Future is bright in Phoenix

Future is bright in Phoenix

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The promise of the Arizona Diamondbacks' future shines with a brightness that might only be outdone by, oh, perhaps the desert sun.

They're young in many places, they were division winners last year, they became better over the winter, and there is reason to believe that they will become better still. The organization is sound and the depth of organizational talent is significant. Little stands in the way of success, in 2008 and well beyond.

All right, they did have some run-production difficulty last season, finishing 14th in the National League in runs scored. In the process, they became a statistical aberration, a team that is outscored by the opposition, yet reaches the postseason.

But that run-scoring difficulty does not have to be a permanent condition. And even with that difficulty, the 2007 D-backs had a transformational season, staging a 14-game improvement to 90-72, winning the NL West and then sweeping the Chicago Cubs in the Division Series.

In the offseason they traded for Dan Haren, a pitcher good enough to win 43 games over the past three seasons and be the starting pitcher for the American League in the 2007 All-Star Game. In what was a relatively barren pitching market this winter, the D-backs were able to land a pitcher of Haren's stature only because their organization's depth of talent gave them legitimate prospects to offer in return.

The comeback of Randy Johnson from his latest back surgery has dominated the Arizona baseball landscape this month. The initial signs have been good for Johnson, although he may not be ready to start when the season begins. But the D-backs did what they did last season with Johnson making only 10 starts. His presence in the rotation, pitching with anything vaguely resembling his historical effectiveness, would be an obvious plus. But it might not be a complete necessity.

Brandon Webb, the 2006 Cy Young Award winner, heads the rotation and in combination with Haren gives this club a stellar one-two punch. Doug Davis is a durable lefty and Micah Owings showed considerable promise last year. If Johnson cannot go, Edgar Gonzalez has pitched well enough this spring, apart from a difficult outing on Saturday, to take over a rotation spot, at least on a temporary basis.

On the offensive side, there are two great things about young players in contemporary baseball: All 30 clubs can afford them, and if they're suitably talented, they can be expected to improve. The D-backs can reasonably expect that a raft of young players can make run-production headway.

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"That's what we have to rely on," manager Bob Melvin said on Saturday. "You know, we kind of spent our bullets on Haren and we're not in a position to go out and sign a Mark Teixeira or something like that. The whole basis for us getting better offensively is going to happen incrementally as a group. We think everybody has a chance to get better offensively.

"We're probably ahead of where everybody thought we were last year. Now, all of a sudden, the expectations are raised because of what we accomplished. But we still have to stay on track with our guys."

Chris Young in center, for instance, is 24. Justin Upton in right is 20. Third baseman Mark Reynolds is 24. Shortstop Stephen Drew is 25. First baseman Conor Jackson is 25. There might be one other team in the Major Leagues with this much talent and this much youth simultaneously, and that would be the Milwaukee Brewers. But they haven't won anything.

The D-backs' greatest problem is not of their making. It's the quality of the competition. The NL West goes four deep with genuine postseason contenders, including the very same Colorado Rockies, who swept Arizona from the NL Championship Series in October. There may be no other division in baseball with this much depth.

"Every single one of them you could see potentially as a favorite in this division, depending on what scribe you read or who you're talking to," Melvin said. "You know the Dodgers have upgraded considerably, and they have the resources. The Padres are the Padres. Their pitching does it, and their team is very well-suited for their ballpark and they're always there, every year. And then the Rockies, you saw what they accomplished last year."

If you were looking for something else to worry about with the D-backs, you had 3 hours, 49 minutes to think about it on Saturday, the time it took them to lose, 12-11, to the Rockies. The new closer, Brandon Lyon, gave up five runs in two-thirds of an inning, bringing his spring ERA to 16.20. But Melvin was not particularly perplexed by this, noting that Lyon was still trying to find the command of his fastball and that this will not be a permanent problem.

But this remains an organization with far more plusses than minuses. The D-backs have a manager who has emerged as one of the best in the game. When Melvin deservedly won the 2007 NL Manager of the Year Award, he immediately, modestly and typically, categorized the award as an organizational victory.

"It's because you have good players," he said on Saturday. "You have a great coaching staff that prepares the players each and every day, and we have good symmetry from the front office all the way down."

When prodded to name a leading attribute that he had as a manager, Melvin said, "Maybe it's communication with my players," but then added that this was probably a common strength for Major League managers.

Melvin may be understated, but he's bright, he's driven to win and he's supremely organized. Plus, he never stops trying. Last year, he utilized 146 different lineups.

"We had to match up some," Melvin said. "We tired to create a bit of a momentum wave, by getting everybody involved where you really have that team feeling. Then whoever gets plugged in on a given day feels like he's going to get it done, and the rest of the team feels like he's going to get it done."

Overall, the future is genuinely bright in Phoenix. This doesn't mean that the Arizona Diamondbacks are going to win all the time, but it does mean that they're going to be in the hunt for a long time.

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