No one in the Diamondbacks organization is happier about the team's new double-play combination than Brandon Webb.
“I'm loving it,” Webb said Tuesday, shortly before the signing of shortstop Royce Clayton was announced.
Another news conference could come as soon as today to re-introduce infielder Craig Counsell, who had his physical Tuesday, as the team's second baseman.
The pursuit of free agents has not slowed; right-hander Matt Clement was at Bank One Ballpark for a visit Tuesday, lefty Shawn Estes comes in today and outfielder Jeromy Burnitz follows Thursday.
“Everybody knows Royce is a world-class shortstop,” manager Bob Melvin said. “Your pitching gets that much better playing good defense.”
No pitcher more than Webb, who this year led major league starters with a 3.55 groundball-to-flyball ratio. But the D-Backs think their shaky defense caused him to “pitch away from contact,” leading to his National League-high 119 walks. He admitted that mindset “might have been one of the factors in the walks.”
“Defense is one of the things that I need to win games,” Webb said. “(Clayton and Counsell) are obviously very good at their jobs up the middle.”
Of Arizona's league-high 139 errors this year, 43 came up the middle (19 by second basemen, 24 by shortstops).
But Counsell — who played shortstop for Milwaukee this year — and Clayton both ranked among the top five in fielding percentage among NL shortstops. Clayton led the league, making nine errors in 639 chances for Colorado, just two of them after the All-Star break.
“It's my infield,” he said after donning a No. 10 Diamondbacks jersey. “I take a lot of pride in that. If anything goes astray or wrong, it's my responsibility. I control the middle and build that confidence in the pitching staff to turn double plays.”
Offensively, Clayton (who signed for one year at $1.35 million) is a career .257 hitter and an accomplished bunter. His 24 sacrifices this year were the most in the majors in 11 seasons, and he had 15 bunt singles, fourth-most in the big leagues.
He batted second for the Rockies, hitting .279 with 36 doubles. But that included a .299 mark at offense-friendly Coors Field and .259 on the road. He also set a career high with 125 strikeouts.
Clayton said his offensive production was due more to getting the chance to hit second than to Coors Field.
“It just let me open up my game,” he said.
A Scottsdale resident, Clayton cited being close to home, the team's commitment to winning next year and the presence of former San Francisco teammate Matt Williams (who eventually will be named special assistant to the CEO) as factors in signing with Arizona.
Clement, on the other hand, apparently prefers to sign near his western Pennsylvania home. With the pitching market thinning, he has attracted a great deal of interest — he is expected to meet with Anaheim and Los Angeles today, and Boston, Cleveland and Toronto also are in the picture — and the bidding may be out of Arizona's price range. Teams may be willing to exceed the $8.25 million annual salary the D-Backs gave right-hander Russ Ortiz.
“We had a good day,” agent Barry Axelrod said of Tuesday's session. “We're coming to the point where we're going to make a decision and we just wanted to gather final information.”
Axelrod said he expected Clement to pick a destination by the end of the week.
“Any time a player is willing to come in and talk to us, we're going to take advantage of that,” D-Backs general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. said. “My sense is that Matt Clement feels more positively disposed to the Diamondbacks today than he did before this visit.”
Clayton endorsed Estes, who seems to be Arizona's next choice if Clement goes elsewhere. Clayton and Estes, who were teammates this year, dined together Saturday and their wives spent time together Tuesday.
Estes, who turns 32 in February and is also a Valley resident, was 15-8 with a 5.84 ERA and, according to STATS Inc., led the league with 34 groundball double plays induced. Clayton said Estes showed poise and maturity.
“He did a tremendous job as far as understanding when he needed those groundballs,” Clayton said. “He executed pitches and kept us in ballgames.”
Burnitz, also a member of the 2004 Rockies, hit .283 this year, with 37 home
runs and 110 RBIs.
“We're getting pretty close” to receiving a multi-year offer from the D-Backs, agent Howard Simon said Tuesday. “We are in discussions right now. Well just have to see where things go in the next couple, three days. . . . What they're doing is going to impress a lot of people. It's impressed us.”
San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and perhaps Cleveland are thought to have interest in Burnitz.
SHORT HOPS: Arizona will change its advance scouting, with former major leaguer Chris Bando preparing reports by video rather than by traveling. . . . According to the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, the D-Backs and New York Yankees did not discuss a trade of Randy Johnson on Tuesday. The Star-Ledger quoted a baseball official close to the talks as saying that Monday's conversations left the deal “right where it was two weeks ago, which is nowhere.”