October 17, 2011
As the postseason soldiers on, the eliminated teams are facing an offseason filled with golf rounds and hot-stove strategery.
But we're not going to let them get off that easy. No sir. No way. In an attempt to bring some closure between franchise and follower, we're giving a blogger from each team the opportunity to detain their squads for the equivalent of a Saturday morning detention stay.
In educational terms, this year was like having Buffy Summers transfer to your school, only for her to be a model student. Expecting disaster, you're just relieved nothing involving demons occurred. Having braced ourselves for another losing season, this campaign was a very pleasant surprise for Arizona Diamondbacks supporters. After being universally ignored by the pundits, we won the NL West and survived longer into October than the New York Yankees, coming within a ninth-inning bloop of knocking out the Milwaukee Brewers in the Division Series.
Any punishment for the 2011 Diamondbacks thus seems churlish; the team deserves a pat on the head and some candy, not being made to stay behind. Since I doubt you'll find many fans happier with their season than Arizona's,. as detention lectures go, this one is going to be gentle ...
The Punishable Offenses: To start with a bit of self-flagellation, maybe the biggest culprits in 2011 were Diamondbacks fans, who never embraced the team the way they deserved after low preseason expectations — even among hardcore fans, a poll before opening day saw 87 percent expect a losing season. Even as the D-backs defied predictions, the crowds at Chase Field remained smaller than the team deserved. Game 4 against the Brewers was well short of a sellout — though in our defense, it was 10,000 more than our expansion brothers in Tampa Bay, for the same game in their Division Series.
As for the team, while Kevin Towers worked wonders with the Arizona bullpen, his fondness for "veteran presence" proved largely a bust. This was not a large-budget franchise, but over $11 million was wasted on the likes of Zach Duke(notes) (dumped from the rotation), Armando Galarraga(notes) (sent to the minors) and Melvin Mora(notes), Russell Branyan(notes) and Aaron Heilman(notes) (DFA'd entirely). Add another $3 million for Geoff Blum(notes) and Xavier Nady(notes), who hit a combined .243, and it's hard to call his offseason signings a success. The trade for Jason Marquis(notes) proved disastrous, as he had two awful starts before breaking his leg in the third.
All told, the back end of the rotation was a problem all year. Duke, Galarraga, Marquis and Barry Enright(notes) went a combined 6-13 over 27 starts, with a 6.43 ERA. First base was also troublesome, as a revolving door of Nady, Juan Miranda(notes), Branyan and Brandon Allen(notes) all failed there, before prospect Paul Goldschmidt(notes) brought stability (and some very long home-runs) to the position late in the year.
Partners in crime: I'd like to thank the rest of the NL West for stepping back and providing Arizona with this unexpected opportunity in 2011. After winning 90 games, the Padres sold Adrian Gonzalez(notes) and punted the season. The Rockies followed suit when they traded Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), and the Dodgers' front office seemed more concerned with making payroll than competing. The Giants proved the main threat, but couldn't hit their way out of a paper sack, and their freakish good luck with injuries from 2010 evaporated entirely (though a full season of Buster Posey(notes) would only have upgraded their offense from abysmal to very poor).
On the D-backs end, the team might want to put some milk out in the clubhouse, as they endured a plague of broken bones. As well as Marquis' leg, the team also lost Duke (hand), Stephen Drew(notes) (ankle), Nady (finger), Blum (another finger) and even third-base coach Matt Williams, who broke his foot during a spring-training drill. All resulted in lengthy absences, though Drew's absence was the only major health problem for the team in 2011 — mostly because manager Kirk Gibson insisted on playing uber-scrappy replacement Willie Bloomquist(notes) and his .317 OBP in the lead-off spot the rest of the way.
Something to build on: An awful lot more went right than wrong for Arizona in 2011. Ian Kennedy(notes) and Daniel Hudson(notes) blossomed into front of the rotation starters, and with prospects like Trevor Bauer, Jarrod Parker(notes) and Tyler Skaggs looming in the wings, the rotation could be very, very scary soon. Justin Upton(notes) became the player we've been hoping he'd be, catcher Miguel Montero(notes) finally played 140 games, Gerardo Parra(notes) and Ryan Roberts produced at unexpected levels and Aaron Hill(notes) reverted to the 2009 model, hitting .315 after his trade from Toronto. We also can't forget the huge contribution of Kirk Gibson at the helm; he has to be an absolute lock for Manager of the Year, in his first full season. If his moves sometimes made no sense e.g. Bloomquist at No. 1, you just can't argue with 94 wins.
Perhaps the key was the Arizona bullpen. Worst in the majors, by a long way, in 2010; this year, David Hernandez(notes) and J.J. Putz(notes) were awesome. The Diamondbacks were a perfect 84-0 when they went into the ninth inning with a lead, and lost just five times when leading after six. In comparison, they won 16 games after trailing at the same point, and had some epic victories. The finest was in Game No. 161, when they trailed Los Angeles 6-1, were down to their final out with the bases empty — and walked off on Roberts' grand-slam. That was just one of 48 comeback wins for Arizona, most in the majors.
Shape up or ship out: The 29-game improvement was the biggest in the National League since the 1999 Diamondbacks improved by 35 games, but history has shown that teams which improve so much, often struggle the next year. There'll be no sliding under the radar for Arizona in 2012, and over 17 years in the current configuration, only three times has a team won the NL West in consecutive years.
While most of the team will be back in 2012, there are still questions that need to be resolved. Should the team re-sign Hill? Is Joe Saunders(notes) worth the $8 million or so he'll get in arbitration? If not, will the pitching prospects be ready for the show? Can Drew come back to be an effective short-stop? Gibson and Towers don't seem like the kind of GM and manager who will sit on their laurels, and I suspect they'll be working as hard as any other franchise this winter. If they're tempted to slack, they should just remember that of the last 15 teams to improve their W-L record by 20 or more games, all but one regressed the following year...
Read more of Big League Stew's Detention Lecture series here
COMING UP: Tigers on Tuesday, Brewers on Wednesday