Balanced order, staff key for D-Backs

D-Backs to rely on balanced order, staff

Bob Melvin has seen the media predictions that have the Diamondbacks finishing near the bottom of the National League West.

"They don't think much of us," the Arizona manager said.

Melvin, though, likes what he's seen from his club this spring and is optimistic that the Diamondbacks can continue the progress they made last season, when they improved 26 games after a 111-loss season.

General manager Josh Byrnes was hired in late October and began to remake an Arizona offense that relied far too much on the home run in 2005. The D-Backs were third in the NL in homers, but 10th in runs scored, a result of their struggles to hit with runners in scoring position and the fourth-highest strikeout total in the league.

Only three players from last year's Opening Day lineup figure to be in there this year -- Luis Gonzalez, Craig Counsell and Shawn Green.

With Troy Glaus and his 37 homers now in Toronto and Tony Clark's 30 on the bench, the D-Backs will not have as much power, but they figure to have a lineup of hitters that will work deep counts and be better at situational hitting.

"Overall, our run differential should be better," said Melvin, who saw his team outscored 856-696 last year. "That's something we needed to improve on. I think we have a chance to be less streaky than we were last year. When you rely on the home run as much as we did last year you're going to go through some prolonged slumps, and we did."

Melvin admitted that there were times last season where the club had little confidence it would score with the bottom of the order coming up. This year, with the addition of catcher Johnny Estrada behind the plate that should change.

"Given the depth one through eight, I think we'll have strong feeling that we'll have a chance to score in every inning this year," Melvin said.

That's what Byrnes was shooting for from the offense.

"If we can have depth and have quality at-bats, it gives us a chance to be in a lot of games," he said. "Obviously the final piece is making sure that our pitching is championship-caliber."

Ah yes, the pitching staff. That's the facet that is likely to determine whether Arizona is able to stay in the NL West race this year or not.

The starting rotation is headed by Brandon Webb, who had a breakout year in 2005 and looks to be up to the challenge of being the ace of the staff. After Webb, though, the rest of the rotation has plenty of questions.

Can Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez stay healthy? Will Russ Ortiz bounce back from a season that saw him go on the disabled list for the first time in his career and compile a 6.89 ERA when he was healthy? Will Miguel Batista be able to make the transition from closer back to being a starter? And will fifth starter Claudio Vargas resemble the dominant pitcher he was for more than a month last year or the one that struggled at other times?

The answers to those questions are crucial because the success of the bullpen depends on the performance of the starters.

The 'pen was an Achilles' heel for the D-Backs for much of 2005, and Byrnes tried to address it as best as he could during the offseason. He signed veteran Jason Grimsley, whom the club hopes can take the place of departed setup man Tim Worrell, and acquired reliever Luis Vizcaino from the White Sox. And this spring he added Juan Cruz and Jeff Bajenaru, with the hope being that from the depth they will be able to find the right combination.

The one certainty for now is that Jose Valverde, on the basis of his strong second half last year, will be the closer.

"I think maybe as expected we have pitching questions," Byrnes said. "But we also have numbers. We're hoping we have as many answers for those questions as we can find."

If the answers are correct, 2006 could be a happy one in the desert.

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