The narrative history of Kevin Towers’ first three years as GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks is going to be fascinating, one way or another. Since the moment he arrived in the desert, he has put himself out there in ways few other front-office executives in the modern game would ever do. In an era of seemingly ever-converging front-office strategies and plentiful consensus on how to evaluate and project player performance, Towers is zagging against an industry-wide set of zigs.
He turned a last-place 2010 team into a first-place 2011 team, albeit with no small amount of help from forces far beyond his control—forces like the second breakout of Justin Upton; all the right breaks from a reconstructed bullpen; and 8.5 WARP (in 656 innings!) from three starting pitchers acquired prior to Towers’ arrival. Along the way, he raised a few eyebrows. He dealt Mark Reynolds for a relief pitcher during the offseason of 2010-11, a nod to his stated goal of making the team less strikeout-prone, but thereby handed both third base (Ryan Roberts) and first base (Juan Miranda) to untested players with spotty minor-league track records and zero prospect pizzazz. After shortstop Stephen Drew went down for the year in mid-July, Towers stood pat at the position and allowed Willie Bloomquist to take over—but then engaged in a challenge trade in August to acquire second baseman Aaron Hill. He also allowed manager Kirk Gibson to turn first base over to relatively low-level prospect Paul Goldschmidt in August, in the heat of the pennant race.
It all worked out for the best, of course, and the team soared into the playoffs when an 88-win Pythagorean projection (the number of games they might normally have won, given the number of runs they scored and allowed) turned into 94 actual wins. Towers set out after the season to solidify the group that won him so many games, locking up Bloomquist, Hill and John McDonald to two-year deals, and Joe Saunders for a single season. He also left third base unchanged, so Ryan Roberts got a chance to implode (and he did, in 2012) as a starter.
The starting rotation demanded more depth, so rather than rely on prospects and health, Towers traded his team’s top pitching prospect—a big-league ready one, at that, in Jarrod Parker—for Oakland sinker specialist Trevor Cahill. He also didn’t like Gerardo Parra as a starting outfielder (though many in the industry certainly did), so he signed the powerful but one-dimensional Jason Kubel. I openly derided the Cahill-Parker deal at the time, on the premise that Towers had paid an undue transaction cost for what looked like a larger difference in past performance than in future performance, and indeed, Parker pitched better than Cahill did in 2012, though the difference was small and Cahill did pitch 10 percent more in the big leagues due to Parker opening the season in Triple-A. Kubel was a peculiar addition, too, but a less intrusively short-sighted one.
Although they lost 13 wins and weren’t even in contention in 2012, the Diamondbacks were a fundamentally similar team. Based on runs scored and surrendered, they should have won 86 games. They scored three more runs, but allowed 26 more, through a blend of failing health (Daniel Hudson, one of those non-Towers stud starters, shredded his elbow early on; Chris Young played only 101 games; and Stephen Drew played just 40 before being traded in August) and failures to repeat unsustainable performance (I’m looking at you, Saunders, Roberts and Josh Collmenter). So this past winter, despite a team not fundamentally dissimilar or significantly less talented than the one that won the division, Towers undertook a fairly major roster renovation.
We should probably talk about how, and why, and with whose input, Towers did all of that.
A popular topic in stathead circles these days is the level of “buy-in” between various managers and their front offices. Joe Maddon buys in to what the Rays’ brain trust is doing, and it helps them maximize the talent on their roster. Ron Washington routinely ruins games for which the Rangers are prepared perfectly, because he does not understand how to deploy the roster Jon Daniels and company built for him.
The Diamondbacks are way past “buy-in.” They have moved on to something more intimate, more complete. It’s symbiosis, or maybe synergy. Manager Gibson has a vision for running his ballclub; he has certain preferences about style and attitude. Bizarrely, he seems to disdain playing the game with easy athleticism, even though that’s exactly the kind of player he once was.
Instead of asking Gibson to acclimate or acculturate to Towers’ vision for team-building, it seems that the Diamondbacks have simply chosen to accommodate their grizzled manager. It’s trickle-up decision-making, the polar opposite of the trend in baseball today. Whereas football and basketball coaches often share in personnel decisions, or make them themselves, managers have become firmly middle management over the last decade. Except, apparently, in Arizona.
It’s possible Towers simply hews that closely to Gibson in terms of personnel preferences. It’s doubtful, though, and I just can’t endorse the possibility that Towers would rather construct a roster suited to the tastes of a man who can’t possibly help the team win games consistently, rather than bring in a manager who will find a way to coexist with high-upside players. In baseball, you have to build around the talent on the field, and let the other pieces fall into place. This isn’t college football.
That’s competitively and objectively, though. Sometimes, we number-lovers can lose sight of the fact that there are other things that do, really and truly do matter, besides maximizing likely wins. It matters, for instance, how much a fan base feels it can attach itself to a team, whether because of security (they’re going to be here a while) or because of identity (they’re good guys, they get very involved, they show emotion, they fit the fan base’s collective mentality). It matters, too, whether it’s pleasant for people to come to work each day in your organization, and that’s a function of the players, the manager and the atmosphere they co-create. I’m all for talent over chemistry in terms of translating into wins, but wins are not the only goal of professional ball clubs or ball players. That’s something fans might struggle to accept, but it’s true.
One walks a finer and blurrier line when trying to build such a team, of course. How any given group of individuals, especially any group of wealthy young men, will enmesh is a tricky thing to predict, and an impossible thing to control. Chemistry is serendipity. It probably doesn’t pay to chase it too much. What the Diamondbacks have done, at least, runs a bit deeper. It’s about not only chemistry (or conformity, anyway; there has been little patience for any dynamic not directly in line with Gibson’s style and approach), but also stability, security and comfort. The Diamondbacks are as locked in for 2014 as they are for 2013. They’re banking on guys who know they will need to coexist for multiple years.
Towers dealt three key pieces of the Diamondbacks’ projected roster over the winter, all in separate moves, all in an effort to remake the team in its skipper’s image. All three trades brought back, among other things, a shortstop of marginal but measurable value. That’s the kind of team Towers is building.
They have two solid third basemen and a prospect nearly ready at the position. Cody Ross was a preemptive replacement for Upton. He traded Trevor Bauer, a starting pitcher, but two starters are now ready for big-league roles, and for good measure, Towers brought in two more—he signed Brandon McCarthy as a free agent and dealt for Randall Delgado in the Upton trade.
One could easily argue that Towers is running scared, patching holes in the dam instead of building one of a more uniform material and a coherent shape downstream. He added contact hitters heading into 2011 because the 2010 team struck out too much. He added Cahill because the 2011 team had to split 39 starts among the likes of Micah Owings, Barry Enright, Jason Marquis, Zach Duke and Armando Galarraga. He’s reacting, to be sure, to what just happened, and that can be disastrous in baseball. In this case, though, we have t0 at least allow thst he is going about the patching with enthusiasm, and not skimping on the mortar.
The modern bullpen is all about specialization. Teams better put their relief pitchers in position to succeed than they ever have before. It’s actually neat, what it implies about current GMs and managers: Pitchers today can define themselves by what they do well, rather than what they do poorly. As sports fans, we want that. We should want games to be decided by the superior strength of one combatant, not an ill-timed mistake or an overmatched role player being exposed.
For position players, though, the same opportunity—to do most often that which one does best, and to make a meaningful contribution to a team despite a limited skill set—is going the way of the fake-to-third-throw-to-first pickoff move. Because rosters are so much more bound up with pitchers today (five-man rotations, pitch counts and single-inning firemen the main reasons), and because specialists dot every pitching staff, batters and fielders have had to become generalists. Platoons are difficult to sustain. The pinch-runner is all but extinct. The pinch-hit specialist/backup first baseman drew its last rattling breath when Jason Giambi departed the Rockies.
In Arizona, though, Towers seems determined to find roles for a handful of guys who would be fringy anywhere else. Eric Hinske signing a big-league deal helps paint that picture. Trading for Tony Campana, already DFA for calling the wrong segment of baseball history home, frames it.
