Mike Smith's a big, lanky guy for a goalie — 6-feet-4, 220. The Canadian's wingspan makes him hard to score on, and this was a major reason the Phoenix Coyotes made it to the NHL's Western Conference finals last season. Many believe Smith was the main reason, Coach Dave Tippett and forward Shane Doan aside. Because of his 2.21 "goals-against" average and his .930 save percentage last season, he should have been a shoo-in to win the Vezina Trophy for best goalie, but he wasn't even nominated. This is reminiscent of the longstanding bias against this desert franchise; NHL general managers decide this honor. The Valley repeatedly is derided as the blazing Siberia of NHL hockey. Which means that nobody takes Phoenix that seriously, even in a Pacific Division-title year. Another reason Smith wasn't taken seriously, despite his phenomenal season, was that he came out of nowhere. The season before, he was warming the bench as a backup for the Tampa Bay Lightning. But goalies often appear out of the mist at about Smith's age, 30. It takes them a long time to learn their craft. What Mike must do now is have a second star-studded year so that he moves to the top of the goalie pack.

We feel sorry for Larry Fitzgerald — which is hard. Fitzgerald is considered the best wide receiver in the National Football League, he's been a pro for eight seasons, and already he ranks fourth all-time in receiving yards per game; he's been selected for the Pro Bowl six times, and he signed an eight-year, $120 million contract extension in 2011. No, it's not because he continues to wear dreadlocks (maybe they're hair extensions) after cooler celebrities have abandoned them as passé. It's because, since the famed Kurt Warner retired, Fitzgerald has been left to run around on the football field with nobody at quarterback who can consistently throw him the pigskin.

As great as he is, without a good quarterback, Fitzgerald can't get 'er done. Not that he's been any slouch, even with the Arizona Cardinals' signal-caller struggles. He had his second-best pro season last year with 1,411 yards (and eight touchdown catches). Imagine what he could've accomplished even with Chandler's aged Donovan McNabb (now retired) throwing to him. His number of receptions, though, were down to a five-year low of 80 last season (from 90 to 100 in the Warner years), which is testament to the QB stench. That is, Fitzgerald made the most of what he could get. Anybody still wondering why we feel sorry for the NFL's greatest receiver?

John Skelton is the best quarterback in Phoenix. Which, granted, ain't saying much. Problem being that the Arizona Cardinals have to put somebody under center, and there's no reason to believe — based on this preseason, his limited performance with Arizona last season, or even his time with the Philadelphia Eagles — that much-touted Kevin Kolb can power the team. The Cardinals must start John Skelton, who would be a great backup behind somebody like, um, Peyton Manning, who spurned Arizona for the Denver Broncos because he's always loved some guy named John Elway, who runs the Denver franchise.

Too bad Skelton got hurt in the Cardinals' season opener in early September against the Seahawks. Sigh. If the Cardinals didn't have bad luck, well, you know . . . And the quarterback situation is just more bad luck for the team — for which things were looking up for a minute when Coach Ken Whisenhunt came here from Pittsburgh, Kurt Warner was still at quarterback, and the Birds made it to the Super Bowl. Not anymore: With neither Kolb nor Skelton seemingly able to hang on to the starting QB position, we've got a lesser-of-two-doofuses situation. And Whisenhunt must face that, no matter what goes on in the first few games of the regular season, Skelton is less doofy. With him calling signals last season, the Cards were 5-2. With Kolb at the helm, 2-6. On the downside, Skelton threw 14 interceptions, and his largest margin of victory was six points. Touchdown passes? He had a respectable 11. Can he develop into a consistently good pro quarterback? No. Will he be better at keeping the team from sucking than the oft-injured Kolb? Yes. Truth is, the Cards have what could be a great team, a contender, but when your weakest position is QB, you're fucked in the NFL.

