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New-look D-backs hope to surprise in 2011

New-look D-backs hope to surprise in 2011

New-look D-backs hope to surprise in 2011
PHOENIX -- The D-backs will certainly have a new look in 2011.

Whether that translates into more wins on the field remains to be seen, but new general manager Kevin Towers likes the team that he has put together after a flurry of moves this winter.

Gone are corner infielders Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche, the bullpen has been fully overhauled, and when all is said and done, the team will likely have an almost 40 percent different look between Opening Day 2010 and Opening Day 2011.

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"We've kind of addressed all our needs," Towers said. "It's not to say that we won't add any more pieces before the start of the season, but if we had to start today, we're pretty comfortable with where we're at."

A new look was needed for a team that finished last in back-to-back seasons. The new-look D-backs will include more veterans and players who are known for making contact rather than setting strikeout records.

The additions over the winter should make for competition for playing time and more flexibility for manager Kirk Gibson.

"I think it gives Kirk and the coaching staff a lot of different options to play matchups," Towers said. "It will probably be a little bit different than last year, where really probably other than left field, you pretty much wrote the same lineup out there each and every day."

Here is a look at the top 10 questions facing the D-backs heading into 2011:

1. Is J.J. Putz ready to assume the closer's role?

The D-backs have not had a legitimate closer since Jose Valverde left following the 2007 season. Brandon Lyon and Chad Qualls, among others, tried to fill the role, but the results were not good. Putz was dominant in the role for the Mariners for a few years but has not been the main man since 2008. Last season with the White Sox, he did an outstanding job in the setup role. If he's able to perform as the closer, it would set up the rest of the bullpen nicely.

2. Is the rest of the bullpen better?

There's no question the bullpen was a huge problem for the D-backs in 2010, and it was the first thing Towers tried to address. Towers was renowned for his bullpen building while GM of the Padres for 14 seasons. One of Towers' specialties is finding hidden gems like Edward Mujica or Luke Gregerson. He has little tolerance for relievers with great arms who cannot throw strikes, which means Esmerling Vasquez and Jordan Norberto face uphill climbs to make the roster. In addition to Putz, Towers has added David Hernandez, Kam Mickolio, Brian Sweeney and Joe Paterson to make for depth and competition in the 'pen. One thing is for sure, it would be hard to be worse than last year's bullpen, which finished with the third-worst ERA in history.

3. Can Justin Upton stay healthy for a full season?

There is no question that Upton is among the most gifted players in the game. One thing he has struggled with, though, is staying on the field. A variety of injuries limited him to 138 games in 2009 and 133 last season, and Gibson has said that having Upton available to play 150-plus games is a priority for the team in 2011. With that in mind, the team has asked Upton to tweak his workout regimen to help prevent some of the injuries as well as keep him strong for an entire season. Gibson's comments during the Winter Meetings seemed to indicate the club views him as someone who wears down as the months go along. Especially without Reynolds and LaRoche in the lineup, the D-backs will need Upton's bat in there as often as possible.

4. What kind of a manager is Gibson?

The answer is that it is far too soon to tell. It would be unfair to judge him on his record last season, given that he took over a fractured team that sold off most of its most marketable parts in the weeks following his hiring. Gibson did get his team to play hard for him, and one of the most interesting things to watch will be how the D-backs react to the crackdown in the clubhouse that he talked about during the Winter Meetings. No more pellet guns, no more toy airplanes and more of a business-like atmosphere. He has also vowed to run a more intense Spring Training. Bench coach Alan Trammell will help with the in-game moves, but the key will be how Gibson's intensity plays in the clubhouse over the course of 162 games.

5. Is Daniel Hudson for real?

The D-backs knew they were getting a good pitcher when Hudson came over from the White Sox in exchange for Edwin Jackson just before the Trade Deadline, but no one expected the kind of performance he delivered. In 11 starts after the trade, Hudson was dominant, going 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA. The D-backs love his competitive drive and the way he prepares for each and every start, and they are counting on him in a big way for 2011. Hudson should slide into either the second or third spot in the rotation behind Joe Saunders and possibly ahead of Ian Kennedy.

6. Can Miguel Montero handle the starting load behind the plate?

When he took over for the injured Chris Snyder in June 2009, Montero started off hot and never cooled down. That raised expectations for him in 2010, and in the end, the season was a disappointment for him. An knee injury early in the season cost him two months and caused him to lose some of his conditioning. The end result was a .770 OPS (on-base plus slugging), down from the .832 he posted in 2009. The D-backs signed veteran backup Henry Blanco to help mentor Montero and to make sure he does not get worn down.

7. Can the Juan Miranda/Brandon Allen combination handle the first-base duties?

After not getting much production from first base in 2009, the D-backs signed LaRoche and he gave them 25 homers and 100 RBIs before departing as a free agent. The club deemed him too expensive for 2011 and instead will give Miranda and Allen a chance to compete for playing time this spring. Towers is particular intrigued by Miranda, who was blocked with the Yankees by Mark Teixeira. The D-backs do have some other options in Xavier Nady and Geoff Blum, but they could really use one or both of Miranda and Allen to be able to handle it.

8. Will the team be able to score enough runs without the presence of Reynolds and LaRoche?

Aside from improving the bullpen, Towers' priority was cutting down on the team's record-setting strikeout total. In the process of doing that, he jettisoned Reynolds and LaRoche, who combined for 57 homers. In their place are some combination of Melvin Mora, Nady, Blum, Miranda and Allen. While that group is likely to strike out a lot less, they likely will not be able to provide the same run production. Hopefully, the drop-off won't hurt the offense too significantly.

9. Will Nady have a bounceback season?

Nady scuffled last year with the Cubs, hitting .256, but Towers felt a lot of that was attributable to the fact that he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery. By the time Spring Training rolls around, Towers believes Nady will be back to his old self and will post numbers similar to the ones he did with the Pirates and Yankees when he was a productive, if underrated, player. The D-backs have not gotten much production out of the left-field spot the past few seasons, and they are counting on Nady being a key part in changing that.

10. Will the D-backs be able to climb out of the National League West cellar for the first time since 2008?

The NL West has always been a topsy-turvy division -- raise your hand if you picked the Padres to lead the division for most of 2010 -- and one that is hard to predict. That said, the D-backs should be improved over the team that lost 97 games last year and 95 the year before. For one thing, the bullpen has to get better and the rotation should be more stable. If the offense can find a way to carry its weight and the team stays healthy, the D-backs could surprise in 2011.

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Inside the D-backs, and follow him on Twitter @dbackswriter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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