Saturday, September 02, 2006

5 Questions with the Diamondbacks

Puny leetle rainouts are no match for 5 Questions With...

Two-headed Snake Edition!

The Nationals were supposed to begin a three-game series with the Arizona Diamondbacks tonight at RFK, but the whole tropical storm thing was kind of a hassle. It didn't stop Curly W from exchanging questions with Jim at AZ Snake Pit and Matt at Diamondhacks. I asked them different questions and posted them all up below. You can see our responses to AZ Snake Pit here and Diamondhacks here. Don't be afraid to go over there and drop a comment on their Nationals post (AZ Snake Pit requires registration).

My questions for Jim:

Curly W: the NL West is incredibly tight, with last place Colorado only 9-1/2 games back. Did you expect the NL West to be so competitive? The Dbacks are 64-69, 7 games back with 29 games to go. Do they have any hope of catching the Dodgers?

AZ Snake Pit: Realistically, no. We'd need to go 17-12 the rest of the way, even to reach .500: if the Dodgers play .500 ball down the stretch, we would need to go 22-7 to catch up with them. That would take a serious winning streak, and we haven't had more than two victories in a row since July 22nd. We still have a slim chance at the wild card, but there are so many teams involved there, that we'd need some serious help. I did expect the NL West to be a tight race, but I didn't think it would be quite so close, this late.

Curly W: what's your take on GM Josh Byrnes and Manager Bob Melvin? How about the ownership?

AZ Snake Pit: I like Byrnes - for the first time in a long while, I've felt there's been a long-term plan in place for the team. He's done a good job of putting a competitive team out there, while not trading away the core of the future: by 2008, I expect the Diamondbacks to be serious contenders, not just for the division, but deep into the playoffs too. Melvin, I've been less impressed with: he seems to lack strength in certain areas, particularly dealing with veterans like Luis Gonzalez, who simply does not deserve to be playing every day. His in-game management and lineup construction skills also leave a bit to be desired too, so I was surprised Melvin was given a contract extension in the middle of this year. But I don't think it will make that much difference

The arrival of Byrnes has, I think, completed the transition from the old guard to the new - we've got rid of Shawn Green and the disaster which was Russ Ortiz, who were the last long-term contracts of the previous management. The new owners have, I think learned their lesson, and will not be leaping into any more questionable deals like those, without due consideration and advise from the appropriate quarters. We will certainly not see the "Spend! Spend! Spend!" approach of the Colangelo era - we are *still* paying off a large chunk of deferred salaries, to people who aren't even with the club any more. While that did get us a World Series, it was absolutely no recipe for long-term survival, and the new owners seem to appreciate that totally

Curly W: is this the last season for Eric Byrnes in Arizona? I've also heard Luis Gonzales has a $10 million team option for next season. What do these guys mean to the franchoise and are they gone? What / who's on your offseason wishlist?

AZ Snake Pit: Gonzalez's team option won't be picked up. He *may* come back at a lower price: he does want to finish his career here, but the sticking point is, he still wants to be an everyday player. The departure of Shawn Green does help his cause, in that we could use a veteran in the outfield (CF and RF being manned for 2007 by rookies Chris Young and Carlos Quentin), but Byrnes could fill the spot in LF, possibly better than Gonzalez. Luis is still the face of the franchise, and no-one gets louder applause at home games, but I hope management has the courage to bite the bullet and say, "We'd love to have you, but only on our terms."

As for off-season wants, we'd like some starting pitching, starting pitching - and then maybe some starting pitching. Brandon Webb has stepped up and shown himself to be a legitimate #1 this year, but behind him, we have a bunch of questionmarks. We can fill out the back end without too much problem [Juan Cruz will likely return to the rotation in 2007, and Livan Hernandez too], but we need at least one, ideally two, top-tier pitchers. Those will probably need to be acquired through trades, since we don't have the money to compete with more affluent franchises. Which brings me nicely to...

Curly W: Washington is brand new again to baseball, and will be trying to find its way in the league over the next few years by way of ticket sales and ownership spending. Arizona is not a 'major market team' by conventional assessment. Has the size of the Dbacks market hurt the team's ability to attract and pay for talent? Do you favor salary caps, luxury taxes and other financial controls on teams' spending, or does the market take care of itself?

