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The D-backs GM speaks: Josh Byrnes Interview, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

AZ: The team signed Garland, and traded for Davis and Haren, all among the most reliable of starters the past few seasons, as well as Qualls and Rauch, bullpen workhorses. Is 'innings eating' a market inefficiency that you can take advantage of?

JB: I don't think it's an inefficiency, it's that in 1,400-plus innings, you obviously want your best pitchers pitching most of those innings, or most of those important innings. And the more you can construct a pitching staff that doesn't expose your vulnerabilities, the better - the '05 pitching staff we inherited had a lot of guys pitching innings below league-average standards. Whether it's a primary reliever or a starter, having someone who can assume that role, the quantity and durability associated with that role, and pitch it in an average or better level - that's a good way to build a pitching staff, and I think we've done that. If you look at how we hope will be our 950-1,000 starter innings and our 250 most important relief innings, the people assigned to those innings are pretty good.

AZ: On the other hand, the 2009 infield defense looks like it could be an area of concern this year. What defensive metric do you use to measure players and do you weigh defense heavily when considering player movement?

JB: We weigh it; I think the metrics are things we look at and consider, and sometimes aggregate, and aggregate against the visual or against common sense. Jon Garland, who's a contact pitcher: why did he give up 30-40 more singles in 2008, than he had the year before? When the perception is, the Angels might have better defense than the White Sox. How does his groundball BAA compare to Brandon Webb's? So you look at the metrics, and then get back to, can Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew, Felipe Lopez and Conor Jackson/Chad Tracy be a good infield defense? And are our visual judgments different from the metrics? I don't think it's as shoddy as maybe some of the metrics would make it seem, and in fact they all have the potential to be better as defenders. I've read where some people feel that's a real weakness in the team, but I'm not sure I would subscribe to that theory.

AZ: Speaking of Tracy and Jackson, one of the issues is going to be having three players - Tracy, Jackson and Byrnes - competing for two positions, at 1B and LF. How do you think that'll shake down in the coming season?

JB: In the wider view, Chad Tracy is in great shape. He's now 18 months removed from the knee surgery, he's had an off-season where he can condition himself rather than rehab. So I think if you even consider Reynolds, Tracy, Jackson, Byrnes, Young, Upton as six players, five spots - Tony Clark too. So that's 3,500 plate-appearances divided by that number, and it doesn't seem so crowded. Now, on a given day, there might be a player or two who don't like the line-up...

But again, that's a benefit. Last year, we were great innings 1-6 - I think we were second in baseball at having the lead after six. Now, to flow through a game, maybe Bob has better in-game options, we can double-switch, we can match up left-right, offense-defense to finish games better. And that's also assuming the scenario, that everyone is healthy and playing well. So if that's the outcome - which I hope - I still feel there's going to be enough playing time for everybody.

AZ: One of the areas that will give you extra flexibility is having a third catcher on the roster, in James Skelton. There's been some suggestion he could see time on the infield, at second base perhaps. What do you see his usage as being in the coming year?

JB: First of all, he needs to make the team and stick, as a Rule 5, but his skill-set's pretty interesting, even just to complement our roster this year. He's been down in Tucson about a month already, worked with Jack Howell and Chip Hale a lot on re-acclimating himself to infield play, and they've been very favorable in their reviews. He played there in high-school, and he's a good athlete. So if the 2009 player can catch, but can also play infield and outfield, that really allows Bob to use our roster that much more aggressively - especially use Montero's offense more aggressively - or by making other decisions within the game.

Skelton has a pretty interesting offensive background, so we'll see. He just got to Double-A at the end of the year, so it's a bit of a jump, but he's also a .400-plus on-base guy, with more walks than strikeouts. He's a pretty good hitter.

AZ: Yes, once I saw the team had picked him up, and I looked at his stats, it really surprised me he'd been left unprotected. Moving on to the draft, it's still not certain what picks we're going to get - it depends on where Cruz and Hudson sign - but we should still have a relatively large number of draft picks for the Diamondbacks early on. How does that change your approach when it comes to making selections?

JB: I think the more chances you have, the better outcome you'll have, because historically, even in the second round, there are more misses than hits. So just having more picks gives you more chances to miss - that's a sort of backwards way of saying it. It probably gives you a little more latitude to take a chance on a high-risk, high-reward sort of player; you can do a little more portfolio management within a draft class.

My last year in Boston, we had six of the first 57 and they were 23rd pick Ellsbury, 26th pick Hansen, #42 Buchholz, #45 Lowrie, #47 Bowden. Especially Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden, taking teenage right-handers, a high-school and a junior college pitcher, as stand-alones would feel a little riskier, than embedded with some safer college picks. And most of those guys have turned out to be pretty good players.

AZ: Looking at the current Diamondbacks roster, it's apparent most pitchers outside Webb were traded for, brought in from outside, while most position players came up through the farm system. Does this make you more likely to draft pitchers - playing a volume game - or less likely, on the grounds they're harder to project?

JB: Good question. It's hard to say you can ever draft too much pitching, but I don't think we'd do that at the expense of talent judgments. It's the same kind of concept with high school vs. college; you're more likely to get something taking a college player, but you do have to talk about ceiling and be able to scout a high-school player. That hasn't necessarily been by design.

