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October 11, 2007

Future Shock

How the D'backs Were Built

by Kevin Goldstein

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Unlike the Red Sox, Arizona is very much a team built from scratch, with 14 of the players on their 25-man roster coming from the draft or through international signings. Add in some prudent trades, a couple of waiver claims, and a handful of lower-level free agent signings, and you have yourself a young playoff team that is lined up to contend for years to come.

Catchers

Miguel Montero (NDFA, 2001)
Chris Snyder (Draft, 2002)
Robby Hammock (Draft, 1998)

Snyder and Montero form a little more than just a starter/backup tandem, as Montero is Livan Hernandez's personal catcher, and starts about a third of the time overall. They make a pretty good backstop together, combining for 23 home runs this year. A second-round pick in 2002 out of the University of Houston, Snyder has developed into exactly the player scouts expected--he's good defensively with a strong arm, and at the plate, he doesn't hit for much of an average, but makes up for it with power and walks.

After four years in the minors, Montero was seen as little more than an organizational soldier before a breakout season in the California League two years ago, one that was attributed to the work of then Lancaster hitting coach Damon Mashore, who shortened Montero's swing and got him away from his pull-happy ways. He's a much better hitter for average than he showed this year, and while he's not the defender that Snyder is, he'd be worthy of a full-time job in other organizations.

Hammock is the extra man on the roster, now in his 10th year with the organization--an amazing feat in itself for a 23rd-round pick. He's a grinder who can draw walks and use the whole field with his line-drive swing. The primary reason he's lasted this long is his versatility, as beyond catching, he can back up at both the infield and outfield corners.

The Future: Snyder and Montero are both young and in their pre-arbitration years, so they could be locked in this shared role for years to come. This is a good thing, as the Arizona system is strong, but not in catching. This year's supplemental first-round pick, Ed Easley, has a shot at changing that.

Infield

Tony Clark (Free Agent, 1/05)
Stephen Drew (Draft, 2004)
Conor Jackson (Draft, 2003)
Augie Ojeda (Free Agent, 2/07)
Mark Reynolds (Draft, 2004)
Alberto Callaspo (Trade, 2/06)
Jeff Cirillo (Waivers, 8/07)

Jackson and Clark share first base duties. Jackson was a first-round pick in 2003, a very attractive player to those who put a high value on college performance, and that's come with the good and the bad. After a rough rookie campaign last year, Jackson began to blossom this year as the on-base and doubles machine that he is, but he's a bit of a mismatch offensively for a first baseman. Originally drafted as a third baseman, Jackson proved unable to handle the position as a pro, and a conversion to left field in the minors was short-lived, with good reason. So now he's a pretty good hitter, but not what one would expect of a first baseman. Clark is one of the best part-time hitters in the game when used properly--over his three seasons in Arizona, he's slugged 45 home runs in 531 at-bats against righties. Few remember that 17 years ago, some believed Clark was the best hitter in the draft--he ended up going second overall to Detroit when Atlanta opted for Chipper Jones at No. 1 over Clark and Todd Van Poppel, who teams passed on due to money concerns. Clark's long swing prevented him from becoming a star, but the power has always been there.

With Orlando Hudson sidelined, the decision to go with Augie Ojeda at second base in the postseason is an interesting one, but it's hard to argue with the results so far. Basically a minor league fill-in at this point, Ojeda put up a sub-700 OPS at Triple-A for the Twins and Cubs over the last two season, but was hitting a fluky .323/.395/.404 at Triple-A Tucson after signing with Arizona in late March. He was chosen to start over Alberto Callaspo, who has spent the last two years beating up on Triple-A pitching while floundering in the majors. Callaspo is the better hitter and the better fielder, but Ojeda seems to be the choice based on his veteran status and fundamentally sound play (Callaspo's problems with the law this year didn't help his case).

Also not the player the team expected to man third base this year, Mark Reynolds filled in admirably for an injured Chad Tracy and is already one of the steals of the 2004 draft--a 16th-round pick out of the University of Virginia who no scouts projected to hit for this kind of power, while knowing he couldn't stay at shortstop. Where he'll play next year is an open question, and he kind of is what he is, a free-swinging slugger prone to high strikeout totals who has value in the right role.

It's hard to say what's happened to Stephen Drew this year, as his regular season performance wasn't even close to his 10th percentile PECOTA projection, yet he was the team's most dynamic performer in the three game sweep of the Cubs, prompting one scout to bring back the questions about Drew's makeup from his amateur career, saying, "See how damn good he is when he cares?"

Jeff Cirillo was picked up on waivers towards the end of the year, and is an extra bench bat in what might be his last season. An 11th-round pick in 1991, Cirillo greatly exceeded any sort of scouting expectations, and in some ways was the kind of early evidence used in supporting college performance-based drafting.

The Future: Jackson is without question the first baseman of the future, and Clark is a free agent, but Arizona will likely try to re-sign him, valuing immensely what he provides both at the plate and in the dugout. Hudson's contract is up, and he's arbitration eligible. If he re-ups, the question is what happens to Reynolds, as Tracy is signed through 2009. Drew is a lock at shortstop for quite a while. As great as he's been, it's quite possible that we won't see Ojeda in an Arizona uniform again next year. All of Arizona's top infield prospects are no longer such, having reached the big leagues, and there's really nobody in anyone's rear-view mirror right now as the upper minors are fairly barren when it comes to infielders.

