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June 10, 2011

On the Beat

Snake Charmer

by John Perrotto

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Kirk Gibson vowed there would be changes at the end of a difficult 2010 season for the Diamondbacks. He wasn’t lying.

Gibson, who was given the manager's job on a full-time basis after taking over as the interim skipper for the fired A.J. Hinch last July 1, overhauled his coaching staff. He also had input as new general manager Kevin Towers reshaped the roster, particularly the bullpen. With new personnel in place, he focused on instilling a better work ethic in spring training by extending workouts and limiting horseplay.

It would seem that it’s safe to say that the Diamondbacks have turned things around after last year's 65-97 disaster. They are 34-29 and in second place in the National League West, just one game behind the Giants, with 19 wins in their last 26 games. Still, Gibson isn’t getting complacent.

"I don't think we've turned anything around yet," Gibson said. "It's too early in the season to say that. What we have done, though, is work hard. We'll continue to work hard, too, in order to try to change who we are, the culture that exists here, and how we play the game. We've made good strides. We've played better baseball this year. Still, there's a lot of season left and a long way to go."

Gibson and Towers assembled one of the most experienced coaching staffs, in terms of major-league games played, in recent memory, with bench coach Alan Trammell, hitting coach Don Baylor, pitching coach Charles Nagy, third-base coach Matt Williams, and first-base coach Eric Young. Only bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock, who has been on the staff since the Diamondbacks' expansion season in 1998, was not a big-league player.

Gibson believed that having an experienced staff would add credibility in his first stint as a major-league manager. He also felt that the players would be much more likely to take instruction and advice from coaches who had been very successful in their playing days.

"We wanted to instill certain things here," Gibson said. "We wanted our guys to begin playing the game the right way and go about their business in a professional manner."

The change in attitude has coincided with an improvement in the team’s win-loss record, and right-hander Daniel Hudson says that is no accident.

"We always feel we're going to win the game, and I don't know if that was the case when I first got here," said Hudson, who was acquired from the White Sox in a trade last July 31. "Even when we're down by two or three runs in the eighth inning, there is always a feeling that we're going to get it done."

Having a winning attitude is always a good thing, but having talent is even better. Closer J.J. Putz, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has brought both and is identified by many in the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse as one of the biggest reasons for their success.

Putz's 3.09 Fair Run Average is the best in a bullpen that was beset by injuries, inconsistency, and poor performance last season. David Hernandez, acquired from the Orioles in an off-season trade for Mark Reynolds, has been an able set-up man, though two recent bad outings in a row have raised his FRA to 4.09.

"J.J. has been great, and having him down there closing out games has helped everybody feel a lot more confident that we're going to win games," second baseman Kelly Johnson said. "Everybody's role kept changing last year, but now we have a very good setup in the bullpen and J.J. has been the key because of the way he's pitched and solidified the whole thing, plus the leadership he brings."

"We're in a situation this year where we have a chance to really shorten the game up if our starter gets us through six or seven innings," Gibson said.

Hudson (3.85) and Ian Kennedy (3.97) have fronted a starting rotation that has gotten a recent lift from rookie Josh Collmenter (3.81) and left-hander Zach Duke (2.59), who has made three starts since missing the first six weeks of the season with a broken hand after being acquired from the Pirates in an off-season trade.

"I think the starting pitching has been the biggest thing," Johnson said. "Since we started winning, they've been very consistently giving us quality starts. It's a good feeling when you know you can score just three or four runs in a game and have a good chance to win."

Despite some recent good work, the Diamondbacks are just 12th in the NL with an average of 4.39 runs allowed per game, although playing half their games in Chase Field makes run prevention an uphill battle. They are fifth in team TAv, though, coming in at .267.

The most interesting aspect of the Diamondbacks' offensive success—other than most of their players’ reluctance to credit above-average run-scoring as a reason for being five games over .500—is that they do not have a single regular with a True Average over .300. Right fielder Justin Upton leads the team with a .295 mark.

