Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 3/1/12

In 2011, the Arizona Diamondbacks, behind 1st year manager Kirk Gibson, went from a team many picked to finish dead last in the NL West and flat-out crushed the competition on their way to a division crown. The D’backs were eventually upended in extra innings of Game 5 of the NLDS by the Brewers.

J.J. Putz

Regardless, with a new attitude, a promising roster, and a loaded farm system, Arizona is going to be around for awhile. Gibby comes from a pedigree of coaches that includes Tommy Lasorda and the late Sparky Anderson and his team has star power in the rotation, bullpen, and on the diamond.

[2012 MLB Preview Central]

Ian Kennedy stepped up and carried the rotation much the same way that Justin Upton did for the offense. Both players put together their best professional seasons. Kennedy dusted off his time with the Yankees and beat the world in 2011. He was 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 198 strikeouts. Upton cranked 31 homers and drove in 88 runs to go along with 21 steals and a .289 average. It’s hard to fathom that he’s still just 24 years old.

For a team on the rise to have already tasted the postseason will play out well for this year’s version of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

3 Up                                                                     

Best Case Scenario for 2012

The Diamondbacks appear to be at the head of the class in the NL West coming into 2012. The Giants, Dodgers, Rockies, and Padres all have plenty of upside but probably more overall question marks than Arizona. The next step in the progression of this team is to get past the 1st round of the playoffs and make a serious run at a World Series appearance. Don’t be fooled by their rapid rise of a year ago, this team is stable and improving.

Most Important Diamondbacks

Ian Kennedy and Justin Upton are the stars of this team. Kennedy may have just turned in the best season he’ll ever have. The challenge he faces now is to remain in the upper echelon. To surpass what he accomplished last year would be asking too much. He is the Opening Day starter and will frontline a staff that is basically 8 deep, so he certainly doesn’t have to do it alone. As for Upton, if you look at his best numbers by category, they look like this: .300 average (2009), 39 doubles, 31 homers, 88 RBI’s, and 21 steals (2011). He is trending upward. A 30-30 season is certainly a possibility as well as a +.300 batting average. He cut down on the strikeouts in 2011 and became a better all-around hitter. That’s an ominous sign for the rest of the NL West.

Potential Breakout Players

Offensively, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is going to be looked at to take the next step. The 24-year old had a solid rookie audition (.250, 8 homers) and a huge playoff series to close the year. His power is real, especially against right-handers. He slugged at a .504 clip against righties and if he can figure out lefties (.162/.279/.378) he is going to be a force. A 20-25 home run season is certainly possible as soon as this year. In just over 2 full minor league seasons he smashed 83 homers. The pitching staff is on virtual lock down with Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders, Josh Collmenter, and the newly acquired Trevor Cahill. However, should one of them go down, the D’backs can pluck one of 3 young studs from the minor leagues. Trevor Bauer ranks 9th on mlb.com’s top 100 prospects for 2012 and is probably the first man up. Archie Bradley (20th) and Tyler Skaggs (21st) are right behind him. Bauer, who is often compared to Tim Lincecum due to his size and mechanics, will be a highly anticipated debut, whenever it occurs.

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Worst Case Scenario

Justin Upton

The NL West has had a lot of turnover in recent years. In fact, since 2006, every team in the division has made the playoffs and most of them more than once. Any of the Giants, Dodgers, or Rockies could rise up and give Arizona all they can handle in 2012. A lot went right for Gibson’s team last year and sometimes the pendulum swings the other way. A worst-case scenario would be filled with injuries and a middle of the pack finish in the NL West.

Areas of Concern

One of the more perplexing moves of the offseason was Arizona bringing in Jason Kubel to play left field. Kubel seemed like an American League-lifer with his leg trouble

but is now slotted in as the everyday left fielder. Kubel can certainly hit but to stuff Gerardo Parra’s electric defense and blossoming offense into a strict reserve role seems wasteful. The D’backs also have some question marks with their infield. Can Goldschmidt produce? Is Aaron Hill really back? Can Stephen Drew stay healthy? Will Ryan Roberts be able to hold up over a full season and produce a strong batting average from the hot corner? It’s not all roses in Arizona.

Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2011

Bounce back candidates are a little more difficult to find on a team that achieved beyond expectations. However, Chris Young did experience a statistical slide from 2010 to ’11. He hit .236, down from .257. He hit 7 less homers, knocked in 20 fewer runs, and swiped 6 less bags. We’ve all seen what he can do when he’s right, but it just hasn’t happened on a consistent basis. Young, one of the team’s veterans, needs to be able to lighten the load on some of the younger guys by becoming a reliable offensive threat. Stephen Drew will also need a rebound season, but mainly from a health standpoint. His presence up the middle is a quiet key to Arizona’s success.

Follow me on Twitter @isportsJoe

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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