The Diamondbacks were 27-15 on May 16 and leading the National League West by 5 1/2 games. Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?
Arizona’s collapse — and what else can you call it, given the weak competition in the division — is sure to inspire a hearty round of second-guessing among media and fans.
The benefit of hindsight already has begun in the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse.
Manager Bob Melvin recently told the Tribune he might have erred in naming Brandon Lyon his closer heading into the season rather than Tony Pena.
“Maybe that was my fault this year, not going to Tony from the very start,” Melvin said. “I think he has the repertoire and stuff to be a closer.”
Fixing the bullpen is just one of many issues Melvin and general manager Josh Byrnes must address in the offseason. Arizona was fortunate to be in a pennant race; in any other division it would have been buried by Sept. 1.
The Diamondbacks don’t need an overhaul. The top of their rotation is set with Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, and they have one of the youngest lineups in baseball.
But Arizona can’t stand pat, either. Not if it wants to play in a World Series.
For the Diamondbacks to get where they want to go (namely the World Series), these five issues must be addressed this offseason:
Jose Valverde leads the National League with 43 saves. The Diamondbacks have auditioned four closers and still aren’t sure who will pitch the ninth inning next year.
But general manager Josh Byrnes continues to defend the offseason trade in which he sent Valverde to the Houston Astros for Chad Qualls, Chris Burke and a minor leaguer.
“I could say Qualls has a better ERA than Valverde, or Qualls has pitched better in the second half than Valverde,” Byrnes said. “And we have him (contractually) for a year longer than Valverde.”
Fine. But Valverde has established himself as a reliable closer. Has Qualls? Or Brandon Lyon? How about Tony Pena or Jon Rauch?
Byrnes doesn’t believe a dominant closer is a cure-all for the Diamondbacks bullpen. He points out that Arizona’s record when it has the lead after eight innings is 73-6, which is comparable to most major league clubs.
But here’s the problem with that thinking: With Valverde gone, Lyon was put in a role he wasn’t best-suited for. That weakened the Diamondbacks in the ninth and eighth innings.
Plus, nothing crushes a team’s spirit more than having wins disappear in the ninth inning.
“When your bullpen struggles, it probably has more of a psychological effect on you than any other facet of your game,” manager Bob Melvin said.
The Diamondbacks aren’t going to pay a closer $10 million (in case you were wondering about free-agent-to-be Francisco Rodriguez), so they’ll likely try to find a solution within their clubhouse.
Melvin already has said Qualls will get first crack at the job next spring.
“The fact it’s been a problem honestly has been surprising,” Byrnes said, “but does it predict future gloom and doom? Probably not.”
He better be right. All that’s at stake is the 2009 season.
WHO'S ON FIRST?
Eric Byrnes’ return next season should help the Diamondbacks’ offense — assuming he’s healthy — but it also creates a logjam at first base.
Conor Jackson has to play every day — he’s one of Arizona’s most consistent hitters — but he’s a better left fielder than he is a first baseman.
And if he does play first, what to do with Chad Tracy?
The Diamondbacks could try to deal Tracy, but that would leave them with only one left-handed bat — Stephen Drew — in the lineup. You can bet Melvin’s not in favor of that.
One possible solution: Stick Jackson at first, move Tracy to third and let Mark Reynolds play second base. The problem: defense.
The Diamondbacks wouldn’t play any, and that’s not a good thing when your ace is a ground-ball pitcher.
There has been speculation that Byrnes will be Arizona’s fourth outfielder in 2009, but $10 million is a lot to pay for a part-time player.
Ideally, Arizona would trade Byrnes and stick Jackson in left and Tracy at first. But Byrnes has a no-trade clause in his contract (why did the club agree to that?), and he’s said he wants to remain a Diamondback.
Also, what team would be willing to take on the $20 million left on Byrnes’ contract after he hit .209 in 52 games?
Figuring out what to do with the Byrnes/Jackson/Tracy troika will be one of Josh Byrnes’ biggest and most delicate challenges.
Mark Reynolds has set a major league record with 202 strikeouts in a single season. Chris Young has struck out 163 times.
If those two players are going to be cornerstones of the Diamondbacks moving forward, they have to refine their approaches at the plate.
No one in the organization wants Reynolds to alter his swing so radically that he becomes a Punch-and-Judy hitter. But he can’t strike out more than 200 times and hit .096 when he’s facing an 0-2 and 1-2 count, either.
Reynolds has enough natural power that he can shorten his swing and still hit home runs. It also might enable him to hit those pitches over the middle of the plate that he’s missing now.
Young’s swing needs to be completely overhauled. He’s become a dead pull hitter — of his 153 hits, only 15 have gone to the opposite field. If he improves his plate coverage and begins to use the whole field, there’s no reason he can’t hit .280 and greatly decrease his strikeouts.
This season should have been a wake-up call for Young and Reynolds.
They no longer can rely on their physical gifts to succeed. They have to work at their craft and be open to change.
Let’s start with Adam Dunn. The Diamondbacks could use his power and left-handed bat, but they’re not going to pay him $15 million a year. He’ll sign elsewhere.
Orlando Hudson wants to test the free-agent market and cash in.
Big-market teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets need a second baseman, but will they pony up for a player who has been sidelined in September each of the last two seasons?
If the Diamondbacks aren’t going to pursue a marquee free agent like Mark Teixeira, why not attempt to re-sign Hudson? He hits for average — something not many of his teammates do — and he’s a Gold Glove second baseman, a switch-hitter and a terrific presence in the clubhouse.
Arizona’s only other free agents of note are relievers Juan Cruz and Brandon Lyon. Cruz likely will want a more important role than he had this season, so don’t expect him back.
Lyon’s case is more interesting. No team will sign him as a closer, and it’s possible that his horrendous second half priced him back into the Diamondbacks’ plans. Remember, he was a terrific setup man in 2007, and if Arizona can sign him on the cheap, he could fill that role again.
WHAT TO DO WITH RANDY
There’s no question that Randy Johnson has pitched effectively enough to warrant his return. He has a 4.11 ERA, and if the bullpen had done its job, Johnson would have 14 or 15 wins.
Those are more than acceptable numbers for a No. 4 or 5 starter, which Johnson is these days. And assuming the Diamondbacks don’t trade Doug Davis in the offseason, Johnson would be in the back end of the rotation — along with Max Scherzer — in 2009.
The question is, how much of a pay cut will Johnson be willing to take? If he wants anywhere close to $10 million, the Diamondbacks should let him go, even if the prospect of him winning his 300th game in another uniform is appalling.
But, if Johnson is willing to play for, say, $3 million — doesn’t he already have all the money he needs? — with incentives that could boost his pay to $5 million, why not? Sure, he’s 45. But he’ll make 30 starts this season, and he has a 2.69 ERA since the All-Star break.
There will be some pressure — both internally and externally — for the Diamondbacks to bring Johnson back. This is where he had his greatest years. This is where he should win No. 300.
But the team comes first. And Johnson should understand that.