D-Backs Opening Day outlook

D-Backs Opening Day outlook

Last year, the Diamondbacks won 26 more games than they did the season before, and while they're not expecting that big of a jump in 2006, they would like to continue to head in the right direction.

The D-Backs lineup was remade during the offseason with a focus on acquiring hitters that work deep counts and put the ball in play. That's in contrast to last year's bunch, which relied heavily on the home run. This year's group should be able to manufacture runs in a number of different ways and will be stronger No. 1 through 8.

1. Craig Counsell, SS:
He was diagnosed with a slight tear in the labrum of his throwing shoulder in early March, but the club expects Counsell to be able to play through it. A leadoff hitter by default, Counsell is moving back to short after spending last year at second.

2. Orlando Hudson, 2B:
Hudson has proven to be an energetic spark plug this spring. A Gold Glove defender last season, he also swung the bat well this spring.

3. Chad Tracy, 3B:
His development as a hitter last year was evident in his career-best 27 homers. More than power, though, the D-Backs are looking for him to keep driving the ball into the gaps.

4. Luis Gonzalez, LF:
He was finally healthy enough in the offseason to follow his intense workout regimen and reported to camp in great shape. The club has reason to be hopeful Gonzalez's numbers will be better than last year's.

5. Conor Jackson, 1B:
Jackson was originally going to be in the six-hole to take some pressure off him, but after watching him hammer the ball around this spring, skipper Bob Melvin bumped him up a spot. Jackson has looked improved on defense as well.

6. Shawn Green, RF:
Green altered his offseason program a bit in an attempt to avoid last year's slow start to the season. He's likely to once again finish around the .280 mark with 20-plus homers.

7. Johnny Estrada C:
He could hit eighth or even second depending on the matchups. Wherever he ends up, he figures to be the upgrade offensively for which the D-Backs were searching for when they acquired him from the Braves.

8. Eric Byrnes, CF:
Byrnes can also hit second at times or leadoff against left-handers. He brings a lot of energy to the game with his all-out style. Jeff DaVanon could also see significant time in center.

1. Brandon Webb, RHP:
Entering his fourth year in the big leagues, Webb will make his first Opening Day start. Signed to a contract extension in the offsesason, the D-Backs are counting on him to be their ace.

2. Orlando Hernandez, RHP:
With his injury history, the D-Backs will be cautious with El Duque, backing off and giving him extra days when they need to. If they can get 125-plus innings out of him, they will be happy.

3. Miguel Batista, RHP:
He spent the 2005 season as Toronto's closer, but D-Backs are confident that he won't have trouble moving back to a starting role. Acquired from the Blue Jays in the trade that sent Troy Glaus to Toronto.

4. Russ Ortiz, RHP:
He's a big key if the D-Backs are to have success this year. He was on the disabled list for the first time in his career last year and ineffective when active. The D-Backs need him to be the innings-eater and winner they thought they were getting when they signed him.

5. Claudio Vargas, RHP:
For a stretch last year, he was the club's best pitcher. This year, they are hoping for consistent efforts each time out. Dustin Nippert is waiting in the wings.

When he's on, closer Jose Valverde can dominate thanks to an electric fastball. The key for the right-hander is staying healthy and keeping control, both of the ball and his emotions. He hit his stride in the second half of last year and gives the club a lot of confidence heading into this season. Jason Grimsley and Brandon Lyon will likely be the setup men along with Luis Vizcaino. Grimsley seemed to get a feel for his slider as the spring wore on, while as always the key with Lyon is health. The bullpen could be in flux for the first month while the team tries to find the right combination of relievers. The final pitching cuts in camp were difficult because the organization has a lot of similiar pitchers -- right-handers with good stuff that haven't quite harnessed it yet. Brandon Medders will be a welcome addition when he returns from the disabled list in April.

Medders will start the year on the DL after pulling a muscle in his back just before the start of camp. That set him back and he was unable to get enough innings in before the end of the spring.

Is the pitching good enough?

The Diamondbacks figure to be all right offensively, having improved the depth of their lineup from the top to the bottom from last year, but the pitching remains a question mark. The focus has been on the bullpen, which struggled last year, but the performance of the starters will go a long way toward determining how successful the relief corps will be. The Diamondbacks need their starters to keep them in games and rack up the innings so the bullpen isn't overexposed. Webb and Batista figure to do their share in that regard, but the team will need Hernandez to stay healthy and Ortiz to recapture his pre-2005 form in order to spare the relievers. If the pitching keeps the club in games, the hitting could wind up leading it to victory. If the starters don't get it done, the relievers will be overworked and the club will wind up with a lot of 8-6 games.

"It's impressed me how quickly everyone has seemed to get on board with what we're trying to accomplish and [be] excited about the possibilities. We've got some guys that have been there, done that. And we've got some guys that are in the process of doing it. Collectively, it appears we are all pointed in the same direction." -- first baseman Tony Clark.

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.