It's been a while since any Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher's been in the National League Cy Young discussion. As Diamondbacks, Brandon Webb won the best-pitcher trophy in 2006, and Randy Johnson won it four years straight from from 1999 to 2002. Now comes slow-talking, happy-go-lucky, Louisiana left-hander Wade Miley, Arizona's only contribution to this year's NL All-Star team. Miley's unlikely to win. He's a rookie. The only rookie to ever win the Cy Young was Fernando Valenzuela in 1981, and nobody really knew how old Fernando was (some joked that he was 30-something before he reached the majors from deep in Mexico). Valenzuela also won the NL Rookie of the Year award in '81, and guess what? Miley's in that discussion, too.

The 25-year-old is 12-8, with a 3.02 earned-run average, and it's not that farfetched to think that he could win both honors (Webb won the Cy with a 16-8 record and a 3.20 ERA). Miley's in the same neighborhood statistically as Washington Nationals hurling golden boy Stephen Strasberg, and his primary competition for the NL rookie award is Cincinnati Reds infielder Todd Frazier. How does this small-town boy (who's been good-natured about being the butt of hayseed jokes in the team's locker room) do it on the mound? His best pitch is a low and away, hard slider that confounds the hell out of hitters. The guy may be corn-pone, but he's in the championship zone.

J.J. Putz is no putz. The name is pronounced Puts (as in he puts away hitters), thank you very much! And you'd think you wouldn't want to mix that up if you were interviewing him after a Diamondbacks game. Putz is a giant at 6-feet-5, 250 pounds, with that imposing glare from the pitcher's mound. A guy that big throwing that fast terrifies batters: His fastball doesn't hit the upper 90s much anymore, but it still clocks 94 miles per hour routinely.

But he'd sooner give you a bear hug than kill you. The jovial D-backs closer is the life of the team's locker room, a joker who puts a smile on everybody's face. Also, he's very good at his job, which is keeping the lid on games in the ninth inning. No easy feat, because no lead is ever safe in the majors. This year, he has 23 saves out of 24 opportunities; last season, he had 45 out of a possible 49; and career in the majors, he has 172 out of 209. He ranks 15th among closers this season and isn't that far from the top all-time, at 60th. An American League All-Star for the Seattle Mariners in 2007 (he was 40 of 42 that season), Putz will never reach all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera (of the New York Yankees) at 608, but at a durable 35 years old, he will have a long career and climb much higher on that closers' list. And all the while, he'll keep his teammates in stitches.

Miguel Montero has one of the hardest jobs in sports, certainly the hardest on a baseball team — catcher. Not only must he direct the pitcher, which includes a professional intimacy with each hurler that probably makes his family jealous, and help oversee the position players, he must do it wearing a mask and squatting for the better part of two hours a game. From that position, he must leap up to catch foul balls with a mitt shaped like a pancake and throw out speedy runners trying to steal — something that Montero has learned to do extremely well. These are his defensive duties. In Montero's case, he's also a solid, middle-of-the-order hitter with a .282 batting average, 13 home runs, and 66 runs batted in. At 29, all-arounders like him are extremely hard to find — which is why it didn't surprise us when he beaome the highest-paid player on Arizona's roster at about $60 million over the next five years. If the Diamondbacks manage to contend in the off-season, it will be because of his on-field management and grace under pressure.

Paul Goldschmidt only is in his second season as a major-leaguer — and we usually don't award our coveted Best All-Around plaque to such a newbie. But Goldschmidt is becoming the consummate player. He hits lots of home runs and doubles (16 and 34 respectively), he's fleet of foot for a 6-feet-3, 230-pounder, makes stellar defensive plays at first base — and studies game film hours a day to prepare for pitchers the D-backs are slated to face. It's paid off this season, as Goldschmidt has been one of a few Valley of the Sun bright spots in local sports. We watched him play the superb Washington Nationals this season when he did something big guys never do: After reaching first base on an error, he made it to second rather than settling for the easy one-bagger. Then, before the pitcher could deliver the next pitch, the behemoth stole third (he knew the pitcher's delivery habits from his intense preparation), rattling the catcher so much that he threw the ball over the third baseman's head into left field. Goldschmidt scampered home to the adulation of his manager and teammates. But the dude has been doing it all season: The steal described was his 11th. Did we mention that he's also had one of the two or three best batting averages on the team all season? Power, average, steals, defense, smarts — sign the dude to a rich, long-term contract!

