PHOENIX — The wind should die down at Chase Field this season after last year's Arizona Diamondbacks smashed the major league record for strikeouts. Whether this vastly remodeled version can escape the NL West cellar is an open question.
Third baseman Mark Reynolds, who led the majors in strikeouts three years in a row, was shipped off to Baltimore, and the Diamondbacks made no effort to re-sign the No. 2 culprit, first baseman Adam LaRoche. Thus two men responsible for 383 of Arizona's 1,529 strikeouts are gone. Of course, they took 57 home runs and 187 RBIs with them, too.
New general manager Kevin Towers has made a lot of changes, especially in the bullpen, and is likely to make many more. Entering his first full season, manager Kirk Gibson is out to change the losing culture.
"Here's my biggest concern — that we stay healthy and we stay committed together," Gibson said. "There's been a way that things go around here — people did bail. You just can't jump off ship. You've got to stick with it. I don't know how long it will take but the committed ones, if we stay that way, we'll turn it around."
A sour spring shows there is plenty of work yet to be done. Outside the organization, expectations are low.
"We've lost over 90 games two years in a row and we've probably had a disappointing spring," Towers said. "The only people that are going to be able to change people's minds are the guys in that clubhouse, those 25 guys. It's going to be up to them to prove the naysayers wrong. I'd have to say it's important we get off to a good start. We can change a lot of things if we get off to a good start."
Only shortstop Stephen Drew, right fielder Justin Upton, center fielder Chris Young and catcher Miguel Montero remain from the Arizona team that made its surprising run to the NLCS in 2007, a spirited, young squad that seemed poised for a series of contending seasons. Instead, the team faded at the end of 2008, then plummeted to the NL West basement in 2009 and 2010.
Drew has evolved into one of the best shortstops in the National League. When Phoenix hosts its first All-Star Game in July, he might be the best bet to be Arizona's representative.
Upton, though, is in many ways the key. With a big contract, he's the face of the franchise but, still just 23, has at times failed to handle his role with the maturity that it demands. Injuries have been a problem, too. But Upton has had a strong spring and says he's ready to live up to the huge expectations that have followed him since the day he was drafted.
Young had a big comeback season after an awful 2009, and Montero hopes to avoid the injuries that have slowed him in the recent past.
The strength of this team could be the young arms in the rotation — Ian Kennedy is 26, while Daniel Hudson is 24 and Barry Enright turns 24 on Wednesday. Joe Saunders and Armando Galarraga fill out the rotation. All but Saunders are right-handed.
"If everybody pitches to their potential, I think we're pretty good," said Kennedy, who will start the opener Friday at Colorado. "I mean, it's hard to tell in spring, but I really think when Huddy (Hudson) pitches to his potential — myself, Joe and Barry — he throws a lot of strikes — I'm pretty happy with that rotation. Going into it, I think it's going to be a fun year, at least from a starter's standpoint."
In an attempt to improve what probably was the worst bullpen in the game, Towers brought in David Hernandez and J.J. Putz. Putz, bothered by a sore back in the spring, will be the closer. Aaron Heilman returns to the bullpen after losing out to Galarraga for the fifth spot in the rotation.
In left field, Xavier Nady is trying to come back from his second reconstructive elbow surgery. A pair of old-timers are at third, led by 39-year-old Melvin Mora. Geoff Blum would be his replacement, but will start the season on the disabled list with a right knee injury.
Then there is first base, where Russell Branyan got a minor league contract and slugged his way onto the club with a big spring. He could platoon with Juan Miranda, the slick-fielding Cuban who spent most of his pro career as a New York Yankees farmhand.
The good start Towers mentioned could be tough to realize. The team opens with three at Colorado, then plays three in Chicago against the Cubs before a nine-game home stand against Cincinnati, St. Louis and world champion San Francisco. Then it's off to Cincinnati and New York to face the Mets, followed by home games against Philadelphia and the Cubs.
"We've got a first tough month of April," Towers said. "We'll find out what we're made of."