The common narrative around the “battle” at shortstop is that the Diamondbacks are going to let Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings fight it out to decide the starter. There’s one problem here, however, and that’s the fact that both of these guys profile to be pretty similar as solid, but not outstanding, shortstops. Yes, Didi plays outstanding defense and Owings can make some line drive contact, but neither is the complete package. Both Steamer and ZiPS projections have these guys as similar players in 2014 and while they may diverge down the road, neither should be expected to light the world on fire this season.

But I mentioned a third head for a reason, and that reason is Mr. Cliff Pennington. Remember him? Captain Walkoff is still under contract in 2014 for a cool $3.2 million. We know what Arizona has in Cliff as he’s the epitome of a glove-only shortstop. He can’t hit, walks a little but plays outstanding defense at short and second. Pennington isn’t a first-division starter since he’s only half of the package needed, but it’s enough of a valuable package that he should stay in the majors for the foreseeable future.

Now that we’ve identified all three sides to this strange (love?) triangle, let’s briefly summarize:

  • Owings (R) has the most offensive ability, best hit tool, most power and can play adequate defense at short. May have to shift to second down the road and offensive approach needs to improve. Lots of strikeouts, no walks and gap power make him a solid, but unspectacular, offensive shortstop.
  • Gregorius (L) is one of the best young shortstops defensively. Can hit a little with some sneaky pop from the left side. Strikes out at an average rate but walks at a decent clip. Not a base-stealer but a solid runner with limited offensive upside, probably always a below-average hitter with great defense.
  • Pennington (S) plays excellent defense but can’t hit a lick. More strikeouts and fewer walks than Gregorius, but fewer strikeouts and more walks than Owings. No pop in the bat and no projection left. He is what he is: a glove-only player best used as a substitute on a good team or a starter on a rebuilding team.

Here comes the hard part: one of these guys has to go. On a 25-man roster, there’s only room for two shortstops, the starter and a substitute. Before you scream, “Pennington’s outta here,” consider that by ditching Cliff and handing the job to one of the youngsters that the other one rides the bench. It’s not wise to place a 22-year old, who needs to continue to grow, on the bench. Both Gregorius and Owings need consistent at-bats at the major league level to learn their weaknesses and make adjustments. Time on the pine is time wasted.

Also consider that Pennington has a defense-only profile and will make $3.2 million this year before heading into his third year of arbitration in 2015. The market for him may not be all that big. Brendan Ryan has a similar profile and just signed with the Yankees for 2 years and $5 million, so Pennington’s AAV might be a bit on the high side. All of this, of course, alludes to the fact that finding a trade partner for Pennington will likely be difficult.

So if Pennington stays, who goes? Didi could be a future gold glover at a premium defensive position, so trading him would a tough call. Owings, though, could turn into a first-division shortstop that puts together a .280 average with 10-12 home runs annually in his prime, so trading him is no more palatable. Gregorius has the lower floor, as we know he’s an acceptable big leaguer already, while Owings has the higher ceiling, thanks to his bat and 2013 breakout. As mentioned above, neither player is the complete package, so the team is making a significant trade-off by moving either of these guys. Not moving one of them and keeping Pennington means someone spends the year in Reno, which might be a slap in the face.

You didn’t come here for questions, though, and while your quest for answers may be misguided, I’m prepared to offer you one anyways. Here’s how I see it shaking out:

The offseason market for Gregorius or Owings never materialized in a way that pleased the organization. Despite how you may feel about these guys, both have their flaws and with a bevy of strong shortstop prospects in the low-to-mid minors (Bogaerts, Baez, Correa, Lindor, Russell, others), there aren’t that many teams clamoring to pick up a young shortstop. At least not at the price that Arizona wants them to pay for one. So they’ve stood pat, like they should have. If you don’t get the deal you want, keep your pieces and wait, because baseball’s dynamic.