The rub on Jason Kubel, acquired this season from the Minnesota Twins, is that he strikes out a lot — a disease that has plagued sluggers who work the left side of the field for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Remember traded-away D-backs third baseman Mark Reynolds, who on and off led the majors in striking out. This season, left-fielder Kubel has struck out 116 times, which has put him among the top 10 whiffers in the big leagues.

But Kubel does something else well, too: Like Reynolds before him, he puts the ball in the seats. Kubel leads the team with 25 home runs, which lands him in the top 10 sluggers in the National League. In late July, the stoic slugger hit three home runs in a single game against the Houston Astros, which meant that he led the NL in runs batted in at the time. In a game against the surprisingly good Pittsburgh Pirates, Kubel hit two two-run homers. When he delivers, he delivers big. Power hitters have a tendency to strike out too much, dating back to Babe Ruth. The question is, how much value do they add to their teams despite that? If Kubel helps power the Snakes into the postseason, nobody will care that he walks dejectedly from the plate to the dugout frequently.

When trade talks began about Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton this season, we hoped the team would send him packing. You know, get something/someone valuable in return for him, unlike local teams traditionally haven't done here with floundering "superstars." (Does the name Amar'e Stoudemire come to mind?) But, of course, the D-backs held on to their former top draft choice. And he has performed better, but not to the point of becoming the perennial All-Star power hitter they've paid through the nose for — he signed a six-year, $51.25 million contract two years ago. When he came to the majors in 2009, he had a .300 average. He's never achieved that since, batting .273, .289, and so far this season .272. But what's disappointing for this long-ball hitter by trade are his home run and runs-batted-in totals in 2012. He hit 31 home runs last season, with 88 RBI, and seemed finally to be living up to his heralded potential. This year he's hit nine homers and has a measly (for a slugger) 45 RBI. He's letting Jason Kubel-come-lately in the Snakes' lineup eclipse him. Naturally, Upton's got the huge contract that comes with major talent, but he hasn't played like an $8.54-million-a-year man this summer.

Well, eccentric is a mild description of the antics that Trevor Bauer displayed during his brief sojourn with the Diamondbacks before getting plopped back in the minors this season. His teammates were mostly mum about the highly touted rookie pitcher, except that the eyebrows of a few were raised to hairline level. The disdain reached a crescendo when Bauer shook off veteran catcher Miguel Montero calls (All-Star pitchers defer to catchers of Montero's expertise), which resulted in Bauer's and the D-backs' getting bombed. Bauer's stubborn, and his weird ways have paid off for him during a stellar minor league stint: Last summer in the minors, he struck out a mind-blowing 43 batters in 26 innings. At the bottom of it, Bauer insists on throwing what he considers his best pitches at all times, rather than pitching around troublesome hitters, the conventional MO for big league hurlers. Problems being: MLB hitters eventually figure out pitches, no matter how good they are, and blast them — which is why every pitch isn't aimed for the strike zone.

We knew Bauer would get his comeuppance when we saw his strange warm-up routine, which includes stepping behind the pitcher's mound and throwing the ball as hard as he can at the backstop, with the catcher often jumping out of the way to save himself. Bauer's the kind of kid that hitters want to show up and that teammates want to see fall in freakin' line! Question is, can the free-spirited 21-year-old do that and still have the stuff that brought him this far? Maybe a compromise can be reached when the D-backs give him another shot at the bigs, because he sure is fun to watch.

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