Springtime Storylines: Is character and passion enough for the Arizona Diamondbacks?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The new-look Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Big Question: Is character and passion enough for the Diamondbacks?

This is Kirk Gibson’s team now, and it only took me two days around Diamondbacks camp at the end of February to get that there is a new sheriff in town. A lot of managers talk about “playing the game the right way” and stuff, but Gibson lives it and breathes it. One gets the sense that, from the time he wakes up in the morning until the time he goes to bed at night — assuming he sleeps — that he’s making eliminating horsesh– baseball his overriding goal. Gibson doesn’t seem to be addicted to Ecksteinian grinders or anything, but clearly values a certain attitude. And he hates bad defense. Oh, and cell phones. Dude HATES cell phones.

There is a real emphasis on character on the Diamondbacks, and it’s not just a Kirk Gibson thing. GM Kevin Towers gave an interview to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick last week in which extolled the virtues of “character, passion and desire.” And in terms of how good and how respected they were as players themselves, the Dbacks may have the most notable coaching staff in baseball. Matt Williams, Alan Trammell, Don Baylor, Eric Young and Gibson himself were all guys that Gibson would have loved to manage and who, at one time or another, were likely described as men who “played the game the right way.”

But will this make any difference? Hard to see how, because with a couple of exceptions we’ll mention below, this is the same Diamondbacks team that lost 97 games last year. They shipped out two guys who didn’t fit the new mold in Dan Haren and Mark Reynolds, but those guys actually have some baseball value too. They brought in some veteran presence, but that veteran presence — Melvin Mora, Xavier Nady, Henry Blanco and Geoff Blum — isn’t exactly going to make a competitive difference.

Which isn’t to say that the team didn’t need an attitude adjustment. Indeed, based on a lot of the stories that came out of the A.J. Hinch-era Dbacks, an attitude adjustment was necessary.  But it’s certainly not sufficient, and I fail to see how, exactly, the Dbacks are all that better off from a competitive perspective in 2011 than they were in 2010.  And I imagine in an unguarded moment that Kirk Gibson would admit that. Not that Kirk Gibson ever has any unguarded moments.

So what else is going on?

  • There are a lot of new faces at the corners, with first base looking to be some combination of Juan Miranda and Russell Branyan, third base some combination of Melvin Mora and Geoff Blum and left field some combination of Xavier Nady, Brandon Allen and, heck maybe even Wily Mo Pena.  Given how much Gibson is said to disdain strikeouts and bad defense, you might guess who among those guys will see the most playing time.
  • Ian Kennedy is probably going to be the Opening Day starter. Probably would have been Joe Saunders if he hadn’t missed time for being sick.  Not exactly an inspiring one-two punch. Really, though, Daniel Hudson — who I love — is poised to be the team’s ace.  This is a rotation that will miss having Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson around. It’s a staff that’s gonna get beat up a lot.
  • The bullpen was a crime against humanity last year. Thankfully, Kevin Towers has shown over the course of his career that he may be the best bullpen-building GM in the game. Adding J.J. Putz as the closer will certainly help, but he can’t do it all.  Towers’ kung-fu notwithstanding, the pen still looks to be a pretty weak spot.
  • Justin Upton took a step back in 2010, mostly in the power department. There are rumblings that he’s going to try to use more of the field this year rather than pull the ball and that he’s going to run more.  He’s still only 23, so it’s not surprising his power is still a bit erratic. I just hope this focusing on other stuff isn’t an effort to deemphasize his power game.

So how are they gonna do?

Badly! Last place in the NL West. But they’ll be playing badly The Right Way. And who could ask for anything more?

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 8, Cubs 4: Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 Cubs in seven innings on a day when they had to cut Miguel Montero to head off clubhouse strife and had to meet Donald Trump. Opinions may vary as to which of those — the Ks, the strife or the Trump — was the worst part. Washington built a 5-0 lead after two innings and a 6-0 lead after three. Anthony Rendon, Matt Wieters and Daniel Murphy all homered for Washington. Trea Turner stole a base. Willson Contreras managed not to slam his teammates for it afterward, so I guess that’s progress. The Cubs have lost four of six and are back down to .500. Oh, and they lost Kris Bryant to an ankle sprain. That may actually be the worst thing about the day.

Pirates 6, Rays 2: Josh Bell homered, Jose Osuna doubled twice and drove in two runs and Elias Diaz added two hits and drove in two of his own. Bell’s homer tied a rookie record for the Pirates: he’s only the second Buccos rookie, after Ralph Kiner, to have 15 homers before the All-Star break. After the game he said this:

“It’s cool to be mentioned in the same sentence as a great like that,” Bell said. “So hopefully more to come. Just going to keep trucking along.”

It’s cool that he knows who Ralph Kiner is. But does he know who Jerry Seinfeld is?

Phillies 5, Mariners 4: Down 4-3 in the ninth, the Phillies rallied for two, coming via a home run from Tommy Joseph and an RBI single from Tyler Knapp. The M’s lose both games of the short, two-game series and have now lost four in a row. Every time they look like they’re about to right the ship, they seem to get blown off course.

