February 2011

Lineups, links and the Duke

32 days until Opening Day

When we were talking to him about possible lineup combinations the other day Kelly Johnson said he thought the first decision the team has to make is where to hit center fielder Chris Young. Once that is decided the rest of the decisions will fall more easily in place.

Couldn’t agree more with Kelly. I know there has been a lot of talk about Young hitting leadoff, but I think he’s a better fit in the No. 5 hole with Johnson leading off.

Drew would seem to be a good fit in the second spot, but I know some are concerned about having back-to-back lefties at the top of the order. That could mean that maybe Melvin Mora would be the No. 2 hitter, but we will have to wait and see.

“I think we’re going to use the spring, I think you’re going to see a lot of different lineups,” GM Kevin Towers told us yesterday. “I’m sure you’ll see CY leading off at times, Kelly leading off at times. Is Mora a two-hole hitter or someone deeper in the order? I think you’ll see probably a lot of different lineups throughout the spring just to get a feel for what guys can do in certain situations and maybe what works best. I think it’s too early to determine who hits where.”

Too early to determine, sure, but never too early to speculate.

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Towers also talked about why Zach Duke was attractive to the D-backs even though he was coming off a disappointing season in Pittsburgh.

“Sometimes a change of scenery is good,” Towers said. “It kind of re-energizes you and gives you a chance to clean the slate and start anew. I like left-handed pitching, I like athletes. His stuff really didn’t deteriorate over the last couple years. He had a down year last year, but if he had a good year we wouldn’t have had an opportunity to get him.”

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Want to make a Towers pitching staff? Then you had better darn well throw strikes — that means you Jordan Norberto.

The talented left-hander walked a pair in his first spring outing displaying the trouble that has kept him from establishing himself at the big league level.

“It’s like his pet peeve,” D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. “He’s told you guys he has no use for that. If you can’t control the zone it’s going to be a long year.”

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Here is a personal guarantee from me: After every one of his starts this year, Ian Kennedy will find a way to get the word “battle” into his postgame press conference.

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Joe Paterson was selected in the Rule 5 Draft with the idea he would be the team’s left-handed specialist, but during the spring he will face righties as well as lefties.

Paterson was impressive in striking out the right-handed hitting Pablo Sandoval on Sunday. Hard to see him having much long-term success against righties given his sidearm mechanics.

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If you haven’t checked out my colleague Nick Piecoro’s story on Josh Collmenter, it’s definitely worth a read. Very interesting how he thinks he developed his funky delivery.

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First game at Salt River Fields

Good Morning from Salt River Fields at Talking Stick just a few hours away from the facilities first game.

How new are things here? You can still smell fresh paint up here in the press box.

Here is a look at the D-backs starting lineup for today: Johnson 2b, Parra rf, Drew ss, Young cf, Blum 3b, Pena lf, Miranda 3, Blanco 2 and Heilman p.

Other pitchers scheduled to throw today: Zach Duke, Mike Hampton, Juan Gutierrez, Micah Owings, Jordan Norberto and Brian Sweeney.

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A couple of notes from yesterday’s opener against the Giants…

– Outfielder Justin Upton had a nice day at the plate going 2-for-3.

“I just ran into a couple of balls,” Upton said. “I was just trying to get a good look at some pitches.”

– A lot was made of Xavier Nady’s trouble throwing yesterday, but he did hit a nice opposite-field homer.

“It just feels good to be back in the swing of things,” Nady said. “It felt good to be out there and get some reps and get some serious at-bats and then go from there.”

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It’s always fun this time of spring to see some of the organization’s younger players get their first-ever taste of facing big league hitters/pitchers.

Yesterday, highly-touted prospect Wade Miley got a chance to face Cody Ross, Pat Burrell and Pablo Sandoval, players that he watched participate in last year’s World Series.

“It’s was awesome,” said Miley, who admitted to having nerves during his first inning of work. It’s tough facing those guys after you grew up watching them. Everybody’s human, but you have to make pitches.”

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D-backs skipper Kirk Gibson said after the game that there were “some situational things we have to understand better.”

I’m assuming one of them was a baserunning gaffe by Tony Abreu, who got tagged out at third on a grounder to the hole at short. I say that I’m assuming that because Gibson declined to explain what he meant by his comment.

“I don’t want to single anybody out because it’s my job to make sure they understand it,” he said.

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Speaking of Gibson and baserunning, it sounds like he wants his guys to push the envelope this spring.

“I’d rather reel them in than have to kick them in the butt,” he said.

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Game Time

36 days until Opening Day

Spring Training has a predictable rhythm.

For the first week or so of camp everyone feels good just to be back out on the field and see teammates they haven’t seen in a while. Soon they grow weary of the repetitive drills and facing their teammates in live batting practice and there is an anxiousness for Spring Training games to get underway.

That’s where we are right now.

The D-backs will kick off Cactus League play tomorrow against the Giants at Scottsdale Stadium.

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The players have been absolutely giddy about the new digs at Salt River Fields and Thursday they took their first round of batting practice in the main stadium.