Willie Bloomquist is on Team USA for the World Baseball Classic, in huge part because of his versatility. For just that reason, he would make almost any team in baseball, as a guy who softens the roster crunch. I still have him on my projected roster below, but if any team needs to trade the skills of a John McDonald (now in Pittsburgh, as Towers chose Bloomquist) or a Tony Campana for the flexibility and tepid production Bloomquist offers less than Towers’ troupe, I can’t find them. The depth of this roster, its well-roundedness, but especially the volume of available help if someone gets hurt or craters, allows Gibson to manage to the strengths of his team. Towers has invested all sorts of tactical responsibility in Gibson in the way he has built this team, another manifestation of the symbiosis to which I refer above.
There’s another way in which this roster’s grain runs perpedicular to that of the rest of the league. See, for virtually every other team in the league, power is at a premium these days, and strikeouts are the cost of doing the business of trying to score runs. For Towers and Gibson, that model must have been undesireable, because they’re bucking that trend.
Although only Cody Ross and Jason Kubel strike out especially often relative to the league average, this lineup isn’t magically immune to the trend of decreasing contact league-wide. They’ll get a few extra runs out of being a good contact-oriented offense in a good BABIP park. But they’ll also ground into a few more double plays than the average team, and without the 40-homer upside Justin Upton added, some of the short-sequence dynamism they might have had is gone. There’s not a ton of power here, and power is the preferred path to scoring in a time when the league’s OBP is .318 and one in five plate appearances (22.1 percent after the sixth inning) end with the bat still in the hands of the batter.
I do think you’ll find yourself rooting for the Diamondbacks’ offense. Aesthetically, it’s more fun to watch talented hitters who put the ball in play. There’s more drama. There’s more variety. There’s more of that feeling of energy being concentrated, then dispersed, then refocused somewhere new. It’s a race, but a nonlinear one; that’s exciting. When Arizona scores, it will be disproportionately due to timely hitting, and it will come disproportionately often on doubles, not homers. As is true of building a roster based on intangibles or chemistry, this is a suboptimal strategy, but it’s a noble inefficiency.
I think I’ve now spoken enough about the virtues of various soft factors when it comes to team-building. It’s more pleasant to watch a team that makes a lot of contact, doesn’t walk very many opponents, gets the uniforms dirty and smiles a lot. It’s more fun when the team is clearly a close-knit group, and more fun when they have special handshakes with one another and throw shaving cream in one another’s faces. That’s all well and good.
You know what makes it the most fun to be a fan of a given team, though? Winning. Winning does that. Winning is the absolute best way to make your team fun to watch, and to make the fans like your team.
Right now, this roster just is not good enough to win the NL West. The group is talented and balanced, but the Giants have a similar lineup and better run-prevention corps, and the Dodgers are stronger where they’re strong than the Diamondbacks are. This is an 82-86-win team, considering all risk and reward possibilities—fundamentally, that is, pretty much as good as they have been each of the last two years—and to get higher than that (i.e., to reach the playoffs, since the NL West is much stronger now than it was when they won it with this base talent level) they will need either a breakout performer or a big addition.
Trevor Cahill, Tyler Skaggs and Paul Goldschmidt have some chance of being the former, but honestly, I’m not betting on any of them. Justin Upton and Trevor Bauer had the best such potential, and Towers dealt them both away. The 13-game difference in results the past two seasons came entirely from variance: With high-ceiling young players, the 2011 team got a bit lucky and rose to the top of the standings on the shoulders of sudden stars, while the 2012 team felt some natural growing pains when guys still just as talented (Ian Kennedy and Upton, mostly) saw their numbers turn downward for a year.
In some ways, with pitchers who will not miss a ton of bats and batters who will put the ball in play, this 2013 team promises even greater potential variance. Batted balls are far less predictable in their outcomes than strikeouts and walks, of which both Upton and Bauer provided plenty. That’s the kind of variance that tends to come out in the wash, the breaks that really do even out (injuries and player risk profiles aren’t that way).
On the other hand, though, Towers targeted players at flatter points of the age curve (which is steepest prior to 25 and after 32 or so) and with less prodigious potential (a few extra home runs, as Justin Upton will almost surely hit in 2013, are obviously far more valuable than a few extra outs on ground balls, as Towers has strived to earn by shoring up the left side of the infield defense) than the ones with whom he parted, leaving less in the way of raw upside, and less in the way of opportunity to capture that upside—because it’s a lot easier to spot and fully avail oneself of a breakout individual performance than it is to get full advantage from improved depth and more fluidity in lineup construction. It seems like Towers chose sheer chaos, the equivalent of day trading, over a systematic portfolio of risk and reward that emphasized the chances of wild returns.
Thanks to having so much depth, of course, the Diamondbacks can feel fairly free to try and pry a star more suited to Gibson’s tastes than was Upton from some team who falls out of contention by midsummer. Maybe the Rockies would let go of Carlos Gonzalez at the right price. Maybe the Rays will falter early and accept the bizarre industry consensus that they need to trade David Price, for some reason. Maybe the White Sox would give up Paul Konerko if Goldschmidt regresses. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
It’s much easier, though, to trade for depth in-season, to add the Cliff Pennington/Tony Sipp/Cody Ross types that Towers gathered this winter instead, than it is to coax away a star of that caliber. Besides, they had that guy, in Upton, and traded him. To do another deal to get a facsimile Upton at this point would have them once again paying transaction costs to add something they already had, like they did with Cahill in the Parker trade. I think Towers and Gibson have embarked on the building of a new Kenny Williams-Ozzie Guillen-style White Sox non-dynasty, whereby the team never collapses, but gradually overharvests a stout farm system and eventually settles into an unhappy medium of winning 79-84 games almost annually.
Below are my thoughts, at times rambling, on the key cogs in what looks like a solid but unspectacular season to come.
1. Adam Eaton – CF – Classic leadoff man, limited home-run power but can shoot the gaps. Career .355 hitter in nearly 1,500 minor-league plate appearances, with 166 walks and 196 strikeouts. Good speed. Good center fielder. He’s a quiet Rookie of the Year candidate.
Of course, if it were all that simple, there would be nothing quiet about his candidacy. Guys who hit .355 in that much professional time usually don’t have as much to prove as Eaton. He was a 19th-round pick as a senior out of college. He’s 24 years old. If he turns into the next Wade Boggs, that will just be part of his legend, but for now, it stands as a bit of a red flag: Why did a pure hitter this good fly so far under the radar?
(One reason: He stands five-foot-eight. That obviously caps his power potential a fair bit, and very often, scouts seeing a guy that small also downgrade his hit tool. Pitchers just aren’t going to nibble with that guy. Walks will be tough to get. Generating the bat speed to match a good big-league fastball will be tough because of the physical profile. Again, there are exceptions, but they’re few and far between.)
Note: Listening to the Baseball America podcast episode in which J.J. Cooper and Matt Eddy discussed NL West prospects, I was struck by Eddy’s first comment when Eaton came up: “He’s got 2 power,” he said. (That’s the lowest scouting grade allowed.)
It’s possible that Eaton really does lack power completely, but the statistics don’t really bear Eddy out. In 716 plate appearances between Double and Triple-A and the Majors last year, Eaton socked 50 doubles, seven triples and nine homers. Now, park and league factors have been on Eaton’s side all the way up the chain, but he doesn’t seem like Tony Campana out there. He seems like Otis Nixon.
Eaton got hurt during Spring Training, a stinging loss given the way he was hitting and the role her was expected to play, but this is the virtue of the depth of this team. Gerardo Parra, Tony Campana and A.J. Pollock just move up the depth chart a rung for a month or so. That said, it should be noted that when the team chose long-sequence, OBP-centered offense over the home runs they had in-house, they made themselves more vulnerable to this kind of injury. Any offense based on chaining together two or three hits to score feels the loss of a table-setter harder than one where every lineup spot is 20 potential home runs.
