MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Young D-backs have pieces to be special

Young D-backs have pieces to be special

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- D-backs chief baseball officer Tony La Russa knows winning.

During a 33-year big league managerial career that earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame, La Russa's teams won 2,728 games, ranking him third all time among managers, behind Connie Mack and John McGraw. La Russa won three World Series, six pennants and 12 division titles.

In the final days of Spring Training 2016, La Russa knows that this year's D-backs have the makings of a winner. Yes, they are in the National League West along with a Dodgers franchise has won the past three division titles, and a Giants franchise that has won three of the past six World Series.

No, the D-backs aren't intimidated.

"Two things I can do is evaluate a player and evaluate a player who can win in October," said La Russa.

And the more La Russa sees this spring, the more he likes the D-backs. They went into Monday with the best record in the Cactus League (20-6) and the second-best spring record overall (the Nationals entered Monday at 17-4 in Grapefruit League play).

It is not that the victories carry over when the regular season opens, but with a franchise that has finished in last place in the NL West three times in the past seven years -- while advancing to the postseason only once -- there is a mental growth that feeds off success, no matter when it comes.

Four of the past six teams to win at least 70 percent of their spring games have, after all, advanced to the postseason -- the Angels (26-8) and Yankees (24-10) in 2009, the Tigers (20-8) in '12 and the Rays (20-8) in '10.

Get the picture? La Russa does.

"Veteran clubs can handle a losing record in the spring better than young clubs," said La Russa. "Veteran teams know it is about getting ready for the season."

The D-backs are a young club. Closer Brad Ziegler (35), rotation ace Zack Greinke (32), reliever Tyler Clippard (31) and backup catcher Tuffy Gosewisch (32) are the only members of the projected Opening Day roster older than 30.

Greinke is one of four major offseason additions, as the right-hander was signed to a six-year, $206.5 million deal, a record annual average value of $34.42 million. They also acquired right-hander Shelby Miller from the Braves for a package of prospects that included shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first player selected in the 2015 Draft.

In addition to the new 1-2 punch atop the rotation, Arizona signed late-inning reliever Clippard to a two-year, $12.75 million contract and acquired one-time All-Star shortstop Jean Segura from the Brewers.

With the roster adjustments in place, the spring challenge fell on manager Chip Hale and his coaching staff.

"There is a difference between thinking things will happen and making them happen," said La Russa. "To make them happen, you are going to have to work hard. You have to mix in reality. The early part of spring is really about competition. The middle of spring is getting ready to expect a step up, and the end you start to zero in."

The late Dick Howser, who managed the Yankees and Royals, would focus on the final 10 to 15 games of the spring to fine-tune his teams. That, he would explain, is when the regulars get extended playing time.

And that worked well for teams boasting the track record of the ones Howser managed. He took the Yankees to 103 wins and an American League East title in 1980, the only season he managed them. It was the fourth of five times in a six-year stretch that the Yanks advanced to the postseason.

With the Royals, Howser managed them into the AL Championship Series in 1984 before winning the World Series in '85, the final two years of Kansas City's decade of dominance, when they advanced to the postseason seven times between 1976-85.

These D-backs, however, look to be more along the lines of the 1993 Phillies. The late Jim Fregosi took over as manager in '92, battled through a 70-92 season and spent the winter planning an approach to jump-start the franchise. He was questioned for the heavy usage of his regulars during the spring of '93, and explained he was focused on winning even in March "to create a winning mentality on this team." The Phils won the NL East by three games and advanced to the World Series.

"In the spring," said La Russa, "you have to confirm reality."

It is, said first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, an effort that actually began in the middle of last year.

"You could see guys come together," Goldschmidt said earlier in the spring. "We developed the way we want to play, playing the game hard, aggressive, but smart."

And the front office made the moves in the offseason that fit that mold, giving Arizona a chance to take a major step forward from the start this season.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.