D'backs shed spendthrift skins

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

PHOENIX – Orlando Hudson looks at their faces, their newness, and is compelled to impart some wisdom.

It begins and ends with a hard handshake, your father's handshake, the kind that pulls a boy off his heels and into the hard world.

Major League Baseball is an unyielding season six months long and an eternity wide. Here, they play it in the desert, where growth is imperceptible, where the withered can appear identical to the bloomed.

The Arizona Diamondbacks came out with seven wins in nine games before Wednesday's loss, the most recent two victories against the Cincinnati Reds ending with 25 men scattered near home plate, run-off wins, their fists clenched over their heads.

Alive or dead? Breathing or not?

Hudson's eyes go bright. These young men, these few veterans, they get to choose, he says. And that's what he tells them.

"God gave you talent to play the major-league game," he says. "Don't let it slip away. He picked you out of the hundreds of thousands of kids who wanted to play this game. Don't forget it. Don't give it away."

The 7-3 record?

"Means nothing, man," he said. "Nothing."

Six seasons from their World Series championship, four seasons from financing the highest payroll in the National League, two seasons from 111 losses, the Diamondbacks have the early look of a contender in the West, while systematically cutting that payroll in half.

On most nights, they will start five of eight position players drafted or signed into the organization in the past 5½ years. On Wednesday night, starting pitcher Micah Owings, a big, well-regarded right-hander, made it six of nine.

It makes sense, given 15 players on the 25-man roster have not known another organization. Right-fielder Carlos Quentin, recovering from a shoulder injury, shortstop Stephen Drew, first baseman Conor Jackson and – coming soon – outfielder Justin Upton were first-rounders from 2003-05.

Last summer, still up to their teal-and-purple necks in debt while paying on a World Series and the residual urge to maintain something close to it, the Diamondbacks went all in on their farm system. Luis Gonzalez is gone. So are Craig Counsell, Johnny Estrada and Shawn Green. So are the teal and purple.

The $270 million they owed in deferred contracts after the 2001 championship (Randy Johnson, for one, will receive $3.5 million this year, $6.6 million next year and $8.5 million in each of the four years after that, on top of the two-year, $26-million contract he signed in the offseason), has been paid down to about $100 million. They have budgeted another $35 million toward the debt this year, helped in part by baseball's revenue sharing system, through which the Diamondbacks received just under $10 million last season.

Meantime, from its high of $103 million in 2002, the payroll has been slashed every season to $52 million this season, 13th in the NL and 26th in baseball. The strategy made the Diamondbacks 111-game losers in 2004. It's made them seven-game winners through a week and a half in 2007.

Alive or dead?

"As the memories of '04 fade, so too does the debt load," said general partner Jeff Moorad, the former player agent who was bought in near the end of that season. "Through a lot of hard work and fiscal engineering, the organization has been able to remove itself in part from some of the economic hardship of the past.

"I'm not sure we see the light at the end of the financial tunnel, but it's coming into focus."

As they throw wads of cash at their obligations, they also appear committed to throwing wads of at-bats at their youngest players, namely Drew, Jackson, Quentin, center fielder Chris Young, Scott Hairston and catchers Chris Snyder and Miguel Montero.

"We've evolved into this kind of team," general manager Josh Byrnes said. "Part of it's by choice, part of it's by necessity. … Now it's time for them to be fixtures on this team."

As a lieutenant with the Cleveland Indians in the mid-'90s, Byrnes witnessed the simultaneous integration of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and, a bit behind them, Jeromy Burnitz. Now, beholden to the organization's financial correction, but benefiting from wise decisions made by former GM Joe Garagiola Jr. and former scouting director Mike Rizzo, he'll live it again.

"As an industry, we're pretty hard on young players," Byrnes said. "It's OK to have some confidence in them, some faith in them."

The rest will play out in the summer ahead, against more experienced teams in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. Though Byrnes observed, "That 2004 season carried a lot of scar tissue for the organization," there is growth in areas, there are hopes for an attendance surge, and, heck, hardly any of today's players were around for those days anyway.

Hairston was one who was, and one of the players Byrnes said the organization had to "restart … developmentally." It was Hairston's 11th-inning double that beat the Reds on Tuesday night, his smile that greeted them all out at second base.

Three years ago, Hairston admitted, "It was basically making the best of it we possibly could.

"The mindset right now is a lot different than it was back then."

So, alive or dead? They'll see what the climate sustains.

"With every good team you can identify a turning point," Moorad said. "We happen to believe this is ours."