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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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