"We're good offensively, but I think we can be even better," Gibson said. "If you look at our games, we really do a good job of grinding at-bats out and being selective late in games that are on the line. We need to do that earlier in the game. We have a lot of guys who have a chance to make an impact, either getting on base, stealing a base, going first to third, hitting a home run, getting an extra-base hit. That's why our team is fairly productive."

Added Johnson: "We don't have any superstars, but our lineup is really deep from one through eighth."

Will the balanced lineup and revamped bullpen be enough to keep the Diamondbacks in contention for another 3 1/2 months? Gibson isn't ready to answer that question as the calendar approaches mid-June.

"I don't know how you really know at this point in the season," Gibson said. "We just come out, play as hard as we can play, respect our opponent and try to play the game the right way every day. I believe if you do that then things eventually fall into place."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings:

There is a school of thought developing that Cubs owner Tom Ricketts will fire general manager Jim Hendry by the end of the month in order for the next GM to begin dismantling the team by the trading deadline and get a start on 2012. Hendry or his successor likely won't be able to dump Aramis Ramirez, as the slumping third baseman says he is disinclined to waive the no-trade clause in his contract… Mets manager Terry Collins says he does not plan to platoon or bench Jason Bay, but the left fielder says he is braced for the possibility of losing his starting job… The Pirates are desperately seeking catching help, as they are down to their fourth-stringer in Dusty Brown and fifth-stringer in Wyatt Toregas with Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit on the disabled list and Triple-A Indianapolis starter Jason Jaramillo also injured. One possibility is signing Jake Fox as a free agent if he clears waivers this afternoon after being designated for assignment by the Orioles last week… The Mariners plan to call up Triple-A Tacoma second baseman Dustin Ackley as soon as they are absolutely sure he will not qualify as a Super Two player, which would give them a lineup that includes five players 25 or younger in Ackley (23), first baseman Justin Smoak (24), designated hitter Mike Carp (25), and outfielders Greg Halman (23) and Carlos Peguero (24).

How much have expectations grown in Minnesota in recent years? The Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a four-part series earlier this week that analyzed the Twins' awful start to the season… When third baseman Chipper Jones said this week that right fielder Jason Heyward needed to get back on the field even if he still had soreness in his non-throwing shoulder, he was expressing the sentiment of a majority of players in the Braves' clubhouse… Thad Bosley was fired as the Rangers' hitting coach, even though manager Ron Washington pushed hard to keep him, because of his inability to connect with stars Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler…Athletics manager Bob Geren became the third man to be fired following a loss to the Orioles in Baltimore in as many years, as Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi got the axe at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 2009 and Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez was jettisoned there last June… The Red Sox have averaged 5.22 runs per game with a .460 slugging percentage and an 804 OPS—all major-league-leading figures—in 41 games since installing center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury as the leadoff hitter, going 26-15 in that span… The Indians have scored two runs or fewer in 13 of 21 games since designated hitter Travis Hafner went on the disabled list… The Rockies have used 10 different starting pitchers this season, the most of any major-league club.

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Scouts' views:

Tigers infielder/outfielder Don Kelly: "He's Jim Leyland's kind of player because he can play all over the field or hit anywhere in the order. He doesn't hit much, but he'll do a good job for you at a lot of different positions. There is value in that kind of versatility, even in the American League."

Brewers center fielder Nyjer Morgan: "He's a little flighty, but he always makes things happen, both good and bad. He's fun to watch, and I think there is no doubt that the Brewers are a better team with him in center field than Carlos Gomez."

Rockies right-hander Juan Nicasio: "I like this guy. He throws 95 miles per hour, and he'll challenge hitters with the fastball even though he is a rookie. His breaking pitches and changeup are pretty decent, too. He's got a shot to be a pretty good starting pitcher."

Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki: "I really hesitate to say he's washed because he has been such a great player for so long, but he is looking old. He has no juice in his bat, and a lot of balls are falling in that he used to get to easily make plays on. He's really hurt that club all year."

Braves left-hander Jonny Venters: "He's throwing 97-mile-per-hour sinkers from the left side, and that's just not fair. You can count on one hand the number of lefties who can throw their four-seam fastballs at 97. To throw 97 with sink? The hitters have no chance against that. Zero."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  A.J. Hinch,  Bob Gibson

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