The Diamondbacks have been active actors on the open market when it comes to making transactions over the last several years. They’ve signed their share of players and made more than their share of trades, one might argue. Free agent signings are expensive, and there’s been plenty of recent data across baseball (including right on Arizona’s roster) that teams are getting less and less value from free agents these days. Ian Kennedy got $70 million dollars over five years this winter, after all. But the good thing about free agent acquisitions is that they just cost money. All you need is an owner (or managing partner) to sign on the dotted line and it’s done. Trades, on the other hand, force the team to part with a package of seemingly equal value to that which they’re acquiring. To win the deal, you’re betting one of two conditions: either the player(s) you’re acquiring can help you more than the player(s) you’re dealing, or, you’re betting that the player you’re acquiring will perform better than the market has dictated. You have to be pretty confident in the latter scenario, commonly referred to as a “challenge trade,” and that’s why we don’t see them very often.
The D-backs, however, have made plenty of trades with the first scenario in mind. Because of the timing of prospects maturing over the last several years, they’ve been forced to choose which player at a particular position to hang on to and which to deal. Timelines don’t always work out the way you’d like them to, and sometimes you have two MLB-ready center fielders at the same time, two third baseman, two shortstops, and even the rotation can get clogged at times. This has allowed the team to deal from depth, a position of strength, a number of times. The question today is this: did they keep the right guy? I want to take a look at five such instances and see if the organization chose correctly, at least as far as hindsight can take us. Not all the timelines are perfect here, but let’s just dig in and see how they’ve done when evaluating their own prospects and young players.
Center Field: Pollock or Eaton?
The Diamondbacks were in a position to trade from depth in center when A.J. Pollock was seemingly MLB-ready while Adam Eaton was finishing up his debut season. Ultimately, the team let Eaton go, a player who’d been forecast as a potential NL Rookie of the Year candidate, in a move that was surely a gamble. After all, Eaton was the higher-rated prospect, could get on base, steal bags and cover center field with ease. Eaton was shipped to Chicago, Hector Santiago was shipped from Chicago to Anaheim, Tyler Skaggs went from Arizona to Anaheim (more on him later), and the Diamondbacks got Mark Trumbo in return. While the haul for Eaton and Skaggs wasn’t good, the question here is if Arizona kept the right center fielder. And up until this season, that was a resounding “yes.” In 2013, Eaton was ranked as the team’s 8th-best prospect with Pollock 10th by Baseball Prospectus. Since 2012, Pollock has been worth nearly 14 fWAR while Eaton has been worth nearly 13 fWAR. But here’s the thing: Pollock had a massive lead before being injured in Spring Training and Adam Eaton put up a monster season this year. Going forward, they appear to be almost equally valuable, both being above average hitters while playing plus defense.
The Verdict: Push. Both players have battled injuries and have very similar long term projections.
Third Base: Lamb or Davidson?
A similar situation occurred at third base when Matt Davidson was in the upper minors but Jake Lamb wasn’t far behind. Davidson was rated as the team’s 4th-best prospect in 2013 as a solid regular with plus power that didn’t always show up in games. A year later, Lamb was rated as the team’s 10th-best prospect with some notable swing-and-miss to his game some holes in his swing that needed to be covered up. The power rated as a notch below Davidson’s, too. But while Davidson got a cup of coffee in 2013, the team was unimpressed enough to deal him to Chicago in exchange for relief pitcher Addison Reed. That opened the door for Lamb to get a late-season call-up in 2014 and move into the starting role in 2015 after the failed Yasmany Tomas-at-third-base experiment (LOL). And though Reed’s time in Arizona was spectacular for the wrong reasons, Davidson has only received two (2!) MLB at-bats since the time of the trade. The 25-year old stalled in Chicago’s farm system while Lamb has proven to be a valuable asset to the Diamondbacks, even though he’s had some ups and downs.
The Verdict: Win. At this juncture, it’s hard to see Davidson ever becoming a MLB force while Lamb projects as part of the team’s core for years to come.
Shortstop: Owings or Gregorius?
