Going from worst to first would give any team a confidence boost. Just ask the defending National League West champion Arizona Diamondbacks.
After finishing last in the division in back-to-back seasons, the Diamondbacks claimed their first division title last year with a late surge and advanced to the playoffs for only the second time since reaching the NLCS in 2007. In his first full season as manager, Kirk Gibson got the best out of his lineup to the tune of 94 wins -- the most since 98 in 2002 -- and was named NL Manager of the Year last fall. Gibson was a hard-nosed player in his days and has transferred that philosophy to the bench. He earned his current job July 1, 2010, when the club dismissed GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch.
Arizona lost 92 games in 2009 and 97 games in 2010, and its 29-game improvement was one of the most impressive in the past decade. The Diamondbacks pushed the Milwaukee Brewers to five games in the NL Division Series before bowing out, but there is plenty of optimism in the Arizona clubhouse for a competitive 2012 season.
"I think we have a good group of guys," catcher Miguel Montero said on the club's site after exiting the playoffs in early October. "The guys did an outstanding job. Not too many people thought we were going to be at this place right now, and we showed everybody we're a good team. Hopefully we're going to come back next year and do it again."
Montero would most likely not feel that way had the front office not started to re-tool the entire organization. Trading high-profile players in Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson got the ball rolling and current general manager Kevin Towers began building a strong rapport with Gibson. Both Towers and Gibson were given three-year contract extensions after this past season that included two club options, which could keep the pair in Arizona through 2016. Arizona got to work by re-signing a handful of players and ace Ian Kennedy was one of them. Kennedy, who is slated to make his second straight Opening Day appearance on April 6 against division-rival San Francisco, was 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA in 33 starts last year while finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting.
Kennedy was a big part of Arizona's second-half surge, going 12-1 with a 2.11 earned run average. He and Daniel Hudson were the anchors to the D'Backs' rotation in 2011 and will be joined by newcomer Trevor Cahill. Cahill was acquired in a deal from Oakland and went 12-14 with a 4.16 ERA in 34 starts for the Athletics last season. Arizona's usual suspects on the field and in the batter's box will be back. Justin Upton led the D'Backs in batting average (.289), home runs (31) and RBI (88), while Chris Young and Montero played big roles in the offense.
There will be some new faces in the desert this season, including outfielder Jason Kubel, but the focus will not change. Arizona has a strong shot at repeating as NL West champs, but will have to hurdle Los Angeles and San Francisco to retain division dominance.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Diamondbacks, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (94-68) - First Place (NL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP Trevor Cahill, RP Craig Breslow, SP Barry Enright, SP Takashi Saito, OF Jason Kubel
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: OF Collin Cowgill, SP Zach Duke, SP Jason Marquis, 1B/OF Jason Marquis, SP Armando Galarraga, 2B Kelly Johnson
PROJECTED LINEUP: SS Stephen Drew, 2B Aaron Hill, RF Justin Upton, C Miguel Montero, CF Chris Young, LF Jason Kubel, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, 3B Ryan Roberts
PROJECTED ROTATION: RHP Ian Kennedy, RHP Daniel Hudson, RHP Trevor Cahill, LHP Joe Saunders, RHP Josh Collmenter
PROJECTED CLOSER: RHP J.J. Putz
MANAGER: Kirk Gibson
HOW WILL D'BACKS HANDLE PARRA/KUBEL?
Left fielder Gerardo Parra enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2011 with eight homers, 46 RBI, 55 runs scored and a .292 batting average. The quick Parra, who can also flash the leather and a cannon of an arm in the field, earned his first Gold Glove Award. He posted 12 outfield assists, tying him for the National League lead with Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez and with Eric Byrnes for the most in club history, and finished the year with a .990 fielding percentage, with just three errors in 303 total chances. But all that could change with the addition of former Minnesota Twin Kubel. Kubel had spent his entire pro career in the Twins organization since he was selected in the 12th round of the First-Year Player Draft in 2000, and signed a two-year deal with the D'Backs in December. Kubel brings about the same type of power and statistics as Parra, but has the edge to start in left field. Arizona liked what it saw in Kubel and didn't want a player of his magnitude to slip away. Kubel said he was excited to be a part of this young nucleus of players and notched 12 homers, 37 runs and 58 RBI last season. The Kubel and Parra situation could disappear of Parra is traded, or if the Diamondbacks platoon Kubel at first base with Paul Goldschmidt. Parra can also play center and right field if Gibson wants him to.