2. Martin Prado- 3B – My favorite kind of ball player, a multi-positional talent whose glove helps nearly everywhere, a guy who walks a fair amount and doesn’t strike out, a guy with average power who still hits .300. I disliked the Justin Upton trade for Arizona, but Prado is not why.
I want to especially take issue with the notion that Justin Upton has abundantly more talent than Martin Prado. In some bizarre way, for all the honest efforts of sabermetrics to tap into all the elements and dimensions of value that a player can add to their team, power has nonetheless become (or remained) a fetish for even those with analytical bents. Specifically, I should say, young power-hitting outfielders have found themselves at the center of an enormous stat-lover worship circle. Upton has otherworldly talent, because Upton has big tools—a strong arm, good speed, and especially, power. This is exactly the sort of logic that statheads 10 years ago would have wisely rebuffed.
Upton does have wild amounts of talent, of course, but it’s not evident solely, or even mostly, in the fact that he can hit the ball a long, long way. No, Upton’s talent and athleticism are most on display in the same way that Prado’s is: He has great hand-eye coordination, and great body control.
When you were growing up, you probably had that friend to whom very movement through the world seemed easier than it was for you. They may have been physically built in any number of different ways, and they may have been a poor athlete, or they may have been fat, but they had that “uniquely American resourcefulness of motion” that Nick Carraway revered in Jay Gatsby. They might not have run fast, but they could stop on a dime, or turn without effort, wasted motion or an obvious cut. They were a great driver the moment they sat down behind the wheel. Every now and then, they would drop something, but miraculously, catch it with the same hand before it hit the ground, and undisturbed from its original position.
That friend would be Martin Prado, if they were also exceptionally quick and light on their feet. Talent comes in may forms in baseball, but making consistent contact and still hitting for a high BABIP strikes me as maybe the most remarkable manifestation of talent that ever occurs on the diamond, and Prado does it.
I saw a tweet from Matthew Leach that seemed to mock the notion that a player with Prado’s (admittedly limited) resume and of his (admittedly advancing) age was really worth the contract extension to which the Diamondbacks signed him. It’s worth $40 million over the next four seasons.
Leach is entitled to his opinion, but I disagree. Just look at the free-agent market this winter. Angel Pagan, despite being older than Prado and having fewer productive full seasons to his credit, got four years and $40 million. Shane Victorino, who has been somewhat better at his peak but is older and had a poorer 2012, got three years and $39 million. Nick Swisher is maybe the closest comp to what Prado had a chance to be on next year’s market, a 30-year-old with a lot of three-to-four-win seasons but not a true star, and Swisher got a four-year, $56-million deal. This is the new baseball economy. Prado is not overpaid.
3. Paul Goldschmidt- 1B – For a right-hitting first baseman, he’s shockingly athletic. Goldschmidt stole 18 bases in 21 tries last year, and was a plus defender. He clubbed 43 doubles. All good.
The bad: He’s vulnerable against right-handed pitching, and the league rarely has a shortage of right-handed pitching. He only hit 20 home runs in 2012, which reflects not very much power from a player who calls Chase Field home. He’s had just a shade over a season’s worth of playing time in the big leagues, so it’s too early to tell about his .337 career BABIP, but let’s say this much for now: That had better be real, or Goldschmidt falls a bit short of the offensive standard at first base.
On the eve of Opening Day, Arizona locked up Goldschmidt on a five-year deal with a club option for a sixth, beginning in 2014, worth no less than $32.5 million, potentially as much as $47 million, if the option is picked up. Contract extensions are exceptionally tough to evaluate these days, and I doubt this really constrains them much, but for me, you can keep that deal. A first baseman who can only kind of hit right-handed pitching is not worth a six-year commitment. It’s part of a larger problem for Arizona: They’re actively locking up a positional core that just does not have me excited, and on which I would rather see them attempt to improve than to wager their future.
4. Jason Kubel- LF – Kubel has never played first base in the big leagues, but if I were Kirk Gibson, I’d have him work hard there this spring and consider sliding him to first and benching Goldschmidt against right-handed pitching. Kubel bats left-handed, which is nice, and he socked 30 homers last year, which will play. He’s a miserable defensive outfielder, though, and strikes out over a quarter of the time.
At least he works deep counts, though. Kubel draws a fair number of walks, in addition to the power, so even when he hits just .250, he wears it well. He’s a profile DH, if Gibson refuses to use him at first, but when Arizona does need a DH, I would think Eric Chavez will get the first look at the job. The exception should be when the Diamondbacks visit Tampa Bay, and the outfield defense has to be at its best. For those games, I would think you DH Kubel, and align the outfield Parra-Eaton-Ross.
5. Cody Ross- RF – Ross has been basically the same player since 2008 or so, but his numbers have swung wildly because of park effects. He played in Miami (with a friendly left-field corner for his pull power tendencies) for half that time, averaging a home run in 3.6 percent of his plate appearances and slugging .456. He then played a year and a half in San Francisco—where he hit just 17 homers in 543 total plate appearances and his slugging slumped to .414.
Boston was a salve for him, an exaggerated version of Miami, and he slugged .481 there with 22 homers in 528 plate appearances. Now he comes to Arizona, which is as all-around hitter-friendly as any in which Ross has played. Park factors influence statistics, not true value, but in Ross’s case, whether a handful of those flies leave the park seems to make a big difference in what kind of hitter he can be. At Chase Field, they should go. He fits fairly well.
With Eaton injured, Ross might see some time in center field in the early going. I mean, one hopes Gibson has better sense than that, but maybe not. What you need to know about Cody Ross as a defensive center fielder is that Cody Ross, defensively, is not a center fielder. Kubel should have to go down, too, forcing Parra to left, before Ross should slide over, and even then, I might rather have Prado play left and Chavez start at third, or Tony Campana simply take over center.
That he so fails the test of defensive competence up the middle hurts his value, but Ross is an underrated player, honestly. He’s going to be brutal in the last year of this three-year deal, but here in Year One, he’s not that bad. His platoon vulnerability is overstated:
Cody Ross, Platoon Splits, Career and 2012
|v. RHP, Career||2302||6.7||23.5||.310||.162|
|v. LHP, Career||909||9.1||17.5||.289||.291|
|v. RHP, 2012||378||6.9||27.5||.332||.166|
|v. LHP, 2012||150||10.7||16.7||.281||.341|
Now, the 2012 numbers against righties obviously raise a bit of a red flag. That strikeout rate is a bad omen, and by not showing you his standard stats, I avoided demonstrating that the BABIP bump propped up what could have been a very ugly line. In general, though, I find that people talk a lot about Ross’s deficiencies against righties, and not enough about his sparkling skills against southpaws. Again, the profile doesn’t suggest that he will age well, but he should be solid in 2013. If Matt Davidson muscles his way to the parent club at third base, Martin Prado could take over left field, and the resulting Kubel-Ross platoon in right field could post a .950 OPS.
Ross, like Eaton, starts the season on the DL. The configuration of both the lineup and the defense in his absence will be interesting. It opens a door for A.J. Pollock, which is nice. Again, the Diamondbacks can weather this. Still, Ross’s loss puts a lot of pressure on Kubel, Goldschmidt and Montero to hit for power.
6. Miguel Montero- C – I’ve loved Montero for years, but found a new reason to do so this fall. That’s when I realized that he had essentially the same overall season—139 hits and 65 runs (both identical to his 2011 totals); a 120 OPS+ (121 in 2011); 3.7 WAR (3.8 in 2011)—despite completely changing as a hitter from one season to the next. He walked 36 more times and struck out 33 more times in 2012 than in 2011, despite coming to bat just 20 more times.
He traded some power for that strike-zone control, with 42 extra-base hits, down from 55 in 2011. For the extra 40 points of OBP, though, it was well worth it.
