D-backs' Gibson embraces 'underdog' status
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- To the rest of the baseball world, the Arizona Diamondbacks are a team that won 94 games and a National League West title in 2011, and then became even better over the winter.To Kirk Gibson, manager of the club, the D-backs are "underdogs." This is not a pose on the part of Gibson, or a polite gesture to the competition. It is not an act of any sort. It is more like a way of life. "I feel like we're the underdogs," Gibson said Wednesday at Salt River Fields. "That's just the kind of attitude you've got to take. You can't anything for granted. "I think we know we're good, but I think we understand that we've got to carry the lunch bucket every day. It's a tremendous commitment, mentally and physically, and as a team, together, that we're going to encounter." Some people might feel that calling the D-backs anything other than favorites to win the NL West again is an under-evaluation. But Gibson's inclinations in these matters are not to be belittled. Last spring at this time, other people were conceding the division to the San Francisco Giants, who were, after all, defending World Series champions and had all that terrific pitching. Gibson, meanwhile, was suggesting that his team could win the division. The D-backs had gone 65-97 in 2010, and were struggling in Spring Training. He had to be kidding. Later, when the Arizona team finished 94-68 and Gibson won the NL Manager of the Year Award, it became obvious that, no, he was not kidding at all.
On paper, the D-backs are even better now. They upgraded an already impressive rotation with the addition of Trevor Cahill, an 18-game winner in 2010. In the same trade with Oakland, they bolstered their bullpen by obtaining an established reliever, lefty Craig Breslow. The bullpen should be further aided by the addition of Takashi Saito. Saito may be 42 years old, but after 322 big league appearances, his career earned run average is 2.18.On the minus side, shortstop Stephen Drew will miss time while recovering from the fractured ankle he suffered in July. But Willie Bloomquist, a more than capable replacement last season, will fill in again. Elsewhere, the D-backs could have more power in their lineup this year. They added outfielder Jason Kubel, a reasonably reliable run producer with Minnesota. And in 2012, Arizona should get a full season (instead of 48 games) from one of the leading young talents in the game, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Add it all up, and it appears that this club can only be described as improved. But we must also make room for the description provided by the manager: "Underdogs." Gibson is indisputably correct in his contention that nothing can be taken for granted, that last year's success, while it will create some confidence, guarantees nothing in the 2012 standings. "I think you strive for the same thing every year," the manager said. "We feel confident going into the season, yet we know we still have to create the magic that we had last year. It's not going to be the same. It's going to be different, and we have to be alert to how the team might be different from last year. It's my job and that of the [coaching] staff and the front office to kind of figure out what roles everybody is best in. That's key. You want to put them in situations they can succeed in. We don't want to put them into situations that aren't good. "At the same time, we're trying to expand the abilities of these guys every day. We know where they are today. How can we make them better? How can we better prepare them? And not just the first 25, but the guys that are going to come in behind them." The notion that division races might be "wide open" this season is one big given to Gibson. The 2011 Arizona club, improving by leaps and bounds from '10, defines the term "wide open." "I think it's that way every year," Gibson said. "You guys [reporters] tend to predict what's going to happen, who the favorites are. And we're reminded every year that it's really not that way. That's why we compete. So much can change." One thing that has changed is the atmosphere around the D-backs from last Spring Training to this March. Starting pitcher Daniel Hudson, who threw five shutout innings at the Brewers on Wednesday, agreed. "It's totally different," he said. "I feel like there was maybe a lot of panic last spring, just because nobody knew who we were, we had so many new faces. So to come in here now and return everybody from a team that won 94 games is pretty cool." But with all of that, the underdog thing is fine with Hudson. Why not? "The media are still picking the Giants to win, which they should, they've got a great team over there," Hudson said. "But we like to be the underdogs, so why not try to make it seem that we are the underdogs? We were last year, so let's try to duplicate what we did last year." The D-backs can think of themselves as underdogs if it helps them keep their lunch-bucket work ethic and their competitive edge. But the rest us can be excused for looking upon this same group as a club that won a division title and is still getting better.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.