Giants 5, Rockies 3: Jae-Gyun Hwang got called up just before he would’ve been able to opt out of his deal with San Francisco and head back to Korea where he could make some serious bank. But he debuted yesterday and wouldn’t you know it he hit a tie-breaking homer in the sixth inning. Welcome to the majors. After the game his teammates gave him a beer shower. He said “I was actually more surprised about how cold the beer was.” Welcome to America.

Yankees 12, White Sox 3: A good day for rookies making their big league debut, as Miguel Andujar — an infielder, playing DH last night — had three hits and drove in four. Aaron Judge, a grizzled old man by comparison, hit his 27th homer. Masahiro Tanaka allowed two runs over six as the Yankees romped.

Mets 8, Marlins 0: Steven Matz — an uninjured Mets starter — tossed seven shutout innings and Asdrubal Cabrera and Curtis Granderson each hit two-run homers. The Mets have 50 homers in June, the most in a calendar month by any team since 2006. They’re also 12-14 in June, so it takes more than homers I suppose.

Astros 11, Athletics 8: Josh Reddick and George Springer had three hits each and combined for five RBI. The A’s hit five homers with two from Khris Davis — who hits two homers all the dang time, it seems –and one each from Ryon Healy, Matt Olson and Jed Lowrie. The A’s also struck out 17 times so it takes more than homers I suppose.

Blue Jays 4, Orioles 0: Marcus Stroman pitched five-hit ball into the eighth inning and Jose Bautista and Justin Smoak homered. Bautista later knocked in a run on a fielder’s choice. Bautista has been hitting leadoff for a little over a week. He’s 11-for-29 with a couple of homers, six RBI and four walks. Not too shabby.

Twins 4, Red Sox 1: Rookie lefty Adalberto Mejia shut out the Sox for five and two-thirds innings and the Twins bullpen was steady. Max Kepler singled in a run and hit a two-run shot. That’s Mejia’s second scoreless start, having blanked the Indians for five innings a in his last outing. Those are two good offenses to be shutting out.

Indians 5, Rangers 3: Trevor Bauer outdueled Yu Darvish, allowing one run over six and a third to Darvish’s three runs — two earned — over six. All of the Indians runs came on RBI singles, two from Michael Brantley. Texas mounted a mini rally in the ninth off of Cody Allen via an Elvis Andrus homer and a Rougned Odor RBI single, but it was little, too late.

Royals 8, Tigers 2: Sal Perez and Alex Gordon each drove in three, Perez with a two-run homer and an RBI double, Gordon with a single, a double and a run scoring groundout. Mike Moustakas went deep as well, as part of a four-run fourth inning. Ian Kennedy allowed two runs over seven steady innings. Kansas City is only two and a half back in the Central.

Reds 4, Brewers 3: Down 2-1 in the third, Scooter Gennett hit a two-run homer to put the Reds ahead, but Travis Shaw tied it at three late in the game with a homer. Billy Hamilton helped manufacture the go-ahead run, however, leading off the bottom of the eighth with a walk, stealing second, stealing third and that scoring on Adam Duvall‘s infield single. That’s what speed do. Bad news for the Brewers, as they lost starter Chase Anderson to a strained oblique in the second inning.

Cardinals 4, Diamondbacks 3Adam Wainwright pitched into the seventh inning, allowing two runs, and Yadier Molina and Jedd Gyorko each drove in two. Trevor Rosenthal got the save, but it was rocky as he uncorked a couple of wild pitches and allowed a run. This a game after he allowed two runs and the Cards bullpen blew a late lead and the game. There’s always something to worry about in baseball, even if you win.

Angels 3, Dodgers 2: Down 2-0 in the eighth, Trayce Thompson homered and down 2-1 in the ninth Yasmani Grandal homered to tie things up for the Dodgers. Then, in the ninth, the dang wheels came off. Ben Revere reached on an error and then reached second base on a wild pitch by Pedro Baez. Baez bore down to strike out Cameron Maybin for the inning’s second out, but the ball got away from Grandal, Maybin sprinted for first and then Grandal threw the ball away, allowing Revere to score all the way from second. What a way to lose a game.

Padres 7, Braves 4: Luis Perdomo pitched five scoreless innings and Hunter Renfroe and Cory Spangenberg each knocked in two. Bartolo Colon came back off the DL and allowed six runs over four innings to lose it. Guys: his injury was not an oblique or whatever the Braves said it was. He was suffering from acute puncture wounds due to the giant fork stuck in his back and severe burns because the man is toast.

Kris Bryant exits game with sprained right ankle

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The Cubs had a scare on Wednesday night when third baseman Kris Bryant left with an apparent ankle injury. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Nationals catcher Matt Wieters hit a pop up that veered just into foul territory near the third base bag. Bryant caught it but his momentum took him back into fair territory. In doing so, he stepped awkwardly on the third base bag and appeared to twist his ankle. Bryant needed the assistance of manager Joe Maddon and the team trainer to get off the field.

Bryant was diagnosed with a mild ankle sprain, CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney reports.

Bryant was 2-for-3 on the night before departing and being replaced by Jeimer Candelario. He’s now hitting .264/.395/.520 with 16 home runs and 32 RBI in 329 plate appearances. Needless to say, the 39-39 Cubs would see their playoff odds hurt immensely if Bryant were to miss a significant amount of time.