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Friday, May 16
 
Will D-Backs trade Schilling? Don't bet on it

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

He's spun 19 straight scoreless innings, and back-to-back shutouts. Of the 64 hitters he's faced in those 19 innings, two have made it past first base. And since Opening Day 2001, his team is 42 games over .500 (63-21) when he takes the mound.

So no matter what you've heard, no matter what you've read, ask yourself this: How could the Arizona Diamondbacks ever trade Curt Schilling?

It's a question that won't go away these days, for all sorts of reasons: Money. Age. Media madness. And, in part, because of Schilling himself.

Curt Schilling
Curt Schilling isn't a fan of Questec either.

But trying to imagine the Diamondbacks without Schilling and his co-dominator, Randy Johnson, is like trying to imagine South Dakota without Mount Rushmore, or St. Louis without the Arch. They're not just members of the Diamondbacks. They are the Diamondbacks.

"They've built that team around those two guys," says one NL executive. "It's that simple."

Oh, maybe it isn't quite that simple. But it's close. A year ago this time, Schilling and Johnson had 15 wins. At the moment -- thanks to an appendectomy (by Schilling), some uncooperative knee cartilage (belonging to Johnson) and other unforeseen weirdness -- those two have only four wins.

By a remarkable coincidence, a year ago the Diamondbacks were 10 games over .500 after 40 games. This year, they were two games under after 40 games.

So we'll leave it to you. Get our your calculator. Do the arithmetic. Now draw your own conclusions about what makes this team go.

"You know," said Mark Grace, after Schilling's 14-strikeout two-hitter Wednesday, "I've always been a guy who said that hitting solved all the world's problems. When you hit, there's no Middle East problem, there's no crime problem, the problems all disappear. But when you've got two pitchers like Schill and Randy, I'll put it this way: When they pitch like that, I'm happy as hell -- because I know we're gonna win. They're not only streak stoppers, they're streak continuers."

They're also baseball's warmest security blankets. And because they are, their team depends on them and feeds off them -- maybe a little too much. We almost assume this team essentially starts every season 40 games over .500, because we assume they'll go something like 55-15 when their Big Two start. That isn't fair, but that's the way it is.

"I don't know if it's unfair," says Luis Gonzalez. "That's just the bar they've set. That's what you get when you're good. I don't think they'd want it any different."

And they don't.

"It all depends who you're heeping those expectations on," Schilling says. "I know I expect it. And Randy does, too. The last couple of years, we've raised the bar higher for ourselves. And there's no reason we can't exceed what we've done the last couple of years. We've got a lot of work to do here. But we've got a lot of season left."

It normally takes the Diamondbacks about three hours into any season for Johnson or Schilling to make it into the win column. This year, it took 2 weeks. By then, the Giants had started 13-1 -- and 14 games into the season, this team found itself 10 games out of first. "We fell off the cliff," Gonzalez laughs, "in a hurry."

The reason seems obvious. But to the manager and general manager, it's too convenient to say that cliff dive was a product of the Aces Inc. duo getting off to a slow start.

"Our biggest problem," says the manager, Bob Brenly, "was scoring runs."

It all depends who you're heeping those expectations on. I know I expect it. And Randy (Johnson) does, too. The last couple of years, we've raised the bar higher for ourselves. And there's no reason we can't exceed what we've done the last couple of years. We've got a lot of work to do here. But we've got a lot of season left.
Curt Schilling

"Our pitching, night-in and night-out," says GM Joe Garagiola Jr., "has been very good."

And all that's true. Through Thursday, the Diamondbacks actually have a lower ERA (3.75) than the Giants (3.90). But the offense was only 11th in runs scored.

"Regardless of who was on the mound," Brenly says, "there have been a lot of games we had a chance to win. There are a lot of little things we could have done to make up for the lack of wins from the two big guys."

But almost magically, those worries don't seem so scary anymore. Since Schilling returned from his appendectomy May 3, the Diamondbacks are 7-4 through Thursday. After a 3-11 start, they've pulled back to within three games under .500.