And speaking of dynamic, there are always a bunch of injuries in Spring Training. I’m not suggesting that the Diamondbacks keep their two youngsters to provide internal depth, I’m suggesting that they give Gregorius and Owings a nice audition, wait for a team to realize it has a shortstop problem on its hands, then try to flip Gregorius or Owings before the season begins. In this way, they can capitalize on someone’s desperation and hopefully drive a hard bargain for their own benefit. Lots of deals get done each year in Spring Training, and just because this issue hasn’t been resolved at this point doesn’t mean it won’t be resolved before the start of the season.

At his salary and given the internal options, I feel like Pennington is here to stay for 2014. He’s gone after this year, though, and Nick Ahmed will probably become the all-glove guy. And that leaves us with Gregorius and Owings. My instinct is trade whichever one nets the larger return. I’d prefer to keep Didi because I think he’ll grow with the bat and you just can’t sacrifice that kind of defense at short. Owings is a riskier prospect to me given his aggressive approach and consistently poor K/BB ratio. With that said, if someone wants to build a beneficial trade around Gregorius, I’d certainly listen as there just isn’t that much that separates he and Owings’ value, in my eyes.

So the takeaway here is that while a deal hasn’t happened yet, there’s still a logjam. And although the headlines suggest that the youngsters will fight for the job, a deal very well may materialize this spring. The Diamondbacks are playing this one just like they should and haven’t forced a sub-par trade just to get one done. Let’s see what happens to the shortstop market in the coming weeks and don’t surprised to see someone get traded at a moment’s notice.

24 Responses to A Three-Headed Shortstop?

  1. Bradford says:

    I think Gregorius can learn to hit consistently enough to stay in the majors. Even if he can just take his walks and work a long AB against lefties, he would probably split high enough against right handed pitching to have some lower-third of the batting order offensive value. And the “sneaky pop” is something I love about him. As Parra has proven his whole career and even to an extent last season, you’ll take league average offense for premium defense, especially when you can get the offense from other positions.
    Owings has more “upside” especially to an outside GM. His defense is solid, maybe a little underrated when constantly compared to Gregorius. His offense profiles a little like a young JJ Hardy, and his status as a prospect without any significant big league time could leave a few GM’s going, “This guy’s ceiling might be even higher.”
    My point is, Owings’ trade value is probably never going to be higher. In the realms of my mind, the Dbacks give the starting job to Gregorious, keep Pennington on the bench, and let Owings go down to Triple A and mash until the trade deadline. He provides legitimate depth in case of injury to Didi or Hill, and he can thoroughly prove to other teams he has nothing left to prove in the minors. Then KT flips him in a package for either a starter (Phillies shopping Lee, Hamels by July, need someone to fill in for aging Rollins?) or by himself to a rebuilding team for a legitimate bullpen arm, not unlike he did for Reed.
    Overall, catcher and shortstop are really the only two positions you can have a black hole offensively and not care, because the defensive value is so paramount. The Dbacks offense will be roughly the same with Didi or Owings batting eighth, (which is where both will end up) especially if Didi can turn up his plate discipline a little, which typically happens as a player matures. Owings however will probably see his stats decline more sharply or slump “harder” because he does not walk very often. I’d prefer to bat Gregorious eighth over Owings because he can move his spot, and ergo the pitcher’s spot, through the lineup more consistently and give the top of the order more chances to do their job. Think about it, would you rather have .250/.350 from Gregorious with 10 HR, or .275/.325 from Owings with 14 HR?

    • Paulnh says:

      Bradford, I could not agree with you more. I think Owings’ value is as high as it will ever be, therefore we should deal him when KT gets a respectable package even if that means waiting until the trade deadline. He reminds me way too much of Starlin Castro to feel comfortable about him. I could easily see Owings hit very well in his first year and then crater off the face of the earth.

