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Sunday, April 28, 2013
D-backs' depth adds another extra win

By Christina Kahrl

Cody Ross, bottom of the 10th, man in scoring position, tie game. You’re supposed to bank on that, right? You plan on it, because it wasn’t that long ago that Ross was a postseason hero and -- briefly, because who doesn’t have ADD nowadays? -- a household name. It’s why the Diamondbacks gave him big money, $28.5 million for three years. Ross plated A.J. Pollock with a blow that looked like it would go out, settled for the warning track, giving him his sixth career walk-off and the Snakes their sixth win in extra innings in just this one month of play.

Which is definitely not something that you plan on. While the D-backs are 14-10, very little has gone according to plan -- certainly not the one they had for themselves on Opening Day, let alone the expectations anybody else had for them. The lineup has been a work in progress all month. Slugger Jason Kubel may be out for just a few more days, but until Adam Eaton comes back sometime in late May the D-backs have yet to enjoy the benefit of their starting outfield trio in the lineup at the same time. Second baseman Aaron Hill is out for weeks to come. Miguel Montero, a key lefty OBP source in a lineup with a heavy right-wards lean, has yet to get his bat going.

But out of initial struggles opportunities are born, and here’s where you have to give some measure of credit to the organization for the benefits of some of their pickups. Martin Prado is nobody’s ideal at second base, but as a multi-positional asset he’s given manager Kirk Gibson considerable lineup flexibility. Absent Hill as an everyday answer up the middle, Gibson has been adaptable, moving Prado between second, third and left. This way, he doesn’t risk burning out a fragile old-timer and sporadic power source like Eric Chavez at the hot corner, nor does he risk going down in flames with Cliff Pennington as an everyday player. Even with all the injuries, the Diamondbacks are fifth in the league in runs scored.

Here, you can credit the right-now benefits of GM Kevin Towers’ win-now moves. While Justin Upton is going to make the Snakes look bad now and likely far into the future for dealing him, we don’t know what he would have done if he was still in Phoenix. For better and worse, Prado isn’t somebody you acquire to win next year, he’s 29 and as good as he’ll ever be and as useful as he’ll ever be right now -- and that’s very useful. But this same win-now sensibility has taken other forms, like turning to Didi Gregorius as their shortstop of the present, allowing them to move Pennington to a reserve role.

That’s something right out of the playbook Gibson ran in 2011 when the D-backs won the NL West: Trusting the kids you think are ready. Then, they won breaking in a relatively unheralded rookie slugger named Paul Goldschmidt; now, they might do the same with rookies up the middle with Gregorius at short and Eaton in center.

In large part, Gibson can afford to be creative in the lineup in the short term because his roster boasts tremendous rotation depth, and that’s the kind of talent that keeps you in ballgames with any kind of offense. Youngsters like Tyler Skaggs or Randall Delgado are marking time in Triple-A, cooling their jets because the only rotation regular struggling is Brandon McCarthy, everybody’s favorite sabermetric starter. As is, the clock’s ticking until Dan Hudson comes back from elbow surgery after the All-Star break, so even if the D-backs blow a piston or two in this engine of success, they have replacement parts here as well.

Normally, that kind of depth suggests you’re eventually make room for extra talent in the bullpen, especially one struggling as badly as Arizona’s has in the early going, having blown eight saves already after Heath Bell gave up a one-run lead in the seventh. That’s eight out of 25 opportunities if you count all save opportunities with a lead after the sixth. It’s easy to mock the decision to give Bell a multi-year deal, but that money’s spent -- how well Gibson makes it work and whether or not they have the freedom to rely on the same depth in pitching that has kept them afloat on offense remains to be seen.

This time of year, you can play the “if only” game with just about any ballclub. Pretty much everybody can plead a reasonable failure to anticipate early-season results, and suggest why things would be so much better if only the master plan had survived contact with Opening Day. It’s a broad truth, but it’s also broadly true that as much as regression is supposed to get you, there’s nothing in the rule book or the law of averages that demands that you hand back the wins you notch in April. The D-backs’ 6-0 start in extra innings is a fluke, it’s improbable, it’s the sort of thing you don’t predict and it’s certainly something you don’t count on.

But it also isn’t coming off the Diamondbacks’ permanent record, not now, not ever. And if they fix their other issues, like get Hill back in full working order, or once they see McCarthy and Montero get turned around, once they get their entire starting outfield, you better believe they can be in it to the end.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.