Before the season starts, we're going to look around the Diamondbacks, position by position, see what happened during the catastrophe of last season, and what we can expect from the players, old and new, who occupy the spots this year.
These entries will appear sporadically from now until Opening Day - they're prewritten, so will likely be stuck in the microwave and defrosted, whenever I haven't got time to write something fresh! The predicted stats are calculated from a highly-unscientific method (I'll spare you the details, suffice it to say that yes, pig entrails are involved), are entirely dependent on the players being fully fit, and under no circumstances are to be hurled back in my face later in the year with a peal of mocking laughter. But first, a general summary, for those who spent 2004 on Mars.
The 2004 Diamondbacks can stand proudly among the very worst teams in the history of major-league baseball. Only three years after their World Series triumph, they put together a 51-111 season, easily the poorest in the majors.
The team managed a collective OBP of .310, and hit just .253 - that's 16 points below Neifi Perez's career average. Only Hillenbrand averaged over .290, and the D'backs showed no plate discipline either: Luis Gonzalez was the sole D'back in the top sixty NL players for walks. The team had no power after Richie Sexson was injured, Steve Finley being the only one with more than seventeen home runs. Little wonder they scored just 3.80 runs/game, the second-lowest by any team in the past decade (surpassing only the 2003 Dodgers).
AZ did have the best pitcher in the NL. With better support, Randy Johnson would have won 20+ games and the Cy Young, but in Arizona, took a losing record into the last month. Brandon Webb, unjustly overlooked for 2003 Rookie of the Year, struggled with his control and walked a league high 119, but had a decent 3.59 ERA. The other slots were horrible; #3-5 averaged a record of 4-17, with a 7.22 ERA. Elmer Dessens was great out of the bullpen, but blew chunks as a starter; expected #4 Shane Reynolds was injured and pitched just two innings; Casey Daigle had never pitched above Double-A and was as overmatched as you'd expect; Edgar Gonzalez was worst of all, losing nine of his ten starts, with a 9.32 ERA.
The bullpen had its problems too, mostly through injury. Established closer Matt Mantei blew up, posting an 11.81 ERA in twelve appearances, before going on the DL for good in May. As in 2003, Jose Valverde took over, but he too was hurt; in the end, six different pitchers notched saves, led by Greg Aquino (16 saves, 3.06 ERA). Injuries also took out Oscar Villarreal, while Stephen Randolph set a 30-year record by walking 76 batters in only 81.2 innings.
Manager Bob Brenly was fired midseason, an eleven-game losing streak in late June sealing his fate, but it didn't help. Under new manager Al Pedrique, the team went 22-61 the rest of the way (Brenly was 29-50 when he was dispatched), including a fourteen-game losing streak around the All-Star break. To no-one's great surprise, Pedrique didn't get the job permanently; first pick Wally Backman was unceremoniously dumped after an unsavoury past was revealed in local newspapers, so second choice Bob Melvin has now become the fourth man to occupy the hotseat since Opening Day 2004.
All told, it was a cruel season, where bad luck (the Diamondbacks had easily the most player days on the DL of any team) combined with bad decisions (relying on Elmer Dessens, Steve Sparks and Shane Reynolds for the majority of starts). The results exposed Arizona's lack of depth with merciless precision.
History tells us that no team since the 19th century has gone from a) 110 losses to a .500 record the next year, or b) even 100 losses to the playoffs the next year. That didn't stop the Diamondbacks management from shuffling the deck in the off-season, hopeful of beating a jinx that makes the Curse of the Bambino look like a youngster. The clearout started before the trade deadline, with Steve Finley going to the Dodgers, and has continued since the end of the season.
Top of the list is, unquestionably, the trade of Johnson to the Evil Empire. 2005 would have been Johnson's last year under contract, and odds are he wouldn't have stayed, so it made sense to trade him. Vasquez, received from New York, had a dreadful second half, but surely isn't as bad as that...is he? More on that later. The catching prospect received in that deal went on to the Dodgers, in exchange for Shawn Green and another large suitcase of cash, while Shea Hillenbrand went North to Toronto, for a pitching prospect. Finally, Casey Fossum went to Tampa for Jose Cruz - just as soon as the D'backs stopped laughing at Fossum's arbitration claim for a 300% increase. [He went 4-15, ERA 6.65]
Management were equally active on the free-agent front, defying the commonly-held belief that Arizona was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Troy Glaus was snapped up for third base, and the rotation received two boosts with the signing of Russ Ortiz and Shaun Estes... Okay, a boost and a half; as I said, slots 3-5 were so awful, even Estes can't do any worse. Up the middle, Craig Counsell and Royce Clayton were signed - presumably for their defense, since neither can whack their way out of a damp paperbag - and Kelly Stinnett will mentor whichever young catcher gets the job in spring training.
Currently, the likely 2005 Opening Day lineup will feature just one returnee from Opening Day 2004, in Luis Gonzalez. The rotation, too, will probably only have one survivor: Brandon Webb. The effects of such wholesale change are hard to estimate, but it seems likely that things will get better for the Diamondbacks in 2005 - at the very least, because it's hard to see how they could get any worse than last season...