If this were two or three years ago, the big question about the Arizona Diamondbacks would have been, "Will their young players develop into big stars?"
Only three of those young players are still around, and it looks like only Justin Upton has a real shot at becoming a big star (Stephen Drew and Chris Young do not). Considering the Diamondbacks' hopes for the future were mostly pinned on their young hitters -- along with Dan Haren and Brandon Webb, both now departed -- one might assume that future has been compromised.
One's assumption would be correct. That future is right now, and right now the Diamondbacks look like a fourth- or fifth-place team. Much like last year's 65-97 squad.
Worse, there really aren't many open questions about this year's team at all. Not many interesting questions, anyway. Most of these Diamondbacks aren't really so hard to figure. It might be interesting to see how Kirk Gibson handles Juan Miranda and Russell Branyan, both of them lefty-hitting first baseman. It might be interesting to see if Gibson's famous intensity, given a full season, shows up in the standings.
And perhaps most substantively, it should be interesting to see if Ian Kennedy or Daniel Hudson can develop into a real ace. Kennedy went 9-10 last year, but his 3.80 ERA and fine strikeout rate suggest some room for growth. Hudson, after coming over from the White Sox last summer in a deadline deal, pitched absolutely brilliantly: 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA, plus a phenomenal strikeout-to-walk ratio. If I'm a Diamondbacks fan, I'm hoping Hudson can continue to control the strike zone, and I'm hoping Justin Upton becomes one of the best players in the National League.
But none of those things will determine the Diamondbacks' fate in 2011, or their fate in the more distant future. None of those things, on their own anyway, are big enough to make a real difference for this franchise.
What this team needs is more talent, and unfortunately there's not much coming through the pipeline. Not soon, anyway. The farm system is nearly devoid of hot prospects. The No. 1 prospect is former No. 1 draft pick Jarrod Parker, who missed last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The No. 2 prospect is former No. 1 (supplemental) draft pick Tyler Skaggs, who joined the organization in the Dan Haren trade last summer and spent the season in the Class A Midwest League.
To some considerable degree, the Diamondbacks' rebuilding efforts will be defined by events this summer. In June, the franchise owns the No. 3 and the No. 7 pick in the amateur draft. And in July, new general manager Kevin Towers will have a chance to add more talent to the organization with a deal or two; middle infielders Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew figure to have the most value to contending clubs as the trade deadline approaches.
Sometimes these things happen a lot sooner than we expect. But it's just hard to see any real difference in the standings before management finds a lot more talent than the D'backs have right now.