Naming an Opening Day Starter?

With staff aces Brandon Webb and Dan Haren still on Interstate 10 making their way to Tucson, Arizona Diamondbacks manager AJ Hinch held his first press conference of the spring. During his remarks he described his philosophy going into his first camp and answered the never ending questions of his comfort level in the manager’s job.

Most of these press conferences are high on the fluff scale and you could fill out your baseball cliché Bingo cards as managers bring about such oldies and goldies as “it’s a long season” or “we’ll take it one game at a time”.

Sometimes though the manager issues a statement that will make you stop and take notice. During today’s opening remarks Hinch decided to name his Opening Day starter. For the past four years that honor has gone to Brandon Webb.

In 2009, that Opening Day start for Webb was both his first game of the season and unfortunately it was also his last. He lasted just four innings and set the stage for what would become a very long season in the Arizona desert.

Webb attempted to come back from injury several times last year before finally succumbing to season ending surgery on his throwing shoulder. His post operative rehabilitation has kept fans, coaches, and media at the edge of their seats wondering whether Webb could regain his dominating status.

For the past several weeks we have heard glowing reports from both Webb and the Diamondbacks of how well re-hab is going and that Webb will be ready when the season starts. So when Hinch announced Dan Haren would be the Opening Day starter it turned a few heads.

The Opening Day start is more pomp and circumstance than anything. It is usually awarded as much on history as it is on confidence and abilities. Once Opening Day is over, the starters of that game rarely match up with the number one starters of other clubs through the season.

Over 162 game schedule with staggered days off, it is often difficult to ascertain who the number one, two, or three starters even are. But for many pitchers getting the Opening Day start signals the confidence the front office and coaching staff have in their abilities.

Listening to Hinch describe the decision his comments talked of how Haren earned the right to be the starter based upon his 2009 season and this was a reward for carrying the team when Webb was out with an injury.

Hinch went on to explain part of his reasoning behind the decision was to give Webb additional time to prepare for the season and to take pressure off in case there is a set-back in Webb’s recovery. For Diamondbacks fans it was a comment that reminded us how quickly our hopes and dreams could be dashed if Webb does not return to form.

The Diamondbacks are considering having Edwin Jackson take the ball for game two slotting Webb into the third spot in the rotation. This would give him additional time off for recovery given the Diamondbacks schedule during April.

For some pitchers being removed from consideration as Opening Day starter and being pushed to the third game might be viewed as a demotion. This is especially concerning in Webb’s case since his current relationship with the Diamondbacks seems strained at best.

Webb is entering the last year of his current contract and seems set on testing the free agent market after the 2010 season. If that happens it seems highly unlikely that Arizona would be able to afford the pitcher. Given the fact that the team pulled an extension during the 2008 season due to concerns over Webb’s shoulder it sounds unlikely that Webb is willing to give the team a hometown discount.

So as Spring Training begins, this back story could find itself being played out again and again during the year and if Hinch and Webb are not careful it could become a distraction. But then what would Spring Training be without a little drama whether it be real or perceived?

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