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Diamondbacks brass keeping options open to turn team around

The Diamondbacks' honchos met much of Thursday, and they are meeting at length again today. So far, they all can agree on one thing: there's a lot to talk about.

Hard as it is for Arizona's baseball leaders or anyone else to believe, since May 1, 2008 the D-backs have won more games than only the Pirates, Nationals, Orioles and Royals. They are 24-37 this year, in last place in the NL West and 12 1/2 games out of first. This stunning two-year turn for the worse that began shortly after they won the 2007 NL West title has inspired D-backs owner Ken Kendrick, president Derrick Hall and GM Josh Byrnes to consider any possible avenue to get the most out of what is thought by most baseball people to be an excellent nucleus of players at a time when there's generally a lot of anger in Arizona over things beyond the D-backs' control, most prominently the economy. Hall, a level-headed fellow known for his sense of humor and perspective, said by email, "No determination yet. Still (just an) evaluation."

In the meantime, Kendrick, Hall and Byrnes are looking at all possible causes and solutions for the surprising lack of success. Ideas that have come up include the possibility of such drastic measures as replacing manager A.J. Hinch or even potential blockbuster trades, which could include anyone but franchise-to-be outfield star Justin Upton and very cost-efficient, newly-acquired starting pitcher Ian Kennedy. That means the D-backs would at least consider bona fide No. 1 pitcher Dan Haren as a trade candidate. They have a team of very nice, pleasant players, but one thing that's been discussed is whether a group of so many former No. 1 picks is a little too comfortable, with one or two notable exceptions, including the late-blooming slugger Mark Reynolds, who probably isn't going anyway, either, partly for that very reason.

Almost everything, and anything, is being considered but it's also possible they do nothing extreme.

"We have a great group here and we're frustrated with the results," Byrnes said by telephone. "One thing we have to consider is trades based on the results."

Trades do seem the more likely route, but with young talented players like Upton, Reynolds and Stephen Drew on good contracts and some older players on decent-sized-to-high contracts, there don't appear to be any obvious, game-changing deals to be made. The value of talented 26-year-old right-hander Edwin Jackson is limited at the moment based on his surprisingly weak start to the season (he's 3-6 with a 5.38 ERA), and they've tried in the past to trade veteran catcher Chris Snyder to no avail. Winter pickups Kelly Johnson, who with 13 home runs has slugged beyond expectation, and Adam LaRoche appear to be possible trade candidates, though neither one makes so much money that it would make a significant dent in their $78-million payroll (Johnson makes $2.35 million, LaRoche $4.5 million). Reynolds is almost sure to stay, partly for his needed fire.

As for Haren, he'd be widely sought in trade as a true ace pitcher who seems mostly dragged down lately by the team's slide. However, at least three strong reasons seem to make such a blockbuster unlikely: 1) Haren's deal for $32 million is almost too good to trade, as he'd be irreplaceable at that price; 2) The Diamondbacks understandably figure they have the nucleus to win fairly quickly making a complete rebuilding job seem unnecessary, and 3) Haren's performance and recent whispers about a hip concern might make teams pause or at least fail to offer commensurate value. Haren hasn't missed a start, and two D-backs people said Haren's health isn't a major issue. Yet, his uncharacteristic struggles -- he's 6-4 with a 4.83 ERA that is his highest since his rookie season of 2003 -- probably still raise a red flag with some others.

Meanwhile, Byrnes is said to be fighting hard for his hand-picked Hinch, a rare transfer from the front office who had no previous coaching or managing experience and who is one year into his tenure. Hiring Hinch represented an unusual route that still upsets a lot of old-time baseball people who are now claiming behind his back that he is inspiring "lackadaisical'' play and also is too slow to warm up relievers. Hinch, who is a former major-league player, is well-liked in his clubhouse and certainly plenty smart enough for the challenge. His supporters angrily denigrate those unpreparedness claims as mere "whispers,'' a fair assessment since no one's actually said it on the record or even out loud. But Byrnes' bosses surely do hear those whispers, and while Hinch was given a deal of decent length, he isn't believed to make a seven-figure salary, so he won't be spared just to save money. Hinch has publicly taken responsibility, conceding that this group has yet to "respond'' to him, an unusual and gutsy admission for any major-league manager.

Byrnes, as stand-up a guy as they come, is blaming himself. But while he isn't getting a gold star for this season, no one realistically expects him to be in the line of fire. He is extremely well-regarded around the game, he was an architect of the 2007 team that made it to the NLCS and is so well thought of that he was signed to a deal that goes through 2015, so he wouldn't appear to be in any jeopardy. "I certainly take responsibility for the fact the bullpen hasn't performed, and for the money spent on (Brandon) Webb and (Eric) Byrnes,'' Josh Byrnes said, referring to $20 million that isn't working on their $78 million payroll.