      I too think that Didi can figure out how to be an average big league hitter. Last year he hit a very impressive .275/.359/.429 against right handed pitching. I would take those numbers in a heartbeat. If he can figure out how to at least not look stupid against lefties, he will be very good. He also still has lots of room to grow given the fact that he is only 23 and has only played one major league season.

      To me, Pennington cannot be moved. His salary is very reasonable, and he could pay for himself through his defense alone. What we need from him is to work on hitting from the right side of the plate. His career line against lefties of .239/.287/.315 is not good. He would be more valuable to the Diamondbacks (assuming Owings is moved and Didi is the starter) if his platoon stats were flipped.

      P.S. I love the Josh Collmenter signing. Now he can be paid like a long relief guy, move to the starting rotation, and win the Cy Young. I will never change my opinion that Josh should get another chance in the rotation.

      • Ryan P. Morrison says:

        Paul, I too like the Collmenter signing. It’s going to take a while, but I’d like to see if we can get some research going on whether the times through the order penalty (TTOP) affects a deception guy like Collmenter more than other types of pitchers. We’ll follow up, but that’s a very difficult project.

        On Owings — I’m in agreement with you guys, but also with Jeff’s thoughts. With all the wheeling and dealing this offseason, you can bet that Owings’s name was raised more than once. I think we should be forced to conclude that in general, other teams did not value Owings as highly as we thought they might. Even two months later, though, I still think that Owings is a great fit for Toronto.

  2. Jeff Wiser says:

    The one thing that may be overlooked is that Owings’ trade value may not be as high as we think it is. The same could have been said for Davidson who only netted a reliever that’s about to get expensive. I like Owings more than Davidson and I’m pretty confident most GM’s do, too, but how much more? He’s not going to net a strong starting pitcher on his own unless someone is absolutely trying to dump salary at all costs. It’ll be harder to create a strong trade package with Davidson, Eaton and Skaggs all having been moved.

    Owings is kinda fringy when you think about it. He seems like an impact bat at short until you realize some of the concerns, like inflated stats at Visalia and Reno, and peripherals that indicate poor plate discipline. Those would be red flags to me if I were a GM. Of course, they could also mean nothing and this where scouts earn their money.

    For my taste, I’ll take Didi’s OBP and glove, but the difference is so close that I’m not going to upset if Owings is the remaining guy and he becomes the shortstop of the future.

  3. Brian says:

    I think Owings’ potential offensive upside is significantly larger than Didi’s. I think Didi will likely be a throwback SS, flashing great leather while hitting around .250 as an 8-hole hitter. What I’d like to see is Owings win the job in camp and get a shot to be the regular SS in ’14, while Didi works on his approach at the plate in AAA. Keep Pennington this year. Let him go after the season.

    Then in future, move Owings to 2B as Hill ages out of the position (or gets traded), and have Didi as your everyday SS. Owings is going to have to learn how to take pitches and draw more walks. If he can do that, he could be a top of the order MI. A year watching & learning from Prado would be a good thing.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      This is why I’m cool with Owings ending up as the guy if Didi doesn’t. Owings can handle short for the foreseeable future, could move to second down the road. I don’t think we can keep Didi in a backup/minor league role until that happens, however. Hill’s here through 2016 and it’s a waste to have Didi as a backup or in AAA until then. With that said, there’s some exciting depth at the minor league level in the middle infield, especially in the low minors. Sergio Alcantara, Jose (Joe) Munoz, Jamie Westbrook and Andrew Velasquez immediately come to mind. They could be ready on the timeline you mentioned.

  4. Dave says:

    I personally don’t believe either should be dealt. If we deal didi then we could have a lineup with only 1 or 2 lefties( parra and montero). Also owings is still very young. Some more time in the minors really can’t hurt him. Maybe he can refine his plate approach a little in aaa this year. I personally would write in didi as my everyday shortstop and Pennington as utility. Owings takes penninngtons spot next season or earlier.

