Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Disaster In The Desert

  • The Diamondbacks begin the housecleaning:

For weeks, the worst kept secret in baseball has been that the Diamondbacks were preparing to clear out the house of their foundation and any and all high-priced veteran players. The first shot was fired yesterday as they traded Conor Jackson to the Athletics for minor leaguer pitcher Sam Demel.

Symbolically, it's apropos that Jackson was the first domino to fall. Exemplifying the failed expectations and unraveling that has befallen the Diamondbacks in the time since a surprising division title and NLDS win in 2007, Jackson was once on the verge of blossoming into an All Star caliber player and has been undone by injuries, illness and failure. From 2006-2008, Jackson was a solid, but not spectacular, player. With 15 homer pop, good on-base ability and enough running speed to steal 10-15 bases, he was destined to be a useful cog in the machine. Now he's the first in the long line of Diamondbacks veterans on the way out the door.

It's long been asserted that the Diamondbacks 2007 NL West title was a fluke based on the team's poor run differential. In part due to the Padres late-season stumble; the rage-inducing decision by Padres manager Bud Black to start Jake Peavy on short rest to "finish" the Diamondbacks in early September of that year; and the blazing Rockies, the Diamondbacks rode the wave to the division title, dispatched the Cubs before falling to the Rockies in the NLCS.

Whipped into a frenzy by the perceived slight at the hands of Black----as if the Padres manager said, "yeah, Peavy can throw his glove out on the mound and beat that team"----along with the wild-eyed kamikaze Eric Byrnes raving like a lunatic, the Diamondbacks of 2007 were a combination of happenstance; determination and a club more than the sum of their parts.

They were a team on the rise.

With a young core, GM Josh Byrnes bolstered the starting rotation by adding Dan Haren and Randy Johnson to team with Brandon Webb for an impressive front three in the starting rotation; he improved the bullpen with Chad Qualls; and was aggressive in-season as he brought in Adam Dunn. Much like the surprising 2007 run, their good fortune from in that magical season ricocheted back on them. They were better than their 82-80 record; made some smart decisions to win immediately that didn't pan out.

By 2009, it became an avalanche. A team built on a young powerful starting rotation led by Webb and Haren and a bunch of journeyman cannot withstand losing one of those Cy Young Award-quality aces, but that's exactly what happened with Webb and his shoulder injury from which, a year-and-a-half later, he's yet to recover. The strategy was viable, it just hasn't worked.

Exacerbating the crash was the capricious and retrospectively ludicrous decision to blame manager Bob Melvin for the teamwide slumber and fire him in favor of a pure managerial neophyte, A.J. Hinch. Before he even took over, GM Byrnes placed a guillotine over Hinch's head with his insinuation that the duo would be more on the same page than Byrnes and Melvin. The 4-year contract for someone who'd never managed before at any level was bad enough; but the words "organizational advocacy" will forever haunt Hinch as long as he's managing the Diamondbacks.

Melvin was laid back and well-liked by the players and it was one thing to want to make a change, but to imply that a "yes man" was taking over as the conduit to the front office made it seem as if no one was going to have the backs of the player in the inevitable disputes----large and small----that crop up with every team. Hinch committed gaffes both strategic and inter-personal.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, Hinch was not a clueless, well-educated (Stanford) outsider who was installed as the manager to exercise the will of the front office----he did play in the big leagues----but the onus of those words, "organizational advocacy" will reverberate as long as he's in the dugout.

The maneuvers they made in the off-season acquiring Adam LaRoche, Kelly Johnson, Ian Kennedy, Edwin Jackson and Aaron Heilman made sense; but the Diamondbacks still didn't address their lingering issues in the bullpen, offensively or defensively. Even with the new starting pitchers, they were still dependant on the return of Webb; the hope was that they'd score enough runs to counteract any deficiencies.

In that division, it was a mistake. The offense, while powerful, is a streaky strikeout machine; the defense is awful; the bullpen is a catastrophe.

Now what?

It's been said that the only players off the table in trade talks are Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy. I agree on Upton. But on Kennedy? No.

