Building In the Desert
I'll concede, even after this week, that Mariano Rivera is the greatest postseason pitcher of all-time. Hopefully this week will not damage this reputation, despite his two blown saves in one of the most important series in his life. But my prediction is that despite these high-profile meltdowns, Rivera will stay recognized as the clear #1.
Why? History tells me so. There was another instance in recent history, when Rivera failed with everything on the line. When against another left-handed hitter, a little smaller build than David Ortiz, hit another ball up the middle to win a game. Luis Gonzalez fought off he best pitch in baseball narrowly over Derek Jeter's head, to make the Arizona Diamondbacks one of the best expansion franchises of all-time.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Only three years since upsetting the Yankees, the Diamondbacks became the worst team in baseball. First, to worst. Blame it on Jerry Colangelo's early preference for deferring contracts, or Joe Garagiola's terrible handling of Curt Schilling/Richie Sexson. Blame it on age, blame it on injury. But whoever is assigned the blame, the fact remains that Arizona is in a bad state.
Deferred contracts will keep Garagiola's spending at a minimum in the next 2-3 years, and possibly force him to trade his best asset: Randy Johnson. But there is a way for Arizona to get back on the saddle and become good again. And the answer lies within their farm system, which through a push towards collegiate players, has become one of the best in the game.
Before diving into the minor leagues, let's look at the youth in the Majors. The most prominent young Diamondback is Brandon Webb, famous in the sabermetric world as the pitcher that should have dethroned Dontrelle Willis. With Curt Schilling's trade last offseason, Garagiola was in effect leaving the 25-year-old Webb as the team's #2 starter. Things went fine in April, before a disastrous 0-4, 6.55 ERA in 6 May starts. Despite his 7-16 record, Webb finished the season well, with a 3.33 second half ERA. The problem? Walks. 119 in 208 innings is simply unacceptable.
Pardon the D-Backs for being excited about their youth in the bullpen, first with Jose Valverde, Oscar Villareal and Brandon Lyon, and later with Brian Bruney and Greg Aquino. The former three with huge disappointments, as Lyon failed to make an appearance, and neither Valverde nor Villareal topped the 30 appearances mark. Bruney was solid in 30 appearances, though 27 walks in 31.1 innings is not acceptable. Aquino was great, leaving some to wonder what the Hell had happened in AAA before, where his ERA had topped 6.00.
The rotation saw some disastrous performances from the likes of Casey Fossum, Edgar Gonzalez and Andrew Good this season. This group combined was 5-26, mostly thanks to Fossum's 15 losses. Mike Gosling was decent towards the end of the season, and in this organization, decent is enough to get you a second chance. He's a mediocre pitcher, somewhat reminiscent of Jim Parque, the old Chicago White Sox southpaw.
Let's move to the defense behind the pitcher, which saw some the same lack of advances in the youth department. Shea Hillenbrend kept pretending he was decent, while Chad Tracy hit .285 in more than 400 at-bats. Scott Hairston had an ISO of .194 in his rookie season, though he must start making better contact. After those two...nothing.
Luis Terrero: .245. Robby Hammock: .241. Juan Brito: .205. Matt Kata: .247. Josh Kroeger: .167. There are more, I just felt like sparing you. This is a team that needs a complete overhaul in the coaching department, and needs to find the next Mike Maddux and Eddie Murray.
Down in the minors, things aren't half as grim. The season started with the aforementioned Josh Kroeger as the star, where he hit .331/.393/.588 before doing more of the same in the Pacific Coast League. Up to take his spot were Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin, fresh off their domination of the California League. It was Quentin that played better, hitting .357/.443/.533 in 210 at-bats. Remember, his OBP is quite dependent on HBP, of which he took a record number this season. But still, Quentin, Jackson and Kroeger profile as a sensational outfield, and give reason for the D-Backs to trade Luis Gonzalez.
But it wasn't only outfielders in the Texas League, because Sergio Santos saw them all. A growing 20-year-old shortstop, Santos was extremely young for the TL, but kept afloat with the advanced pitching. He hit .282/.332/.461 for the season, showing good contact and power skills, with plate discipline being his obvious flaw. Some are also concerned for his defense, because he made 24 errors in just 87 games at shortstop.
In fact, some say conern over Santos' future position led to the Diamondbacks first round selection of Stephen Drew, commonly referred to as the best college hitter in the country out of FSU. Brother of Tim and J.D., Stephen shows athleticism that bests both brothers, while a stick that has drawn comparisons to both Rickie Weeks and Mark Teixeira. He remains unsigned, though Baseball America has recently reported the sides are zeroing in on an agreement. But, scouts also don't believe Drew will stick at shortstop, saying second base or centerfield are better spots for him.
If they move Santos and Drew, who's the next shortstop? How about Justin Upton, the consensus best player of the 2005 draft? I've always been one to say that I think Arizona plans on leaving Santos at shortstop, and will not spend the money on Upton come next June. Instead, I think the team will stay conservative, choosing one of the better collegiate hitters in the country. Upton should drop to the Mariners, who will proudly spend $8M on another shortstop prospect.
There isn't a lot of pitching in the Diamondback system, or at least seen through statistics, as the D-Backs' affiliates all have hitter's parks. Two with a lot of clout are Dustin Nippert and Bill Murphy, the latter of which was acquired in a deadline deal for Steve Finley. Nippert is a tall right-hander with big stuff, though his H/9 was over 9.00 in the Texas League. Murphy fell apart out of the Southern League, and is a prospect I've always felt is greatly overrated. But the Diamondbacks glut in the outfield, as well as potential trade victim Randy Johnson, could potentially add a lot of young pitching to this organization.
TO end today, here are the Diamondbacks ten best prospects, without Stephen Drew: Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin, Sergio Santos, Josh Kroeger, Dustin Nippert, Chris Snyder (C Prospect), Bill Murphy, Jon Zeringue (OF prospect), Enrique Gonzalez (high-A pitcher), Koyie Hill (C prospect).