Looks like we have a cunning plan to make up for our lack of an prototypical clean-up hitter: instead, we're going to be whizzing round those base-paths like a bunch of ferrets on crystal meth. Well, perhaps not, but Melvin says, "Base running is going to be a focal point... You watch the way Anaheim does it - taking the extra base, being aggressive, creating doubt. Over the course of 162 games, teams know it. We have a lot of guys who can run." That's not just stolen bases, of course: also going first to third on a single, for example. Though I have some qualms about this, remembering too well the days of Eddie 'The Windmill' Rodriguez at third-base, or Gonzo getting nailed at the plate twice in the same game by Jeff Francoeur.
However, we do certainly have more speed in the line-up than for quite some time - which is, not by coincidence, connected to the fact that we have more youth in the lineup, Young and Drew leading the way there. Byrnes and Hudson are also pretty good, though the former had a nasty habit of getting picked off first last year. Or maybe it's just that I remember those times... The presence of Kirk Gibson as the bench coach seems also to point in this direction. It'd certainly be a change in approach: we've been below league average every year in stolen bases since 1999, when Tony Womack alone stole 72. That's just four less than the entire team managed last season.
Position players are now arriving in camp, some more complete than others. Carlos Quentin is here, but is a few short of a full set. Wisdom teeth, that is, which were removed on Friday. "The first day kind of sucked," Quentin said, in what is probably our first entry for 2007 Understatement of the Year. You'll not be surprised to hear I remain untroubled by wisdom teeth, or presumably, wisdom in general. Mind you, the whole American obsession with perfect teeth bemuses me: it seems like every kid has to go through the hell of braces in high-school. Back when I grew up, you needed a tooth growing out of your nostril to receive any kind of orthodontic work. And even then, it was likely your Dad, in the garage, with a hammer. :-)
Chris Carter is now down to 205 bones; he had surgery to remove the hamate bone in his right hand - that's the one at the base of the fourth and pinky. Not quite sure why that was necessary, but it's commonly fractured if a golfer hits the ground on their downswing. Getting hit by a pitch, a bad infield hop or jamming your hand sliding into base would seem more likely explanations for a baseball player. The symptoms include pain when you grip, and lo, Carter says, "I wasn't able to hold the bat." Could explain why he batted .266 with two home runs from August on, compared to .312 with 17 HR before then. It's far from unique: Wily Mo Peña, David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Jose Canseco, Jay Gibbons, and Eric Hinske have all had the same surgery, so seems like Carter should be okay.
Let's take a look at the two leading contenders for the fifth rotation spot. Over on mlb.com, Steve Gilbert looks at EdGon and says, "There was never a question of how much talent was located in Gonzalez's right arm, it was just a matter of the rest of him catching up." Maturity seems the key, and it's something of a miracle the nightmare of his winless 2004 season didn't destroy his psyche for ever. "One thing I didn't really appreciate coming in was the scar tissue of 2004 for a few guys," says Josh Byrnes. "I think he reset his development clock last year and came up at the appropriate times so, hopefully, he's on course now to have a successful big-league career."
There do seem to be some questions about his repertoire, with only his fastball regarded as a plus-pitch, some way ahead of his slider and change-up. Mike Parrott, Tucson's pitching coach believes Owings just needs confidence in his other pitches: if he doesn't have that, a move to the bullpen is not impossible, though obviously, we'd rather have him as a starter. Reading between the lines there, seems less likely that Owings will be deemed ready to fill the fifth-spot in the rotation, so will likely be back with the Sidewinders on Opening Day. Owings is appropriately diplomatic: "I try not to get caught up in that. I'm just trying to do what I can each day when I come in and get my work in. When the games start, I'll do the best I can and see what happens."
Speaking of two-pitch pitchers, there seems to be some debate over Jose Valverde's repertoire. Josh Byrnes wants him to stick basically with his four-seamer and his splitter, believing that's the key to success in the big leagues. Valverde, however, is less convinced, thinking the cause of his struggles mid-season was relying too much on one pitch. "When I came back, I think I threw everything." Josh Byrnes issues what can only be described as a veiled threat: "If we need to go to Plan B there are other candidates, some maybe that we couldn't even predict...I don't think we're without options. But we're also very confident Jose will get the job done."
Maybe one of those options is Doug Slaten? He dropped 25 pounds this winter, thinking he was getting "too round and immobile." [Insert Russ Ortiz-related joke here.] Interesting to hear, much like Webb, his career was resurrected by discovering a new pitch in the minors: in Slaten's case, his curveball/slider, which helped him strike out 42 lefties of the 95 he faced. Jailen Peguero is also getting good reviews for his work so far, and might be a possible player if anything happens to the existing bullpen members.
Early candidate for another category, Opening Line of the Year, comes from Nick Piecoro: "The lefty with the bad back finally threw off a mound for the Diamondbacks. One of them did, at least." Yep, Doug Davis took the mound, reported only "a little stiffness," and so we can reduce the Rotation Threat Level to Yellow. No sign of Johnson following him quite yet - he's still throwing the ball on flat ground - but sounds like it shouldn't be long. Jeff DaVanon is similarly playing long toss, with Melvin thinking he'll see most of his playing time subbing for Quentin in right field.
Our catchers get some love, contrasting the two players - Snyder is four inches taller, 35 pounds heavier and bats from the other side. Melvin believes Snyder is probably atop the depth chart, because of his solid 2006 season, which Chris says was the result of a change in approach at the plate: "I told myself I'm going to make myself hit the ball to right field and be able to have that in my arsenal, to be able to control the bat and shorten my swing." Neither man seems bothered by the job-sharing: "It's not a problem," says Montero. "We always talk. He's a nice guy. I mean, it's part of the game. It's going to be good because I'm left-handed and he's right-handed. We're going to be all right."
Of course, there's a third option, in the Last of the Baby Backs, Robbie Hammock, who has come back from being released entirely, and is now fighting for a bench spot on the roster, along with Barden, Hairston and Krynzel. He says, "I had a lot of things going on in my life at the time, and I had to deal with the injuries and trying to come back. Mentally and physically, I was down in the dumps. I woke up every day wondering if I would be able to throw a baseball again, if I'd be able to get on the field." His versatility as an infield/outfield/catcher gives him an edge, and his familiarity with Johnson - he caught the Big Unit's perfect game, of course - "doesn't hurt," according to Melvin.
Off the field, our media rotation looks set solidly for the next few seasons, with the news Tom Candiotti signed a four-year extension, taking him through 2011. That means the basic roster of Sutton and Grace on TV, with Schulte and Candiotti on radio, are all locked in for the next four seasons at the very least. That's fine by me, I don't mind any of them, though my experience of Sutton is currently limited to the new uniform fashion show and his blog. And Kevin Goldstein released his top 100 prospects: Young is #8, well ahead of Justin Upton (#29). Carlos Gonzalez (#31), Montero (#76) and Alberto Callaspo (#91) also get props.
But perhaps the biggest news is the announcement of the 2007 D'backs Promotional Schedule. This may weigh heavily on my choice of games for the upcoming season, when we "draft" tickets next month: unlike last year, I should be able to make the weekend contests where the giveaways are concentrated. There are a batch of bobbleheads, including Brandon Webb clutching a Cy Young, Orlando Hudson wearing a Gold Glove, and Randy Johnson urinating on the NY Daily News. Okay, I made the last one up. ;-) They're also doing McFarlane figures of Webb, Drew, Jackson and Hernandez 2.0 but, dammit, they're only giving those away to kids. If you see an Amber Alert on June 10, July 15 + 29 or September 2, you'll know I've "borrowed" a small child for the day...