This debate went back and forth for the better part of two years as both players were on a similar timeline and were MLB-ready at virtually the same time. Both players emerged for the D-backs in the majors in 2013 with Didi Gregorius being the slick-fielding lefty hitter with a questionable bat and Chris Owings being the speedier, more advanced bat with a little less defense. In 2013, Gregorius was rated as the team’s 5th-best prospect with Owings checking in at 3rd. Unimpressed with Gregorius’ hitting in a season and a half, the team decided to flip him in the winter of 2015 in a three way-deal. The Yankees received Gregorius while the Tigers received Shane Greene and the Diamondbacks netted Robbie Ray and Domingo Leyba for their troubles. In his first full year on the job in 2015, Owings regressed while recovering from shoulder trouble as Gregorius found his swing just in time for the Yankees to take advantage. Owings’ injury negated much of his value and would have made him tough to move, but the team was clearly done with Gregorius, and in his two seasons in New York, he’s put up 5.5 fWAR while Owings has been a full win below replacement level over the same timeframe. Figuring out how Owings fits with the team going forward is a mystery, and ultimately, he may be a super utility player while Gregorius shines for the Yankees for now.
The Verdict: Loss. Owings’ injury came at the wrong time, but that didn’t mean the team had to give up on Gregorius and install Nick Ahmed. Shortstop is now a position of weakness for the Diamondbacks.
Young Pitching: Skaggs or Parker?
Back in late 2011, the Diamondbacks were seemingly loaded with impact arms. Jarrod Parker, Tyler Skaggs, and Trevor Bauer formed and enviable triumvirate with Archie Bradley entering the fold, as well. With so many young arms to choose from, the team unloaded Parker, a righty, to Oakland and kept the lefty Skaggs. In 2012, Skaggs was Arizona’s 2nd-best prospect, and after being dealt to the A’s, Parker checked in at the same position in Oakland’s system. Parker (along with Collin Cowgill and Ryan Cook) fetched Trevor Cahill and Craig Breslow in the deal. Both Skaggs and Parker were set to hit the majors at some point in 2012 and it was again an example of Arizona dealing from depth. Unfortunately, both pitchers have dealt with massive amounts of injury trouble. Parker was last reported to be considering a third Tommy John surgery to repair his UCL after only throwing 384 career innings in the majors, though some of them were very good innings. Skaggs stalled in the upper minors and didn’t pitch particularly well in the majors before he was trade to Anaheim in the Eaton deal (above), then underwent his own Tommy John surgery in 2014. He finally made it back to the majors in July where’s he’s been okay for for the Angels.
The Verdict: Win, narrowly. You can argue that Skaggs can at least throw a baseball these days, but neither player is still in the organization and both are questionable long term. Did the team see the future injuries coming for Parker? Perhaps, and with one TJ already on Parkers’s resume, they kept the safer bet in Skaggs.
More Young Pitching: Shipley or Blair?
Both Braden Shipley (1st round) and Aaron Blair (2nd round) were drafted in 2013, and while they entered the system with very different ceilings, they also entered the system with different amounts of polish. Blair was the prototypical big-bodied hurler capable of pitching a large number of ground ball-heavy innings while Shipley was relatively new to pitching and had better raw stuff. Blair’s numbers in the minors often outpaced his draftmate’s as Shipley was learning to harness his arsenal. Blair already had control of his and climbed the minor league ladder a bit faster. Shipley’s star began to lose some shine as he struggled once reaching AA and he lost some velocity on his heater, albeit by design. Blair, meanwhile, looked like he would live up to the billing as an innings-eater. This past winter, the team made their move, dealing Blair as part of the Shelby Miller deal, refusing to trade Shipley whom many teams had asked for. Arizona held firm and kept it’s higher ranked prospect, and though both Shipley and Blair made their big league debuts this season, both have been hit around. Blair’s status as a big leaguer is now a little murkier while Shipley looks like he can stick, even if it’s in more of a back-end capacity.
The Verdict: Win. If you had to bet long term on the pair after witnessing their debuts, you’d do well to bet on the tools to provide the separation. In that regard, Shipley’s the better bet to provide long term value.
While Arizona has rarely received promising returns in it’s trades, they’ve at least done well many times over on choosing which player to trade when dealing from depth. Gregorius has burned them to some degree, but the timing of Owings’ should woes played into that decision and Nick Ahmed was warranting his own shot while having little trade value. They at least moved the most valuable of the pieces to that puzzle and got back good value. Overall, they’ve done a solid job of evaluating their own players — it’s just that they’ve struggled mightily in evaluating players in other organizations to their detriment. Perhaps this highlights a disparity between their internal development/analysis and their ability to make decisions outside the organization. At some point, one has to wonder who’s driving the latter. As regimes have changed, and may change again, this is surely an area of weakness that needs to be addressed as their player acquisition and development processes have been generally strong over the last several years.
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