On a blusteryMarch day in Tucson, a small boy took the baseball that third baseman ChadTracy had just autographed for him and tucked it under his jacket to protectthe signature from the raindrops that had begun to fall. It was a smart move:The value of Tracy's autograph, like his value to the Diamondbacks, is likelyto appreciate in the near future.
With his compactyet powerful lefthanded stroke, his eagerness to put in long hours of practiceand, at last, a position to call his own, Tracy is on the verge of establishinghimself as one of the game's top middle-of-the-order hitters. "He's alreadyhad a big season," says leftfielder Luis Gonzalez, referring to Tracy's.308, 27 home run performance last year, his second in the majors. "Next,we're talking huge."
Stardom seemslike such a sure thing for Tracy, 25, that the club isn't afraid of burdeninghim with high expectations. "His lefty swing and his ability to hit to allfields with power reminds me a little bit of George Brett," manager BobMelvin says. "He'll hit his share of home runs, but he's a .300 type ofhitter with power, not a guy who's just looking to hit the ball out of thepark. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him win a batting title oneday."
Arizona's farmsystem is producing several promising young hitters who are expected to make animpact this season or next, including rookie Conor Jackson, 23, (who's expectedto be Arizona's full-time first baseman), shortstop Stephen Drew, 23, andoutfielders Carlos Quentin, 23, and Chris Young, 22. Serious postseasonconsideration will have to wait until those players develop, but that won't belong if they improve as quickly and steadily as Tracy has. "He's prettymuch the prototype for how you'd like to see a young player come along,"says Melvin. "He's been in the big leagues for three years and made greatstrides every year. That's what we'd like to do as a team."
Tracy'sproduction at the plate was one of the main reasons why the D-Backs finishedsecond in the NL West last year after losing 111 games in 2004. It also helpedpersuade them to trade third baseman Troy Glaus to the Blue Jays for secondbaseman Orlando Hudson and righthander Miguel Batista in the off-season. Thatdeal enabled Tracy to settle in at third, his natural position, after playingfirst and rightfield last year.
Switching tofirst after playing third as a rookie wasn't particularly difficult for Tracybecause he had spent some time at first in the minors. But he admits that hewas shaken when he was sent to the outfield last year to make room in thelineup for first baseman Tony Clark's bat. Even though he made only two errorsin 51 games at the new position, it was an experience he'd rather not relive."I was scared to death," he says. "I came into the clubhouse atWrigley Field one morning and saw my name in rightfield for the first time. Ihad about an hour to get a crash course in playing the outfield from [coach]Brett Butler, and then I was out there. The rest of the year was mentallyexhausting because I had to think so much instead of playing instinctively. I'dlay awake at night thinking about how I was going to survive the next day outthere."
Playing theoutfield was especially tough for Tracy because he is fanatical aboutpreparation, and the move left him little time for any. Even though he's farmore comfortable at third base, Tracy spent the off-season getting ready forhis return, concentrating on footwork and agility drills to help improve hisaccuracy on throws across the diamond, the lack of which accounted for the bulkof his 25 errors at the position as a rookie.
No majoradjustments are necessary at the plate, where Tracy is adept at peppering theoutfield gaps. The 6'2" 210-pounder made a big jump in power from eighthomers in 2004, but it wasn't because he was focusing on turning himself into along-ball hitter. "I basically try to knock the second baseman andshortstop's head off [with line drives]," he says. It's just becoming morecommon for Tracy's line drives to keep rising and clear the fence. His careeris taking the same arc, and the Diamondbacks are ready to go along for theride. --P.T.
The D-Backs were the majors' most improved team in 2005, with 26 more wins thanthey had in '04. (The largest jump in the team's eight-year history was 35games from 1998 to '99.)
a modest proposal
Eric Byrnes willopen the season in centerfield, but the Diamondbacks should make that atemporary move. Prospect Chris Young (right), acquired from the White Sox inthe December deal that sent righthander Javier Vazquez to Chicago, should beready to man the position as soon as he recovers from the broken right hand hesuffered on Feb. 9. Young, 22, is a true centerfielder with power, speed and asolid walk rate (26 homers, 32 steals and 70 walks at Double A last year),while Byrnes, 30, is an aging fourth outfielder who doesn't hit righthanders(.203 average, .268 OBP, .324 slugging against them in 2005).
projected roster with 2005 statistics
second in NL West
second season with Arizona
ERIC BYRNES [Newacquisition]
ORLANDO HUDSON[New acquisition]
JOHNNY ESTRADA[New acquisition]
[This articlecontains tables. Please see hard copy or pdf.]
Orlando Hernandez [New acquisition]
Miguel Batista [New acquisition]
Luis Vizcaino [New acquisition]
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer...
ShortstopStephen Drew, 23, the younger brother of Dodgers outfielder J.D. Drew,dominated the Class A California League in his six weeks there last summer,hitting .389 with 10 homers in 149 at bats. He wasn't as overpowering when hewas promoted to Double A (.218, four homers in 101 at bats), but theDiamondbacks will turn to him if Craig Counsell (who's recovering from ashoulder injury) falters this season.
RICHARD C. LEWIS/WIREIMAGE.COM
GOOD TO BE HOME Tracy, who dreaded playing the outfield last season, feels revitalized by his move back to third base.
JASON WISE (YOUNG)
MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (DREW)