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Through the Looking Glass: An Interview with the Press Part II – Looking Ahead

For fans of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the 2010 season was one of disappointment. It was our second straight year of being last in the National League West, our third manager in three years, and just another of many years of missing out on the post-season. For the fans, it was incredibly tough, and now we watch as others celebrate and hope our team can be there "next year."

But what needs to be done for our team to really do it next year? What changes need to be made and what pieces need to be moved for the Diamondbacks to return to winning form? Last week in San Francisco, I sat down with Diamondbacks broadcasters Daron Sutton and Greg Schulte and spoke with them about their thoughts on changes for 2011. I also corresponded with Diamondbacks MLB beat writer Steve Gilbert. Part I, posted Wednesday, was a look back at the problems and highlights of the year; Part II, here, is a look ahead at the future of this team.

Brandon Webb

I mentioned Derrick Hall's comment about Webb's salary "coming off the books" to season ticket holders [thanks, unnamedDbacksFan] to Greg Schulte and asked if that was a hint that Webb would not be returning next year. "I think Brandon has tried to leave the door open on whether or not he would pitch for the Diamondbacks, and I think if things were right he would like to. But as far as the Diamondbacks go, I think they have to take in all options. If they seem to think that he still has typical Brandon Webb type stuff, then I think they'd take a serious look at that. To say whether or not he'd be back, I think that'll still a little too early to guess."

Daron Sutton thinks a little differently. "I love what Brandon Webb did for this team, and he earned the contract in the past with his efforts, but for two years now he hasn't been able to earn it on the field. If it were me, personally, he gets invited to Spring Training on a minor-league contract with incentives. I would be surprised if he were given a major league contract at any level at any cost by the Diamondbacks." When I mentioned Webb's agent's preliminary contract demands, Sutton agreed that he used some silly comparisons. "I'm sure [other teams will be interested in Webb], he's had a great history. But all the pitchers used in that comparison had, over a two-year span prior to signing a deal, had pitched at least 20 times as starters. They may have missed a few months here or there, or half a season, but in two seasons combined, they had contributed at a very high level. Ben Sheets a couple years back, he did make 30 starts [in 2008 with Milwaukee; none in 2009]. We're talking about a guy [in Webb] who's made one start in two years. But Webb's got to do more on the mound than he's been doing. Doug Davis is going to play winter ball, and I think Brandon Webb needs to go play winter ball." We now know that's not happening - Webb has said he will now rest and not throw again until January. Kevin Towers was on hand to watch Webb's last instructional league stint and he said it was good to see him throw, but that the team would have to evaluate the talent pool before making any kind of move on Webb. It is sounding less and less likely we will see him in a Diamondbacks uniform.

Starting Pitching

New General Manager Kevin Towers has publicly stated he will go out and get a fifth starting pitcher, more likely via trade than free agency. Schulte explained, "Sometimes it's easier to get a starting pitcher through trade than it is free agency because you can be a little bit more creative with the money. Towers was very good at that when he was with the Padres, especially in that deal he made with Texas, not only picking up Adrian Gonzalez but also Chris Young. So, he's been good at that in the past, and he'll explore all possibilities."

The signs all look good for Joe Saunders being retained as the #2 starter for 2011. "I think with Joe in there," said Schulte, "as the veteran of the group, to go along with Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy and Barry Enright, that's a good young trio of young pitchers who I think are going to get better and better and develop with one another. Joe is a proven veteran pitcher in the big leagues now for several seasons with the Angels and now the Diamondbacks." The back of the rotation is young, but promising. "I think next year will be a big year for all three of the youngsters. Hudson had the fewest starts of the three, and he probably produced the best numbers. Kennedy I thought got really strong as the year progressed, especially at the end, and Barry had that slide, but his [second to] last start was good. They're good young pitchers, they've had a taste of it now and they've all had some success that they can build upon."

