Sunday, May 22, 2011

Apologies to Kirk Gibson

Biases are a fact of life for a writer. People who attempt to type thoughts to a page can say they are unbiased. They would be lying. Writers are no different than any others who try for enlightenment only to fall short time and time again. Lack of prejudice is only a wish or a hope and never truly a reality. Oh, there are some saints that walk in this world. Not very many though. This baseball writer has a bias against Kirk Gibson. Oh, he was a favorite when he played for the Tigers and that great team managed by Sparky Anderson. Then he went to the Dodgers, then led by the insufferable Tommy Lasorda. See? Biases. And when Gibson hit that famous homer in the World Series, it was shown over and over again to the point of nausea. That fist pump around the bases seemed so cornball at the time. So yes, there is a bias against Kirk Gibson. Truth be told, he wasn't liked here at all.

When last year he was handed the interim term as the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, there was skepticism. When that team did not improve under his watch, there seemed to be confirmation. When the D-backs lost on May 13, 2011 and their record fell to 15-22, there seemed to be more confirmation. There had to be to back up the bias-laden prediction here that this would be the only year Kirk Gibson started as the team's manager. Nine days later, that same team is a game over .500 after sweeping the Braves and the Twins. It looks like this Fan owes Kirk Gibson an apology.

Yes, yes, it's early  It's quite possible that the team could again go into the tank and finish in dead last like last year. But like the Pirates, this isn't the same team as last year. This is a better team. Kevin Tower has made the moves as the new GM, but Gibson has used the puzzle pieces. Pieces that didn't fit were discarded. Barry Enright was demoted. Russell Branyon was released. But others are falling into place. The bullpen, which was the laughingstock of baseball last year is one of the best in baseball this year. Sure, Kevin Tower put them in place, but Gibson has done a fine job of making it work.

Let's look at some of the pieces. Some (if not most) of them have been improbable. The Diamondbacks haven't had any problem looking for that...excuse the writer for the pun and the cliche...diamond in the rough. Can these pieces continue to succeed? Time will tell.

One has to start with Joshua Collmenter. Collmenter was a fifteenth round draft choice back in 2007. He's had a solid minor league career, but nothing spectacular. He didn't rank among Baseball Prospectus' top 15 prospects in the Arizona system. He was selected to take Enright's spot in the rotation. He's been spectacular with that funky delivery of his. He's made two starts and has won them both after a few relief appearances. He's walked one batter in 26 innings while only giving up twelve hits. His WHIP is 0.500. He's given up just two runs this season.

Nothing would lead anyone to believe that Collmenter was this good. There is nothing in his minor league past that would indicate having this good a control. That history makes it hard to believe that his success will continue or that he will continue not walking anyone. He could fall hard. But what if he doesn't? Wouldn't that be fun?

The next surprise is Ryan Roberts. The guy is thirty years old and played eight seasons in the minors for the Blue Jays, Rangers and Diamondbacks. He was stuck in Triple A for five seasons. He was an eighteenth round draft choice back in 2003. His minor league track record was solid, but again, not spectacular. But one thing you notice about Roberts is the on base percentage. All through his minor league career, it's been good. Finally getting a chance to start, he's doing the same thing in the majors. His slash line before Sunday's game was .282/.400/.496. The slugging percentage is somewhat of a surprise, but not his on base average. He's got a 1.3 bWAR and a 142 OPS+. Pretty good stuff. Plus, he is playing a decent third base, though second is his best position.

Then there is Juan Miranda. The Cuban-born Miranda was signed by the Yankees as a free agent in 2006. He was going to be the next Yankees first baseman. But the Yankees rarely have the patience to develop players and they went ahead and signed Mark Teixeira to a gazillion year contract. Miranda languished as a polished minor league player with no where to go and nothing to expect more than a few token at bats for the Yankees when they need an extra bat here or there.

The Yankees traded Miranda to the Diamondbacks for minor league pitcher, Scott Allen. The Diamondbacks quickly called him their first baseman for 2011. But he was horrible in Spring Training and the Diamondbacks picked up Russell Branyon. That didn't work out so Miranda was given another shot. He was batting .238 with a .732 OPS at the end of April. But he has been terrific lately. The kind of terrific that a player can have when finally given a solid shot at playing day after day. His two booming doubles won the game on Saturday. Both missed being homers by inches. One was pulled and the other hit to the opposite field. He then blasted a homer off of Francisco Liriano in the first inning of Sunday's game. His slash line now? .272/.392/.492.

Miranda could get even better as the season progresses. He's no great first baseman by any means. But he's a darn sight better than Branyon. And one other thing is for sure, the Diamondbacks are no longer the strikeout kings of baseball. With Reynolds gone along with others, the D-backs are fifth in the National League in the fewest strikeouts. Mission accomplished there.

The Diamondbacks have a fairly strong core to their rotation with Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. Both have shown themselves to be determined pitchers and are having good seasons. Collmenter makes three if he can continue to pitch well. Micah Owings is going to get a shot with the ouster of Armando Galarraga. Owings had a decent first start but has to prove that he can at least be league average, not something he's ever proven before. Joe Saunders was awful this spring and that carried over into the early part of the season. But, he had a good outing Saturday and could perhaps be useful.

J. J. Putz, David Hernandez, Juan Gutierrez, Sam Demel, Joe Paterson and Esmerling Vazquez have been brilliant in the bullpen. Kevin Towers knows how to build a bullpen. His track record is amazing.

For all we know, this Diamondbacks team could fall back again into their recent history. The losses could pile up again as the season goes along. But this team looks far more competitive than it did a year ago. They are in third place and it being May 23, that's a bit of an accomplishment already. In the middle of all of it is Kirk Gibson, who by all accounts, has brought accountability into that locker room. Some of his rules seem over the top, but who can doubt the improvement and the results. This is his team and contrary to this writer's bias, could be in that dugout for quite a long time.

Let's hope the fans come back to the ballpark. This version of the Arizona Diamondbacks has become fun to watch.

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