SAN DIEGO -- There seems to be no panacea for the D-backs, who aren't showing any real signs of coming out of their early-season malaise. But it's clear that they are not the same club without a healthy shortstop Stephen Drew, recently said a top ranking baseball executive who should know. "We were able to overcome his loss for two months at the end of last season and make the playoffs," said Jerry Dipoto, a D-backs executive then and the Angels general manager now. "But over the course of a whole season, it really hurts to not have him. And that shows." Dipoto said he's still keenly interested in the D-backs, whom he's watching from afar as his Angels are trying to battle the way out of their own 8-15 hole. The former big league reliever worked to build the Arizona farm system, stepped in as interim GM when Josh Byrnes was dismissed midway through the 2010 season, and worked closely as an assistant to Kevin Towers last year after Towers edged him out for the permanent GM job.
Dipoto was intimately involved in last year's First-Year Player Draft, in which the D-backs picked three coveted young pitchers in the first round -- Trevor Bauer, Archie Bradley and Andrew Chafin -- ultimately drafting 10 pitchers in the first 17 rounds. Because of that, Arizona's future is extremely bright. "They're going to be fine," Dipoto said about a team that dropped an ugly 7-1 decision to the Padres on Friday night at Petco Park. "I have no doubt about that." It's the present, though, that has the current management concerned and much of it may ride on the possibility that Drew returns from a nasty broken right ankle in some kind of short order. Drew fractured the ankle and tore ligaments sliding into home plate this past July 24, and he's still in recovery and rehab. As Dipoto noted, the D-backs have patch-worked the key position ever since with utility players Willie Bloomquist, John McDonald and Cody Ransom, who has since been waived. Their combined .986 fielding percentage at short was tied for tops with the Phillies in the National League, heading into Friday night's action. And the Phillies have All-Star Jimmy Rollins. But the D-backs seemed to have reached their shelf life filling shortstop with utility players. They are six games under .500 and nine games behind the slumping first-place Dodgers in the NL West. "Do we want Stephen Drew in our lineup? Of course," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said before the game. "He's a heck of a talent. But I don't know what kind of impact it's had not having him." There is anecdotal evidence. Last year, with Drew playing every day, the D-backs were 28-24 and only two games out after 52 games. This year they are 23-29. They have also had to suffer through sustained periods without center fielder Chris Young and starter Daniel Hudson because of injuries. The loss of that trio has had its consequences. "The D-backs are a little thin to have to deal with all of that," Dipoto said. Once through next week's annual Draft, which begins on Monday, Towers may start making significant changes. A year ago, he shed Russell Branyan, Armando Galarraga, Melvin Mora, Aaron Heilman and Willie Mo Pena. A month after the Drew injury, he traded Kelly Johnson to the Blue Jays for McDonald and Aaron Hill. It all worked because the D-backs won 94 times and the division by eight games over the Giants. Adding a healthy Drew now would be like signing a major player in midstream. But there's still no timetable for that to happen, Gibson said, adding that with extended spring workouts ending Saturday, Drew will have no choice except to continue his rehab in the Minor Leagues. In Drew's current condition, it would seem to be at least weeks away before he returns to the Majors. "It's a medical condition and you have to make sure he's ready for a whole new deal," Gibson said. "He's pushed it very hard. He's worked very hard. But it's nothing like what he's going to go through here when it's pure reaction all the time. It's encouraging, but he's had setbacks. It gets too sore [at times] to deal with so we don't want to push it too hard." Still, Gibson is well aware that this is a season now on the brink. He said that physically Drew is fine. The bone and ligaments around the ankle are healed and that when Drew finally does make it back, he should be the shortstop of old even though he will be dealing with a new post-injury reality. Nothing may ever be the same. "I think when he comes back he'll play his tail off," Gibson said. "I think he'll be Stephen Drew. I do." Gibson can only hope that happens. Certainly, the D-backs will be the better for it, if it's not too late by then.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.