A surprise no more, Arizona looks to contend again

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By Natalie Rivers By Natalie Rivers

PHOENIX (AP) -- A year ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks were baseball's surprise team, going from worst to first to win the NL West.

This year, the surprise will be if they aren't contenders again.

A strong young rotation, vastly improved bullpen and a gritty style that led to a major league-best 48 come-from-behind wins propelled the Diamondbacks to the division title and a near-miss in the first round of the playoffs, where they lost in extra innings in a deciding Game 5 against Milwaukee.

Kirk Gibson, the NL Manager of the Year in his first season at the controls, welcomes the expectations that come with being the defending division champion.

"It is all good," he said. "There is nothing bad about it. It doesn't really change the way we approach the daily grind. We know what we have to do and stay focused either way. Last year nobody picked us and we stayed focused. We will stay focus this year as well."

With only a bit of tinkering with the roster, the Diamondbacks expect to maintain the outstanding chemistry that developed last season.

"We're right back where we were last year," All-Star outfielder Justin Upton said. "The guys are getting along great, policing each other. That's just the nature of our clubhouse and we'd like to keep it that way."

The significant additions are Trevor Cahill to the rotation, Craig Breslow to the bullpen and, in a surprising move, slugger Jason Kubel in left field.

Cahill, acquired in a trade with Oakland, was 12-14 with a 4.16 ERA last season after going 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA the previous year. The 24-year-old right-hander fits in behind ace Ian Kennedy (21-4, 2.88) and Daniel Hudson (16-12, 3.49). Tomahawk-style Josh Collmenter, 10-10 with a 3.38 ERA as a rookie, and left-hander Joe Saunders (12-13, 3.69) round out the rotation. Top prospects Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer wait in the minors.

Kennedy knows it may be unrealistic to match the record of his breakthrough season.

"To be honest with you, that's not something I can control," he said. "Something I can control and I can rely on is my preparation for each start. You can't rely on what the outcome's going to be."

The bullpen was bolstered with the addition of Breslow as a second left-hander. J.J. Putz, who had 45 saves in 49 tries, returns and so does David Hernandez, who had 11 saves in 14 opportunities when Putz was injured. Bryan Shaw, who came up from the minors and was outstanding down the stretch, is back. So are Brad Ziegler and lefty Joe Paterson, who held left-handed batters to a .205 average. Veteran Takashi Saito adds to the reliever depth.

Kubel's addition was somewhat curious because it sent Gold Glove Gerardo Parra to the bench. Gibson insists Parra still will get plenty of playing time as the backup to all three outfield positions.

Kubel adds a left-handed bat to the lineup. Limited to 99 games with Minnesota last season, he hit .273 with 12 homers and 58 RBIs, down from 21 homers and 92 RBIs in 2010 and 28 homers and 103 RBIs in 2009.

Slick-fielding Chris Young is back in center, a streaky hitter who had a good late season at the plate.

Upton, meanwhile, is as close as the Diamondbacks have to a star. He enters his fifth full season with Arizona, even though he is just 24. Finally comfortable and far more relaxed, Upton had his best season in 2011, hitting .289 with 31 home runs, 39 doubles, 88 RBIs and 21 stolen bases.

In the infield, the biggest issue is at shortstop, where there is no timetable for Stephen Drew's return from the brutal injury sustained last July 20, when he broke his right ankle and ripped the tendons around it when his foot was caught beneath him as he slid into home plate against Milwaukee. Still, Arizona thrived in his absence, with utilityman Willie Bloomquist filling in admirably. John McDonald, acquired along with second baseman Aaron Hill in a late-season trade with Toronto, provides depth at the position.

Hill, like McDonald, was re-signed and hopes to continue the resurgence he showed after the trade, when he went from batting .225 in 104 games with the Blue Jays to .315 in 33 games with the Diamondbacks.

The team has high hopes for big first baseman Paul Goldschmidt in his first full big league season. After being brought up from Double-A Mobile, Goldschmidt had eight home runs and 26 RBIs in 48 games with no errors. In Arizona's five-game divisional series loss to the Brewers, Goldschmidt batted .438 and became the second rookie in baseball history to homer in his first two playoff games.

Popular and multi-tattoed Ryan Roberts is back at third base. After barely making the roster as a utility player last spring, Ryan moved into the regular third base role and batted .249 with 19 home runs and 65 RBIs.

Catcher Miguel Montero, a team leader and strong left-handed hitter, signed a one-year deal to avoid arbitration but talks on a long-term deal were called off. He had batted .282 last season with career highs in doubles (39), home runs (18) and RBIs (86).

"We know we can be better, we have to be better," Gibson said. "We lost the first round of the playoffs and that is not where we want to go."