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There has been a big emphasis on pickoff moves in drills during camp and D-backs manager Kirk Gibson is counting on his pitchers to show what they’ve learned when the spring games begin.

“Just do it, it’s fine,” Gibson said. “You just trained for two weeks on it, just use it in the game, just do it, just execute it just like you did out there on the back diamond. I talked to the guys a lot about just controlling the tempo and their mind. There’s no reason to panic, they’re very capable people, there’s no pressure.”

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Brandon Allen will primarily see time at first base this spring as he battles Juan Miranda and Russell Branyan for the starting job, but Gibson said he will also give Allen some time in left field.

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Top prospect Jarrod Parker, who is making his way back from Tommy John surgery, is scheduled to pitch Monday.

Happy Monday morning

After rain the last couple of days it looks like it is shaping up to be a beautiful day here at Salt River Fields.

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Some leftover items from the soggy weekend:

– It was pretty funny to hear GM Kevin Towers greet newly-signed first baseman Russell Branyan not by his name, but as “Russell the Muscle.”

And while Branyan is big, he looks almost small compared to outfielder Wily Mo Pena.

Pena is listed at 270 pounds, but that might be a little light. A number of the guys were telling me I had to go shake his hand just for the experience of it and wow. Your hand completely disappears in his and his grip is like a vice.

“Unbelievable,” is how one player described him.

– Following Saturday’s first full-squad meeting, D-backs team president/CEO Derrick Hall said several of the new veterans pulled he and Ken Kendrick aside to share a couple of thoughts with them.

“These guys are telling Ken and I, ‘We’re going to make a difference, this is going to different, this is where we wanted to be and there’s a reason for that,'” Hall said.

One of the veterans brought over during the winter was infielder Geoff Blum.

“There’s a lot of us in here that are new so we don’t know what was going on the last two years and that might be a good thing,” Blum said. “From the outside looking in the last couple of years we’ve always noticed they had a ton of talent, but obviously from the comments that are being made, the clubhouse atmosphere had to be changed so we’ll what we can do.”

– The main word around camp this year is competition, but there’s another that’s close behind: Swagger.

“We talked about swagger quite a bit,” Hall said of that first meeting. “We want this [the team's logo] to mean something. The last couple years this hasn’t meant much and we want it to mean something so we have to reestablish that.”

And then there was manager Kirk Gibson during his press briefing Sunday.

“It was a good day, I like the vibe, I like the swagger,” he said.

Sounds like the goal is to swagger through some competition while changing the culture…

– I asked bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock for some time this morning and he said he couldn’t because he had an Air Force meeting.

Turns out it was actually a pop up drill he does with the team’s catchers. That’s the nickname he has given to it.

What about when he does tag play drills? Those are listed on the schedule as a Marine meeting.

Spring Training competition

42 days until Opening Day
7 days until first Spring Training game

The theme of the D-backs spring seems to be competition with the theory being that no longer will jobs just be handed out to players, they will have to be earned.

It’s a great idea that will foster a competitive atmosphere and force everyone to work harder than they have in the past and help them to reach another level, but it isn’t without some risk.

For example, let’s say for arguments sake that Kevin Mulvey or Zach Kroenke throw up zero after zero during the spring and by far and away post the best numbers of any of the starting pitchers this spring. And let’s also say that Zach Duke scuffles. Are the D-backs prepared to hand a starting role to one of those two and release Duke despite the fact that he’s owed $4.25 million this year?

And if they decided to keep Duke over someone who clearly outpitched him, what kind of message does it send to the clubhouse after you’ve spent weeks preaching that everyone has a chance to make the team? What does that do to the trust factor?

Again, it may not come down to that, but it is one of the risks you run when you say everyone can make the team.

It’s a little easier when it comes to position players and you’re talking about the competition at first base or left field. You play the best this spring, you get the playing time out of the gate. There are less big contracts involved at those positions.

I do understand the argument that you make bad player evaluations when you rely too much on their performance in March — when they might be facing players that will not start the season in the Majors — or September — when they might be facing pitchers that are only in the Majors because the rosters were expanded.

So yes, in theory, the D-backs should have a pretty good idea already what Brandon Allen, Juan Miranda and Russell Branyan can do at first, but given the struggles this team has had the last two years and the fact that the atmosphere in the clubhouse was one where some were clearly too comfortable, I don’t think the concept of earning a spot this spring is a bad idea.

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My colleague Corey Brock wrote an interesting story yesterday on Chad Qualls.

It seems despite all his comments last year to the contrary — and let me say that he was extremely adamant in those comments — his left knee did indeed bother him and that is what he feels led to him having a horrible season.

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Great quote from Gibson on why he wants his pitchers to be able to slash — i.e. fake a bunt, pull the bat back and swing away.

“You see guys just camp in there on your pitchers and I don’t like it,” Gibson said. “If they do that, my goal for us is we’ll have another option. I like to see guys hit the deck.”

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What it looked like this morning when I arrived at Salt River Fields..
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Breakfast with Miggy

43 days until Opening Day
8 days until first Spring Training game

Greetings from Salt River Fields where the D-backs will be on field practicing from 9:30-11:50 a.m. this morning and signing autographs as they start to filter off the field around 11:20 a.m.

