I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Two summers ago the Diamondbacks traded Dan Haren to the Angels for Joe Saunders, Patrick Corbin, Rafael Rodriguez and a player to be named later. That’s a good deal for the Angels. Two weeks later the player to be named was named as Tyler Skaggs. Not such a good deal for the Angels anymore. Sometimes players to be named later are players to be stars later. Skaggs is a left-handed pitcher who won’t be 21 until July, but he’s already reached AA and dominated every stop of the way. Last year, he fanned 198 in 158.1 innings and walked only 49. He’s one of two five-star pitching prospects the D’backs have: Trevor Bauer, the third player taken in the 2011 draft, may be the first to make it to the majors. Skaggs won’t lag far behind.
What is this man doing here? Jason Lane hit 26 home runs and helped the Astros win the NL pennant in 2005. Since then, he’s fallen as far as the Astros. He hit .201 and .178 the next two seasons, and the Astros sent him to the Padres, for whom he had two major-league at-bats in 2007, his most recent. He’s spent the last four years in the minors, with four organizations (one twice) and one independent team, and distinguished himself at none. He’s 35 and has hit just 49 home runs in the last four seasons combined. We’re not sure what the D’backs hope to get from Lane, unless it’s to build their other outfielders’ confidence.
What he said: Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson on injured shortstop Stephen Drew: “He’s probably not going to be ready (for the start of the season). I don’t know how long. Don’t keep asking me. When he’s ready, you’ll know.” What he meant: “You think I’m playing Willie Bloomquist because I want to? Any other stupid questions?”
Outlook: The Diamondbacks were baseball’s most-improved team last year, going from 65 wins to 94 (their first-round NLDS opponent, Milwaukee, was next best with a 19-game improvement). That’s two more games than the D’backs won in their World Series-winning season of 2001, and third-most ever.
(Sidebar: The 1999 D’backs won 100 games for manager Buck Showalter in the regular season, then just one in the playoffs, as Mets fans remember. It’s one of two playoff teams Showalter has managed — the 1995 Yankees are the other — and neither has won a payoff series. Bon chance, Orioles fans).
The D’backs might have been baseball’s most fluid team last year, as well. They turned over three-fourths of their infield during the season — two positions by choice, one by injury — never found a fifth starter and never developed much bullpen depth. They also had more obstacles to overcome: Zach Duke (4.93 ERA, 101 hits in 76.2 innings), Aaron Heilman (6.88 ERA in 35.1 innings), Bloomquist (.657 OPS).
That’s a testimony to the D’backs’ biggest assets — starting pitching, power, top end of the bullpen and the Giants’ inability to score more runs than every team south of Seattle.
The D’backs’ changes for 2012 are subtle: Trevor Cahill becomes the fifth starter (fourth after he supersedes Josh Collmenter), 41-year-old Takashi Saito provides bullpen depth until he’s injured, Jason Kubel adds offense in left field and makes Gerardo Parra the fourth outfielder.
As long as the Giants are offensively challenged, the D’backs are the division’s best team. But you have to wonder if Collmenter (3.38 ERA in 154.1 innings) can be as good, if Cahill (career 3.91 ERA in Oakland) is worth the raise that prompted Billy Beane to trade him, if ex-part-time DH Kubel can play the field full-time, if Ryan Roberts, whose 19 homers and 66 walks at age 31 were more than his combined career totals to date, won’t regress, and if Aaron Hill will be the player who hit .225 over 104 games to get traded out of Toronto or the one who hit .315 in 33 games at Arizona. Not to mention how long Drew’s bad ankle will keep Bloomquist in the lineup.
That’s a lot to think about, even if Kirk Gibson probably doesn’t want to talk about it. However, as 2011 proved, the D’backs can make it up as they go.
Team song: Maria Muldaur: Midnight at the Oasis