Well, there I was, all set up to list the things we Diamondbacks fans should be keeping an eye on over the course of spring training. And then, what does Nick Piecoro do on Wednesday? Top 10 Diamondbacks story lines for spring. Sheesh. Not only does he steal my idea, he does twice as many as I was going to. The nerve of these professionals! [Shakes fist in the direction of the Republic offices]
Of course, I kid. I'm sure every team under the sun has got one of those going up this week, as the trucks arrive at their destinations in Florida and Arizona - Steve Gilbert also wrote one, though he at least had the good grace to stop at three... I could probably stick my fingers in my ears, la-la-la loudly and pretend never to have seen their lists. But a bit more interesting would be to see where my list of five showed up in their rankings - and then add five more things which didn't make either article. Just because I can. :-) After the jump, we'll get started on that.
1. Health check (Piecoro ranking: 1, Gilbert ranking: 1)
It's unanimous, andz here's why: one-quarter of the sixteen players who played for Arizona on Opening Day last year ended the season on the Disabled List: Brandon Webb, Chris Snyder, Conor Jackson and Chad Qualls. All of them will be important to the team's results this campaign, none more so than ace Webb, whose progress through spring training will be closely monitored. We probably should be more concerned with his health and how he feels and looks, than the actual numbers: from 2006-09, Webb's combined spring ERA was 5.62 (26 earned runs in 41.2 IP), and those three seasons ended up okay
That would go for the other rehabilatees too. How does Snyder look behind the plate after his back surgery? Is his range of motion, stretching or throwing in any way hindered? Jackson: how is his energy level? Can he play on multiple consecutive days without ill-effects? Is Qualls' knee fully recovered, to the point where he can be relied upon to pitch the ninth inning of close games? Of course, getting through spring without any additions to the DL would also be nice. [Random factoid: I noticed that of those sixteen Opening Day players, almost half - seven of them - are no longer with the club.]
2. Fundamentals (Piecoro ranking: 2)
This is something whose importance was made clear in our interview with Josh Byrnes, where he said, "We've talked a lot about using it to set the stage for the season. Let's get team fundamentals, philosophy, our culture established during that time, because whoever you are, asserting your identity on your opponent is part of winning and I think we've lost that. So we need to get down there and get to work, and have a spring training that's about establishing who we are."
Nick Piecoro points in particular to defense, saying "getting into good habits in spring training is the best way to start." I tend to think that this, while undoubtedly significant, is only one part of the bigger picture. Think back to Mark Reynolds' blowing up on July 3rd. "Physical errors are fine, but guys loafing, guys not being where they're supposed to be or guys giving up on ABs, it's not acceptable at any level." That's what I'll be keeping an eye out for in the games. As Byrnes also said, "I don't think that we have so much talent, that we can be sloppy and win."
3. The back-end of the rotation (Piecoro ranking: 4 + 7; Gilbert ranking: 2)
The latter is where Nick mention our projected #4, Ian Kennedy, but only seems to think that the #5 spot is up for grabs, with Billy Buckner being the front-runner at the moment. While I do tend to agree with that, it doesn't seem to me that Kennedy is absolutely secured in his rotation spot; Byrnes' comments tend to put him in the second group of starters, competing for spots #4-5. This uncertainly would make sense, given Kennedy is largely unproven, with only a dozen major-league starts in his career - and given an ERA in those games of 6.14, he didn't exactly set the world on fire in those.
That said, I think it would take something fairly spectacular for Kennedy not to be on the Opening Day roster. Even if Kennedy blows chunks in the Cactus League, there would be PR damage if the other half of the Scherzer trade was found wanting, before the season even began. Kennedy will stand or fall on his results once the season begins. As for Buckner, he performed solidly in September, but needs to show that's his skill, not because he feated on a load of roster call-ups. For Buckner had the lowest OPS of batters faced among any Arizona arm with 20 IP, ranking #263 of 273 in the NL.