Montero presents just one major warning sign for me: Fatigue and injury risk are there. Montero caught more games behind the plate in 2012 than any other NL catcher, and third-most in 2011. He reminds me a bit, entering 2013, of Alex Avila entering 2012. Ridden hard the previous year, he presents some risk, however small, of either missing time, or playing a bit below their true ability.
It was interesting to hear Montero become so vocal in his criticism of Trevor Bauer after Bauer went to Cleveland. A big part of their beef seemed to be the fact that Bauer simply wanted a backstop, whereas Montero envisions himself as an equal partner to his pitcher in plotting ways to get hitters out. He’s as much a leader as the team has, the one who blends veteran status and seniority with the team better than anyone else in the clubhouse. I haven’t yet decided how much I buy into catcher framing or other data about the value of a good defender there, but it’s clear that the Diamondbacks really invest in the team concept of pitching. That helps explain why Bauer didn’t fit in.
I will say this: I don’t like any approach that makes a pitching staff somewhat dependent upon a catcher, because that guy then has to catch every day, as Montero just did, or else one game in every four or five feels disjointed and might turn into a 6-run outburst for the opponent. If a team is going to let the catcher work as closely with the pitchers as Montero likes to work, the personal catcher feels like the way to go. Maybe Randall Delgado (or whoever wins the fifth starter’s job) could work exclusively with the backup, and Montero could get some rest while still helping the pitchers with whom he does work.
7. Aaron Hill- 2B – I’m not sure most people know just how good Aaron Hill was in 2012. He’s had one of those careers that lends itself to obscurity. His name is plain. He’s been oft-injured, mostly and especially a year and a half of concussion-related problems. He hit 36 homers in 2009, and had a chance to emerge as a star—then hit .205 with a .271 OBP in 2010. He played like Darwin Barney in 2011.
Midway through that season, Toronto traded him to Arizona. Everything changed. Since then, Hill has 92 extra-base hits in 810 plate appearances. He’s hitting .304/.364/.517, with only 105 strikeouts and 64 walks. He finally caught some people’s eyes when he hit for the cycle twice in 2012, but remains an underappreciated asset. You want that guy on your infield. That he figures to bat seventh in this lineup underscores Arizona’s depth. He has an unusual but valuable form of plate discipline, with slightly below-average walk rates and substantially above-average strikeout rates (meaning fewer whiffs than an average hitter), yet plus power upside. He’s also a good defensive second baseman. Because his OBP skills are sound despite the relatively few walks, he could easily move to the top of the order until Eaton returns, if that’s the direction Gibson wants to go.
Towers gave Hill a three-year contract extension through 2016 last week, one that will pay him $35 million. It’s hard to evaluate that deal, because (and this is a compliment) it pays for skills and scouting insights, not performance. Hill has had just two seasons that support a contract of that size and shape in an eight-year career, but injuries marred his performance for at least a year or two in there. When healthy, Hill is a very good overall player—if one assumes he was never fully healthy during 2010 or into 2011 because of the concussion problems that began in 2008 and nagging thigh injuries throughout the two years.
There’s reason enough to assume the opposite, though, and that does pose something of a red flag. Yes, Hill occasionally complained of some general issues related to his 2008 concussion throughout the following three seasons, and he did have thigh problems in 2010, but I don’t think those were the major problems. I think the problem was that Aaron Hill smelled blood after hitting 36 home runs in 2009, and started swinging up at the ball in a desperate effort to keep up that pace.
Hill set career highs in fly-ball rate and swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone in 2010, and career lows in ground-ball rate, line-drive rate and BABIP. Pitchers and managers radically changed their approach to Hill, and he did not respond well to those adjustments.
Gifted contact hitters need to cultivate that gift carefully, because making consistently weak contact is not preferable to swinging and missing. Hill is a naturally neutral hitter from a batted-ball perspective, and does best when he lets his power come organically. In 2012, he swung and missed less often than he had since 2006, and walked more than he had since his rookie campaign in 2005. He can best sustain that success by resisting the temptation to start yanking and tilting up at the ball.
The closest recent comp to Hill might be Martin Prado, who will make just a shade less than Hill over the next four years, and is probably slightly better—but Prado also signed with Arizona, so that’s not of much use to us in evaluating the Hill deal. Dan Uggla got more, and is a God-awful defensive second baseman, but then again, Uggla had a much longer track record of offensive performance prior to signing than did Hill. The Braves paid, as most MLB teams do, for what Uggla had done. Arizona paid for what they believe Hill will do. It’s a gutty approach, and high-risk, but I can’t argue too ardently with the philosophy.
8. Cliff Pennington- SS – Pennington was actually worth 4.1 WAR in 2010, according to Baseball-Reference. He’s a nice little player, a plus defensive shortstop who can run a little. He’s never hit a ton, but thanks to a .310 career BABIP through 2011, he was close to league average his first two full seasons.
He collapsed in 2012, losing his job for a stretch and hitting an awful .215/.278/.311. The culprit? Some 80 percent of it was a BABIP issue, as he slumped to .259 in that category. He also lost some power, and with guys whose offensive skills were always marginal, you wonder if those skills are coming back at age 29.
Still, there’s some obvious upside here. Get Pennington out of Oakland, let him hit a bit if he can. and he could well be on the bench by mid-season anyway. I didn’t hate acquiring him back in October, though it was a bizarre trade. It was hard to see why Arizona did it at the time. Although they got Pennington and Heath Bell out of it, it seems to me, in retrospect, that that trade (like Kevin Towers’ two other big ones of the winter) was more about who left (outfielder Chris Young) than about who came back. Those trades rarely end well, or at least without regret.
By the way, Pennington signed a two-year deal this spring, too, avoiding arbitration for 2013 and locking him in for 2014. It’s a peculiar move for Towers, who just traded for Didi Gregorius and presumably envisions him as the Diamondbacks’ shortstop of the future, but it makes much more sense than the two-year deals he gave to two similar (but older) players just last winter.
1. Gerardo Parra- OF – When learned baseball people decried Arizona’s signing of Kubel last winter, I could see their point. Parra had just put up a very fine season offensively, and he’s in a class with Brett Gardner and whomever Oakland eventually stashes in left, guys who could play center field but get pushed off the job and just dominate defensively in that corner.
A year later, though, I have a hard time finding the same passion in defending Parra. There are those (including some people I respect deeply, like Joe Sheehan and Keith Law) who support a trade of Kubel even now that Justin Upton is gone, allowing Parra to play every day, or close to it. I can’t defend that position this time around, and I’m not excited by the proposition of seeing him take on full-time center field duty with Eaton down.
In 2012, Parra showed his true colors a bit. It’s clear the Diamondbacks view him as a fourth outfielder, and he played like one last year. He’s still third among left fielders over the last three years in Plus/Minus, according to The Bill James Handbook 2013, but the offensive value he seemed capable of providing evaporated when he got a long look at a full-time role.
Moved out of the eighth spot in an NL batting order, Parra drew just four intentional walks in 2012, down from 16 in 2011. The 12 walks teams decided not to simply award him made up 86 percent of the 14 walks that disappeared from his totals in 2012. Robbed of that cushion, his OBP suddenly looked much thinner.
Of course, intentional walks are something a manager does. Pitchers ought not be punished for them, nor batters credited, in stats. In Parra’s case, though, one could at least argue that his speed made those walks more problematic for opponents in 2011. He stole 15 bases that year, and opposing catchers nabbed him just once. He doesn’t have elite speed, but when teams put him on base, he could make them pay for that.
It wasn’t so in 2012. Parra stole 15 bases again, but in 24 tries, not 16. He was on base less often, but ran more, and was thrown out too much to help anyone. There’s a lot of randomness in year-to-year stolen base success rate, and I think too much is made of it at times. Still, the fact is that that had been a disproportionately large part of Parra’s value equation in the past, and it suddenly got much worse for him. He also lost some power, and Parra doesn’t really have power to lose.
