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Monday, October 7
Aging D-Backs needed more than Counsell

By Rob Neyer

When teams lose a postseason series, you'll see all sorts of odd explanations. I could, in fact, write a whole series of columns about these explanations. I could even write a series of columns about explanations for teams losing that didn't end up losing (early in Saturday's game, one of our nation's finest sportscasters explained that the Twins were going to lose the Series because they couldn't handle the distractions associated with playing postseason games at home).

But there are other things going on this week, so I'd like to focus on just one explanation; that offered by Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly, whose defending World Champions were swept by the underdog Cardinals.

"I'd argue we're missing our top three hitters, and it really puts a strain on the offense," Brenly said. "It really gives the opposition the opportunity to pitch around the guys they think can hurt them the most."

That's a pretty strange thing to say. Among the Diamondbacks who totaled at least 150 at-bats, Luis Gonzalez ranked third in OPS, Danny Bautista ranked fifth, and Craig Counsell 12th. Granted, one could reasonably argue that Gonzalez was the best hitter on the team, because even though Greg Colbrunn and Erubiel Durazo both finished with significantly better numbers per plate appearance, Gonzalez was an everyday player while neither of the two first basemen were.

But if you're going to use that argument against Colbrunn and Durazo, then you've got to use it against Bautista, too. He's 30 years old, and he entered this season with a .300 career on-base percentage and a .406 slugging percentage. Bautista did get off to a great start this year ... but it was only 40 games, at which point he suffered a torn labrum that ended his season. Bautista's certainly a better hitter today than he was five years ago, but I would argue that if he really is one of Bob Brenly's top three hitters, then Bob Brenly needs to find some better hitters.

As for Counsell ... he's a nice little player, but someday baseball historians are going to read all the lovely things that Brenly has said about Counsell, and they're going to pore through two years worth of The Sporting News and Baseball Weekly just trying to understand what everybody else missed.

Counsell did bat .364 with runners in scoring position this season, and .295 with runners in scoring position last season. But there's a long history of players upping their numbers in clutch situations, and that long history tells the same story time and time again: The numbers will come down. And in 2003, Counsell is most likely going to hit somewhere in the neighborhood of .275 with runners in scoring position, because that's the hitter that he is.

Which gets to the point, which is that if Craig Counsell -- he of the .359 career slugging percentage -- really is one of Bob Brenly's top three hitters, then Bob Brenly needs to find some better hitters.

Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, Counsell isn't anywhere near being among the club's top three hitters. Among everyday players, Gonzalez was No. 1, Steve Finley was No. 2, and Junior Spivey was No. 3. In fact, suggesting that Counsell is one of the D-Backs' top three hitters has to be considered a slap in Spivey's face, doesn't it? His OBP was 41 points better than Counsell's (.389 to .348), and his slugging percentage was 125 points better (.476 to .351). Other Arizona hitters better than Craig Counsell include Quinton McCracken, Matt Williams and Damian Miller.

No, the problem isn't really that Craig Counsell's one of the Diamondbacks' best hitters (he isn't). The problem is that Craig Counsell is one of the Diamondbacks' best young hitters. Or at least he would be, if he weren't 32.

Colbrunn, who's become quite a good hitter, is 33 and is likely to become a free agent this winter.

Gonzalez is 35, and just finished his worst season since joining the Diamondbacks in 1999.

Steve Finley turns 38 next March and he's a free agent this winter.

Matt Williams turns 37 next month, and he's spent a significant amount of time on the disabled list in each of the last three seasons.

Mark Grace is 38, and he suffered a big decline this season.

If you're the pessimistic sort of Diamondbacks fan, you don't even have to look two or three seasons down the road; 2003 will do just fine. With Durazo's injury problems, there are two hitters who can be counted on for next season: Spivey and Miller. There are question marks regarding everybody else, which is pretty scary when you realize that neither Spivey nor Miller are exactly bucking for Cooperstown.

And of course, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling aren't exactly in danger of being mistaken for teenagers.

All of which is to say, this is a team that could get old and bad fast. That's not to say that it's going to happen next season. If Johnson and Schilling continue to pitch well -- and there's no reason to think they won't, their advancing years notwithstanding -- the Diamondbacks could certainly remain competitive for another season.

And that's what they have to try to do. They certainly can't decide to retool, and trade Johnson and Schilling for a bundle of prospects. They've got both of them for another season, and so they've got to spend enough money for a decent supporting cast.

It's only delaying the inevitable, though. Ever since they came into existence, the D-Backs have been playing to win now, and you can't argue with the results. In five seasons, the Diamondbacks have earned three postseason berths and one World Series championship. The other shoe is going to drop, either next year or the year after. But you know, it's been a great run. Let's just hope the fans don't forget too quickly.

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