Praising Arizona

Once upon a time, and not so terribly long ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks were the class of the National League. And for good reason — the Snakes had the best pitching staff in baseball (anchored by Brandon Webb and Dan Haren), a quality innings eater with a history of winning (former Fish Livan Hernandez) a group of fast, punch-and-judy hitters (Orlando Hudson and Stephen Drew), a classic high strikeouts player with punch and panache (Mark Reynolds) and a faster-than-spit closer (Jose Valverde) who was the envy of major league baseball. Plus (plus!), the D-Backs had a solid philosophy of winning, based on the foundation that had brought them a World Series Championship in 2001: the club would focus on pitching, pitching, pitching (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling anchored the staff in ’01), and build a strong farm system based on development and scouting. But those days are gone. The Diamondbacks of 2010 are 23 games back of the Friars and the face of the franchise, savvy righty Dan Haren, is living in Los Angeles. So what happened?

Injuries happened — and overspending. Brandon Webb hasn’t pitched in forever and is still attempting to recover from shoulder surgery (his arm still hurts, but he’s agreed to pitch out of the bullpen), Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton have been on-and-off the DL with a series of nagging everyday bumps and bruises, D-Backs President Derrick Hall and Interim General Manager Jerry DiPoto are still living with the effects of their predecessors’ decision to hand Showboat Eric Byrnes a three year $30 million paycheck — one of the worst contract decisions made in D-Backs history — and the farm system was plundered for short term satisfaction and is devoid of any perceivable talent. Worse yet, the once can’t-get-enough-of-baseball Phoenix fanbase has been dribbling away, making a $75 million player payroll untenable. The result has been a classic baseball fire sale, albeit one that began long before the trading deadline, and had nothing to do with players. Manager A.J. Hinch was tossed on the scrapheap on the night of July 1 and G.M. Josh Byrnes was disposed of 24 hours later. The firings signaled the beginning of a trend: the Diamondbacks wouldn’t just be sellers at the trading deadline (and before), they were dedicated to taking the team apart and starting over.

You can hardly blame Arizona fans for being skeptical. The current DiPoto salary dump looks as desperate as Byrnes’s decision to denude the D-Backs farm system two years ago — when Scott Hairston and Alberto Callaspo were shipped off for relief pitcher no-accounts (and Valverde’s salary was embarrassingly dumped) and Brett Anderson and Carlos Gonzalez (a curse, now, on Arizona pitching — in Colorado) were shipped to Oakland to land Haren. Earlier this year Byrnes attempted to compensate for these sins by sending Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy (a good swap by any standard), but the trade came way too late to silence the rising chorus of critics who noted that dumping young talent almost never works.

While skepticism about the Rattlers’ future is in order, Arizona fans can be thankful that their franchise’s tradition of trading for and developing young pitching seems to be intact. While DiPoto received good value for Haren (Joe Saunders is no slouch) and simply cast off catcher Chris Snyder for three below average players (one of whom, Ryan Church, I wouldn’t let in my outfield), his decision to buy Edwin Jackson a ticket to Chicago for Daniel Hudson (below, pitching against “the Kings of Queens”) is paying immediate dividends: the young righty (nearly a Nationals’ property, in a proposed trade for Adam Dunn), threw a gem against the Amazins, whose death spiral (“trades? sorry — we’ll play these”) is now nearly an established fact. Hudson looks like he’s in the Diamondbacks’ rotation to stay after throwing eight innings of three hit ball — a game that, by itself, is far better than any that Danny Haren threw all year. Sure, the Diamondbacks look like a mess and, yes, there’s likely to be more moves in Arizona in the offseason. But the arrival of Hudson, when coupled with the promise of a developing Ian Kennedy, holds hope for the future. In truth, the Diamondbacks of 2010 look now like the D-Backs of 1999. That team, an embarrassing but young mess, was just two years from a world championship.

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