With the Diamondbacks, Kennedy has been far better than I anticipated after his ballyhooed status as the third member----the "most polished" of the trio----with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain coming up the Yankees. But should some good work over the first 2 1/2 months of 2010 preclude him from even being discussed in a trade? No way.

Haren is locked up long-term (after this season, $29 million guaranteed through 2012) and doesn't have a no-trade clause; a week before the word started to leak that he could be had, I suggested that teams call and ask about him, just to see. The price will be steep, but Haren is more of a guarantee on and off the field than Roy Oswalt due to their age difference (Haren's 29; Oswalt is 33) and durability. Teams would be better-served to keep tabs on Haren before getting crazy in trading for Oswalt or renting Cliff Lee.

The Diamondbacks can make lemons into lemonade with the likes of LaRoche and Johnson, who are both signed to short-term, affordable deals and are playing well. Edwin Jackson could bring back some quality youth. If Webb can come back by late July, he could conceivably be a wild card trade chip for the short term; even if an interested club is dubious about his long-term health, he's a free agent at the end of the year it could be an advantageous situation for everyone from Webb, to the Diamondbacks and any team looking for a late-season boost in their starting rotation.

Many thought the Diamondbacks were going to contend this year. I didn't. There were too many holes; too much working against them. But to think that it was a foundational failure of the highest order is missing the context. Byrnes made some mistakes----most notably the Hinch hiring and subsequent public statements making him appear to be a puppet----but it wasn't due to ineptitude; just decisions that failed.

Conor Jackson, all-around example of what's caused the Diamondbacks downfall, is gone. Others are sure to follow. We'll see how they handle the teardown and whether their luck improves. That will be the true barometer of where the Diamondbacks are going; not some understandable and explainable calls that plainly and simply didn't work.

  • Punch his Hall of Fame ticket if he pulls that off:

As rancid as Jeff Suppan has been over the past three-plus years with the Brewers, it wasn't only performance that was at fault for his poor results; Suppan's stuff was never better than average. It was his control and cool that allowed him to perform so well in the post-season for the Cardinals; and the only years in his career when he was any better than a back-of-the-rotation starter were spent under the tutelage of Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa with the Cardinals.

After the Brewers released Suppan, he rejoined the Cardinals and started his first game last night, pitching 4 innings and allowing 1 run; as he grows acclimated to starting again after spending most of this season in the Brewers' bullpen, Suppan will be monitored and tweaked. Suppan always allowed a lot of hits and home runs, but his fall has been pronounced after getting a 4-year, $42 million contract from the Brewers coming off his NLCS MVP performance in 2006.

Now he's back with the Cardinals as a "familiar face", low-cost flier for rotation depth. Given the junk he's throwing now, if Duncan is able to rejuvenate Suppan to anything near what he was with the Cardinals the first time around, it's time to punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame. One has to wonder what it is that's different about Duncan as he continually reinvents pitchers who seemingly had nothing left.

Is it mental? Tactical? Physical?

What makes the attempt to rebuild Suppan have a greater backstory is that Suppan was coming from a Brewers team with a pitching coach----Rick Peterson----who has also achieved "guru" status because of his success with the likes of John Maine and Oliver Perez with the Mets; and the late Cory Lidle with the Athletics. If Duncan can fix Suppan while Peterson couldn't, it only raises Duncan's standing as the best of the best.

My podcast appearance with Jeff and his crew at the Red State Blue State podcast is now up and listenable on all sorts of outlets here-----link.

I'll also again be a guest with Sal at SportsFan Buzz tomorrow. 2010BaseballGuideCover.gif

I'm going multi-media!!!!

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and It's available for download as an E-book here. You can also now get it for less that five bucks on BN via download here.

If you underestimated my power----don't.


Jeff said...

I agree about Dunc getting that HOF ticket. The dude is a mad scientist. Watching Supp last night, my buddies and I were all jokin' about signing him long term... if anyone can take mediocrity and turn it into above average, it's Dunc. Even his kids do it (see Shelley Duncan's homer from the other night)!

And in my biased opinion, that RSBS Podcast, wow, that's just... badass.

She-Fan said...

You lost sleep over the Castillo dropped pop up? Well that's a newsbreaker right there! Good job on the podcast.