4. Shaking down the bullpen (Piecoro ranking: 8; Gilbert ranking: 3)
Outside of Qualls, who seems set to return to the closer's role he occupied until the final month of last season, there seems to be a lot of potential volatiility as to roles and usage. Veterans Aaron Heilman and Bob Howry will contend with Juan Gutierrez for work in the eighth inning. As all three are right-handed, it appears there will be limited opportunity to playing match-ups there. It's possible we could also see Clay Zavada thrown into the mix, though his splits last year were better against RHB than LHB.
Towards the back of the bullpen, there are some questions to be answered too. With Blaine Boyer looking assured of a spot, at this point, it seems that the final place in our relief corps is between Zach Kroenke and Leo Rosales. Neither can be removed from the roster without ramifications: the former is a rule 5 draft pick, while the latter is out of options and would need to clear waivers. However, it's possible we could keep an eighth reliever on the roster, allowing us to retain both men's services.
5. The comeback kids (Piecoro ranking: 6)
Not so much the injured players, as those who had disappointing season in 2009: particularly, Chris Young and new arrival, Kelly Johnson. The former struggled mighting for most of the season, but a spell in Triple-A did seem to help, with his numbers significantly improved on his retiurn, giving some hope for the year ahead, albeit over a small sample size. Unfortunately, I do not believe the published Cactus League statistics include infield fly ratio - that's probably the most important early metric by which Young's performance should be gauged.
Not listed in my top 5, but appearing on Piecoro's list. #3: Hinch's camp. #5: Roster crunch. #9: Catching carousel. #10: Deployment options. All of them are certainly worth following, but below- as a special SnakePit Bonus! - are five more things to look out for
It's going to be interesting to see whether Hinch uses a different line-up against left- and right-handed starters - though given, initially, opposing starters are only going a couple of innings, it may take some time for this to settle down. Almost every spot on the diamond bar 3B has a potential left- and right-handed hitter, with the likes of Ryan Roberts, Snyder, the switch-hitting Tony Abreu and Gerardo Parra providing alternatives to our left-handed infield and right-handed outfield. We should get some idea of how much Hinch intends to use them, and which positions see most platooning.
2. A contract for Reynolds?
There's been discussion of late, both here and elsewhere, about the possibility of locking up Mark Reynolds and/or Justin Upton to long-term contracts. With Edwin Jackson safely steered away from arbitration, we could hear more about this - the team seems inclined to sort such things out before Opening Day, to avoid distractions thereafter. Reynolds seems more likely, having said recently, "I think the week of the 15th there's going to be some formal offers made," so after allowing time for consideration, we may see something becomes public in the next week or two.
3. Lining up the Diamondbacks
This is an area that's probably less important in terms of actual production than it feels, but it'll still be interesting to see how things unfold. It seems likely we will see a somewhat fluid line-up, particularly depending on the opposing pitcher. Even if we don't see actual platooning, I would expect the likes of Stephen Drew, for example, to bat lower in the line-up against left-handers. Be interesting to see if the total number of batting orders used approaches last season, when 144 different ones were used through spots #1-8 alone.
4. It's the economy, stupid
Last year, Cactus League attendance per game dropped by 13.7%, to its lowest for several years. This foreshadowed a 6.5% drop in major-league attendance, to its lowest since 2004. This season, there'll be no World Baseball Classic games to boost overall totals, but the Cincinnati Reds will arrive in town. Has the economy bounced back, or is it still bumping along the bottom? The attendance numbers we see this season may give us our first indicators of what the big clubs can expect in 2010.
5. Last spring in Tucson
And, hence, appropriately last on the list here. It's startling to think that that only a couple of years ago, there were three Cactus League teams in the town - but as of Opening Day, there'll be none. From a Phoenician's perspective, I can't say I'll miss the drive down I-10 - that could be a scary freeway, especially when a 16-wheeler doing 85 is coming up behind and you've got nowhere to go. But there's still the sense that it's the end of an era: I hope the Diamondbacks still do make some road trips down there: if they can make it to Hermosillo (I note tickets for that game start at only $2!), they can surely reach Tucson. They are the Arizona Diamondbacks after all.
How many spring training games will you be going to?
This poll is closed
0 - I live outside Arizona
0 - I do live in Arizona, am just not going
1 - Because it's there
2-4 - It's an important part of March
5+ - Anytime, anyplace, anywhere!