As it currently stands, the 2016 edition of Spring Training is just over a month away. Judging from what’s transpired on the MLB Hot Stove, fans of a few teams in particular are more excited for the upcoming season than others.
In case you haven’t already, lets put the Arizona Diamondbacks and their fans in the super excited category.
After boasting one of the National League’s best offenses and one of the most underperforming pitching staffs in 2015, the front office had a decision to make. And boy, did they make one.
According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, general manager Dave Stewart and co. kicked around the idea of pursuing free agent ace Zack Greinke for a little while, but the actual process of committing to the chase and agreeing to a six-year, $206.5 million deal took only about six hours.
Just like that, Arizona looked a lot more fearsome in the National League West. Then, they got even stronger after acquiring Shelby Miller from the Atlanta Braves. There’s plenty of offseason left and an unusual amount of major free agents still looking for new homes, but the Dbacks will eventually be viewed as one of the league’s offseason “winners.”
As we’ve seen in recent years, winning the offseason gives teams no guarantee of actually winning the World Series in October. However, picking up hurlers like Greinke and Miller to bolster the rotation doesn’t seem like it’ll hurt.
When teams create offseason goals and things go according to plan, they sometimes appear unbeatable and without flaws before taking the field. That’s happened on a few occasions in recent years, but it almost never ends that way. A lot of times, it’s quite the opposite.
The bottom line is this: no matter how many great moves a team makes during the offseason, there will always be some kind of weakness in the roster – even if we can’t see it just yet.
For Arizona, as much as they’ve improved, some questions still remain that could potentially make-or-break 2016, and Stewart knows it. Sure, they’re currently in search of some upgrades to the bullpen, but it’s the questions in the middle of the diamond with shortstop Nick Ahmed and second baseman Chris Owings that probably gives him agita.
This is a young and promising duo that can grow and succeed together. However, with the ginormous commitment Arizona just made to Greinke, the huge haul they sent to Atlanta to get Miller and having both A.J. Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt still young and affordable, the window to win is right now.
Stewart knows that, which is why he’s checked in around the league with regard to the middle infield market. At various points throughout the winter, the Dbacks have been connected to second baseman Brandon Phillips in trade rumors, as well as free agent Howie Kendrick.
With the failed trade to the Washington Nationals, we all saw how difficult it’d be for Phillips to give his blessing and leave Cincinnati. Kendrick wouldn’t cost the organization more prospects, though. Or will he?
Kendrick was one of this winter’s free agents who rejected a qualifying offer, meaning the team that eventually signs him must surrender their highest unprotected selection in the upcoming amateur player draft.
It makes a ton of sense as to why Arizona has an interest in Kendrick: he’s incredibly consistent at the plate. The second baseman owns a .293/.333/.423 career line with an OPS of .755. Some players have up seasons and down seasons throughout their careers, but not Kendrick. He’s never posted an OPS less than .721 in a single season during 10 years in the big leagues.
When it comes to Ahmed and Owings, nobody knows exactly what they’re going to provide offensively. They each had their moments throughout 2015, but their respective stats didn’t look all that inspiring once the final out was recorded. Let’s quickly compare them with Kendrick (stats via FanGraphs):
Ahmed: .226/.275/.359, 9 HRs, 34 RBI, 67 wRC+, 1.7 WAR in 459 plate appearances
Owings: .227/.264/.322, 4 HRs, 43 RBI, 52 wRC+, -1.4 WAR in 552 plate appearances
Kendrick: .295/.336/.409, 9 HRs, 54 RBI, 109 wRC+, 2.1 WAR in 495 plate appearances
Sometimes, it pays to be consistent, especially when a team is in that “win-now” mode like the Diamondbacks currently are.
It’d be silly to not mention the defensive prowess of the above players, as well. Despite his poor offensive stats, Ahmed still produced a positive WAR because Fangraphs’ advanced metrics pin him as one of the better defenders at shortstop. Kendrick is not exactly a stud with the glove, but he’s slightly better than Owings at second base, who just took one giant step back last season.
The deals they’ve made so far have stretched the payroll just about as far as it’ll go, but that hasn’t stopped Arizona from investigating certain options to improve. After all, they’ve gone this far, how much is a little more stretching really going to hurt?
Plus, they have the added bonus of not many teams being in pursuit of an everyday second baseman like Kendrick, so a bidding war doesn’t seem likely. Adding someone to the middle infield blocks the development of Owings and makes Aaron Hill an expensive and even more seldom-used bench player, but that’s not stopping Stewart from pursuing this potential deal further.
What is stopping him, though, is losing another draft pick.
Obviously, a team’s most valuable draft pick from a year-to-year basis is in the first round. It’s also why many teams who don’t have a protected pick will shy away from free agents who’ve rejected a qualifying offer. But for the Dbacks, their 13th overall pick is already long gone with the acquisition of Greinke, so their next highest choice is a competitive balance selection at the end of the first round.
Surely they’d sacrifice that for a player like Kendrick to bring some more offensive stability up the middle, right? Not so fast.
MLB Trade Rumors cited a recent report that Stewart would not make a move and surrender another pick, mostly because they’ve already given up one. One would assume trading away their 2014 and 2015 first-round picks (Touki Toussaint and Dansby Swanson) within the past year has something to do it, as well.
Unless something happens between now and Opening Day, Arizona will trust its middle infield to a pair of players they’re familiar with, but are also very aware of their shortcomings. Given their respective ages (Ahmed will be 26 on Opening Day, Owings will be 24), taking a step forward after another year’s worth of experience is entirely possible (and for Owings, being further removed from shoulder surgery).
On paper, the Diamondbacks are a vastly improved team from 2015, but they’re far from a perfect roster. How they handle these potential weaknesses up the middle will play a large role in determining whether or not lofty expectations are met come October.
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter so we can get through a winter without baseball together: @mmusico8.