  5. Rod Ghods says:

    Jeff I think there’s room for all three roster-wise. If we assume 13 position players, with two catchers and four OFs, that seven spots for the infield. Goldy, Prado, Chavez, and Hill are given, leaving three spots for Owings, Didi, and Pennington. Owings and Pennington can both play 2B. Might not be ideal developmentally for the younger guys, but I don’t think anyone HAS to go.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      True, I mean “HAS TO GO” might be a little strong, but in the sense of typical roster construction and extracting production from your resources, it makes sense. I’d rather see them keep both if they can’t get anything reasonable from another team, but if there’s a need that they can fill by dealing someone, they should make it happen. As I pointed out last week, the margin for error is really slim and they can’t waste someone on the bench if they’re trying to win right now. Not if that someone on the bench can be turned into a valuable piece of the team.

      Whether or not that’s the case is yet to be seen, though, and there’s a wide range of possibilities out there.

      • Ryan P. Morrison says:

        I agree that there could be room for all three guys, but it’d be hard to develop Owings and Gregorius at the ML level as a pair, and if all three stayed, some other part of the roster would have to give.

        I think we’ll probably see five OF on the roster, not counting Prado — not just because that’s fairly normal, but because Cody Ross’s playing time might be dictated by his health. And because Trumbo will block Prado from LF most days, putting Prado at 2B might be one way to get Eric Chavez a handful of starts. I thought it was interesting that Gibson played Prado over Bloomquist at 2B in September.

        Some thoughts on what happens to the roster as Chavez gets fit in (mostly about Prado, really):

  6. Ivan says:

    I think the best thing to do would be to have Owings spend the season at Reno working on plate discipline and playing 2B consistently. Hill will be 32 in March and making 11 mil this season and 12 mil his age 33 and 34 season. As good as Hill has been for us I’m not sure if he’ll be worth the 12 mill in 2015 and 16. We can have Owings learn 2B this season and take over 2B next season while trading Hill and saving us some money. Owings would also give us insurance in case of injuries.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      I’ve always thought this was a possibility, but the team appears more interested in winning now to replace Hill with Owings. I suppose he could be stashed in AAA, but he has nothing left to prove there. Do you really want to send him down there and ask him to take more walks? He’s best learning to control the zone against major league pitchers given the gap between AAA and MLB pitching. If the team really wants to win now, which I believe they do, then they need to get something out of every asset.

  7. Santa says:

    Whom ever says Didi is the future SS of the D-backs has a serious issue with understanding talent. I also don’t see how anyone can say that Didi is a future gold glove winner when he cant CONSISTENTLY make the throw across the diamond. I don’t know about you, but the constant short hop and erratic throw should drive you nuts and make you a bit worrisome, not to mention its typically under non-stressful situations. Now moving to his bat, *crickets* he surprised everyone for 6-weeks, but guess what? He fits his scouting report and can’t hit. I would feel very comfortable betting that in 3-5 years this kid will be bouncing around the league playing a very similar role to Cliff, I mean…isn’t that typically what happens to kids like this? Now to Owings, he’s everything he needs to be and more. No he isnt the “great” SS Didi ISN’T but he’s darn good and make the play he needs to make at the position, he’ll also be flash at times. He also has a good arm, not to mention the accuracy leaves Didi’s squirt gun to be less desired. Shall we even compare the bat? I don’t think we need to even go into that comparison as there is none. Finally, doesn’t Didi appear like he would be someone that can hit at the top of the order, handle the bat, and RUN? He’s slow for his stature and build. This is not the case with Owings. Sure, he may K more but he can handle the bat, and he runs well. Owings will be a FAR better player than Jete…Didi.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      The people that say Didi has a chance to win gold gloves are the scouts who’ve made a career in baseball. They love the guy. He played 2013 at 21 years old. Some mistakes are to be expected. Also, some of the erratic throws are due to his exception range as he gets to balls that other shortstops don’t get to, then throws off balance. The point is, he’s far from a finished product defensively.

