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2014 D-backs will look to snap streak of mediocrity

On Oct. 15 — just more than two weeks after the end of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ season — manager Kirk Gibson will be watching postseason baseball.

“It’ll be a normal day,” he says.

For Gibson, it may be. But for Los Angeles Dodgers fans, Oct. 15 stands out as the 25th anniversary of Gibson’s iconic pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series. And perhaps, after Los Angeles captured the National League West division title in 2013, the date will feature another memorable moment in Dodgers’ history.

Gibson’s own Diamondbacks, on the other hand, won’t have an opportunity at creating such a lasting memory after finishing 81-81 for the second consecutive season and failing to secure a postseason berth for the fifth time in the last six years.

“There’s a lot to learn there,” Gibson said of watching the playoffs. “And that’s where you want to be anyway.”

There’s a multitude of reasons Gibson and the Diamondbacks will be in their dens — not the dugout — this fall, ranging from inconsistent starting pitching and lack of offensive power to the absence of a prolonged winning streak.

Diamondbacks starting pitchers logged the third-fewest wins in the National League, with only the Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins’ staffs faring worse. More than half of the rotation’s wins came from two of the nine pitchers who made a start in Sedona Red — Patrick Corbin, who was 14-8 on the season, and Wade Miley, who went 10-10.

Opening Day starter Ian Kennedy was sent packing at the trade deadline with his 3-8 record and 5.23 ERA in tow.

The collective 4.13 ERA of Diamondbacks’ starters, meanwhile, ranked 10th in the National League, and all four teams that got more innings out of their starting pitchers than the Diamondbacks — whose starters tossed 976 innings over the course of the season — made the playoffs.

But with the late-season resurgence of Arizona’s No. 2 and 3 starters, Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy, combined with the arms coming up through the organization, Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said he won’t be too quick to address the rotation, if he addresses it at all. “I wouldn’t say I’m overly worried about our starting pitching,” he said after the Diamondbacks’ final game of the season Sunday.

And the nine men that started Diamondbacks games in 2013 were hardly more responsible for the team’s struggles than the nine who occupied the bullpen.

The Diamondbacks’ 29 blown saves tied the Houston Astros for the most in MLB. The failure to hold onto leads and close out games wasn’t an isolated problem, either. Rather, it was reflective of the Diamondbacks’ 3.52 bullpen ERA, which ranked in the bottom-third of NL teams, and its league-high 59 home runs allowed.

Towers, who has been in the Diamondbacks’ front office since 2010, said he foresees few changes to the 2014 bullpen, citing an inability to consistently pitch on the inside part of the plate and the struggles to keep the ball in the park — not a deficiency in personnel — as reasons for the unit’s shortcomings.

“I think the (2014) closer is in the Diamondbacks organization,” he said.

But while Towers said pitching isn’t an area likely to be addressed, that’s not the case with the offense. The general manager made it clear that his main focus heading into the offseason is adding a power bat to the roster, a player he said he envisions occupying either third base or a corner outfield position.

“I think there’s probably a need for a little bit more power in the lineup,” he said.

Offensively, however, the Diamondbacks performed quite well. Their 685 runs scored placed them well above the NL average of 649, which was the exact number the rival, high-payroll Dodgers ended the season with. Their .715 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and .259 team batting average were also well above the league averages, though their 130 home runs were the fifth-fewest in baseball.

“We need at least another bat,” Towers said. “Going into last year, I thought we could win 90 games, but that was assuming that (Jason) Kubel and (Cody) Ross were going to have normal years. You know — (Miguel Montero) was going to have a normal year. Aaron Hill for a full season.

“I think the power numbers will go up. If you have Aaron for a full season and hopefully Miggy will be much better, you know. But that’s not to say we couldn’t use a little more thump in our lineup. That’s something we’re looking for.”

Ironically, Towers’ premiere offseason move last winter was the trade of a power-hitting corner outfielder in Justin Upton, while replacing him with a player without a similar power threat in Cody Ross, who cost the Diamondbacks just $250,000 less than Upton would have in 2013.

