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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Returning veterans might hold key for D-backs

Gibson not counting solely on newcomer Trumbo to protect Goldschmidt

Returning veterans might hold key for D-backs play video for Returning veterans might hold key for D-backs

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In the three full seasons he's managed the D-backs, Kirk Gibson has filled out 486 lineup cards with a staggering 392 different concoctions. So to try to pin him down to anything even remotely resembling a set sequence here in early March is misguided.

Still, the D-backs' lineup is something of a source of fascination, given the length it has presumably taken on with the addition of slugger Mark Trumbo and his possible pairing with MVP runner-up Paul Goldschmidt. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single analysis of the Trumbo trade that doesn't somehow incorporate the words "lineup protection" in it, the thought being that Goldschmidt will see more pitches to hit in the No. 3 spot if Trumbo is batting cleanup.

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The problem, though, with this assumption is twofold: 1. The concept of "lineup construction" is statistically dubious to begin with, and 2. Gibson seems to have no plans to pair the two power hitters, anyway.

"It seems to me they shouldn't be back-to-back," Gibson said. "You kind of construct your lineup to where each guy has an opportunity to have a runner on or multiple runners on, because they both have the opportunity to hit the ball out of the ballpark and you have the opportunity to score multiple runs. You get down by a run or two runs or three runs, it's a good option to have a couple guys on and one of those guys pop one. So that's kind of where I'm at on it."

Gibson's lineups are always subject to change, and that's not at all unique at a time when more and more managers are seeking out the platoon advantage or relying on matchup data in the course of lineup construction. Lineups ought to be designed on the basis of execution and functionality, not sentimentality, which is why Gibson's current thought process regarding Goldschmidt and Trumbo is so sound.

In truth, Trumbo doesn't provide "protection" so much as he provides another layer of length to a lineup that generated the fifth-most runs per game in the National League last season.

"I think we had [depth] last year," Goldschmidt said. "I don't necessarily consider it protection. You just try to have a good at-bat and get on base and the guy behind you does the same thing. If you do that consistently through the year, you're going to be successful."

If we can consider Goldschmidt's consistency and Trumbo's power (almost certain to be aided by the shift to Chase Field) bankable commodities, then the keys to the D-backs' success are continued health for Aaron Hill and a return to form for Miguel Montero. Because as of now (again, subject to change), they figure to be the ones in the Nos. 2 and 4 spots setting up the opportunities upon which Goldschmidt and Trumbo hope to pounce.

Hill is an underrated asset at a position of limited leaguewide offensive stability. From the time of his arrival to Arizona on Aug. 23, 2011, Hill's .862 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is second only to Robinson Cano's .914 mark among second basemen. So the fractured hand he suffered when he was hit by a pitch in mid-April last season (an injury that limited him to 87 games) was a costly one. The D-backs were in first place when he returned in late June, but the organizational thought is that the gap between them and the rest of the West might have widened had Hill been aboard.

Beyond the offseason aggression that netted Trumbo, Bronson Arroyo and potential closer Addison Reed, a healthy Hill is one reason the D-backs feel frisky about their chances in a deep division.

"He drives in runs, gets on base, does everything you want him to do," Goldschmidt said. "He's a smart hitter, smart baserunner, he's smart defensively. He's a great role model for a lot of people in here."

Most importantly, if Hill bats in what seems to be a natural two-hole spot, he could be a great provider of RBI opportunities for Goldschmidt, whose ability to come through in clutch situations last season (a .338 average and 1.146 OPS with runners in scoring position) was a revelation.

As is the case with lineup protection, statisticians deny the concept of clutch hitting as a predictable skill, but Goldschmidt's calmness in the clutch last year was difficult to discount, and it will be intriguing to see what kind of carryover 2014 contains.

What is unrealistic, though, is the notion that Goldschmidt is suddenly going to see more pitches to hit simply because the D-backs have another masher around. Gibson, therefore, is approaching this matter practically, and the best guess at this point is that Montero would be the one slotting between Goldy and Trumbo.

The D-backs need a bounceback season from Montero like the desert needs rain. His regression both at the plate (.662 OPS) and behind it last season was a major factor in the club's inability to hold down the NL West's top spot in the second half.

"I didn't have a great season," Montero said. "It happens to the best of them. You've got to move on with your life. As long as I'm feeling healthy and getting hits, it's all good."

The D-backs have seen good work from Montero in camp, though it's far too early to read too much into his offensive performance, especially given the way his personal schedule has played out.

"We really pounded him hard with his catching responsibilities early," Gibson said. "He was having two catcher's meetings a day, and the catchers do their individual defensive segments. And so, just here recently, the last three or four days, we've set a time out privately so that he doesn't neglect that.

"I've seen him way calmer at the plate, much better approach on balls outside the zone, shortening things up, not as much activity before the ball gets there. He's going in the right direction."

A D-backs club coming off consecutive .500 seasons could move in the right direction this year, especially if its solid offensive production jumps into the elite range. That's why Gibson is playing around with the different arrangements in his head, trying to ensure Goldschmidt and Trumbo are not only properly aligned but properly equipped with RBI opportunities.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["spring_training" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] }