Last year, 2008, was a very good college position-player year, a lot of corner bats, even some middle-infield players. Jemile Weeks, James Beckham, Jason Castro, guys like that - but none of them got to our pick, and we were happy to take Daniel Schlereth, who we felt was the best player on the board. At the end of the day, it's what you do in the draft. Because the draft in our sport is not 'plug and play', you can think of any number of examples historically where someone with a great major-league player at that position, still took someone like him in the draft. Generally, that alleged surplus works itself out somehow.

AZ: Can you tell me which you weight more heavily, subjective (scouting) or objective (stats) analysis?  When is one more likely to take precedence over the other?

JB: Generally, I'd say we try to blend both. If they're in argument with each other, it would probably make us move on to another player. But if you're talking about teenage players, whether it's high-schoolers here, or Latin American kids, obviously there's not a lot of statistical value, even in high-school statistics. I think statistics are more relevant, the closer they are to the major-leagues.

AZ: Fans are already looking forward to the arrival of people like Schlereth, Parker, Parra in the majors. Can you pick out a prospect who has maybe flown under the radar a little bit, but who is exciting the front office?

JB: Last year's breakout candidate, who maybe twelve months ago, we wouldn't have been talking about as a pretty solid prospect, but turned himself into that, is probably Cesar Valdez. He pitched very well in the Cal. league, which is a hard league to pitch in. He acclimated well to Double-A, though his season numbers were stained a bit by his last start or two, when he was a little tired. He's a great kid, he's a very good strike-thrower and he has a devastating change-up. To repeat the theme, it's hard to find starting pitchers, and Cesar Valdez has made himself a starting pitcher prospect.

AZ: It looks like the Opening Day roster is more or less set now, save the back of the bullpen. How would you evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the 2009 Diamondbacks?

JB: Our strength is still our starting pitching. I think our bullpen still can be a strength. Bullpens in general are volatile, but even our statistical output in '08 probably didn't match up to those who watched the team every day. There were games lost back there, but that was a product of a lot of things. I think our greatest area in need of improvement is our run-scoring. It's an interesting model, and it's continuing to evolve. We don't have a classic lead-off hitter, classic four-hole hitter. What we do have is a lot of offense from our middle of the field players, eight or nine or ten players who are capable of having pretty good seasons in terms of AVG, OBP, SLG, being good offensive players.

If we're going to grow, and if we start to have a long line-up, we have a bench where, as the game flips, we can match up better offensively late in the game. Guys like Drew, Young and Upton, who are still pretty young, have a lot of upside. Steven, especially in the second-half last year, showed you what he can do. Justin Upton's April and September; Chris Young quietly had a good second-half and has an unbelievable minor-league record. Are we going to have an offensive monster emerge from this group? I hope so. Justin certainly has a chance to be that, but he's 21 years old. The good news is, what he just did, aged twenty, doesn't happen very often historically.

AZ: If you had to pick one player on the roster as a potential breakout, would it be Upton?

JB: It could be. Chris Young: he does a lot of good things for us. He plays great defense; he's very durable; I don't think he needs to be a high average hitter to be an impact player, and not many guys can say that. I think he does have on-base skills, he has very legitimate power, he can be a dynamic base-runner and defender. So that's a pretty good combination. Our run-prevention, with our pitching and our defense, with an offense that continues to progress; that's certainly our half-full view, and I don't think those things are overly wishful. But if a few  things go our way, some players make progress, and we stay healthy, our team has the capability of being very good.

AZ: It sometimes seems like there is unrest among a certain section of the D Backs fan base. What would you say to them regarding the future direction of the franchise?

JB: I would say, again, the last ten years, if we take a look in the rear-view mirror; seven winning teams, four playoff teams. The last two years, a very young team, an identifiable young team, most of them coming from within, that does play hard and has been in first place most of two years, one year in the playoffs. I think it's a fun team to watch and follow, because you can see the growth - guys like Webb and Haren, Drew, Young, Upton and others, are still very young players, and most of them are really identified with this franchise.

It's funny. On the outside looking in, other people, other clubs, national media, a lot of them have a really favorable view of the franchise. Like anything, sometimes when you're closer to it, you tend to nitpick it, as do we. It is baseball and it's never going to be easy for 162 games, but there are plenty of things here to be optimistic about and to be proud of.

AZ: Do you ever get the time to watch baseball without analyzing it? Or it that just too much like work?

JB: That's too much like work! I don't know if I could see a five-year old kid swing a bat without having some kind of comment!

AZ: So what's your relaxation? What do you do to get away from it all?

JB: Just spend family time. I have two daughters - if this work is not 24/7, it's close to it. But to any time I can put the Blackberry down and get away, I'm usually just hanging out with my family.

AZ: Anything else you want to add or say?

JB: At the end of the day, as John Hart always said to me, and I firmly believe it, this whole enterprise is about the players. The one sentiment, from the players out, and maybe they don't get the chance to express it, is that more than any place I've been, this is universally a preferred destination. Players like to play for the Diamondbacks, both from a baseball standpoint, and living in the Phoenix area. Unlike a lot of cities, the guys that wear the uniform are pretty happy to be here, and hopefully we can win, and demonstrate that enthusiasm. But this is a good place to live and work.


[Thanks to all those who helped this take place - you know who you are! - and in particular Josh Byrnes, for taking the time to talk to the 'Pit]