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May 15, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Desert Heat

by Joe Sheehan

It's fair to say that no one on our staff expected that, six weeks into the season, the Arizona Diamondbacks would have the biggest lead in any divisional race and sport the best record in baseball. We were mostly caught by surprise in 1999, when the D'backs rode Randy Johnson and a surprising veteran offense to the National League West crown. I know I personally predicted a significant dropoff, as the core of last year's 908-run offense--the NL leader--returned to earth.

It hasn't happened. Despite the absence of third baseman Matt Williams, the Diamondbacks are fourth in the National League in runs and fifth in Equivalent Average. None of the main contributors from 1999 has slipped much, while the production at first base and right field has been better. Even with the brutal Tony Womack and his sub-.300 OBP leading off, the Diamondbacks are putting up close to six runs a game.

Their pitching is second in the league in ERA, and the rotation is first in the NL by Michael Wolverton's SNWL system. Granted, that's very front-loaded--Johnson is the bulk of the team's value above replacement level--but the four mortal starters have provided almost six innings per start and no one has been bad. The bullpen has been a key strength, led by the surprising Mike Morgan and the dominant Byung-Hyun Kim, while barely missing the injured Matt Mantei.

The scary thing is that the team should get better. Williams will be back soon, and while he's a generally overrated player, his replacements have been far worse. Even an off-year Williams--.265/.310/.470--will be a massive upgrade. The rotation behind Johnson can be expected to improve, although the big dropoff in Omar Daal's strikeout rate is worrisome, and Todd Stottlemyre risks his career on every pitch he throws with a torn rotator cuff.

At this point, I don't know what to make of the Diamondbacks. One day in five, of course, they're borderline unbeatable, but on the other four days, they're still 18-11. Once Williams is healthy, they will have essentially the same position players they won with last year, with Travis Lee in the lineup instead of an assortment of bad shortstops. My prediction of a falloff was predication on declines from Jay Bell, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez, declines that have yet to occur.

Earlier this season I wrote about learning lessons, and mentioned that the 1999 Diamondbacks showed that team age, while an indicator of future performance, wasn't necessarily the determining factor. In the 1990s, we were treated to a number of players who performed better in the mid-30s than at any time prior, people like Tony Phillips, Paul O'Neill and Chili Davis. Perhaps the Diamondbacks will be a lesson in what happens when three or four of these late bloomers form the core of a team.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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