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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.

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