The Bullpen

The bullpen is an area everybody knows is as a disaster zone and Kevin Towers has also come out and said he is going to start building this bullpen up, starting with the 9th inning. So who of this current group of relievers deserves a chance to stay there? Steve Gilbert describes one of the changes with having Kevin Towers. "I think you will see Kevin Towers be more realistic than the previous regime," he said. "In general I think you will see a change in that he's not going to talk about ‘track records' or what guys did last September like Josh Byrnes and A.J. Hinch did. I imagine that Sam Demel and Juan Gutierrez will be back, but other than that, no sure things. " Daron Sutton agreed. "From what I've seen over the last couple of months, I think Juan Gutierrez deserves an opportunity to pitch out of the bullpen, though certainly not pitch in the 9th inning. I think he deserves an opportunity to be a part of this bullpen. I think Mike Hampton has shown me enough as a relief pitcher that he deserves to be a part of this bullpen. I think that his dedication, his drive, his battle, all the things that he brings to the table will be welcome, if he stays healthy and continues to get better. I like what D.J. Carrasco has been, I like him at the bottom of the bullpen depth chart, but for a lot of the right reasons. He's a guy with character, he's a guy who is going to be willing to pitch every single day. "You want me to mop up? You want me to close? Whatever you need." I like what he provides. Beyond that, I don't think anybody has earned the right to say they deserve a major league job next year. When you have a club that has more relief pitchers with ERAs over 4.3 than any in baseball history in their bullpen, how can you say that this guy or that guy deserves a job? Some may get jobs and there are arms that play down there, Blaine Boyer's arm plays, Esmerling Vasquez's arm plays, I can't argue with any of that. But otherwise, there needs to be some more talented, more consistent pieces down there."

Young Players, Strikeouts, and Trades

Many of the players on the Diamondbacks' roster in 2010 have been with the team for several years now, and yet the team still hasn't performed at the level that their talent would suggest they can. Miguel Montero, Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew, Chris Young and Justin Upton are all with their third or fourth seasons with the team. Conor Jackson was as well, and he was expendable. Young players such as John Hester, Gerardo Parra, Ryan Roberts and Rusty Ryal were all expected to grow. At what point do you look at this roster and start looking at other options? "When I say this I want to be clear," said Sutton, "I'm not giving up on them either, but none of them for me are guaranteed anything going forward. The core guys are good ball players, good men, I'd let them babysit my kids, so none of this is personal. The guys you mentioned, Parra, Ryal, Roberts, they all have a skill set that will keep them working in the game of baseball as players at the big-league level because they care and they work hard and they play the game close to or at the major-league talent level. But this club needs a little more, because the losing has become personal to the fans, and enough is enough. These guys, again, with a high talent level, may fit in better with another ball club, and maybe one or two of those spots are better served by guys with a little more service time."

The statistics might say a strikeout is no better or worse than any other out, but the performance of this team says otherwise, and watching over 162 games, Steve Gilbert said, "I really have a hard time accepting that a strikeout is just like any other out." "The strikeouts have been an ongoing problem," added Schulte, "combined with the inconsistency with runners in scoring position and the inability to advance runners." Indeed, it's less the fact that it's a "strikeout" and more the fact that the team doesn't advance runners and struggles with situational hitting and timely hits. There are five Diamondbacks in the top 20 strikeout leaders in major league baseball: Mark Reynolds, Adam LaRoche, Justin Upton, Chris Young, and Kelly Johnson. Just because Reynolds, Upton and Young are signed through at least 2013 doesn't make them immune to trades. "These guys are talented," assures Sutton. "Mark is a unique talent, he's a frustrating talent, but he's a unique talent. Justin's talented, we have to have him more healthy. Kelly and Adam and Chris, they're all talented. But maybe some of those talents can bring us back a different type of ball player that is needed now with the Diamondbacks." The warning from everybody I spoke with is: don't get too attached. "If you are attached to any players as a fan, and you love them, keep loving them," said Sutton, "but understand that they might not play here next year. Kevin is going to look at everything." Added Schulte: "I think he'll look at everybody and everybody's fair game, and if there's a deal to be made out there and he feels he can get a player that's better than the guy he's got here on this team, he'll go out and acquire that player." To cut down on the strikeouts, said Gilbert, "I think Towers will look to bring in more contact hitters. With that in mind, it would not surprise me to see Mark Reynolds moved during the offseason. Gibson is going to demand a changed approach at the plate particularly with two strikes." Personally, I agree and I wouldn't be surprised at all if Reynolds is traded for a starting pitcher or closer.

"The one guy I think you can say will absolutely, positively not be traded is Stephen Drew," Sutton mentioned. "You cannot trade a shortstop when you don't have a shortstop, and now that he is elevating himself to where he is one of the better shortstops in the national league, to me it'd be a foolish thing to do. If I were to guess and look into a crystal ball and say who won't be traded, that's the only guy I can mention." Greg Schulte listed Daniel Hudson as his one untouchable player, but agrees everybody else is fair game.

