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Phil Rogers

Crunch time coming early for struggling D-backs

After a shaky start to the season, Arizona's rotation needs a turnaround

Crunch time coming early for struggling D-backs

CHICAGO -- Kevin Towers knew Masahiro Tanaka was going to hit the ground running in North America, and badly wanted to bring him to Arizona. He had a creative idea in how to get him too.

When the D-backs met with Tanaka and his agent, Casey Close, Towers laid out their willingness to take the Japanese star on what would amount to a two-year test drive. They explained they were willing to give him the right to opt out of his contract after two years, becoming a free agent again for the 2016 season.

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That might have worked had the Yankees not offered $155 million over seven years -- and with the way Tanaka has started his career, you wonder what he might have commanded after two seasons. It could have been the Clayton Kershaw package, super-sized.

Tanaka wasn't the only dominating pitcher that the D-backs tried to get last winter. While Towers worked a pair of trades involving the White Sox, he couldn't pull off the one he really wanted -- for left-hander Chris Sale. Nor could he land the Rays' David Price, because he wasn't willing to part with 21-year-old right-hander Archie Bradley, who should be coming to a Major League park near you at some point this summer.

Towers signed free agent Bronson Arroyo on the eve of Spring Training and hoped for the best. He's gotten the worst, with ace Patrick Corbin undergoing Tommy John surgery and both Trevor Cahill and Randall Delgado pitching themselves into the bullpen. The D-backs' rotation ERA has jumped from 4.13 in 2013 to an almost-incomprehensible 7.15, with recurring mistakes in the field a big part of the problem.

This wasn't what Towers envisioned when he traded lefty Tyler Skaggs to add power hitter Mark Trumbo. He didn't expect to find himself with Mike Bolsinger in his rotation, yet the 25-year-old started at Wrigley Field on Thursday while Trumbo was back in Phoenix in a walking cast, with doctors trying to limit the time he spends on the disabled list, treating a stress fracture in his left foot.

The D-backs are a mess. They've lost 10 of 12 entering Thursday and at 6-18 have the Major Leagues' worst record, in a season when Ken Kendrick's ownership group allowed the payroll to grow beyond $100 million for the first time in more than a decade.

There are rumblings that Towers and manager Kirk Gibson could be replaced if things don't turn around soon. It's hard to believe that will happen as both signed contract extensions before the start of an extended Spring Training that preceded the season-opening trip to Australia. But it must seem like a long time since 2011, when the D-backs won 94 games and were one big hit away from the NLCS.

Towers knows the awful start is testing the patience of Kendrick and club president Derrick Hall, but it's hard to see what good would be achieved by making regime changes at this point.

The across-the-board lack of performance raises questions, but it is hard to see how they would be corrected by Towers paying more attention to analytics. Kendrick raised that issue in an interview with the Arizona Republic's Dan Bickley last week, which sounded alarms around Chase Field.

Towers is considered old school, but that designation almost doesn't exist any more in front offices. Every team uses statistical analysis, even those that don't spend a lot of time talking about. You'd be crazy not to, and these guys aren't crazy.

If the D-backs didn't study numbers, they wouldn't have a stand-up desk at the manager's end of the dugout, where Gibson and bench coach Alan Trammell stand. Gibson defined "clutch player'' during his career -- a concept that some modern thinkers find apocryphal -- but studies the run matrix and other elements of probability.

If Towers has throwback tendencies, they're most often found in his boldness. He isn't afraid to make trades, even when they're unpopular. He dealt former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy when he was in San Diego and he pulled the rug out from under Justin Upton after taking over in Arizona, believing Upton was uncomfortable in a high-visibility role.

That move has pretty much been a disaster, with Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson instantly becoming core guys in Atlanta while Delgado struggles to hold a spot in Gibson's rotation. Early results also suggest he miscalculated when he bought into A.J. Pollock's potential so much that he was willing to trade on-base machine Adam Eaton to the White Sox.

Eaton has solved the Sox's leadoff issues and played a major role in their fast start, yet these are only early results. Eaton faces questions about his durability and Pollock's leadership -- a trait that Towers is sold on -- will be vital in the months ahead.

Down 5-2 in the ninth inning on Wednesday, with Tony Campana filling in for Pollock (stiff neck), the D-backs scored five runs to steal a victory from the Cubs, who were celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field. Was it the start of a turn-around?

"I think we've been pressing, and I've said that many, many times,'' Gibson said Thursday. "We just haven't synced up all year in all aspects of the game. That's what we've been seeking out, searching out. It seems like [on Wednesday] we finally got some breaks that we haven't been getting all year.''

The D-backs are going to play better once their starting pitchers escape the freefall they've been in since leaving the Sydney Cricket Grounds. They could play a lot better if Bradley ultimately steps in to deliver a badly needed front-of-the-rotation arm.

Credit Towers for giving Bolsinger this opportunity, not Bradley. It would have been easy to turn to the young gun that other teams covet, but the D-backs have issues that go beyond those one guy could solve, even if that guy had turned out to be Tanaka.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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