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.
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