There's hope that Webb, the former NL Cy Young winner who hasn't pitched since Opening Day 2009 because of a shoulder injury, will get on a mound within a week, but people around the team concede it is uncertain whether he'll pitch this year. The bullpen has clearly been nothing short of an abomination (its ERA is up to 7.46 after another poor performance Thursday, and one NL GM said, "They'd be .500 if the pen just had a 5 ERA."), but overall, the roster seems much better than it's played.

Cash is another major issue as Phoenix, which surprisingly enough has the lowest per-capita income of any major-league city to begin with, has been hit as hard as any major city by the economy and the team also carries the burden of beloved former owner Jerry Colangelo's extreme excesses (to win a world championship in just the D-backs' fourth year of existence, between operating loss and debt Colangelo is said to have run up a near half-billion deficit). At the moment, even a below-average $78-million payroll in a top-six market may seem a bit high to the bosses, considering the team's record.

If nothing drastic is done, one possibility might be to spice up a clubhouse that just might be a little too easy going. They have a lot of No. 1 picks on their roster who are used to being stars wherever they've played, and one scout said that only Reynolds, a late-round draft choice, seems to play with a chip on his shoulder. Another competing exec said, "It's not the most dynamic group.'' When Josh Byrnes took over as GM after the 2005 season one of the first things he did was add Orlando Hudson and Eric Byrnes (who in the words of one competing manager "played like his hair was on fire''), two so-called clubhouse guys who added spice to the mix. Both of those players have since moved on, and while the D-backs have nice guys in the clubhouse now they are perhaps a little short on personality. If Byrnes can fend off calls for Hinch's head, they may try clubhouse adjustments to solve their woes.

• Struggling right-hander Jeff Suppan, who had been released by the Brewers, made sense as a cheap signing for the Cardinals, who sought a quick fix. And if Suppan does well for the Cardinals, supreme pitching coach Dave Duncan's resume gets that much better. Suppan had the most success of his career while pitching for the Duncan and the Cardinals from 2004-06, winning 16 games each of the first two seasons and being named NLCS MVP in his third.

• But if Suppan doesn't pitch well, Houston's Roy Oswalt seems like a nice fit for the Cardinals. One issue would be the $30 million remaining on Oswalt's contract since the Cards are saving up to keep Albert Pujols, baseball's best player, who will be a free agent after the 2011 season.

Jacoby Ellsbury deserves plaudits for trying to power through his ribcage injury. But new MRIs revealed a bigger issue, and he will miss at least another two weeks, probably more, after getting a second opinion.

• Unintentionally omitted from the list of 30 free-agent bargains on Wednesday were three very good ones this winter: Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo, Indians outfielder Austin Kearns and Braves extra Eric Hinske.

• The Red Sox seem to have really scored with their draft choices, with slugging Middle Tennessee St. outfielder Bryce Brentz and talented LSU right-hander Anthony Ranaudo, both of whom were taken in the sandwich round, seen as real steals. Though, neither is expected to come cheap.

• The Yankees people seem to like speedster Mason Williams, their fourth-round pick.

• Alex Gordon "can hit,'' said a scout. He's got a 1.171 OPS in the minors. Maybe it's time or him to come back up to the Royals soon.

• It's going to be great to see Indians top catching prospect Carlos Santana. He's expected to be a hitter at least on the level of Victor Martinez, which is pretty darned good. Dodgers GM Ned Colletti has taken hits for trading him to Cleveland in 2008 in a deal that brought Los Angeles Casey Blake, but Blake helped the Dodgers get to two straight NLCS so that criticism isn't fair. Good trade all around.

• What a year it's been for rookies all around, probably the best ever. In addition to players like Jason Heyward and Stephen Strasburg, Giants' catcher Buster Posey quietly is off to a huge start, as well, batting .444 in his first 12 games. And according to one scout, "He looks good behind the plate.'' His throw to second base was timed in 1.9, which is very good indeed.

Bobby Valentine is reportedly going to interview Friday with the Orioles. But one competing executive said, "How's he going to work for Peter Angelos?'' That's an excellent question for a lot of folks. Joe Girardi turned them down last time. It might be hard to land the right manager. But it's pretty clear at this point interim Juan Samuel isn't being given much of a chance.

• The Mets' clubhouse is much improved from last year, according to insiders. It probably doesn't hurt that Mike Pelfrey is having an All-Star caliber season and Ike Davis is emerging as a force, either.

Stephen Strasburg's debut drew 41,000 fans, or about 28,000 more than the Nats' average. Between the extra broadcast ratings and all the attention he's been getting, that record $15.067-million signing bonus Strasburg signed may turn out to be one of the greatest bargains in sports.

• Good for Nats manager Jim Riggleman for being careful and removing Strasburg after 94 pitches in his debut on Tuesday. All this recent talk about pitching counts not mattering is nice for the macho set, but Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty is a living, breathing example of the need for pitch counts, having been overused by Billy Martin as an A's youngster and winding up having a painfully short career.

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