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Diamondbacks in Spring Training: Sorting the Rotation

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The Arizona Diamondbacks are moving into spring training: pitchers and catchers are already there, with the rest of the squad due to join them at SRF@TS by the weekend. With about six weeks to go until Opening Day, some things still remain to be sorted out, and will likely be decided over the course of the Cactus League. In this series of article, we'll break down those issues, in no particular order, and see if there's any early indication from management what way they are leaning.

The general consensus going into sprring appears to be that the Opening Day five for Arizona will be: Joe Saunders, Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Zach Duke and Armando Galarraga. This is based on a combination of performance and salary - once the season has begun, we can't send Duke, Saunders or Galarraga to the minors without significant issues. That would seem, initially, to make it hard for the players on the outside of the depth chart, Barry Enright and Aaron Heilman, to make it into the rotation. I believe the team could, theoretically, cut Duke before Opening Day, and only have to pay him a fraction of the $3.5 million due. But how bad would Duke have to be in spring for that to happen?

However, neither Enright nor Heilman are taking this lying down.For the latter, it's a somewhat different situation, since he will simply slot into the bullpen if he doesn't crack the rotation. But Heilman's off-season program seems to have been geared towards improving his stamina (and, perhaps incidentally, losing weight!): "Being a starter it's more of a marathon, more endurance and you have to have your legs under you the whole game. It doesn't do you any good to have your legs under you for the first four innings if you can't get through the fifth. You've got to get your arm and body in shape to go six, seven, eight, nine innings."

Meanwhile, Enright is keen to bring it on. You can only admire the spirit expressed in the following quotes concerning the upcoming battle.

"I'd like it no other way... I believe that until you're a 10-year big-leaguer or something like that, you've got to earn that spot and earn everything you've got here. I don't want anything ever handed to me. I just want a fair shot. I told Gibby and the guys that I'm going to give it everything I've got. I'm ready to compete. For me, I think competition will make me better and everybody better. Coming in and not feeling that sense of comfort isn't always a bad thing. I've never really been handed anything throughout baseball and throughout my life."

Enright also discussed his struggles at the end of last year: "It was tough to kind of go through that, to struggle, and the mental part of why can’t I get out of this, why’s it two starts, three starts instead of just one? There’s always going to be hiccups, always a bad start here and there, and you find yourself in those starts who you really are. Anyone can pitch when you feel great or you’re throwing perfect, but when you get that confidence hit a little bit or that little tough patch, it’s how you handle it." But almost regardless of how well he pitches, those minor-league options he has remaining may prove insurmountable.

The other main question is mostly an honor rather than meaningful: how will the rotation be ordered, and who will get to start for the Diamondbacks on Opening Day? Seniority dictates it would be Zach Duke, who made his debut in July 2005, the month before Joe Saunders, and whose 159 starts are easily the most of any candidate (Saunders has 128, with Galarraga third, on 78). Duke also has started the first game of the season three times before, in 2007, 2008 and 2010, while with the Pirates; Saunders was the Opening Day starter for the Angels in 2009. However, does anyone, outside their immediate family, regard either man as our "best" starter?

It doesn't seem to be something which Kirk Gibson has given much though to at this point. He said, "We're going to set our rotation up the best way we think that's going to be best for our team. There's other things to consider -- lefties, righties, does [this] guy throw hard, is he a control guy, is he a location guy. That's not something I'm focused on." Things in this area appear likely to come more into focus during the second half of spring training: probably after the Diamondbacks' Cactus League off-day on March 14th, as we move towards Opening Day.

It is worth noting the schedule for Arizona is pretty relaxed in the first half of April. After we start on the 1st, we have off-days on the 7th, 14th and 18th, before beginning a stretch of 13 games in 13 days, to take us through the start of May. So there will be some scope for avoiding a fifth starter if we wanted to do so. While we need one for the middle game of the series in Cincinnati on April 5th, we could keep everyone on regular, and still go without using a #5 again, until April 25th against the Phillies. However, the question of who would such a #5 for the the Diamondbacks, seems little clearer than who is the #1.