      This year is big for his bat. Either there’s growth and we have something to look forward to, or he repeats his 2013 performance and we know to temper expectations. Like I mentioned above, he’s a kid and the book’s not written on him. He’ll never be a stellar offensive player, we know that, but he has a chance to grow into an exceptional one. To can the kid after a season and assume that we know what kind of player he’ll be in two or three years is foolish.

      I see what you’re saying about Owings, but I honestly feel that people are overstating his offensive potential. If he’s going to be such a monster, why haven’t we pulled off a trade for him yet? The organization has clearly shopped him extensively. His plate discipline is a big red flag and while Didi may not run overly well, Owings isn’t thought to be a great base-stealer. All of Owings’ success has come in environments that inflate numbers and he’s struggled elsewhere. Not saying he can’t hit, he obviously can, but how much is yet to be determined.

      Didi’s not as bad as people make him out to be and Owings isn’t as good. It’s funny to me that people will argue that a guy with a month of service time is going to be the next savior while they’ll slam a dude who played nearly a whole season at a respectable level as a rookie.
      There’s way too much that we don’t know about both of these guys to make such determinations.

      • Santa says:

        Maybe Justin Upton will finally figure it out too, I mean..he’s just a kid. Look, There are more sad stories in baseball than there are good one’s. The chances that Didi becomes SOMETHING is a lot less than the chances that he fails, which he most likely will. Also, are you aware of the history regarding the d-backs trading away the “prospect?” Ill just say that the d-backs tend to those those trades. 9 out of 10 BIG prospects or semi-good prospects fail, Didi wont be the better 10% Who knows, maybe be can adobt the Cubs mentality and say that this will be the year that Didi proves he will be the GREAT player he’s supposed to be. And by the way…..Didi can’t hit, never will. This isn’t the 80’s anymore, defense gurus don’t hold everyday jobs in the bigs like they use to. This club is wasting their time with Didi, and needs to move on. BYE.

        • Jeff Wiser says:

          Clearly you think Didi will fail, which he may, but all of your reasoning can be applied to Owings, and where does that leave the organization? 9 out of 10 prospects fail, but the Dbacks’ other option to Didi is another prospect. I guess I’m not sure which route you prefer.

        • Ryan P. Morrison says:

          Offense is down quite a bit in the last three seasons — it’s not the late 90s or early 00s anymore, either. I think teams are prioritizing defense in a way they haven’t previously. A run saved is no less valuable than a run scored…

  8. Shoewizard says:

    While it may not be the best use of resources there is room on the roster for all of them.

    5 man bench consists of

    Backup catcher

    That only gives you 4 outfielders but prado can move to Lf whenever needed and chavez is not the only guy they can play at 3 rd. pennington started a couple games there last year too

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      True, and don’t disagree. I’m not sure how they’d all get playing time, though, and having Ross and Chavez on the roster means that at four positions (OF, 3B), the only backups are two guys that might sometimes be unavailable for health reasons. I’d bet we’d see Campana or another league-minimum OF in the mix, but you’re definitely right, it’s possible.

  9. […] questions about the American Opening Day roster, such as whether the team will really carry three shortstops, whether the team will carry five true outfielders, or whether Will Harris will get bumped from the […]

  10. […] like a dandy of an idea and I fully believe this is being explored. I wrote about the fact that the team doesn’t need three shortstops a while back and I fully expect someone to get moved before the season starts or shortly thereafter […]

  11. […] while we debated what to do at shortstop all winter and everyone had their say, the Diamondbacks chose Chris Owings as the man in the end. […]

  12. […] Diamondbacks have too many infielders. Still. This logjam has been well-documented, but there’s been no moves to relieve the pressure. Depth isn’t a bad thing, per se, […]

  13. […] Inside The Zona contemplates a three-headed shortstop. […]

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