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New season, fresh set of questions for Lovullo, D-backs

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Last year at this time, D-backs manager Torey Lovullo was just starting on this journey. New in his job, the season was a fresh canvas in front of him. It was a time to develop relationships, implement ideas. To make sweeping brush strokes.

The season couldn’t have gone any better.

The D-backs surprised many by ascending from 93 losses in 2016 to 93 wins last season. They made the playoffs, defeated the Rockies in the National League Wild Card Game, and then were outclassed by the Dodgers in a sweep of the best-of-five NL Division Series.

Lovullo was named NL Manager of the Year for the effort.

Now he’s back trying to do it again. Make the leap. Win the pennant. Win the World Series. Another fresh, unblemished canvas.

“It was a great year, I don’t want to deny it was a great year,” Lovullo said. “But it was supposed to happen that way. This year, there’s more of a structure that I’m able to follow.”

This year, he’s doing it without J.D. Martinez, their best player in September, gone as a free agent to the Red Sox. Their closer, Fernando Rodney, took his 39 saves and crisis performances to the Twins, also as a free agent. Backup catcher and tough guy Chris Iannetta, signed back with the Rockies. Infielder Brandon Drury was traded to the Yankees.

No two seasons are the same. No two rosters are ever alike. But the expectations remain high. It’s yet to be determined whether these are the D-backs of 2016, 2017 or likely somewhere in between.

“We have tremendous expectations, Lovullo said. “We have expectations to go out and compete and win every single [game]. As it’s developing, we’re seeing a lot of good parts to that puzzle. We haven’t put it all together and that’s what spring training is all about. You see it and then all of a sudden it starts to come together.”

Sans injury, the D-backs have a deep starting rotation: Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, Patrick Corbin and Zach Godley. That group finished second last year in the NL behind the Dodgers with a 3.61 ERA. It will continue to be their strength.

Sans Rodney, the back-end of the bullpen is still wide open, although I’m going with Archie Bradley as the closer. Bradley made 63 appearances last season, mostly in an eighth-inning setup role, and had an electric 1.73 ERA, 79 strikeouts and 21 walks in 73 innings.

In the offseason, the D-backs signed Japanese reliever Yoshi Hirano as a free agent and added veteran Brad Boxberger in a Nov. 30 trade with the Rays. Hirano pitched for the second time this spring on Wednesday. His totals so far are two innings pitched, three earned runs on five hits with a pair of strikeouts. His ERA is 13.50, which is always a bit stilted by the light air and early chill of the Arizona desert. This is also a right-hander adjusting to a new team, a new league, a new lifestyle.

Boxberger asked for another side session before making his first spring appearance.

It’s no wonder Lovullo says no decisions have been made. Roles have not been set.

“We don’t have our minds made up in any way about who’s going to get the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth inning,” Lovullo said. “First of all, in a perfect world, the starting pitchers are going to get us through the seventh. We like the three guys we have. They have plenty of experience. We’re going to evaluate. We’re going to pay attention and we’re going to find out what those roles are as we wind through camp.”

Sans, Martinez and his 29 homers and 65 RBIs in 62 games, the D-backs will have a different outfield alignment. It won’t have nearly as much power. Wednesday’s group of David Peralta in left, A.J. Pollock in center and newcomer Steven Souza Jr. in right should be the starters when the season opens against the Rockies at Chase Field on March 29.

Shortstop will be a derby between Nick Ahmed, Chris Owings and Katel Marte all spring.

A lot of questions still be answered. A lot of room for improvement to be made.

“That’s our goal. That’s our goal, to improve,” Lovullo said. “We built the foundation and we’re standing firmly on it now. There’s still more to do. We’re evaluating some of the new pieces we brought in. Obviously, we’re not bringing back some of the pieces you mentioned earlier. We have to find a way to continue to learn about one another, figure out how the puzzle fits and keep moving on.”