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July 26, 2004

Prospectus Today

Desert Doldrums

by Joe Sheehan

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"It's like a nightmare, isn't it?"

That line from one of the best movies ever, The Color of Money, came to mind yesterday as I watched the Arizona Diamondbacks' 14th consecutive loss via a Web-based scoreboard.

This was a heartbreaker by any standard. Randy Johnson threw eight shutout innings, allowing six hits and no walks while striking out 14. With Johnson leading off the eighth inning of a scoreless tie, Al Pedrique pinch-hit for him. The move was unsuccessful--Quinton McCracken struck out--but the Snakes would go on to take a 1-0 lead on Chad Tracy's RBI single.

With Johnson out of the game, though, the Rockies scored three runs off Mike Fetters and Randy Choate to take the lead, and when back-to-back singles opening the bottom of the frame were followed by three straight outs, the Diamondbacks had maintained their status as the game's only winless second-half team. The Snakes haven't won since July 8, nearly three weeks ago.

Like it has on so many days this month, it was the Diamondbacks' offense that failed them on Sunday. Since the break, the team has scored three runs or fewer in all but one game, and has a grand total of 33 runs in the losing streak, just barely above two a game. Arizona is 14th in the NL in runs, 15th in runs per game, 15th in OBP, and 12th in slugging. Remember that Bank One Ballpark is one of the better hitting environments in the game; account for that, and the Diamondbacks have the third-worst offense in baseball.

From a performance-analysis standpoint, the Snakes have been an easy target because of their affection for older players. It's not at all surprising that a team with a roster as old as the Diamondbacks has collapsed; old age has been a big factor in the 2004 disappointment of their AL counterparts, the Mariners.

The problem is that the team's older players are its best players. Johnson, 40, might win his sixth Cy Young Award this year. Steve Finley, 39, leads the team in games, home runs and slugging and is the most-sought-after position player in the trade market. Luis Gonzalez, whose left elbow is mostly theoretical at this point, is hitting .261/.377/.501, although he's about a week away from shutting himself down for the season so he can undergo Tommy John surgery.

No, while age certainly isn't an asset, the Diamondbacks' brutal 2004 season isn't the result of being too old. It's just what happens when bad luck, bad decisions, and lousy player development intersect.

About a year ago, I wrote that Diamondbacks GM Joe Garagiola, Jr. had done a much better job in the trade market than I had given him credit for. Rarely had the players he let go amounted to much, while the ones he'd acquired had ranged from excellent to poor. That's changed; players who Garagiola swapped away in the past 18 months are having excellent seasons for a number of teams, while he's getting virtually nothing for the ones who came back in those deals.

Richie Sexson's shoulder injury was unforeseen, but sending away three cheap years of Lyle Overbay has turned out to be a bad idea, given Overbay's outperforming even his 90th-percentile PECOTA projection. Throw in half a lineup's worth of players, including valuable talents in Junior Spivey and Chris Capuano, and that trade alone has cost the Diamondbacks five or six wins.

Trading Curt Schilling for Casey Fossum and prospects hasn't worked out yet. The Erubiel Durazo-for-Elmer Dessens swap looks bad, but only on the days Dessens pitches. Matt Mantei has thrown 10.2 innings while making about $4 million of his $7 million salary. He'll post fewer than 40 innings for the third time in five years as a Diamondback, and if he's not the player in MLB history who's made the most money for the least performance, he's certainly invited to the rose ceremony.

Homegrown Diamondbacks have made minimal contributions to this team. Brandon Webb, who might have been the best pitcher in the NL last season, has lost his control and is walking about 60% more batters than he did in '03. The guys who have been knocking on the door the past couple of seasons, like Chad Tracy and Scott Hairston, haven't impressed in their rookie seasons. While the Diamondbacks are loaded at Double-A, it's going to be at least a year before those players make an impact in Phoenix.

This could go on for a while. The Diamondbacks just went 0-11 on a long homestand, and now head to Houston and Colorado for a week. If Johnson is traded before making his next start Friday in Denver, it's not inconceivable that the Snakes could come back to Arizona on a 21-game losing streak.

If you're a Diamondbacks fan, it most certainly is a nightmare.

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

Related Content:  Arizona Diamondbacks,  The Who

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The Week in Quotes: Ju... (07/26)
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