He doesn’t hit left-handed pitching. He doesn’t project very well at the plate. He doesn’t profile well in center field, and even if he did, Eaton would profile better, when healthy. Parra’s a fine fourth outfielder, but I don’t think he’s a good candidate to be a regular again, and I support Arizona’s decision to keep him in a limited role when possible in 2013. Of course, if their primary outfielders can’t stay healthy, he might end up with 700 plate appearances, anyway.
2. Eric Chavez- 3B – In 2012, Chavez faced right-handed pitchers in 88 percent of his plate appearances. That’s a phenomenal platoon ratio, even for a left-handed hitter. The Yankees protected him well.
Still, in 313 plate appearances, he hit 16 home runs (nine of them on the road, so it wasn’t a Yankee Stadium lefty thing) and struck out only 59 times. He hit .281/.348/.496. For the first time since 2006, he was healthy, and although the fragility that created that chasm between productive years ensured he will never be signed as a starter again, he seems to be an average or better player in the role he will have in Arizona. I’m stunned he got so little as a free agent, and given Arizona’s depth at his position, Chavez might be the rare veteran trade chip on a contending team.
I don’t mean to suggest everyone on the team as platoon partners for Goldschmidt, but Chavez did start six games for New York at first last year, and he does to right-handed pitching what Goldschmidt does to southpaws. Both corners are open to him, in other words.
3. Eric Hinske- LF/1B – This is where Arizona’s roster construction grates with me. Depth and redundancy run on either side of a thin line, and by adding Hinske, Towers crossed it. (Actually, he crossed it earlier, but more on that later.)
Hinske isn’t a better fielder than Kubel. His offensive skills were never the equal of Kubel’s, and have eroded considerably. Hinske isn’t even on par with Chavez as a pinch-hit specialist. He’s signed for $1.075 million on a big-league deal, though, so it’d be odd at this point if he didn’t make the team.
One quick thing about Hinske, which might sound snide or snarky but is meant only as a fascinated observation: It looks for all the world as though Hinske is going to play a 12th season in MLB this year. He needs to hang on just a bit longer in order to reach 1,000 career hits. All this despite the fact that his only average season as a regular player was his rookie year, 2002. Most guys who hang around that long without having a few good seasons playing every day are backup catchers or glove-first middle infielders, but Hinske keeps going past age 35 despite his limited skill set. It’s certainly possible that the signing reflected whatever intangible contribution has kept him around for so long, perhaps a chemistry or leadership element. I wouldn’t defend a $6-million investment on those grounds, but if that’s why Towers wanted Hinske, it might be worth the roster spot and the relative pittance they will pay.
4. Willie Bloomquist- UTIL – This will be the second year of the two-year, $3.8-million deal Bloomquist signed before 2012, and the obligation there is the only reason I foresee him coming back. He’s a poor defensive shortstop, but shortstop is the only position left at which Arizona really needs the depth.
Lower-back problems (red flag!) kept Bloomquist out of all but three games after the trade deadline last year. He hit .302 in the 338 plate appearances he did get, but it was as empty a .302 as the game has seen in years: 12 walks, zero homers, .096 isolated power. He’s 35 years old. If you ask me, Towers traded the wrong utility infielder when he sent John McDonald packing, because if nothing else, McDonald can defend well at all three throwing infield positions. Bloomquist is useless on the dirt. Lo and behold, not a week after the deal, Bloomquist strained an oblique, and he begins this season on the crowded Diamondback DL.
5. Wil Nieves- C – I’ll save your intelligence the insult of pretending to know what Wil Nieves will do in 2013. It’s Jazayerli’s Law of Backup Catchers: anyone can hit anything in 160 randomly distributed, yet carefully selected, at bats.
He’s a good receiver, though, and Arizona probably won’t care if he hits .100. Nieves is a defensive addition, and given how hard Gibson rode Montero last year, it’s important that Towers have a defensively sound replacement on hand at the opening of the season.
1. Ian Kennedy – After getting serious Cy Young consideration in 2011, Kennedy saw his ERA rise by 40 percent or so in 2012. He did miss a few fewer bats, but the bulk of that apparent backslide was really just course correction, or bad luck, however you read the tea leaves. His BABIP was well below league norms in 2011; it was higher than average in 2012. He avoided home runs really, really well in 2011, especially for a pitcher who called Chase Field home. In 2012, he was still no worse than average in that regard, but in facing virtually the same number of batters, he did allow nine more homers, six more doubles and five more triples. (Was some of the difference due to Kubel playing left field? I leave it to the reader to decide. But yes.)
He has a great command ratio. He has pretty good stuff. It became clear in 2012 that batters will occasionally square up Kennedy and drive the ball against him, but he limits walks really well and that helps minimize the damage when they do so. More than anything, Kennedy suffered from a Diamondbacks defense that fell from fourth in the NL in Defensive Efficiency in 2011 to 12th last year. With miles better defenders at shortstop and third base entering 2013, Kennedy should move back toward the dominant numbers he had in 2011, though probably not all the way back.
2. Trevor Cahill – Moving to the National League gave a nice bump to Cahill’s strikeout rate last season. He reached a career high by whiffing 18.6 percent of all opponents. That figure is still slightly off the average for starting pitchers today, but it’s awfully good for a guy who pounds the bottom of the strike zone and induces ground balls as consistently as Cahill does. He’s the best ground-ball pitcher in baseball, and while sabermetrically that can sometimes be damnation with faint praise, in Cahill’s case, there’s Tim Hudson-level upside there.
If you think Prado and Pennington replacing Ryan Roberts and Bloomquist on the left side of the infield will help Kennedy, imagine how much they will help Cahill. Despite facing 60 fewer batters in 2012, Cahill induced 120 more ground balls than Kennedy did. He had a higher ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio than any other starting pitcher in baseball last year, according to Baseball-Reference.
Hey, speaking of the 839 batters Cahill faced in 2012, let’s talk about his workload, and young arms. Cahill turns 25 on March 1. He’s been a full-time Major-League pitcher for four years already, and has averaged 824 batters faced per season. That’s the 27th-highest figure in baseball, and among pitchers who threw at least three of those seasons at or under age 25, only Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw faced more. The A’s showed a lot of faith in the durability of Cahill’s stuff and his arm by pitching him that much that young, and Arizona showed even more by trading for him and working him as hard as ever.
Sinker-ball pitchers, ground-ball guys, are a peculiar breed. Unlike sidearmers, lefty specialists and knuckleballers, guys like Cahill, Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb don’t get sorted into their own category with much frequency. They’re not treated as being as different from other hurlers as maybe they ought to be.
Ground-ball guys don’t miss all that many bats. The reasons are many, and different for all, but not fundamentally difficult to understand. A sinker travels on the closest thing to the average plane of a batter’s swing as any pitch in baseball. The pitches that generate the most swings and misses tend to be sliders and very good fastballs. Two-plane break, changing the batter’s eye level. Ground balls are not damaging contact. Pitchers who emphasize them don’t try especially hard to avoid contact, for just that reason.
Because they don’t try to strike batters out, ground-ball guys ate generally very efficient in terms of total pitch count. Tim Hudson, A.J. Burnett, Scott Diamond and Jake Westbrook are great examples, elite in terms of both ground-ball rate and per-plate appearance pitch efficiency.
Because this is true, though, those pitchers sometimes get ridden too hard. If I had to compare Cahill to one pitcher of the last decade, I might choose Carlos Zambrano. Like Cahill, Zambrano got his first starting gig at age 21. Like Cahill, Zambrano could reach the mid-90s with his heat, but like Cahill, he pitched better when he didn’t. Like Cahill, Zambrano threw many pitches but relied heavily on his sinker itself. Like Cahill, Zambrano aimed for the bottom of the strike zone at all times, and was unafraid to walk a batter when unable to hit that artificially small target.
