Sixteen months ago the Diamondbacks were NL West division champions, sitting on one of the greatest stockpiles of young players in baseball. In addition to regulars Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds and Conor Jackson, Arizona also had Carlos Quentin, Chad Tracy, Max Scherzer, Brett Anderson, Dana Eveland, Jose Valverde, Alberto Callaspo, Emilio Bonifacio, Micah Owings, Carlos Gonzalez and Greg Smith, all of them on the right side of 30.
The Diamondbacks leveraged some of that young talent to get Dan Haren to team with ace Brandon Webb, then rolled to a 19-7 start to the 2008 season. "The best team in baseball," one GM called them at the time, "and the only one with an easy path to the postseason."
And then something very odd happened to baseball's next growth franchise: It ground to a halt. Since that 19-7 start, Arizona is 71-84 while hitting .245 and scoring 4.1 runs per game. Nearly across the board, the development of its young stars has stalled -- except for that of Quentin, who has become a slugging sensation for the White Sox, not the Diamondbacks.
This season, despite a ridiculously favorable schedule in which it hasn't left Arizona since spring training began except for three games in San Francisco, Arizona has started 8-11 and lost Webb for at least six weeks with a shoulder injury and Drew for at least two weeks with a hamstring strain.
"I look at them now," the same GM said, "and I see a franchise in some crisis."
The Diamondbacks were built on the innings-eating durability of Webb and Haren and the certainty that Drew, Young and Upton would be major stars. What they have is a rotation that includes Doug Davis, Jon Garland and Yusmeiro Petit and an offense that walks too little, hits the ball in the air too much and steals too few bases. Drew, Young and Upton are hitting a combined .210. All of their outfielders combined are hitting .197 with fewer home runs (six) than Quentin has alone (seven). They don't have a force in the lineup like Quentin.
"Carlos was always an experimenter," Arizona GM Josh Byrnes said. "He would have a different swing every day. The thing about Carlos is he's the rare player who combines intelligence with a perfectionist's mentality. He's hard on himself. His makeup is off the charts. He's as competitive and as driven as anybody out there. He went to that open stance, and now he just overpowers the ball."
Meanwhile, no one has stepped up for the Diamondbacks quite like Quentin. Jackson, 27, has been remarkably consistent in a rather middling kind of way. Young, 25, doesn't get on base nearly enough. Drew, 26, was off to a poor start trying to become a No. 3 hitter before his injury. And Upton, 21, recently finished the first 162 games of his major-league career with a .238 average and 17 home runs -- impressive, considering his age, but not quite the next Griffey (.291, 23 homers in his first 162) or Mays (.265, 26), as the hype suggested. Many of the smartest people in baseball will be wrong if Upton does not become a huge star, but he needs time.
"We just haven't hit left-handed pitching," Byrnes said, "which is odd because I thought we were a little too right-handed."
The Diamondbacks are hitting .206 against lefties and are 2-7 when they see a left-handed starter. Arizona figures to improve greatly on those numbers, as their win over the Cubs and Ted Lilly on Monday proved. The Diamondbacks' first two-game winning streak this season did cut two games off their deficit to the first-place Dodgers -- to 4 1/2 games. And no one is ready to give up on Drew, Young and Upton as All-Stars, not when they still are so young. It just may be that Arizona's growing pains, especially with Webb's health in doubt, last longer than what the success of 2007 suggested.