Unit to lead youth movement

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

The seven degrees of Randy:

Jan. 11, 2005 – The Arizona Diamondbacks trade Randy Johnson to the New York Yankees for Javier Vazquez, Brad Halsey, Dioner Navarro and $9 million, thus initiating the Randy-go-'round.

Jan. 11, 2005 – Later that same day, the Diamondbacks trade Navarro and three minor leaguers to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Shawn Green and $10 million.

Dec. 20, 2005 – The Diamondbacks trade Vazquez to the Chicago White Sox for Orlando Hernandez, Luis Vizcaino and Chris Young.

March 26, 2006 – Halsey is traded to the Oakland Athletics for Juan Cruz.

May 24, 2006 – El Duque is traded to the New York Mets for reliever Jorge Julio.

Aug. 22, 2006 – Green and $6.3 million go to the Mets for minor-league left-hander Evan MacLane.

Jan. 4, 2007 – The Yankees agree in principle to kick Johnson and $2 million back to the Diamondbacks for Vizcaino and three minor leaguers, expected to be pitchers Ross Ohlendorf and Steven Jackson and outfielder Alberto Gonzalez.

Leaving the Diamondbacks, two years later, with a net result of:

• Johnson. A 17-game winner for the Yankees last season who, for the first time, needs the reprieve offered by National League lineups. Barring a complete meltdown of skills and/or health, he'll win his 300th game wearing whatever colors the Diamondbacks are wearing mid-season 2008.

• Young. Projected as the starting center fielder and potential lead-off hitter for the Diamondbacks. He's just 23.

• Cruz. The 28-year-old right-hander was 5-6 with a 4.18 ERA in 31 appearances – 15 of them starts – last season and could work his way into the rotation.

• Julio. Struggled most of the summer, when he didn't work out in the closer role, but was better in September.

• MacLane. Good changeup, good command (read: lacks velocity), probably starts the season at Triple-A Tucson.

"And don't forget $15 million," said one Diamondbacks employee.

Right, and $14.7 million, not to mention the $32 million they would have had to pay Johnson over the two years he wasn't there.

All of which puts the Diamondbacks, well, where exactly?

Assuming the Johnson trade doesn't fall apart over the contract extension he's reportedly already agreed to and the Diamondbacks' doctor doesn't mistakenly read the J.D. Drew X-rays, what we have here is a genuine contender in the National League West.

Or not.

"I think they probably have to be in the mix, because they're a very, very talented team," one NL West executive said. "The thing is, they've got a lot of youth, which can be unpredictable. They could win 90-some games or they could win 80."

Young, shortstop Stephen Drew and right fielder Carlos Quentin – at 24 the oldest of the three – played a total of 146 big-league games last season. All project as starters. First baseman Conor Jackson, who has the only full season among them, is 24. And third baseman Chad Tracy is still in his mid-20's. The Diamondbacks will also go young at catcher, with Chris Snyder and Miguel Montero.

By comparison, Johnson, at 43, will look like the folded-armed, toe-tapping guidance counselor at the junior prom.

Youth is fun and exciting and not very expensive for an organization, but it is volatile and it will, at times, have you jabbing at your eyes with a Slurpee straw.

"They are a wild card," a National League scout said. "They could come together. I don't know if you can say definitively it's going to happen. My gut tells me they're still a year away. But, it's a flawed division."

So arrive the enigmatic Diamondbacks in the often pedestrian NL West, with a veteran rotation and a vulnerable bullpen and an offense and clubhouse that will be without Luis Gonzalez for the first time in nine years. When Johnson last saw them, they'd lost 111 games, finished 42 games out of first place and gone through two managers, neither of whom is there now.

He barged into New York on the lens of a television camera on E. 57th St. and was chased out by disappointment, a middle reliever and a few minor leaguers.

Johnson, who left Arizona as an ace, returns as a No. 2, maybe a No. 3 and, in Josh Byrnes' suppressed fears, a No. 4.

And still I'd hazard a guess that Johnson, 43 and all, will have a greater impact on the Diamondbacks than Barry Zito will on the San Francisco Giants.

Zito is, today, the better pitcher, but he replaces Jason Schmidt, who went to the Los Angeles Dodgers. That's a gain of – and this is admittedly unscientific – maybe four or five wins, taking into account the relative offensive strengths and therefore potential run support of the teams they're joining.

Johnson replaces whomever would have been chosen from Edgar Gonzalez, Enrique Gonzalez, Dana Eveland, Dustin Nippert and Micah Owings for the fourth starter. Assuming a healthier back gives Johnson greater flexibility, perhaps returning the bite to his slider and command to his fastball, he's more than four or five wins better than a fifth starter.

Ultimately, within a division in which the Padres and Dodgers pitched best last season, the Padres get Greg Maddux and probably David Wells. The Dodgers get Schmidt and Randy Wolf, and lose Maddux. The Giants swap out Schmidt for Zito. The Diamondbacks add Johnson and Doug Davis and lose Claudio Vargas. The Colorado Rockies move Coors Field warrior Jason Jennings for Taylor Buchholz and Jason Hirsh.

And the Diamondbacks lose Miguel Batista and get Johnson. Again.

"I don't see him putting them over the top," the NL scout said, adding, "but it seems he still has enough to get by."

It wasn't enough in New York, not by the standards there. In Arizona, it just might work.

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