Zambrano had his best season at 24, was less than a full-time starter before age 30, and may not pitch at all beyond his 32nd birthday. Cahill, though, has a crucial advantage, something that sets him apart from Zambrano:
Trevor Cahill, Ages 22-24 (2,623 batters faced)
|Pitches Per PA||Pitches Per GS||GS, Pitches > 100|
Carlos Zambrano, Ages 22-24 (2,703 batters faced)
|Pitches Per PA||Pitches Per GS||GS, Pitches > 100|
The difference in their absolute workloads is small, but Zambrano was arguably the last really, truly abused young starting pitcher baseball ever saw. Cahill has been handled much more carefully, and on top of that, is more pitch-efficient, so his arm has much less mileage on it than did Zambrano’s at the same stage.
Don’t worry too much about Cahill’s big innings totals prior to 25, is what I’m saying. In this day and age, teams monitor guys carefully, manage their workloads meticulously and design plans specifically to suit every arm. Cahill is big, has visited the DL just once, at the very start of 2010, and has not missed starts or had starts pushed back since. He walks a lot of batters, as sinker-oriented guys are wont to do, and he doesn’t miss a ton of bats, but he should be a steady presence capable of adding two or three wins to the ledger with his work over the course of the season.
3. Brandon McCarthy – McCarthy has leaned slightly toward fly balls during his career. He pounds the strike zone, missing out on some strikeouts by going after hitters so directly. Neither of those things bode particularly well for him as he makes the tenuous transition from Oakland to Arizona, environmentally.
A couple things bode better, though. For one, over the past few years, McCarthy has transitioned from a classic four-seam fastball and curveball-changeup mix to use of a cutter, a sinker and the curve, with other things tossed in just to keep batters honest. These are pitches that generally limit the damage done on flies fairly well. In 2012, he threw the cutter about 30 percent more often than he threw the sinker, but the pitches are about equally effective, and McCarthy could easily make the adjustment and use the sinker more in a more homer-friendly new home.
The other thing that augurs well for him is somewhat related: McCarthy is a smart guy, famously so, and should be adaptable enough to succeed even in a tougher pitching environment. He’s still going to throw strikes, but maybe he’ll be a bit more willing to work the edges of the plate in order to avoid giving up some hard-hit balls that, while they may have been outs in Oakland, might go out at Chase Field. He’ll probably use his change and sinker slightly more, his cutter and curve slightly less. He’ll find ways to get batters out, so long as he stays healthy.
That last qualifier, of course, is no throwaway with McCarthy. He has pitched 100 or more innings in the big leagues only three times in eight seasons, and qualified for the ERA title just once. So pervasive and disruptive were his injury problems (shoulder, mostly) that he got somewhat stuck in the transition from prospect to big-leaguer, and didn’t fully establish himself until 2011. Given that his injury history is primarily shoulder-related, it’s encouraging that he has maintained average – even slightly better than average – velocity on that sinker-cutter combo. (Shoulder injuries usually dampen velocity, but McCarthy averaged close to 92 miles per hour with his sinker.) On the other hand, though, shoulder injuries tend to be more chronic, and can eventually derail a career more thoroughly, than injuries to any other part of a pitcher’s body.
Arizona quietly has as much starting pitching depth as any team in baseball, so they were uniquely well-positioned to invest in McCarthy, despite the risk he presents. To draw a fairly organic comparison, Joe Blanton balances health (more) and skills (less) about as well as McCarthy does, and got $15 million over two years from that Angels, a shade less than McCarthy got. A lot of people underrate Blanton, and in sabermetric circles, a fair few overrate McCarthy. They’re similar in overall value. On balance, though, you had to like the McCarthy deal better, because the Angels have much less reinforcement in the (less likely, admittedly) event of a Blanton injury than that Diamondbacks have in case McCarthy goes down.
4. Wade Miley – Miley doesn’t have big strikeout, swing-and-miss stuff. Batters missed on just over eight percent of all swings last year, a below-average figure. He’s aggressive within the strike zone, though, which absolutely stifled hitters’ chances for walks. He issued just 37 bases on balls in 2012, facing over 800 batters. Bryce Harper was the right choice for NL Rookie of the Year, but Miley’s season meets or exceeds the historical standard of the award.
A left-hander, Miley pounds lefties with his average (a little better, maybe) four-seam heat, and because he’s deceptive with it, it’s fairly effective. He also mixes in a two-seamer or sinker, but tends to use it more against righties. He’s got a changeup left-handers never see, and a slider he throws when he gets ahead no matter who’s up. It’s actually a really good pitch, which is weird, because Miley isn’t the kind of guy, and it’s not the kind of out-of-his-hand, before-your-eyes pitch, that appears especially devastating. He spots is well, chooses when to use it well. Righties swing at it over half the time, and miss a third of the times they swing. (Lefties are no better, obviously.)
Again, you’re not going to watch Miley and his 90-91-mph fastball and think about a wipeout slider, but that’s how he avoids hard contact. Righties square up all of his hard stuff. They had 38 doubles, six triples and 13 homers off him last season. He has to get ahead of them, which means inducing some looking strikes, and get them into slider counts in order to get them out consistently. Given everything Arizona has coming in terms of young starting pitching, Miley might take a Josh Collmenter turn within the next year or two, and help flesh out a deep bullpen by pitching to his instead of pitching around his deficiencies in the rotation. Like Collmenter, though, Miley is a valuable enough arm in the right role to project for a long career.
5. Randall Delgado – I did an in-depth look at Delgado through a couple of prisms a couple months ago. I will strive not to rehash it here. The short story: While his profile might sound good, finding pitchers with comparable skill sets and tendencies through the same age doesn’t inspire much confidence. Delgado looks like another guy cut from the cloth Kevin Towers likes best. He mixes a four-seamer and sinker for hard stuff, and a curve and change to change speeds. He emphasizes ground balls, at least so far. He has better control than command.
Patrick Corbin actually won this job. His fastball ticked up in the spring, and he beat Delgado despite a solid Cactus League from Delgado, too. Tyler Skaggs, like Delgado, will start the season in Triple-A. Skaggs and Corbin have the advantages of being left-handed (which probably shouldn’t be a concern, or an advantage anyway, but seems to be), and of being in-house guys with whom the coaches and instructors are more familiar. Both have less service time than Delgado, though. and an extra year in which they are eligible to be on optional assignment to the minors, which might have weighed more heavily in the equation for me. Delgado has more experience starting in the Majors than either, which is a small concern, but probably another pinky on the scale. I think Delgado still makes the most starts in this slot this season.
1. J.J. Putz – Towers loves bullpen-building, and Putz was perhaps the signature addition Towers made prior to the surprise division-winning season of 2011. He’ll never shake the perception of fragility after injuries derailed what looked like a journey to stardom in the Mariners’ bullpen five years ago, and he has missed some time (with stiffness in his back and neck, mostly, but also a balky elbow) during his two years in Arizona, but he’s topped 218 batters faced three straight seasons, and he’s always good when healthy.
Putz signed an extension for 2014 this spring. Are you tired of hearing that yet? Think about this: Aaron Hill, Martin Prado, Miguel Montero, Cliff Pennington, Cody Ross, Trevor Cahill, David Hernandez, Brandon McCarthy, Heath Bell, Paul Goldschmidt and Putz all are officially signed for 2014. Even Jason Kubel is on the payroll, with a mutual option in place. Basically, that’s the whole team except guys who aren’t yet arbitration-eligible, or are, but are still under team control, like Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Gerardo Parra and Adam Eaton. Towers has bet on himself (and Kirk Gibson) as boldly as a GM can; there’s no safety net. The talent within the organization now is likely to be the talent within the organization next year. Putz was the first stone Towers laid in the process of rebuilding the team in his image, and Putz will be around to watch the capstone be placed, or to watch the whole thing collapse.
2. David Hernandez – Only six relief pitchers outstripped Hernandez’s 35.3-percent strikeout rate in a meaningful sample last season, and among them, the only guy with a better walk rate was Craig Kimbrel. Baseball’s most underrated pitcher is almost always a right-handed setup man, and in 2012, it was probably David Hernandez.