"For now," Gonzalez says, "we're just trying to maintain ... and then, when everybody comes back, make our push."

They expect reliever Bret Prinz (torn groin muscle) back sometime in June. They expect Craig Counsell (dislocated thumb) back in July. And they have the tallest secret weapon in baseball history, the Big Unit, lurking for a return around the All-Star break.

"Sorry, I think he's over the height requirement to be a secret weapon," Garagiola chuckles. "So he won't be a secret. But he's definitely a weapon."

And, Garagiola says, "if you're looking for the tiniest silver lining beneath that big black cloud, it might be this: When Randy hits August and September this year, he's got a chance to feel better physically at that point than he has in a long, long time."

The gist of all this is that any speculation that the Diamondbacks are ready to pack it in and trade Schilling -- or anybody else -- is absurd. Through 40 games, they were 6 games behind the Giants and six out in the wild-card race. So they're actually closer in both those races than Oakland was at the same stage last year.

The bigger question, then, is what happens next year?

Garagiola admits the 2004 payroll will be "trending downward." The East Valley Tribune's Ed Price has reported it will be under $80 million.

But Garagiola insists that doesn't necessarily mean this team will be in the mode to auction off a big name or three this winter.

"We have some fairly high-dollar contracts (especially Matt Williams and Tony Womack) that will run out at the end of this season," he says. "So that talk (of unloading people) might not be accurate. As we bring up more and more young players, our flexibility increases."

Brandon Webb
Starting pitcher
Arizona Diamondbacks
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G IP W-L BB SO ERA
5 28 1-1 10 23 1.61

Thanks to Schilling's appendectomy and the injuries to Johnson and Counsell, they've gotten a sneak preview of what were supposed to be their coming attractions. They know now that Brandon Webb (1.61 ERA) can pitch in the big leagues. They know now that rookie shortstop Alex Cintron (6 for 13 this week) can play.

So they will have big-league-ready young players ready to help lower the payroll next year. But do they have enough of those players to keep the payroll under $80 million? They're committed to pay five players (Johnson, Schilling, Gonzalez, Matt Mantei and Steve Finley) who will total $50 million next year. Danny Bautista, Elmer Dessens, Counsell and Junior Spivey are signed for another $13.5 million.

That leaves $16 million for the other 17 players on the roster. So no wonder there are questions about whether they'll look to move somebody like Schilling. You don't need to call H&R Block to do that kind of accounting.

Privately, Schilling has done that math himself. He knows Johnson is signed now through 2005. He'll have a year left on his contract, at $12 million, next winter. And he has a full no-trade clause. So to some degree, he can control whether he goes, stays, signs an extension or becomes a free agent.

A week ago, he ran into some Phillies people in Arizona and quietly suggested he'd be open to coming back if the Diamondbacks decide to deal him. But after Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford called him a "jerk" and urged the Phillies to roll up the welcome-back mat, followed by a surprising number of boos in his start in Philadelphia, Schilling might have second thoughts.

Then again, the whole subject could easily be irrelevant. Garagiola says Schilling has assured him his first choice is to stay. And the Phillies' first choice is to re-sign Kevin Millwood. But then there's the most fundamental question of all:

Why would we assume a team built around Schilling and his 6-foot-10 tag-team partner would even want to mess with the most fundamental reason for its success?

Gonzalez has been around owner Jerry Colangelo since the beginning. And he finds it impossible to believe Colangelo will be holding any offseason fire sales just for the sake of hitting some magic payroll number.

"I just can't see him saying, 'We're going to run a team out there and try to play .500,' " Gonzalez says. "I can't see Jerry Colangelo doing that. He's too competitive a person."

If he wants to win, he's smart enough to know exactly why the Diamondbacks win. Johnson and Schilling. Schilling and Johnson. Why would anyone be crazy enough to mess with that?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.





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