I got a spam message in my mailbox today: not normally something worth noting, but the subject was curiously appropriate: "Dont want no short Johnson man." How apt, since Randy's return to Arizona does answer one issue that was of concern to the Diamondbacks in this off-season, namely a rotation spot. But there are still several others that need to be addressed between now and Opening Day, which may have been forgotten in the media coverage surrounding the Big Unit's return. [Marc Normandin, of Beyond the Box Score has now weighed in with his take.] Time for a refresher course on these, since it's to be expected that attention will now be turned to resolving them.
The #5 starter. This isn't so much a question as a multiple-choice exam. We don't have "a" #5 starter - the Tucson Sidewinders this year will instead be capable of providing an entire rotation's worth of them. And that's not hyperbole: currently viable candidates would be Dustin Nippert, Micah Owings, Edgar Gonzalez, Enrique Gonzalez and Dana Eveland. It's also worth remembering that we will possibly also need a temporary candidate to cover for the early absence of Randy Johnson. Maybe Juan Cruz could be used there, if we haven't abandoned all hope of him as a starter?
Personally, I would say that EdGon is the most likely one to stick with the team permanently. Not only is he out of options, he really seemed to turn it around at the end of last year, putting the horrors of 2004 and 2005 behind him. In September, he threw 24 innings with a 2.62 ERA: small sample size, but he just seemed like a different pitcher, from the one who lost 13 straight decisions as a starter. Nippert needs to regroup after a disappointing year, while Owings would likely benefit from a little more polishing in Triple-A. But since at least one of them will almost certainly be in the rotation for 2008 (assuming the loss of Davis and Hernandez 2.0), expect them to see some action this season.
Bolstering the bullpen. Again, it's not so much a question of having a hole to fill, as working out who should fill it. The ZIPS predictions for our relievers might be as good a place to start as any. That says Brandon Medders' ERA (3.91) will be second only to Webb, followed by Valverde (4.21), Slaten (4.22) and Cruz (4.50). The recently-departed Vizcaino posted a mediocre 4.64, so seems like a good thing that we sent him to New York, rather than Medders, even setting all financial considerations aside. Lyon is at 4.68, with Julio and Pena (both 4.97) bringing up the rear. Seems like another reason to play that "proven closer" card - 99 career saves! - and shift Jorrible Jorge before the start of the season.
Five spots seem almost locked up for Opening Day, by Medders, Valverde, Slaten, Cruz and Lyon. I still expect to see Julio dealt, and so we'll probably see Pena hang around, though he may need to adopt several more identities to see much playing time. I would not be surprised if EnGon were to get the final slot, being placed in the bullpen as long-relief. However, there still remains the possibility of a trade bringing in a new arm, which would obviously have a ripple effect. And as a quick aside, I see that in the past week former D'backs LOOGY Randy Choate was signed to a minor league contract by the Twins, and invited to spring training, while Mike Koplove accepted a similar offer from the Marlins.
Infield bench The starting infield seems likely set, with Tracy, Drew, Hudson and Jackson around the horn from third to first. However, rumblings continue to circulate about us seeking to trade Tracy to the Pirates in a deal involving their closer, Mike Gonzalez. The Pirates would, presumably (given .344-hitting Freddy Sanchez at third), move Tracy to first; we're apparently looking for more than just Gonzalez. I'd be reluctant to make such a trade, unless we've something else up our sleeve; I'm not sure Brian Barden is the full-time answer at 3B just yet. I think Tracy will be better, all-round, this year, so we'd be selling him low if we get rid of him now.
Discarding that as unlikely, the question of who will be our backups remains to be decided fully. Tony Clark, coming off his shoulder surgery, will cover Jackson at first - though if we're out of the race by the trade deadline, I sense he may be moved to a contender. Alberto Callaspo appears to have the inside track on the "utility" role filled by Damion Easley last season, and will probably have about as much power as Easley had, outside that Atlanta weekend. The final spot is more uncertain. At the moment, Robbie Hammock's position flexibility probably makes him a more likely candidate than someone like Barden, who could only play third. Hammock could even play catcher, giving us a third option there, potentially very useful in a game like the 18-innings Colorado marathon.
Outfield backups Again, the starting configuration appears largely set. Quentin in right; Young in center; and, it looks steadily more likely that Eric Byrnes will be replacing Gonzalez in left, providing much the same mediocre offensive production for the position - with, in all likelihood, a substantially-increased laundry bill. Jeff DaVanon will be the main alternate, and could see time at all three positions; however, his status for Opening Day is unsure, following September surgery on a split ligament in his left ankle, originally diagnosed as "sprained". In October, he had another op, this time to remove a shoulder cyst. Still, the current word is, he should be back in time for Spring Training.
But lets just look at this for the moment. Here are the ZIPS projections for three outfielders, whom I'll call, oh, Players B, D, and H - since I doubt calling them A, B and C would fool anyone. I've pro-rated the HR and RBI numbers to give each man 136 games, and also included Players Q and Y, just for kicks:
BA OBP SLG HR RBI Player B .265 .323 .462 20 69 Player D .273 .377 .408 7 39 Player H .276 .334 .522 28 73 Player Q .262 .361 .472 19 64 Player Y .255 .336 .525 32 75
As an aside, note that if a statistical method had pants, ZIPS comes as close to wetting them as a statistical method can, over the potential of Player Y to hit for power. 32 homers! Wouldn't it be great if Player Y was young, cheap and under the Diamondbacks' control through, say, 2011? But, that aside, looking at Messrs B, D and H, which one would you say was the everyday player, and which one the backup? B and D have an identical OPS; D walks a lot more (looks like he'd be a good leadoff hitter), while B has definitely more power. But, boy, look at H. His OPS is expected to be more than 70 points above the other two. He could be a defensive waxwork, and would still be a valuable asset, especially if earning little more than league minimum.
The only question is, will Scott Hairston be a valuable asset for the Arizona Diamondbacks, or for someone else? The problem is, if we trade him, we won't currently get anything like the price you'd expect for a cheap, 25-HR hitting outfielder. But if we keep him, he doesn't seem to have anywhere to play - unless a masked ninja were to leap from the bushes, and shove Eric Byrnes off his skateboard into a lamppost. So he won't get to increase his trade value, and he's out of minor-league options (as is CF Krynzel, acquired from Milwaukee in the Estrada trade). Solving the Hairston dilemma might just be the toughest problem left for Josh Byrnes to face before Spring Training.