Towers’ reputation for building great bullpens always came with a caveat in San Diego: It was San Diego. The feeling was that, while Trevor Hoffman may have been truly great, a lot of the key cogs of Towers’ later renditions of the Padres’ pen were products of Petco Park. (The charge isn’t totally baseless: Kevin Cameron and Justin Hampson combined for a 2.75 ERA in 111.1 innings in 2007, for instance, despite a composite strikeout-to-walk ratio (ignoring intentional passes) of 84:43.) With Putz and Hernandez (a diamond in the rough after a rough turn as a swingman in Baltimore in 2010) in one of the league’s best hitters’ parks, he has made big strides toward ending that doubt-riddled conversation.
I want to hone back in on Hernandez for a moment. In an era inundated with slider specialists in the bullpen, he’s fairly offbeat, using (more or less) a two-pitch mix with a yakker of a curve instead as the breaking offering. Hernandez got whiffs on essentially 56 percent of all swings against that pitch in 2012. It’s vicious. Unlike most curves, it shows a meaningful positive platoon split, but still, Hernandez is the foremost practitioner of an all but lost martial art, the relief curve, and it’s a joy to watch him toy with hitters who have trained so hard for something harder and more tilted. That the curve bends away from right-handed batters while his fastball has terrific arm-side run in on those same batters makes his attack almost unfair.
3. Brad Ziegler – Everything the man throws finds the bottom of the zone. It helps, of course, if one releases the ball just north of that point. Ziegler, too, throws what goes as a curve, although if his every pitch didn’t dive as though hitting an invisible ceiling halfway to home plate, it might go as a slider. He certainly slings it like a slider to right-handers, releasing later and more out in front of his body, letting the thing cross the opponent’s whole field of vision before landing in the catcher’s mitt eight inches off the outside corner. If you think batters are merely being foolish by continuing to swing (they chased over half the time last year, coming up empty on 36 percent of those), you’ve never faced a soft-tossing sidearmer.
Using the same arm angle and action, Ziegler will simply switch to a changeup grip when facing lefties, and let the ball fade to the outside corner as his arm sells it. It’s not nearly as effective – no righty sidearmer is ever going to mow down good lefty batters – but it keeps them honest, at least.
Ziegler is, and it should be no great surprise, baseball’s very best at inducing ground balls. He’s five full seasons of Major League relief in, and has a 2.44 career ERA. David Hernandez was the mist underrated pitcher in baseball last season, but headed into 2013, he might not be as underrated as Ziegler as a projectable asset.
4. Tony Sipp – Sipp had pretty close to the same season in 2012 that he had had in 2011, but his ERA spiked and he fell out of favor. He’s not great at anything. He profiles like a lefty specialist, with almost solely a fastball and a slider in his repertoire, but the slider actually does better diving at the back feet of overanxious righties than it does against lefties, and his career platoon split is basically null.
Sipp neither misses a ton of bats, nor pounds the strike zone. All that said, he’s not a bad fourth option in a bullpen.
5. Heath Bell – Why it’s important to consider all trades within the broader context of the rosters involved, and to evaluate transaction groups, not transactions: The Diamondbacks had some sort of vision for their winter. They wanted to create depth, depth everywhere, and to do it, they were willing to trade a quarter for two dimes at times. That was the case in the deal that brought Bell to the club, involving Pennington and Chris Young. Never should Towers have had to take on Bell’s bad deal in order to get Pennington for Young, but (however perversely) Towers wanted Bell. He was part of the plan.
I’m not necessarily defending that desire, that plan. I think Towers has really overloaded his 40-man roster with onerous obligations to middling players, like Bell, Bloomquist, McDonald and Hinske. It’s often crucial, if one hopes to improve one’s club in-season, to have an open spot or two on the 40-man roster, or at least to have some path to putting an important potential call-up on said roster. Flexibility is a virtue in managing the roster rules that govern MLB, and Towers has headed himself off at every pass. Maybe he’s so confident that he will gleefully eat $1 million here, $4 million there and cut bait with these guys when they stand between him and an important move. Even if so, though, he’s needlessly hemmed himself in. Still, that mindset has to color the perception of the Bell-Pennington/Young deal. Towers didn’t view this as Young for Pennington, less the value of having to take on a bloated contract for a reliever who seemingly collapsed last season. He saw both players he got back as assets.
One more thing about Bell, regarding his 2012 regression. It’s important we not conflate ERA (his shot from 2.53 over five seasons in San Diego to 5.09 in Miami) with value for relief pitchers. That statistic doesn’t measure anything useful for relief pitchers. You mostly want to look at skills, and Bell’s skills didn’t degrade all that much last season. His strikeout rate had cratered in 2011, actually, and rebounded a bit in 2012. His walk rate rose but was manageable, and his ground-ball rate actually increased. He surrendered just five home runs. Most of the problem was a leap from a .269 batting average against on balls in play to a .346 figure.
I’m not defending Bell. He’s a fifth arm in a good bullpen, and that guy should make the league-minimum salary. Towers drafted Chicago Cubs prospect Starling Peralta in the Rule 5 Draft, and while Peralta spent last season in the Midwest League and is a real stretch as an MLB reliever right now, I’d have rather gone with him at $485,000 than Bell for two seasons at (even after the Marlins pay their share) $14 million. It’s just important to note that relievers’ stats are sometimes fickle and hard to evaluate, and that Bell was a little bit better than you probably thought last year.
6. Matt Reynolds – Reynolds is a useful lefty reliever, but Colorado was a terrible place for him. He faced 451 batters over the last two seasons with the Rockies, struck out 101, walked 26 and allowed 21 home runs. (all of those figures ignore intentional walks, which again, are a managerial action, not a pitcher’s.) That high home-run and pedestrian (for a one-inning reliever) strikeout rate didn’t mix well in the BABIP haven in the mountains.
Arizona is hitter-friendly, too, but not so much as to blow up guys who pitch to contact a bit, like Reynolds. That walk rate, just 5.8 percent of all opponents since 2011, is a really nice skill for a lefty specialist. You don’t want your LOOGY to come in, walk a batter and leave a mess for the righty you bring in next. For that matter, though certainly better facing lefty batters, Reynolds has a smaller-than-average platoon split, so he can be used a bit more flexibly than a pure specialist.
To get him, the Diamondbacks traded Ryan Wheeler. Wheeler, 24, was definitely expendable, with Davidson in the fold. That made this a no-sweat deal, and arguably the best of the winter for Arizona.
7. Josh Collmenter – Collmenter doesn’t have great stuff. He doesn’t even have good stuff. he makes Wade Miley look like Nolan Ryan. Collmenter relies exclusively on deception to get outs, mixing pitches and keeping opponents guessing with a wild, tilted, straight over-the-top delivery. It’s unsustainable; everyone knows it. As soon as chinks appeared in Collmenter’s armor last season, the club stripped him of starting duties, and he spent the rest of the season pitching low-leverage relief.
There’s one problem with this narrative: Collmenter hasn’t actually evaporated yet. In nearly 250 big-league innings and having faced just shy of 1,000 batters, he has a career strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio of 180:46. (That’s really good.)
I don’t necessarily buy into Collmenter, but the track record he offers is a whole lot better than those of the last guy in any other bullpen in the league. Arizona’s depth continues to astonish. They could lose their entire starting rotation to food poisoning in late July, and they could just replace them, with Daniel Hudson, Tyler Skaggs, Pat Corbin, Collmenter and Zeke Spruill. It’d be a worse rotation, but still better than three or four first rotations in the National League (Marlins, Rockies, Padres, maybe Brewers).
Tony Campana – OF: If you’re as fast as Tony Campana is, all you have to do in order to succeed in MLB is make consistent contact. Campana has a terrible arm and subpar instincts in center field, but remains an elite defender because he’s that damn fast. For his career, Campana has a stupid-good .266 BABIP on ground balls, and 18 percent of his career grounders have turned into infield hits. (Not 18 percent of those that stayed on the infield; 18 percent of them all.)