But Towers said he has no regrets when it comes to that move, despite his focus on adding a power bat headed into 2014 — which he said will likely rely heavily on trades due to a bleak free agent market.

“I’m happy with the Upton trade,” he told reporters Sunday.

The general manager’s trade of Upton prior to the 2013 season was the linchpin of his offseason ‘grit gambit’ — an orchestrated effort to prize chemistry and makeup above talent and, in effect, youth. Towers and his blue-collared, hard-nosed manager weren’t quiet about their plan to crusade through the season with a grind-it-out philosophy.

They weren’t going to give away at-bats, or runs — they were going to play until the final out, they were going to get dirty breaking up double plays, running out groundballs, diving, manufacturing runs and chipping away at opponents.

That part went as planned; it just only yielded 81 wins.

“We had a good clubhouse from start to finish,” Gibson said. “The guys grinded it out. That’s kind of what we were all year. We had some tough times in the middle of the season, we had a lot of extra innings games — they gritted that out.”

The Diamondbacks, indeed, had to grind out the longest season in major league history. On Sunday, in their 162nd game, they completed their 1,538th inning of the year, surpassing the 1964 New York Yankees for the most innings played in a single season. The Diamondbacks played 25 extra-inning games in 2013, going 17-8 in such contests while finishing 34-21 in one-run games — a drastic improvement from their previous season record of 15-27 in those games. Both records led baseball.

The blueprint was followed almost to a T, but it resulted in the Diamondbacks never really finding a dominant form. For the second straight season, the team’s longest winning streak was just five games. In 2011, when they last clinched a postseason berth, the Diamondbacks had a nine-game winning streak, two seven-game winning streaks and a six-game winning streak.

In 2013, specifically, the Diamondbacks’ lack of a winning streak was evidenced by their consistent month-to-month records:

April: 15-12
May: 15-12
June: 12-15
July: 13-13
August: 14-13
September: 12-16

The Diamondbacks finished the first half of the season five games above .500, and the second half five games below. Although they once climbed to nine games above .500, the Diamondbacks largely failed to take care of business when they faced teams with losing records.

Arizona rose to the occasion against above-.500 teams, going 34-34 on the year, but could only muster the same winning percentage against below-.500 teams, finishing at 47-47 against them.

Such a deficiency is best shown by looking at the Diamondbacks’ performance within the division. While managing a 10-9 record against the pennant-winning Dodgers, they were only 7-12 against the lowly San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants.

And ultimately the consistent mediocrity, the inability to put together a winning stretch, is what plagued the Diamondbacks. Though it was more because of the Dodgers’ slow start than their own success, the team held the NL West lead for 70 games in 2013 — once being 9.5 games ahead of the eventual division winners — yet was never able to regain the division lead after first losing it on July 22.

“We had opportunities to put people in our rear-view mirror and we didn’t do it,” Towers said. “When (the Dodgers) were nine out and we would have played real good baseball at that time and they were 14 or 15 out, who knows — they might have cashed it in.”

He went on to cite a seemingly nonexistent void of steadiness.

“We need to play more consistent baseball from the beginning of April through the end of September,” Towers said.

And perhaps, he could add, into mid-October — when the Diamondbacks would like to still be playing baseball next season.

“We, obviously, as a team expected to still be playing right now,” 12-year veteran Willie Bloomquist said. “And I think that’s where our expectations need to stay.”

MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt echoed that sentiment, adding that effort wasn’t what was missing in the mediocre season.

“It was unfortunate we couldn’t get some more wins and give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs, but I don’t think it was because of a lack of effort,” he said.

And Wade Miley, whose winning percentage, at 10-10, was the same as his team’s, had similar things to say of the .500 season.

“We finished 81-81, and it’s not what nobody in here wanted,” Miley said.

“It’s something to go off of next year. I think everybody’s got a little sour taste in their mouth.”

Gibson, meanwhile, is quick to put the past behind him. Whether 25 years or 25 hours ago, he’s focused on creating something new, and perhaps something iconic.

“What we want to do is create a new Oct. 15,” Gibson said Sunday.

“That’s what I’m focused on.”

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