 25.2 innings. More enticing, scouts have compared him to Tim Lincecum. He should make his MLB debut sometime after the break. … Outfielder A.J. Pollock could satisfy deep leaguers' stolen base cravings. Highly efficient on the basepaths, he swiped 36 bags in 133 games with Double-A Mobile last year. Also equipped with a keen eye and gap power, he will sit atop the D'Backs order no later than 2013.
Want to bean Brad in the head? Bring the heat on Twitter @YahooNoise
Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
• Pat Forde: Another case for Kentucky Wildcats as nation's best college hoops team
• Clippers' Chauncey Billups vows season-ending injury won't end his career
• Golfer stabbed in the leg for trying to play through