WILL CAHILL THRIVE IN SENIOR CIRCUIT?
The Diamondbacks had to give up prized pitching prospect Jarrod Parker in order to obtain right-hander Trevor Cahill from Oakland this season. Arizona is hoping the deal works out in its favor and could use another decent arm in the rotation to join Kennedy, Hudson, Saunders and Collmenter. Cahill has tremendous upside and pitched through a down year in 2011, going 12-14 with a 4.16 ERA in a career-high 34 starts -- one year after going 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA in 30 trips to the mound. He has made at least 30 starts in each of his three big league seasons. The general consensus for pitchers is that it's more difficult in the American League because of the designated hitter, but sometimes the transition to the NL doesn't go as smoothly (see Barry Zito). Cahill is young, big and can gas it up -- all traits needed to succeed. He is slated to pitch third in the rotation ahead of Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter. Cahill may thrive in obscurity much like Hudson, who at one point went unbeaten from May 17-July 17 to turn heads. In a game where pitching is king, adding Cahill to a decent rotation can only bear more fruit. Cahill got out of the AL West at the right time after the LA Angels acquired former Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. He still has to face the likes of Matt Kemp, Buster Posey, Troy Tulowitzki and other across the NL West.
WHAT CAN ARIZONA EXPECT FROM THE OFFENSE?
There's no question the D'Backs will be keeping their fingers crossed that right fielder Justin Upton can have another injury-free season in 2012. The All-Star led the Diamondbacks in batting average (.289), home runs (31) and runs batted in (88) last season in a career-high 159 games. The power bat in the lineup, Upton practically carried the team offensively with MVP-type numbers and it's just speculation as to how far Arizona could have went in the postseason had other stepped up. Center fielder Chris Young posted 20 homers and 71 RBI, and was has been able to stay healthy the past five years. If Young can revert back to his 2007 campaign in which he hit a career-best 32 homers, perhaps the D'Backs won't have to scratch and claw their way to the top of the NL West. Third baseman Ryan Roberts was a breakout performer in 2011 with 19 homers, 18 steals, 65 RBI and 86 runs scored in 482 at-bats. He hit .249 and can only be more dangerous with a full season of success. Parra, Montero, Kubel and infielder Aaron Hill can make this lineup one of the best in the division with consistent performances. Kelly Johnson's 18 homers and 49 RBI will be missed, but there are others who can compensate such as first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Montero. The numbers can only get better if Arizona's puts forth a full year of hitting instead of catching lightning in a bottle during certain months out of the season.
X-FACTOR: STEPHEN DREW: Who knows how the Diamondbacks would have fared with a healthy Stephen Drew at the top of the lineup? The shortstop played in only 86 games in 2011 before a season-ending right ankle fracture suffered on July 20. He hopes to fully recovered by Opening Day and isn't about to rush back. Drew played the least amount of games in his career since appearing in 59 contests during his rookie year of 2006, and concluded a frustrating 2011 season with five homers, 45 RBI, 44 runs, four steals and a .252 batting average. Drew has yet to experience any setbacks on the ankle, but the team is making all the necessary precautions not to rush him back. Flexibility is back and strength is coming along for Drew, who sets the lineup in motion with clutch hits and speed out of the batter's box. Willie Bloomquist should start if Drew is still out.
It would have been a travesty if Gibson did not bring home NL Manager of the Year for how he turned gloom and doom into the ballclub's fifth division title since its inception back in 1998. A slow Spring Training followed by an even more grueling start of the regular season left many to wonder how long Gibson would stay at the post. A remarkable month of May set the wheels in motion for a playoff run and even more chatter for the 2012 season. The rebuilding process under Towers, along with breakout performances from Upton, Parra, Hill and Goldschmidt, are all responsible for the improvement of the club, which rode the coattails of a formidable bullpen and a few starters in Kennedy and Hudson. The future seems bright with a healthy mix of core players and young talent, and nothing less than another trip to the postseason would be considered a failure for this year's version of the Diamondbacks.