1 Arizona Diamondbacks The right mix of sharp veterans and eager Baby Backs signals a playoff return

April 04, 2004

In his first spring training appearance this year, before a
sparse midweek crowd in Tucson, Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson
shooed away one photographer whom he deemed too close to him
during his warmup session, threatened to unloose a brushback
pitch at another, barked at the home plate umpire over the ump's
interpretation of the strike zone, snapped 90-mph sliders at the
ankles of Colorado hitters and whistled 96-mph fastballs past
them. "I'm fired up," he said afterward.

Yes, as they say in Arizona, it was a dry heat, but whenever
Johnson's fastball and his disposition redline--especially after
a season shortened by right-knee surgery in May--manager Bob
Brenly smiles. After winning 84 games last year (14 fewer than in
2002), including only six from Johnson, the Diamondbacks are
happy to see the 40-year-old lefthander ornery again, at least on
the mound. "I feel like I'm 24 again," Johnson says. "I had the
game taken away from me last year. I feel rejuvenated. I've got
peace of mind knowing that the knee is fine, and I'm looking
forward to going out there because it's like I dropped off the
radar. I was a pretty good pitcher before last year, you know."

The Diamondbacks, minus the Airstreams and canasta clubs, are,
like many people in Arizona, testing the desert's therapeutic
effects on old bones. In addition to Johnson they have a
39-year-old centerfielder, a 36-year-old second baseman coming
off the two worst seasons of his career and a 36-year-old
leftfielder with a torn ligament in his throwing elbow. And those
are the 1-2-3 hitters in their lineup: Steve Finley, Roberto
Alomar and Luis Gonzalez, respectively. In the rotation with
Johnson is 36-year-old righthander Shane Reynolds, who had a 5.43
ERA last year. And while closer Matt Mantei is only 30, his
medical chart deserves a hardbound edition.

Finley, at least, appears to be the Dick Clark of centerfielders.
His stats didn't wither a bit last year. Eerily, his runs (82),
doubles (24) and batting average (.287) were the same as in 2002
while his hits (148) differed by only three, his steals (15) by
one and his slugging percentage (.500) by one one-thousandth of a
point. As for Gonzalez, who said the elbow doesn't trouble him at
the plate: "I could never throw, anyway," he said. "I'll just
have to kick in part of my salary to [middle infielders] Alex
[Cintron] and Roberto because they'll have to run out farther to
get my throws."

Alomar, who like Johnson debuted in 1988, when Steve Carlton and
Don Sutton were still playing, has the most to prove after
showing an across-the-board decline in skills during the past two
seasons with the Mets and the White Sox. His defense, baserunning
(just 12 steals last year) and hitting (career-low .349 slugging
percentage) were so suspect that the Diamondbacks signed him to a
discount-rack free-agent contract: $1 million for one year, with
$350,000 of that deferred with no interest. Alomar turned up his
winter training regimen for renewed bounce in his legs and better
flexibility. Only 321 hits short of 3,000, Alomar said, "I want
to play another three, maybe four years. I think the work I did
can help me stay strong throughout the year." Said Brenly, "He's
motivated. He wants to show people he's got a lot of baseball
left."

The Diamondbacks' offense, which ranked 10th in the league in
runs and 12th in home runs last year, figures to be better with
the addition of first baseman Richie Sexson, 29, who blasted 119
homers over the past three seasons with Milwaukee. Arizona's
aging core should also be aided by some needed young blood, such
as the Baby Backs who debuted last season: Cintron, 25; catcher
Robby Hammock, 26; relievers Oscar Villarreal, 22, and Jose
Valverde, 24; and starter Brandon Webb, 24. Webb throws one of
the game's nastiest sinkers, a weapon that made him the third
toughest pitcher to hit in the majors (.212), trailing Jason
Schmidt and Kerry Wood. He did, however, wear down toward the
close of his first big league season, prompting Johnson to tutor
him this spring on conditioning.

"That's another reason why I'm all fired up about this year,"
Johnson says. "We're a veteran team for the most part, but we
have a lot of young guys who are going to help us, and we can
help them."

With a healthy Johnson and a fit Webb, the Diamondbacks have the
best tandem of starting pitchers in the division. It's enough to
erase the scowl on a certain lefthander's face. --Tom Verducci

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON FLYING ACE Back from knee surgery, Johnson has shown that the unscheduled rest last season put new life in his left arm. COLOR PHOTO: JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES SEXSON

IN FACT

Opponents had a .307 slugging percentage against rookie Brandon
Webb last year, lowest in the majors.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Diamondbacks

"People are going to be surprised when they see how well Randy
Johnson comes back. He's made a change in his delivery, and his
splitter has been filthy. He's going to have a big year....
Brandon Webb, on the other hand, has been terrible. He's a
sinkerball pitcher who hasn't been able to get the ball below the
letters, and there's some concern about his loss of velocity....
The rest of the rotation is a question mark. Shane Reynolds has
been getting hammered and looks like he's tipping his pitches....
Watch out for Richie Sexson. He's really swinging the bat well
and could be a 40-, 45-homer guy.... Robbie Alomar finally gets
it. He's one of the first guys on the field every day and has
taken Alex Cintron under his wing. Alomar has embraced the role
of veteran leader.... Having Steve Finley bat leadoff is not a
good idea; he doesn't have the skills for the job. I'd move
Alomar to the top of the order and drop Finley into the five
hole.... Luis Gonzalez's right elbow [torn ligament] is killing
him. He won't complain, but he's out there playing on guts."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2003 statistics

BATTING ORDER

CF Finley
2B Alomar
LF Gonzalez
1B Sexson
SS Cintron
3B Hillenbrand
RF Bautista
C Hammock

STEVE FINLEY
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 106 .287 22 70 15

DANNY BAUTISTA
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 163 .275 4 36 3

ROBERTO ALOMAR [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 220 .258 5 39 12

RICHIE SEXSON [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 24 .272 45 124 2

ROBBY HAMMOCK
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 221 .282 8 28 3

SHEA HILLENBRAND
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 117 .280 20 97 1

ALEX CINTRON
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 73 .317 13 51 2

LUIS GONZALEZ
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 39 .304 26 104 5

BENCH

BRENT MAYNE [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 338 .245 6 36 0

CARLOS BAERGA
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 289 .343 4 39 1

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

LH Randy Johnson 10 6 8 6.3 1.33 4.26
RH Brandon Webb 35 10 9 6.4 1.15 2.84
RH Elmer Dessens 158 8 8 5.6 1.53 5.07
RH Shane Reynolds 168 11 9 5.7 1.49 5.43
[New acquisition]
RH Steve Sparks 214 0 6 -- 1.41 4.88
[New acquisition]

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Matt Mantei 52 5 4 29 1.00 2.62
RH Jose Valverde 124 2 1 10 0.99 2.15
RH Oscar Villarreal 178 10 7 0 1.29 2.57

2003 RECORD
84-78
third in NL West

MANAGER
Bob Brenly
fourth season with Arizona

(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 142)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)