D-backs won't be shoved aside in tough NL West
Everyone in organization thrilled with offseason, convinced they can contend
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Here's a little secret you should know about these Arizona Diamondbacks. This isn't something they're shouting from any mountaintop because, well, Spring Training predictions are cheap. Besides, with so many miles to go and all that, the Diamondbacks know all the stuff that could go wrong.
Still, the thing that's apparent is that almost everyone -- the people in charge, the players, etc. -- is thrilled after an offseason of change. Yeah, the Giants might still be the best team in baseball, and the Dodgers will have baseball's highest payroll.
But the Diamondbacks are convinced they're also going to be a factor in the National League West, and that they've positioned themselves to go back to the playoffs. All they're saying is they're very pleased with this team and that they've got a club their fans will like, as well as a club that should not be overlooked.
From the moment Kevin Towers took over as general manager at the end of the 2010 season, he'd envisioned his club playing a certain way. Now he may have it.
"This is the kind of club when I first got here, I was hoping we'd have," Towers said.
Manager Kirk Gibson, a stickler for details, as passionate and competitive player as baseball has had, wants pretty much the same thing. That is, a club built around pitching and defense, a club that plays aggressively and smartly and takes care of the details, a club that isn't reliant on home runs to produce offense.
Towers constructed a National League champion in San Diego in 1998 with that blueprint, and has watched the San Francisco Giants win two World Series in three seasons with a similar style.
So after a bitterly disappointing 2012 season, Towers and Gibson and their staffs spent hours hammering out a vision for '13. The Diamondbacks had scored more runs than they had the previous year, but their pitching was worse, their baserunning was terrible and their mental approach wasn't what they thought it should be. They were 64-41 when they homered, 17-40 when they didn't.
To get the club he wanted, Towers had to take some chances, including one that has been roundly second-guessed: the trading of the franchise's biggest star -- 25-year-old Justin Upton-- to the Atlanta Braves.
Towers got 29-year-old Martin Prado as part of that deal, and immediately signed him to a four-year, $40-million extension. Prado is a huge part of the new Diamondbacks, and not just because he'll become the everyday third baseman.
Perhaps more than any other player Towers has acquired in his three offseasons in Arizona, Prado reflects what he wants these Diamondbacks to be. Prado was revered in Atlanta as both a teammate and a player, a guy who played hard from start to finish and emerged as a huge clubhouse presence.
"I think he fits the mold," Towers said. "He's the first one to the park, the last one to leave. Ask Martin Prado where [he wants] to hit and he says, 'Wherever you want me, skip.' Where [is he] most comfortable playing? 'Wherever you want me, skip.'
"He's a guy that wants to be up there late in the game with the game on the line. He wants pressure. Wants to be in the lineup."
Ask Prado about this sort of thing, and he smiles. He has heard the nice things the Braves have said about him since his departure, and he understands what the Diamondbacks want from him.
"As a professional, I am not the kind of professional that has six tools, seven tools," Prado said. "But I feel fortunate to be a good player. I know all the work I've put in, and I feel honored to have people respect [me]. I'm going to keep learning, but I'm going to share things with my teammates. It's a long season, and these guys become like a family. Anything you can do to make it go easier helps."
Towers also signed Cody Ross, another tough-minded, grind-it-out player. Ross sounds a lot like Prado when he talks about his game.
"I totally understand the direction they're trying to go," Ross said. "There's a little different dynamic. I call myself a baseball player when people ask my best tool. I don't have a No. 1 tool. I just play the game hard.
"Obviously, we all have talent to play at this level, but playing smart and playing the game the right way sometimes is overlooked. I think that's what you're going to get out of our team. I'm absolutely excited about it. The chemistry is already good."
In the end, though, it's about the pitching. Towers signed free agent Brandon McCarthy, and seems to have a deep rotation with Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley and a bunch of talented kids -- Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin and Randall Delgado -- competing for the fifth spot. Towers also went for veteran presence on his bench in getting Eric Chavez, Eric Hinske and Rod Barajas.
So far, so good. Upton represented the face of the franchise, but Towers and Gibson are convinced these new Diamondbacks will pass every test.
"Who is the face of the franchise?" Towers asked. "We don't have one. It might be a different guy each and every night. We've got gritty, grinder-type players, but they're talented players, too. They're winning-type players. I think if we stay healthy, I see us applying pressure on our opponent. We're not going to be an easy team to beat. We're going to be pests. We're not going to go away. We've got guys who've won before and know what it takes to win."
Gibson and Towers make it clear they're in this together and that they agree on both the style and substance of the new Diamondbacks. No manager works his club harder at getting the fundamentals right, and when the Diamondbacks went from two games out of first on August 3 last season to finish 13 games behind the Giants, it stung.
"That's a bad memory," Gibson said. "There's a great vibe around here [this spring]. There should be. We're very gritty, as everybody says. We're also very talented. It's an attitude and an expectation that we're trying to develop."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.