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12/09/08 1:11 AM EST

Melvin sees room for improvement

Manager says young core will be key to success of D-backs

LAS VEGAS -- Bob Melvin is aware of the financial limitations his team is operating under right now, but the D-backs manager thinks his team can improve upon last season's second-place finish in the National League West with little or no changes made to the roster.

The key, Melvin said, is seeing improvement from the team's core of young position players.

"You know, whether it's Mark Reynolds, whether it's Justin Upton, whether it's Chris Young, Chris Snyder, all these guys we feel like have room to get better," he said as he met with the media at the Winter Meetings. "None of these guys have really reached their ceiling yet, so we're going to have to rely on our talent nucleus to get better, and that's kind of how we have to fill the holes right now. If nothing happens, it's not like we're going to hang our heads. We're still going to run nine guys out there and expect to win."

One free agent Melvin would like to see wearing Sedona Red next season is Randy Johnson. The big left-hander, who is five wins away from 300, declared free agency last month after the two sides could not agree on a deal.

Johnson said he agreed to take a 50 percent pay cut from the $10 million (plus a prorated $4 million signing bonus) that he made last season, but with less than $10 million to spend this winter and other holes to fill, the D-backs could not bridge the gap.

There has been some speculation that with reliever Brandon Lyon declining salary arbitration on Sunday, the D-backs may have some money available to sweeten their offer, but Barry Meister, who, along with Alan Nero, represents Johnson, said the two sides had not spoken.

"I talked to him right after the season," Melvin said of Johnson. "So I know he'd like to come back, and we'd like to have him back. Whether or not we have the resources to do it is going to be the telltale on this one. I just don't know how it's going to play out."

Melvin sounded a little more certain when it came to where Conor Jackson would be playing. Jackson, who played first base in 2006, 2007 and the first part of 2008 was moved to left field when a hamstring injury sidelined Eric Byrnes.

Jackson played well out there and will go into Spring Training as the starting left fielder with Eric Byrnes getting a chance to play all three outfield positions and Chad Tracy at first against right-handers. Jackson could move to first against left-handed pitching with Byrnes playing left.

Of course, if the D-backs were to trade Tracy this winter, Jackson would likely then have to move back to first. Either way, it could create the additional Spring Training competition that Melvin spoke toward the end of last year about wanting.

"Based on what he did last year, he certainly deserves a chance to be the everyday left fielder, and as we're sitting here, he is the left fielder," Melvin said of Jackson. "But he gives us flexibility and the roster makeup is going to have a lot to do with it. If we move somebody around, that could change quickly."

So, it sounds like, could the batting order.

Shortstop Stephen Drew had success in the leadoff role but is not your prototypical top-of-the-order hitter. Melvin mentioned the possibility of hitting Drew, Young or even Upton there.

"It hasn't really changed in the last couple years," Melvin said. "There's no set leadoff guy for us and really no set [No. 4] guy with Adam Dunn not being there, either."

Melvin hedged somewhat on whether Chad Qualls will be his closer next year. The right-hander took over for Lyon in September and pitched well in the role. Tony Pena and Jon Rauch have also closed games for Arizona.

"I think based on performance at the end of last year, Qualls has got a leg up on it," Melvin said. "We'll go into Spring Training and he's probably the favorite, yet we have three guys that have closed between he, Rauch and Pena. I don't want to minimize what he did and say that he's not the closer going in. He certainly is the favorite."

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.