For an organization without the deepest farm system, the Diamondbacks have been in the spotlight of the prospect world lately, or at least in this small corner of it. I've discussed the effect that the Diamondbacks moves this winter would have on Archie Bradley over the past few weeks, both good and bad, but it appears Bradley is not the prospect with the best chance to make the major league club.
Steve Gilbert of MLB.com discusses the Diamondbacks' shortstop situation, one which includes incumbent Didi Gregorius and prospect Chris Owings. The story includes some interesting quotes from GM Kevin Towers about the potential battle this spring.
The primary takeaway from the article is that there will, in fact, be a battle.
Owings is coming off of an MVP performance in the Pacific Coast League at age 21 in which he hit .330/.359/.482. He's already a better offensive player than Gregorius will ever be, and proved himself at the highest level of the minors last season. He's probably not the same kind of defender as Gregorius, but he's good enough to play the position every day in the big legues. In most situations, he would all but be handed the job in spring training with some kind of quote saying that it was his to lose.
The Diamondbacks, however, have Gregorius, who is coming off of a rookie season in the majors in which he hit .252/.332/.373 as a 23-year-old. Combined with his defense and base running, it was good for a 1.4 win season (bWAR). That's not great, but it's not bad for a rookie shortstop season.
In the expansion era (since 1969), the following five shortstops have put together a rookie season between 1-2 WAR at age 23 or less:
|3||Mariano Duncan (RoY-3rd)||1.7||1985||22||LAD||620||562||74||137||24||6||6||39||38||4||113||3||13||4||9||38||8||.244||.293||.340||.633|
|6||Starlin Castro (RoY-5th)||1.4||2010||20||CHC||506||463||53||139||31||5||3||41||29||7||71||6||4||4||14||10||8||.300||.347||.408||.755|
|7||Everth Cabrera (RoY-8th)||1.4||2009||22||SDP||438||377||59||96||18||8||2||31||46||5||88||5||8||2||3||25||8||.255||.342||.361||.703|
It's not a great list (Robin Yount is the clear outlier here, both because he is a Hall of Famer and because he was 18, two facts that are very much related), but it does feature a number of players who went on to be successful regulars for a number of years, something which is well within the reach of Gregorius.
That, of course, doesn't mean the Diamondbacks should play him over Owings. What's most interesting, however, is that the Diamondbacks are ready to essentially give up on Gregorius already.
The most telling quote from the article is this:
"I think it would be hard," D-backs general manager Kevin Towers said of keeping both young players at the big league level. "I don't think it's good for their development. They're both everyday type players and they're ready to be everyday type players. I would just hate for one of those kids to be sitting on the bench and playing once or twice a week. They'd be better off being in Triple-A, getting at-bats and getting ready in case there's an injury."
Towers is right, in this case, that having either of these players on a major league bench doesn't do them much good. Owings absolutely can't sit on a major league bench; he needs to be playing everyday no matter where he is. Gregorious could actually be a valuable bench piece because of his defense and potential versatility, but it's early in his career to make that shift and the Diamondbacks don't seem to want to do that to him. Towers goes on to defend Gregorious in the article:
"To me, the favorite has to be Didi," Towers said. "He was our shortstop last year. For a rookie, I thought he played very, very well. Great defender. He got off to a real hot start. The league probably caught up with him a little bit at the end. He probably got a little bit tired.
Also completely accurate, especially the part about the league catching up with him. That's what happens to rookies. They start off well because there is no book on them, then the league figures out their strengths and weaknesses and pitches them differently. How they make that second adjustment determines their career path more so than anything else.
Which is why it seems weird that there is even a competition here at all.
Even though Owings is the better player, the Diamondbacks made quite a commitment to Gregorius when they received him as the centerpiece for former number three overall pick Trevor Bauer in a move that I hated at the time. Even knowing what we know over a year later about Bauer and Gregorius, I still hate it because of how quickly the Diamondbacks gave up on such a high draft pick. Gregorious was their only significant piece to show for the number three overall selection in 2011 and now they appear to be ready to pass him over as well. It really just makes me hate the Bauer move even more, and I'm surprised that they are willing to give up on Gregorious so soon, especially after a rookie season that showed some promise.
Which, of course, Towers and the Diamondbacks are not saying they are doing. Not even the Diamondbacks front office would come out and say they were giving up on a player. They would just trade him for cents on the dollar instead. In this case, however, they're sticking him in a spring training position battle.
Being pushed could be good for Gregorius. It could also show them how much better Owings is than his predecessor.
Some of this could just be spring training-speak by Towers, but the fact that he has said that it will be a battle this spring rather than staking Gregorious' claim to the position tells me that they're really considering going with Owings as soon as opening day. The Diamondbacks have been announcing all winter their intention to contend with the Dodgers this year and a move like this would certainly signal that they are ready to do just that. With an incumbent like Gregorius, however, it's also completely unnecessary.
The Diamondbacks still have a valuable asset in Gregorious - a young, team-controlled shortstop who has proved he can play at the major league level. There are about a dozen teams looking for one of those. The Diamondbacks just so happen to have two of them. If they go with Owings from the start and send Gregorius back to Triple-A, it could kill his trade value, something the Diamondbacks have had a penchant for doing recently. Putting him on the bench could do the same thing.
If they play him, however, and he maintains his play from last season, he could be attractive to a number of teams this summer. He could then be moved to make room for Owings who will most likely be tearing up the Pacific Coast League again.
The right move here seems to be to go with Gregorius in April, but to have him on a bit of a short leash. If he struggles to hit and Owings is tearing up the PCL, then the obvious move has to be made. But it's not like Gregorius was terrible last year. Giving up on him just because something better is coming along is a good way to devalue your own asset.