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12/31/11 10:00 AM EST

Surprise of 2011, D-backs not standing pat

PHOENIX -- This time last year, it was hard to find too many people excited about the Arizona Diamondbacks' chances for success in 2011.

After all, the team was coming off back-to-back last-place finishes in the National League West and had traded its two best pitchers -- Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson -- in a 2010 selloff.

While others were doubting, new general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson got to work.

Towers spent the winter rebuilding the bullpen and bringing in veteran guys with solid characters in an attempt to improve the clubhouse culture.

And when Spring Training opened, Gibson began his first spring in charge by insisting the D-backs put more time and effort in on the practice field while also introducing new rules aimed at improving the focus.

Still, when Spring Training ended, the D-backs were picked by most to finish at or near the bottom of the division and an uneven first five weeks of the regular season seemed to justify the skepticism.

But then a funny thing happened. The D-backs won 17 of 19 games during May and finished the month on top of the division. As the season wore on, those expecting the D-backs to fall off were in for a disappointment as the club seemed to pick up steam as the months rolled past.

When all was said and done, Arizona won the NL West by eight games over the world champion Giants before dropping a heartbreaking five-game series to the Brewers in the NL Division Series.

The question heading into 2012 is can the surprise team from 2011 do it again in 2012 when it will no longer be able to sneak up on everyone?

It is a question that Towers and Gibson have addressed in their own ways this offseason.

From Towers' perspective, the man known as "The Gunslinger" refused to play it safe and stand pat with his team.

Instead of hoarding his young pitching prospects with the hopes that one or two would step into the big league rotation in 2012, Towers traded former No. 1 pick Jarrod Parker along with young outfielder Collin Cowgill and right-hander Ryan Cook to the A's in a deal that added proven right-hander Trevor Cahill to the rotation.

Cahill will likely follow Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson in a starting staff that also includes Josh Collmenter -- not a bad front four with the fifth spot coming from a group of six or seven candidates that includes top prospects Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs.

Even though the bullpen he rebuilt rebounded from having the third-worst ERA in the history of baseball to being one of the league's best, Towers could not resist tinkering with it. He added a second left-hander in Craig Breslow in the Cahill trade and then signed veteran free agent Takashi Saito.

That leaves Gibson with a host of late-inning options in addition to closer J.J. Putz and setup man David Hernandez. In addition to Saito, there are holdovers Brad Ziegler and Bryan Shaw.

Towers then shocked everyone when he signed free-agent left fielder Jason Kubel to a two-year deal. After all, left fielder Gerardo Parra had a breakout year in 2011 at the plate and captured a Rawlings Gold Glove for his efforts in the field.

Towers, though, had some money left in the budget and felt the addition of Kubel would make the offense better.

For his part, Gibson has spent the winter figuring out ways to keep his team hungry.

"It's certainly something I put a lot of thought into," Gibson said. "You guys know me -- I constantly shake myself to remain humble. Success is hard to deal with. We've talked about it. I'm not worried about it, but yet I'm alert about it. It could damage our chances if we can't remain humble."

One of the things Gibson will do is continue to emphasize the fundamentals, believing that all the work that was put in last spring only scratched the surface.

Better sliding, better decision-making when it comes to taking the extra base and improving on cutoffs and relays are just some of the things he plans to focus on during the spring.

Competition was the main theme of the 2011 camp and that's something that Towers and Gibson are planning on keeping in 2012 regardless of how things look right now.

"It seems like everything is set, but it really never is in my mind," Gibson said. "If something else will make us better, I'll push for it."

With a young core, a host of prospects almost ready to burst on the scene and a division not dominated by any big-market spending, the organization seems like it's on a path for sustained success, but recent history makes the team's hierarchy wary of taking anything for granted.

The 2007 D-backs won 90 games, went all the way to the NL Championship Series and seemed poised for a run of success of their own following a 20-8 start in 2008. That team faded as the summer wore on and followed it up with two last-place finishes.

"We thought, "We've got it, we know what we're doing," and we started off like gangbusters in 2008 and then the wheels came off," D-backs team president and CEO Derrick Hall said near the end of the 2011 season. "We have to be careful that we don't get ahead of ourselves, that we remain humble, we continue to stock the farm system and we allow these kids to compete next spring, and they will."

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Inside the D-backs, and follow him on Twitter @dbackswriter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.