Series Preview: Jim McLennan Talks Diamondbacks

Yeah, it’s Friday, but we’ve got something way cooler than links. We’ve got Jim McLennan, of AZ Snakepit fame, with us, and he’s going to give us the dirt on this year’s Diamondbacks.

Ducksnorts: I picked Arizona to win the NL West in 2007 on the strength of its good young position players. The team took the division, but without much help from said players. Now that these kids have a year of experience under their belts, what are your expectations for the Diamondbacks in 2008?

McLennan: For obvious reasons, the experience is certainly going to help. This time last year, Chris Young had just made his major-league debut, Mark Reynolds was in Double-A and Justin Upton was all the way down in High-A. Now, they are in their second season — they will still be learning, naturally, but each at-bat will make them better players. We have already seen some rookie mistakes from Upton in the field, but don’t forget, he’s still not old enough to drink.

Last year, I thought the offense would rake, and the pitching was somewhat wobbly — turned out to be the complete opposite. This year, I think our pitching has got better with the addition of Haren, as a replacement for Livan Hernandez, and the offense is going to deliver on what I thought it would last season. I can see ten or more homers from every spot on the diamond — potentially including the pitcher, if Micah Owings gets going — and a lot of tough outs. I think the team will remain streaky, but if Randy Johnson remains healthy, that’s a rotation almost second to none in the majors. It should keep the team in games, even if the offense slows down from its tremendous initial pace, as is almost inevitable.

My major concern personally is the bullpen, almost all the members of which over-achieved to one degree or another last season. I think the trade of Jose Valverde to the Astros is not a problem — the pitcher we got back, Chad Qualls, may actually be a better arm (especially going by results so far) — but I’m not sure [Brandon] Lyon and [Tony] Peña are going to be anywhere near as lights-out as they were in 2007. It wouldn’t surprise me if uber-prospect Max Scherzer, who has yet to be scored on thus far at Triple-A Tucson (12 innings, 2 BB, 18 K), is up by the end of the season.

Ducksnorts: Justin Upton scares the bejeezus out of me. How good can he be?

McLennan: It’s too early to say much, since his career has barely turned left out of the driveway, and the final destination could be anywhere between Cooperstown or somewhere less memorable. However, the number of 20-year-olds capable of holding down a full-time job in the majors over the past couple of decades is short; Roberto Alomar, Ken Griffey Jr, A-Rod and Adrian Beltre. So that’s probably the range of potential we’re looking at here.

As a benchmark, in his age 20 season, Griffey had a line of .300/.366/.481, with 22 HR and 80 RBI, and I think that’s the kind of thing we’ll see from Upton this season — a little lower average, but probably more power. From there, he’ll get better: I can’t quite see him matching Griffey’s peak homer total of 56, but I can see Upton reaching 40 homers or more, probably by the time he’s 23 or 24. I’m with you in general though: if he was on another team in the NL West, I’d be very worried, so I’m glad he’s with us.

Ducksnorts: Well, that makes one of us. From the outside looking in, Josh Byrnes seems to have a real good idea of what he’s doing. Obviously last season’s success will color this, but how do fans perceive Byrnes and the organization?

McLennan: Initially, there was an element of resistance to the new owners from some circles, especially in what was seen as a lack of respect for the history and past successes of the club — the switch in colors from purple to red was probably too much like an Orwellian exercise in rewriting the past. However, the organization has made genuine efforts to reach out, such as the tenth anniversary celebrations last weekend at Chase, where most of the original ’98 Diamondbacks came back (and admitted, amusingly, they never liked playing in purple!). It helps that president Derrick Hall has been tremendously accessible

I think Josh Byrnes keeps a fairly low profile as far as the general public is concerned, but most of the core fan base seem happy with him. There have, inevitably, been a few mis-steps (letting Dan Uggla get away, and the trade of [Scott] Hairston to you guys is seen as one that could come back to bite us), but the proof of what he brought is there in another division championship. Going from 111 losses to the NLCS in three years is quite an accomplishment — even the die-hards, who swore they’d only give up purple when it was pried from their cold, dead fingers, would have to respect those who made it possible.

Ducksnorts: I know it’s early, but what are your initial impressions of Dan Haren? Is he worth what it cost to bring him to Phoenix?

McLennan: So far, so good: he’d be 3-0 if Brandon Lyon hadn’t coughed up a three-run homer in Cincinnati to Juan Encarnacion. As is, it’s three games and three quality starts, with each outing being a little more impressive than the one before. I think he is still adjusting to life in the NL — the presence of an opposing pitcher in the ninth spot is bound to affect tactics on the mound. His splitter is just one nasty weapon and it seemed to me in his last start at Chase that he used it more often. In a hitter-friendly park like ours, it should help him avoid too many long balls, which is the most obvious problem he might face.

Yes, we had to give up a lot of good prospects to get him, but with the exception of second base, every position is already occupied by players who are signed through 2010, at least, so someone like outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is largely surplus to requirements. The pitching prospects are perhaps harder to replace, but none of them projected as much more than back of the rotation starters, and if they can be combined and converted into someone who give us the best 1-2 punch in the league, then go for it. I’m sure I needn’t remind you where Arizona ended up, the last time we had two ace pitchers.

Ducksnorts: Yes, as I recall, your team did a masterful job of overcoming terrible managing to beat the Yankees one year.

Thanks again to Jim for stopping by and subjecting himself to my questions. Here’s to a great series, and best of luck to the Diamondbacks once the Padres leave town!