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Inside the game, time and again we hear about the importance of protection in a batting order. Whether or not such a thing exists is a source of constant debate in baseball, but in contrast, you never hear a pitcher talk about being protected–except for reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb. He feels he has plenty of protection in the Arizona Diamondbacks‘ starting rotation.

Diamondbacks General Manager Josh Byrnes spent a large portion of the past year assembling a group of veteran starters to surround the 27-year-old Webb. The Diamondbacks traded with Washington for right-hander Livan Hernandez last August, then acquired left-handers Doug Davis and Randy Johnson from Milwaukee and the New York Yankees, respectively, in offseason deals.

How does Webb feel about that? “The past couple of years, I’ve been the oldest guy in the rotation and I haven’t had a lot of what I guess you’d call protection like a hitter has,” Webb said. “It’s a great feeling now. We’re not in a situation where one pitcher has to shoulder a heavy load. I feel all of our starting pitchers give us a chance to win every time out.”

That is exactly what the Diamondbacks had in mind. “It’s just really tough to rely on a starting rotation made up entirely of young pitchers,” Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said. “You need to have an idea of what you’re going to get most nights. It makes it tough on everybody–the offense, the bullpen–if you are in a situation where your starting pitching is inconsistent and you’re falling behind early a lot of nights. We have the type of rotation now that gives everyone a lot of confidence. You know that our starters are going to give us a chance to win almost every single night and that’s so important for a team that is still relying on a number of young players in the lineup.”

All three veteran starters came to Arizona with outstanding track records. Even coming off of offseason back surgery, the Big Unit was the biggest name, of course. He had won 280 games in 19 seasons, including 103 for the Diamondbacks from 1999-2004, along with four straight Cy Youngs from 1999-2003. Hernandez won 119 games in 11 seasons before coming to Arizona and led the NL in innings pitched for three straight years from 2003-05. While Davis had only 62 career wins when he arrived in the desert, he was coming off three straight seasons of double-digit victories for the Brewers.

Those three veterans have combined with Webb and promising rookie right-hander Micah Owings to form a solid rotation that, along with the bullpen, has helped the Diamondbacks overcome a lack of offense to begin the season 25-22. Although they’re in third place in the NL West, they’re just 1 ½ games behind the division-leading Dodgers.

The Diamondbacks rank seventh in the 16-team NL with a 4.02 starters’ ERA. Here is a look at how the five starters are faring:

Hernandez  12.5  3.66   1.8     80 (8 of 10)
Webb       10.2  3.86   1.2     50 (5 of 10)
Davis       3.8  3.71   0.5     56 (5 of 9)
Johnson     3.5  4.54   0.5     50 (3 of 6)
Owings      2.3  4.96   0.5     50 (3 of 6)

While no one is having a Cy Young-type season to this point–Hernandez is the highest-ranking Diamondbacks pitcher in the NL in VORP at 15th despite having as many walks as strikeouts–Johnson is working toward that level, as he has been outstanding in his last two starts. He struck out 10 in just 5 2/3 innings at Pittsburgh last Sunday after giving up one run in six innings while striking out nine at Colorado five days earlier.

The Diamondbacks have an additional advantage in the quality of their relief corps. They;re sixth in the NL with a 3.52 relief ERA, as Jose Valverde is tied with Milwaukee’s Francisco Cordero for the league lead with 17 saves in 19 opportunities, and has a .953 WRXL and a 2.66 ERA in 20 1/3 innings. Right-hander Tony Pena is eighth in the NL in WRXL with a 1.523 mark, and righty Brandon Lyon is 15th with a 1.183.

So what’s holding them back? The Diamondbacks are just 14th in the league in runs scored with a 3.9 per-game average. While veterans like left fielder Eric Byrnes (.291/.363/.480, 12.5 VORP), second baseman Orlando Hudson (.282/.366./466, 11.0 VORP), and injured third baseman Chad Tracy (.311/.397/.505, 10.1 VORP) have been solid at the plate, many of the Diamondbacks’ young hitters have not come close to living up to expectations, with the exception of rookie center fielder Chris Young. Young is hitting .268/.307/.465. While that is solid, it is well short of his PECOTA projection of .283/.363/.541.

The other youngsters are really struggling to live up to their PECOTA projections:

                     Actual                   Projected
PLAYER              AVG/ OBP/ SLG  VORP      AVG/ OBP/ SLG  VORP
Chris Snyder, C    .230/.313/.322  -1.0     .263/.340/.436   8.9
Conor Jackson, 1B  .250/.375/.348   1.4     .294/.380/.486  23.6
Carlos Quentin, RF .208/.308/.356  -2.3     .285/.377/.486  22.0
Stephen Drew, SS   .235/.301/.309  -2.9     .287/.349/.504  32.9
Miguel Montero, C  .200/.247/.308  -3.3     .259/.324/.461  17.9

“We haven’t hit the way I thought we would or the way I believe we’re going to hit,” Melvin said. “I think what you’re seeing with a lot of our young hitters is that they were exposed to major-league pitching last season and those pitchers were able to get a read on them. There is a lot of tape out there now of our hitters, a lot of scouting reports. The pitchers have adjusted and now it’s up to our guys to adjust back. I’m confident they will because they are very talented players.”

Until then, the Diamondbacks will count heavily on Webb and his protectors. “We haven’t put everything together yet,” Webb said. “At one point in time, the pitching is not there or the hitting is not there. When we get things going, we’re going to be a really good team.”

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