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September 10, 1999

NL West Notebook

Slithering Along

by Steven Rubio

Slithering Along

The NL West has become a tale of two teams, and including the Giants at this point is admittedly something of a stretch.

At the All-Star break, the BP staff posted its collective choices for the best in the majors, and also analyzed the divisional races and tried to anticipate the rest of the season. A common thread in these articles was a general mistrust of the Arizona Diamondbacks' success. There is so much about the D'Backs' attempt to build a winner that grates at thoughtful analysis.

While it's better to have money than to lack it, intelligence is more important than money in building a championship baseball franchise. Arizona seemed to have more money than smarts, with their roster of aging hitters and the presence of the amazing and awful Tony Womack in right field. Yes, they had a fine rotation, but building an offense around the likes of Jay Bell, Matt Williams, Steve Finley and, of course, Womack, looked like suicide.

And when the team decided to address some of their mid-season problems, they did so by trading one of their better hitters, shortstop Tony Batista, for interchangeable part Dan Plesac. They followed up that terrible deal by giving up two excellent pitching prospects, Vladimir Nunez and Brad Penny, for the not-so-immortal Matt Mantei on the theory that Mantei was just what they needed, a "proven closer".

With all of the above, it seemed simple to assume the Diamondbacks were on their way down, that their old hitters would collapse towards their expected performance, and that the Giants, with a healthy Barry Bonds, would coast to a divisional crown.

This didn't happen, and we're left scratching our heads, wondering if there are lessons to be learned from Arizona's performance. Since the break, the D'Backs have put together winning streaks of four games, five games (three times) and six games. Mantei has helped the team. He hasn't been perfect, but he's been an improvement on the pitchers he replaced. In fact, some have pointed to the acquisition of Mantei as the primary key to the team's recent surge. Those of us who are less inclined to believe in the central importance of "closers " are suspicious of this; there is more to a team playing at an .800 clip than a good closer.

Furthermore, the Arizona hot streak coincided with a tough stretch by the Giants, who went 9-20 after the All-Star break, culminating in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Florida Marlins.

The point is that the Diamondbacks would likely be several games in front of the Giants even if they hadn't traded for Mantei. Which means they were pretty foolish to give up Penny and Nunez, mortgaging a significant part of their future for present-day improvement that wasn't clearly necessary. And Mantei was the best of their acquisitions; their other moves were much worse.

Meanwhile, their thirtysomething hitters continue to play well, but one is left with the sense that it better happen this year for Arizona, because guys like Jay Bell are extremely unlikely to play at such a high level in years that begin with "2".

And ultimately, the 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks are not the 1927 Yankees. If they were in either of the other NL divisions, they'd be in third place. With three weeks to go, the Diamondbacks are a solid bet to win the NL West in their second season in existence, and that is a remarkable accomplishment. However, they seem to be more an anomaly than something to be emulated.

Regardless of their success, it is still true that a team which spends tons of money on old hitters, whose idea of a useful leadoff hitter is Tony Womack, that gives up its best prospects for Matt Mantei and thinks Tony Batista-for-Dan Plesac is something they need to throw John Frascatore into, is a team that will finish below .500 far more often than they will win their division.

Notes

The spotlight in the division has been about 400 miles east, but Trevor Hoffman's second half has been on par with 1998's stellar performance. He has posted a 1.13 ERA, allowed an OPS under .500 and is a perfect 15-for-15 in save opportunities.... Ben Petrick had a tough night in his second major league start behind the plate, but no one's defense is that bad. The Rockies need to make sure he gets innings and ABs this September, so he will be ready to give them a significant upgrade behind the plate in 2000.

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