The work, though, gets started long before 9:30 here. Manager Kirk Gibson has been known to get here as early as 5 a.m. and his coaches are not that far behind him. I showed up around 7 today and there were players who had been here for a while already and gotten in their morning warm up workout.

Something I noticed a couple of days ago was Miguel Montero walking around with a little tray of food. It looked like one of those frozen dinners.

Finally had to ask him about it today and it turns out he is working at improving his eating so he has meals specially prepared and shipped to him. As he headed in to heat up his breakfast he allowed me to snap a quick picture (see the bottom of this post).

Doesn’t look like a lot of food for a guy Miggy’s size, but what I know about nutrition you could fit in a thimble.

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In case you missed this story yesterday, you might want to take a peek at Kelly Johnson’s quotes about last season. Sounds like the second baseman was pretty unhappy with the mood in the clubhouse and the team’s mental approach last year.

Seems to speak to the reason the organization felt the culture in the clubhouse had to be changed this year.

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Good morning from Salt River Fields

44 days until Opening Day
9 days until first Spring Training game

OK, so when I said this blog was going to be updated daily, I didn’t anticipate having a computer virus that knocked me offline for a number of hours last night.

With that in mind, here is a bonus morning post from Salt River Fields at Talking Stick…

Forgot to post these photos from Monday. It appears that Barry Enright is getting quite a bit of support from his Chandler neighbors. Enright got into his car early Monday to head to the first pitcher/catcher workouts and was surprised to see these signs up in his ***-de-sac.

“It really meant a lot to me that they would do that,” Enright said of his neighbors. “It’s a great block, I have fun playing with the kids, just really good people and that they would do this for me really means a lot.”
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Zavada expected to return to camp

The agent for Clay Zavada says he expects the D-backs left-hander to be back in camp Tuesday or Wednesday.

Zavada did not show up for the club’s physical exams Sunday night and was not in attendance at the club’s first pitcher and catcher workout Monday.

Zavada’s agent, Barry Meister, said that Zavada experienced some discomfort in his shoulder and that was the reason for his absence.

“He just needed a couple of days to figure out what was going on with his shoulder,” Meister said.

Meister said that Zavada was going to see either the team’s training staff or team physician Michael Lee about his shoulder Tuesday and that he had talked to manager Kirk Gibson about his situation.

Notes from first pitcher catcher workout

46 days until Opening Day in Denver
11 days until first Spring Training game

Another beautiful day for baseball at Salt River Fields with temperatures again around 80 degrees and bright blue skies.

We’ve been told that players will be signing autographs each day around 11:50 a.m. local time. The club has gone out of its way to make sure fans are able to get up close with the players on the pathways between the fields. I also noticed today that the main stadium was open for fans to walk around and take a look at.

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Today’s stories:

Notes: Hudson healthy; Heilman eyes starting

Camp Gibby opens

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Turns out GM Kevin Towers misspoke Sunday when he said Zach Duke would be late to camp because his wife was due to give birth to the couple’s first child any day now.

Duke’s wife Kristin gave birth last Wednesday so Duke was there and threw a bullpen Monday.

You have to feel for him leaving his 3-day-old child behind to get on a plane for Arizona, but that’s sometimes what ballplayers have to go through as part of the job. For now, he will have to make do with Skype, something he says he’s been doing three times a day to see his baby Madison.

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Clay Zavada’s absence from camp seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Still not exactly sure what’s going on there. Towers said he had heard something about Zavada maybe not wanting to go “through this again” whatever that means.

When I talked to Zavada a couple of weeks ago he sounded pretty excited about the season so I’m not sure what’s going on, but it’s something I’ll continue to follow and keep you updated.

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Seemed like there might be some progress on the Kelly Johnson front. The two sides have until Wednesday’s salary-arbitration hearing to reach a settlement.

Johnson’s agent is now in town and the dialogue has picked up between the two sides.

“Dialogue is better than no dialogue and over the last 48 hours we’ve had a lot more dialogue than we’ve had in the last two weeks so I look at that as a good sign,” Towers said.

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Catcher Miguel Montero made some interesting comments about the culture change in the clubhouse with the influx of veterans and Kirk Gibson taking over for A.J. Hinch as manager.

“The last two years we’ve been losing 90 games, and it seems like nothing happened,” said Montero. “I don’t think that is going to happen again. If we lose again, everybody is going to know that we lost a game. I think that’s what it means. And I like that idea, because I hate to lose. Period.”

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That’s all for today. I’ll be back at it bright and early Tuesday. Don’t forget you can follow me on Twitter @dbackswriter.

Nothing new this morning on Johnson front

D-backs GM Kevin Towers said this morning there is nothing new to report on the Kelly Johnson arbitration front, though dialogue is expected to pick up in the next 24 hours as Johnson’s agent is now in Phoenix.

The two sides will go to a hearing Wednesday if a settlement cannot be reached.

The D-backs filed an arbitration offer of $4.7 million while Johnson’s side filed at $6.5 million. The second baseman made $2.35 million last season.

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