On Kirk Gibson

"Watching Gibby manage has been a bright part of the season," said Greg Schulte. "I think it's been interesting, and I don't think he's done all the things that he will do [now that he has] the job permanently. I think those who have watched him have just gotten a very small dose of what he will do [when] he takes over the job permanently." Sutton agrees. "We saw a different Gibby from bench coach to interim manager. I was wondering if I would see the Gibson I was used to - I didn't see him as much as a bench coach, that intensity, that almost wild drive, the gritting of the teeth that he has." I mentioned we called him "fiery" here at the SnakePit, and Sutton thought that was a great word. "That's the perfect word, "fiery." But, he was being respectful. He was subservient in that role of bench coach, which Ted Simmons told me, HAS to happen. You can't be stepping out and forcing your own agenda, it cannot happen. So I was concerned leading into that, but immediately I saw it - interim manager, there he is. Now, when he becomes the full-time manager, he has already hinted that even more stuff is going to come into place." "One of the more fascinating things to watch next year is how the team responds to Kirk Gibson," thinks Gilbert. "Gibby says he is going to be more demanding of them and it will be interesting to see whether players buy in to that or if they rebel." Sutton recalled that, "Gibby said in an interview with us on television that when he pushed a little bit and tried to implement some of the things that he said were mandatory, he had some pushback. For me, that's I think what will help to change the attitude, is the consistent change in expectations that we have seen around these parts for a few months now."

One follow-up on this subject that I didn't ask Daron Sutton but wish I had is, why the difference in a player or a manager's attitude between an interim manager and a manager? The "permanent" tag is no guarantee a player will listen to a manager any more than if he were interim; players know a manager can be fired at any time regardless, as evidenced by A.J. Hinch's 4-year contract cut short after little more than a year. I understand that Gibson may not have the time to implement everything he wanted, but why would he hold back as "interim" manager - would he not show all his cards so he can try to get the permanent job? And why would a player say to their current manager, "Well I don't know if you'll be my manager next year so I don't want to do what you ask"? Honest questions...

Bringing the Fans Back

I mentioned unnamedDbacksFan's report from his meeting with partial season ticket holders, Derrick Hall, and Luis Gonzalez, and how Derrick had mentioned one of the players traded this season was not fan-friendly. "That's called excuse-making to me," said Sutton, "and that's the kind of attitude that you don't need from any of your leaders, and that's why Derrick said it; you don't need it from a manager; you don't need it from a ballplayer. If there is anybody left with that attitude, they need to go too." And it sounds like, between Kirk Gibson and Kevin Towers, that shouldn't be as much of a problem going forward. "There are several examples of someone acting out of sorts, and Towers finding out about it, and him talking to the player, telling him pretty sternly that it was unacceptable, and then trading that player very quickly. So that ought to change the attitude," if it still exists, of any of these current players.

"This is a unique fan base, like every other fan base is; this is not Milwaukee, Chicago, or Boston. This is Arizona and we have a very unique and diverse fan base that needs to be won back. One of my favorite things that Gibby said, when he was asked about the crowd of 14,000 or 15,000 fans, he said, "I looked up and I said ‘God bless you fans, thank you for coming' now we need to earn more of you back."" I asked Daron Sutton what needs to be done to win these fans back and where he felt the organization was in that process. "Derrick Hall, all our employees, even our part time employees, they all do a great job. My daughter went to one of the last games of the season; we weren't on television, but my daughter went. She's a teenager, and there are so many things that excite them - television, the internet, music, her friends, she plays sports - and she had a blast at the game, and that made me so happy. She's not a regular attendee, and she's not necessarily a baseball fan just because her dad works in the business. Our organization, the game entertainment folks, the people down at Hungry Hill that sell you sandwiches, they do such a great job. So I'll answer your question and say, it's only winning that's left. It really is. There is a vibe in that park. We've gotten to the 2 million with a really bad baseball team in an economy that has stunk. Our ratings are still keeping our bosses happy on television, which means that people are still watching the baseball team. So I'll tell you now, winning's the only thing left. Because you've got your 2 million; if you want another half million to million, start winning."

Amen to that, Mr. Sutton. Start winning, boys, and start doing it in 175 days.

Big thanks to Greg Schulte, Daron Sutton and Steve Gilbert for chatting with me and/or emailing with me for this 2nd annual end-of-season interview. I hope the fans here have enjoyed hearing from a different perspective on the year we all had as fans of this team, and I hope it spurs some interesting discussions.