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D-backs look to return to top of division in 2013

D-backs look to return to top of division in 2013

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D-backs look to return to top of division in 2013
PHOENIX -- As the calendar flips to 2013, the D-backs will be looking to 2011 for inspiration.

Then, as now, the Giants were coming off not just a National League West title, but a World Series, and the D-backs were division underdogs picked by many to finish at best in third place.

Somehow that 2011 team never got that memo as they won 94 games and the division title.

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While that team overachieved, the 2012 team underachieved and the D-backs' management team led by general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson is determined not to see that happen again.

For his part, Towers has spent the winter shoring up the bench, adding to the rotation and bullpen, while trying to find suitable answers on the left side of the infield.

Gibson spent the first few months of the offseason in the woods of Michigan hunting, but also reflecting on how he can better reach the players in his clubhouse.

Look for the emphasis to return to competition and execution during Spring Training as Gibson works to reestablish the relentless mindset that helped the D-backs in 2011.

There is optimism around the team, but just like with every other team there are also plenty of questions. Here's a look, in no particular order, at some of them.

1. Who will play shortstop and how much production will they add?
With Stephen Drew gone, the D-backs spent the winter searching for a replacement at shortstop. Towers already had Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald and he added Cliff Pennington to the mix in October. Then, just prior to the holidays, the team acquired prospect Didi Gregorius in a three-team deal. Gregorius will compete for the starting job during the spring, but it seems likely he will get more work in the Minor Leagues.

2. Who fills out the starting rotation?
With Brandon McCarthy joining Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Wade Miley the D-backs have four spots in the rotation penciled in entering Spring Training. Who wins the No. 5 spot will be a big story during the spring. If Josh Collmenter is used in a spot start/relief role as expected, that would leave left-handed prospects Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin as the frontrunners among a group of young pitchers. Both are regarded as parts of the team's future. Corbin has the advantage in big league experience while scouts say Skaggs has the bigger upside.

3. Can the D-backs find their mojo again?
The 2011 version seemed to excel at coming through in the clutch and winning close games. Statistics show that's not an easily repeatable phenomenon, and that was clear in last season's struggles. Gibson and his coaching staff will spend the spring trying to foster the relentless mindset and cohesiveness that helped in 2011, but seemed to be missing in 2012.

4. Is Adam Eaton ready?
Eaton was called up in September last year after posting monster numbers at Triple-A Reno. The team gave him lots of playing time and they liked what they saw, so much so, in fact, that they dealt veteran Chris Young to the A's to make room for Eaton to play center. Is he ready to hit leadoff and play every day in the big leagues? It's a question the team will need to answer this spring.

5. How is playing time distributed in the outfield?
Even with the Young trade, the D-backs have a surplus of outfielders with Justin Upton, Jason Kubel and Gerardo Parra joining Eaton. The team spent the winter shopping Kubel and listening to offers on Upton. If no deal is made, Gibson will once again have a juggling act trying to find enough playing time for both Parra and Kubel in left. Should Kubel be dealt, Parra would start in left, Eaton in center, Upton in right and prospect A.J. Pollock would be the fourth outfielder.

6. Which is the real Ian Kennedy?
It's not like Kennedy had a bad year in 2012. A 15-12 mark, over 200 innings pitched and a 4.02 ERA are nothing to sneeze at. However, he set the bar much higher for himself in 2011 when he won 21 games, had a 2.88 ERA and was the unquestioned ace of the staff. The D-backs would love to see him regain that swagger as well as the dominance he showed against divisional opponents that year.

7. Will they get more production from third base?
With Ryan Roberts unable to repeat his 2011 performance, the D-backs did not get a lot of production out of the third base position. Trading for Chris Johnson in July helped some and it's a spot the D-backs will need to get more out of in 2013. With that in mind, the D-backs signed veteran free agent Eric Chavez to team with Johnson at third and provide, what the team hopes, will be a productive platoon-type situation.

8. How does Upton respond to the trade talk?
Whether they were shopping him or merely listening to offers, Upton's name was in trade talks throughout much of the offseason. The public expectation was that he would not be in a D-backs uniform come Spring Training. With it looking now like he will be in Sedona Red, the question is: Will there be any lingering hard feelings or is the slugger poised for a big year at the plate?

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

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