There haven’t been a lot of position battles for the Diamondbacks this spring. Even after Patrick Corbin went down, there still didn’t seem to be a vacuum left over. After all, the team has plenty of rotation depth. We can ask how much Cody Ross plays in the outfield but it looks like we already know the answer: sparingly. The only true unknown has been shortstop, but according to ESPN’s Jim Bowden, we no longer have to wonder who the starter will be.
Bowden is hearing that Chris Owings has done enough with the bat to be named the starter over Didi Gregorius. While the organization has held its cards to close to the vest all spring long, to see Owings named the starter would be anything but a surprise. I’ve been leery of his lack of plate discipline while he’s risen through the ranks, but I walked away impressed after seeing him two weeks ago in Spring Training. He’s the prototypical Diamondback in that he plays hard and his effort helps cover up his lack of raw tools. If you’re looking for grit, look no further.
So, okay, let’s assume that Bowden is right and that Owings opens the season at short on Saturday. What happens next? I fully expect the team to continue shopping Didi Gregorius in exchange for a young catcher that can hit, such as the Mets’ Kevin Pawlecki, the Yankees’ JR Murphy or someone similar. They could also seek pitching in return for Gregorius, but it’s not realistic to think they can get a top-flight arm for a shortstop with limited offensive potential. At best, they could get a mid-rotation arm but more likely another number four or five type of hurler. I’d much prefer to see a catcher acquired than another mediocre pitcher, but we’ll see what they can put together. Perhaps they have something else up their sleeve.
Of course, if no deal comes to fruition in the next week or two, the team could send Didi down to Reno and use him as an insurance policy should Owings struggle to adjust to major league pitching day in and day out. Remember, he’s had very limited exposure and the league has a way of catching up to young hitters. There’s no better example of this than the man that Owings may have just pushed aside.
After being called up, Gregorius raked, mostly due to his propensity to swing at anything hard near the plate early in the count. Once pitchers started throwing more off speed stuff early in the count and getting ahead of him, his hot start cooled off quicker than it caught fire. Owings should be expected to have similar growing pains and the team can use Gregorius to fill the void should Owings run into real trouble. I’m sure they’d rather trade Didi and fill a void, like catching, but if they can’t do it in a way that makes sense for the organization, they may opt to hang on to last year’s starter despite the fact that they don’t necessarily need three shortstops.
Speaking of three shortstops, the Diamondbacks still have Cliff Pennington hanging around. He best compliments Owings as it’s a bit of a duplication of efforts to have two fantastic defensive shortstops on the roster who struggle at the plate, which is what they had last year. Pennington’s not going anywhere, so he’s the surest bet to be on the 25-man roster a few months from now. You can take this to the bank.
But back to the real battle, it’s perhaps important to try to understand why the Diamondbacks may have chosen Owings. It’s definitely not because he’s hitting better than Gregorius this spring, although it may help highlight the difference between the two players. Instead, it’s likely due to the production gap that can be found between the two players.
On Monday, Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton laid down a very timely framework, highlighting just how much defense a glove-first type of player would have to showcase to outweigh his offensive ineptitude. Carleton was specifically discussing two non-Diamondback shortstops, in this case the Yankees’ Derek Jeter and Brendan Ryan. We know that Jeter can still hit some but the defense has significantly deteriorated at this point. On the flip side, Ryan can’t hit a lick and plays the best defensive shortstop in the game. Who should the Yankees choose? Despite the erosion of The Captain’s skills, Carleton proved that he’s still the best choice because Jeter’s offense, even if it’s not profound, is more valuable than the defense that even the best defender in the game, Ryan, can provide.
Now let’s apply this to the Diamondbacks. Gregorius gets the nod on defense and it’s not even a debate. Owings is probably a second baseman down the road once he loses a step, but he can play short for now. Didi has more range and a better arm, but Owings can make most of the plays. There’s definitely a gap between them and we’ll need a season or two to adequately capture it, but just know that a gap exists.
The question really comes at the plate. Owings is a better hitter than Gregorius, with more power and a swing capable of posting a better average. Owings is also faster on the base paths and should steal more bases, although not by an obscene amount. Where Didi has an edge is in his K:BB numbers. He’s been more patient than Owings all along and walks more often while striking out less. This can be observed all throughout their minor league careers. It’s no secret, Owings rarely walks and strikes out a good chunk of the time. Didi, on the other hand, walks a little more and rarely strikes out but a lot of the contact that he makes never leaves the infield. So it’s a tradeoff all the way.
And to get down to what really matters, we have to ask the question that the Diamondbacks have likely already answered: how much better at the plate does Owings have to be to make up the gap in defense? The answer, at least according to Carleton, appears to be “not that much.” (For what it’s worth, the projection systems have Gregorius and Owings pegged as similar offensive players, but I’m not sure how accurate that is given their limited major league playing time. With limited data for projection systems to draw on, I tend to give more weight to scouts’ opinions and Jason Parks, a favorite of this website, loves Owings) If Owings is the new starter and produces at least 20 points of wOBA more than Gregorius would have, the Diamondbacks should come out ahead. But in the long run, Owings may develop into a guy who can produce 40 or 50 points more wOBA than Gregorius ever does. Owings certainly has the upside, but he also carries more risk in that we just don’t know how well he’ll adapt to the MLB daily grind as he has just 55 at-bats to his name thus far.
What should the Diamondbacks do? They should probably give Owings a chance given that they haven’t gotten anything acceptable in return for him while shopping him for the last several months. They can try to flip Didi to fill a need, but if they can’t get anything going at the moment, he’s best used as cheap insurance to stash in AAA. A trade can again be explored come July and August or Gregorius might just play himself back into the lineup in Phoenix. Who knows?
It will be a situation worth monitoring far after the first game is played. Just because one of the players is the Opening Day starter doesn’t mean that he’s a lock to play the next 161 games at the position. For now, Chris Owings may be the guy who gets the first crack at things and the team will have to play it by ear to see if he’s truly the best option. As a team with no margin for error, they really can’t accept anything less.
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