Unfortunately, Campana does not make consistent contact. He’s walked in just 5.5 percent of his career plate appearances, and has fanned in 21 percwent. A guy with so little power can’t sustain that. There’s just no power there. You can see it in the fact that his only MLB home run was a flare into the left-field corner. You can see it in the fact that 42 of his 83 career hits were either slow grounders or bunts, and that only two came on fly balls. He has to put the bat to the ball all the time, and he can’t do it.
Patrick Corbin – LHP: Although I’d rather bet on a right-handed hurler and would rather have the upside of Randall Delgado than the reliability of Corbin, there’s no question Corbin is impressively reliable. He fanned 86 and issued only 23 unintentional walks after reaching the big leagues in 2012. His command is great, and it’s great right now. No waiting necessary. He’s developed smoothly, never taking a step back in terms of level and posting innings totals (minors and Majors combined) of 144 2/3, 160 1/3 and 184 1/3 the past three years, at ages 20-22. He’s never been hurt and he’s never been bad. Okay, I’m talking myself into Patrick Corbin now. Still, Delgado offers better upside, but the competition is fascinating, and personally, I don’t think the Diamondbacks can lose either way.
Matt Davidson – 3B: He’s not a special third baseman, but he’s fine there. He’ll stick, which many once thought he would not, and that makes all the difference. With Prado locked up, there’s no rush, but Davidson had an .836 OPS in the pitcher-friendly Southern League last year (Double-A). He will not be that good in the big leagues, with less than stellar pure hitting skills, but his approach and power are MLB-caliber.
If the Diamondbacks stay into contention into September, this is how they become dangerous. They can call up Davidson, and play him at third against left-handed pitchers. Martin Prado can play every day, drifting between third base, first base and left field. Eric Chavez can play some first and third. They can create effective platoons of Gerardo Parra and Prado, and of Jason Kubel and Cody Ross. I don’t know whether they’re smart enough to do it, but it could be done, and the sheer personnel to make such improvements during the stretch run isn’t there in San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Didi Gregorius – SS: The centerpiece of the Trevor Bauer deal for Arizona was the glove and throwing arm of Gregorius. Everything else, from Tony Sipp and Lars Anderson to Gregorius’s offensive skill set, was a throw-in. If Gregorius develops an impressive contact skill, he could have almost exactly the unexpected breakout Andrelton Simmons had in 2012. That’s the comp. Simmons was a whiz at the most critical defensive position on the diamond, but there were questions about whether he would hit. He hit, so he became a minor star even as a rookie. Gregorius’s scouting reports are less friendly, offensively, but not wildly so, and the glove is just as good. We’ll see, though. Campana is a poignant reminder that not all the guys you think would be great if they just stopped striking out, actually can stop striking out.
David Holmberg – LHP: This is where it starts to get stupid in terms of organizational pitching depth. Holmberg registered 95 solid innings at Double-A last year, after mastering the California League in the first half (as well as any pitcher can; it’s a league for mashers). A tall lefty, he has everything a tall lefty needs: a fastball that sits at at least 90 miles per hour; a changeup with both deception and movement; and very good command.
He should be big-league ready by August. It’s possible he won’t be. Either way, though, he has basically no shot at the rotation, and only a modest opportunity to wedge his way into the bullpen. He might not be a top-10 candidate for a starting role. With Miley, Skaggs and Corbin around, he’s not even a top-three lefty candidate. Say Tony Sipp and/or Matt Reynolds get hurt. I’m not even sure the team grabs Holmberg to fill the bullpen vacancy, with Andrew Chafin lurking level behind but with higher-end stuff for short bursts. A trade almost has to happen at some point; the first two months of the season could decide the shape thereof.
Daniel Hudson – RHP: Scott Baker is over in Chicago reminding everyone not to take full recovery from Tommy John surgery for granted, but obviously, it’s no death knell. Hudson had good stuff prior to getting hurt, and hit his spots really well. If he gets back to full health, he should remain very effective.
It will be interesting to see whether Hudson makes mechanical adjustments when he does return. He presented an injury risk all along, with a very long arm action that had some people concerned in much the same way they’re now concerned about Chris Sale. If he finds a way to improve the economy of his motion without giving away stuff, awesome. If he keeps throwing the same way, he might not be a factor at all.
A.J. Pollock – OF: Colin Cowgill. Gerardo Parra. Which third player completes their set? It’s Pollock.
Arizona is a fourth-outfielder factory, or so it seems lately. Pollock is the next in line. Like Parra, he has average hitting ability, an average arm, average speed and average defensive actions. Unfortunately, unlike Parra, he bats right-handed, so he’s much easier to exploit as a would-be regular.
If he were a true center fielder with the glove, maybe it wouldn’t matter, but he’s not. It’s possible Arizona will have five really solid outfielders, with Parra and Pollock providing depth and platoon proofing off the bench, but they will not and should not rely on either player too heavily.
Tyler Skaggs – LHP: Briefly in contention for the fifth starter’s role, Sakggs had a crummy Spring and will open the year in Triple-A. The most interesting thing about him, to me, is how he has ascended so far on prospect lists. His numbers don’t jump off the page. Neither does his fastball velocity. He has a really, really good curve, and supposedly commands it supernally, but he kind of has to, right? He ranked 17th in Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101 prospects list, and 12th on Baseball America’s.
Here’s one issue, something that keeps me off-balance in trying to figure him out.
First, from Jason Parks, in ranking Skaggs as the organization’s top prospect:
clean delivery; maintains a good line to the plate
Now, read Doug Thorburn’s words in an article from December on mechanics:
Skaggs has some extreme spine-tilt that costs him considerable distance at release point, sacrificing depth in exchange for some extra height on his pitches. His momentum is average, but the greatest antagonist to his functional distance to the plate is that Skaggs strides at an extremely closed angle, directing his momentum in an inefficient pattern toward the left-hand batter’s box, a strategy which takes him further from the target. Mix in a sloppy glove-side and some inconsistent timing, and you have a pitcher who must overcome the challenge of pitching from a greater distance away from the plate than his competition.
Personally, I lean toward Thorburn’s assessment. Obviously, the line from Parks’s piece is almost a throwaway, and he may not even care to defend it that ardently. It’s strange, though, that Parks (or his source of choice on Skaggs) so liked what Skaggs offers in terms of his line to the plate, whereas that’s Thorburn’s biggest beef with him. Thorburn has discussed this elsewhere, basically saying that lefty hurlers often get bad instruction from coaches obsessed with creating angles batters might find confusing, instead of simply going with the most natural and efficient delivery the pitcher’s body has in it. I find that the most compelling argument on either side, since it sure seems like a bad idea to sacrifice stuff or ease of delivery for deception that might not even materialize.
That said, his curve can be devastating, and having a second off-speed pitch to use against right-handed batters (an average changeup) is huge for Skaggs. I do think he will develop into a solid starter. It’s just hard to see him reaching the heights suggested by his recent prospect hype.
Zeke Spruill – RHP: Spruill lacks prodigious talent, but fills up the strike zone and had a 52 percent ground-ball rate in Double-A last year. He’s exactly the kind of pitcher Towers seems to love, and that’s kind of the problem. There are more talented pitchers over whom I fear Spruill might get an opportunity. It’s not that he’s bad, but barring massive injury problems, he shouldn’t be in their rotation, or even their bullpen, except in September.
I have the Diamondbacks at 85-77, finishing third in the NL West. They might be a bit better than that in terms of true talent, but the Rockies are the only cupcake in their division, and for some preposterous reason, their new natural interleague rival is the Texas Rangers. Their depth will serve them well, but the star power in LA and San Francisco is going to overwhelm them.
Yeah, yeah, publish your team previews BEFORE the season, Trueblood. Well, I didn’t. I hope you’ll enjoy them anyway. As you can see, I put a lot of work into them. Hey, follow me on Twitter.Next post: Hitting the Corners: Opening Day
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