AZ Snake Pit: It does impose constraints, but no insurmountable ones. It's really a question of spending wisely, and if you do that, then it is still possible to compete. If you can't afford to indulge in free agency, then you have to devote the resources to your farm system, and develop the players from within. We've been fortunate in that aspect, and it's quite likely that seven of our Opening Day nine next year will have made their major-league debuts with Arizona. [Hudson at 2B, and whoever plays in LF, being the exceptions]

That also helps, because a deep farm system gives you prospects who can be used in trades. As noted, we can't compete with the Yankees or Red Sox when it comes to buying free agents, but if a team is looking to trade for prospects, we are in a great position to do so. I think that's what will happen with regard to getting a #2 pitcher: expect us to do a deal for a starter under contract, but probably get him to sign a contract extension for us at the same time.

On the whole, I think the current system seems to work okay. I like the luxury tax, as it imposes penalties for extreme spending - hello, George Steinbrenner! But there is more than one way to win: it's amazing to me that the Marlins are still in the wild-card hunt, with a $15m payroll, and only two players earning more than one million.The Padres, Twins and A's are all also teams in the bottom-half, payroll wise, but are in with a legitimate shot at post-season baseball, which is good to see.

Curly W: how's that Livan Hernandez thing working out for you guys?

AZ Snake Pit: Hernandez v2.0 [as we call him, since we had his brother, Orlando, here earlier in the year!] has been okay. He's only 1-3 with a 4.88 ERA, but he has given us almost seven innings per start, and that's really why he was acquired. Outside of him and Webb, we've been getting an average of only 5 1/2 innings per game from our starters, which has put a lot of pressure on the bullpen.

Opponents have been hitting .327 off Livan in his four starts so far, and that's too high, especially playing half your games in Chase Field, which has been a serious hitter's park this year. If he can get that down, he could be a solid #3 for next year, providing a much-needed dependable arm in the rotation


And now my questions for Matt:

Curly W: the Dbacks just went 5-11 in a brutal stretch against division rivals. Are they wheezing out the season, or is there still hope they could dig out a playoff spot?

Diamondhacks: Interest and hope have dried up here in the desert. Arizona sports fans are looking ahead to college, and uncharacteristically, Cardinal, football. The chance of a Bob Melvin team winning anything but friends is as likely as David Schwimmer taking home a Best Actor Oscar.

Curly W: I still think the whole retractable-roof thing is weird, but I guess you kind of should stay out of the Arizona summer sum. Now that the stadium is nearing ten years old, what's your take on it? What do you like and dislike?

Diamondhacks: Everyone under the moving roof for the first time thinks it's very cool, but since the novelty has worn off, it's more of a necessary evil, giving the park a dark, airplane hangar feel from late May thru September. Inside, it's clean and comfortable (A/C, lots of concessions, mellow fans) but less than charming. Too much signage, terrible sound system. It's not as poorly designed as Petco, but lacks the charm of most other modern ballparks. Night games in April and May, with the roof and wall panels open, are quite lovely actually.

Curly W: the Expos / Nationals farm system was depleted from neglect while MLB stewarded the team, and it will take some time for it to be restocked. What's your take on the Dback's farm system?

Diamondhacks: We keep hearing it's MLB's absolute best, Dodgers second. From what I've seen, Drew, Young and Quentin ooze potential, perhaps Young the most, given his age. Catcher Montero's supposed to be solid, which is good because Estrada apparently doesnt care for Arizona. The pitchers throw hard, which shows someboy's paying attention down there, but none to date have consistently impressed.

Curly W: what's your Dback's offseason wishlist? What/who would you like to see added? Discarded?

A) New manager - someone more concerned with driving results than with managing appearances and expectations.
B) Quality starter - or two ;-)
C) Power hitting first baseman - some teams can afford to start a spray hitting first baseman. The Dbacks are not one of them - even less so next year.
Discard Gonzalez, Counsell. Byrnes is a tough call. A starting outfield of Byrnes, Young and Quentin will generate plenty of excitement, but they might not collectively generate enough runs. This team needs a home run hitter pretty bad, and as fun as Byrnes is to watch, he may not be that guy.

Curly W: how's that Livan Hernandez thing working out for you guys?

Diamondhacks: It isn't. The justification for giving up two prospects was Livan helping Arizona make the playoffs, so in that sense, the move failed. We could've finished below .500 without him. That's not fair to Livan, who hasnt pitched terribly, but that's why the deal was made.

Thanks to Matt and Jim for answering our questions!