For the Diamondbacks to reach their success level in 2011, the team, collectively, created “a perfect storm.”
Several players reached heights that, individually, would not cause much attention. Yet, together, the aggregate numbers added up the National League West Division title.
Throughout the coming summer, we’ll learn, in rather definitive terms, whether it is more difficult to reach the top or to stay there.
For the 2011 D-backs, journey to the summit was a joyful ride and caused several off-season free agents to sign up for more.
“Last season was the most fun I’ve had in baseball,” said Willie Bloomquist, who filled in admirably for the injured Stephen Drew at shortstop. “The Giants offered more money, but my home is here, and we have a great group of guys.”
Bloomquist was one of several who answered the bell, and collectively, helped push the D-back to head of the pack.
When the team assembled at the Salt River facility for spring training last February, Bloomquist and others had far less important roles.
That quickly changed.
First, there were significant holes to be filled, and those gaps quickly caught the attention of manager Kirk Gibson and Kevin Towers, the team’s general manager.
Left field was a lingering question mark and the team signed Xavier Nady in the off-season to fill that spot. It was quickly discovered Nady’s lost his wheels several years ago, and was best suited for first base. Here, he was locked for the job with Juan Miranda, and non-roster invitee Russell Branyan.
The first base issue was not resolved until early August when the team recalled Paul Goldschmidt from AA Mobile. Goldschmidt repaid the favor by hitting .250, home runs, 26 RBIs, and secured the future of first base.
Eventually, the left field job was won by Gerardo Parra, who, himself, reached great heights with a .292 batting average and a Gold Glove.
Plus, third base had to be settled and Towers brought in veteran Melvin Mora, who lasted 42 games, and batted .228 (no home runs, 16 RBIs) in those games. Because of his torrid spring training, Ryan Roberts moved to “the hot corner,” and immediately became a fan favorite. He responded with .249 season but smacked 19 home runs and knocked in 65, fourth best on the team.
As well, Gibson and Towers settled on two starters in the rotation. Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and left-hander Joe Saunders were a lock and by mid-season, Josh Collmenter joined the unit. The fifth starter was essentially elusive, and the search continues.
With the storm gathering, elements for success neatly merged together. Closer J. J,. Putz recorded a career-high 45 saves, Kennedy tied the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw for most wins with 21, Hudson chipped with a 16-12 season and Saunders (12-13, 3.69) set a career mark with 212 innings pitched.
Offensively, Justin Upton (.289, 31 home runs, team high 88 RBIs) was considered for National League MVP until a September tail-spin. His ability to help carry the team through the pennant race was aided by production off the bat of catcher Miguel Montero. A native of Caracas, Venezuela, Montero led all NL catchers with 86 RBIs, banged out 18 home runs and ended with a .282 batting average.
As the season progressed, Gibson lauded Montero’s improvement from a defensive standpoint and by the heat of the September pennant race, teams did not take chances against Montero’s arm.
Losing shortstop Drew with a broken ankle right after the All-Star game did not appear to affect the offense nor the defense. Bloomquist stepped in and hit a creditable .266 in the lead-off spot. Continuing his rehabilitation, Drew’s availability for 2012 remains a question mark.
“At this point, I think Stephen is about 20 percent recovered,” Towers said at a team function in mid November. “I suspect he will start baseball-related exercise and program once the new year begins.”
A no-nonsense decision-maker, Towers did not hesitate to make a “take it, or leave it” offer to free agent Saunders. When the lefty declined the offer to come back, Towers quickly went out a traded for right-hander Trevor Cahill.
Considered as a fourth starter behind Kennedy, Hudson and Collmenter, Cahill will be joined by a fifth starter. That would likely out of the current Arizona organization.
Perhaps it is best for Towers and others to look ahead, because to recreate the immediate past will be as much a challenge as it is daunting.