Outfield

Eric Byrnes (Free Agent, 12/05)
Jeff Salazar (Waivers, 3/07)
Justin Upton (Draft, 2005)
Chris Young (Trade, 2005)

Young's .237 batting average and .295 on-base percentage represent the low end of his abilities, and the scariest part is that everything else about his game is very real. Note that in the second half of the season he hit for more power, had a significantly higher walk rate, and became far more comfortable on the bases. He's going to be huge, and the White Sox will regret trading him for the remainder of our planet's existence.

Upton is a man-child, proving to be ready for the big leagues before his 20th birthday. In the last 20 years, there are three high school players who have received off-the-charts scouting reports: Ken Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, and Justin Upton--'nuff said.

An eighth-round pick by the Rockies in 2002 as a cheap college senior, Salazar exceeded all expectations, beginning with a 900 OPS year at Low-A in 2003, and continued production up the ladder. He can play all three outfield positions, has decent speed and power, and while he might be a little short as an everyday player, Salazar is a fantastic fourth outfielder and fill-in player who will be in the big leagues a long time. The Diamondbacks were astute to put in a claim when the Rockies tried to sneak him through waivers in March.

After looking to be all but done after a 2005 season in which he didn't do much for three different teams, Byrnes resurrected his career over the last two years in Arizona, earning a $30 million extension in the process. That move could look silly down the line, when Arizona could have cheaper and better options before that deal is up. On a scouting level, Byrnes has a similar career path to Salazar's, as both were somewhat lightly regarded eighth-rounders out of big schools (Oklahoma for Salazar, UCLA for Byrnes).

The Future: Young and Upton are all but guaranteed to be two-thirds of a crazy-great outfield for the next five-plus years, but who will make up the other third? Is it too early to give up on Carlos Quentin? Where would he even play with Byrnes signing a three-year extension two months ago? And what about Carlos Gonzalez, who could be ready for a big league look sometime next year? Most teams would kill to have such problems.

Starting Pitching

Brandon Webb (Draft, 2000)
Doug Davis (Free Agent, 1/07)
Livan Hernandez (Trade, 8/06)
Micah Owings (Draft, 2005)

Davis is what scouts refer to as "a thumber"---a guy who changes speeds, keeps batters on their toes, and tries to get them to chase his big-breaking slow curve out of the strike zone. The thing is, he's really good at it, usually above league average, and he's always healthy, making at least 33 starts in each of the last four years. Those guys may not be stars, but they're worth their weight in gold. A 10th-round pick by the Rangers in 1996, he reached the majors three years later but had problems missing bats early in his career, leading Texas to give up on him too soon.

At this point, Hernandez is a less-effective version of Davis, but again, he's always available, making 30+ starts in each of the last ten years, and he can seemingly pitch forever and save the bullpen. Again, not overly effective, but there's value there. A superstar in Cuba, he serves as more evidence that the baseball is mighty good over there, but not insanely good. If it was, I imagine we would have seen more impressive careers from him and from Jose Contreras.

Owings is yet another outstanding draft find from the Mike Rizzo era, and also a testament to the abilities of Arizona's player development staff. A third-round pick just two years ago, his career took off when the coaching staff altered his slider, putting him suddenly in possession of two plus pitches. His changeup still lags behind, but he's at least a No. 3 type, with the possibility to become more. Oh yeah, the hitting is for real. In his final year of college, he led a very good Tulane team in home runs, and if he'd never stepped up onto the mound, he would have been a fourth- or fifth-round pick as a one-dimensional slugging first baseman.

Webb is another big surprise from a scouting standpoint. An eighth-round pick in 2000, Webb was seen as a classic polished college pitcher with good control and three solid pitches, but the wipeout sinker really didn't develop until well into his pro career, as he relied primarily on a much harder (94-96 mph) straight fastball early in his career.

The Future: Webb and Davis will be in the rotation for the next two years, and Webb has a 2010 option for $8.5 million that looks like a total bargain at this point. Owings is still young and under control for a long time to come. Hernandez is a free agent at the end of the year, and at this point in his career is basically as a gun for hire. There will likely be plenty of teams offering him a middling two-year deal (including Arizona), and he'll likely go to the highest bidder. Randy Johnson will hopefully be back next year, but that's still up in the air, and the No. 5 job is currently unclaimed, though relievers like Dustin Nippert and Edgar Gonzalez could both be given another chance.

Bullpen

Jose Valverde (NDFA, 1997)
Juan Cruz (Trade, 3/06)
Edgar Gonzalez (NDFA, 2000)
Brandon Lyon (Trade, 11/03)
Dustin Nippert (Draft, 2002)
Tony Pena (NDFA, 2002)
Doug Slaten (Draft, 2000)

When Cruz was coming up through the Cubs system, he was generally seen as one of the best pitching prospects in the game, and a superior one to fellow Cubs farmhand Carlos Zambrano. Things never went as planned, as rough mechanics and the related command problems proved to be his bugaboo, but he still has nasty stuff, and showed it this year more than ever. Stolen from the Athletics for Brad Halsey, he'd be a closer candidate on other teams.

Signed out of Mexico and once one of the brightest prospects in the system, Gonzalez stalled out at Triple-A, spending four years in Tucson with occasional (and usually bad) big league stints before settling into a long-relief role this year. He has a deep repertoire, and will likely get another shot at starting as early as next year.

Lyon is all the Diamondbacks have to show for the Curt Schilling trade, and while that's a bit of an embarrassment, Lyon was a valuable piece to the bullpen this year. He'll never be more than a middle reliever, but he throws strikes, gets ground balls, and could probably do what's he's done over the last two seasons for the next ten years.

Much more was expected from Nippert by now. Another late-draft find (15th round), Nippert returned from 2004 Tommy John surgery to win the Southern League ERA title in 2005, and had scouts buzzing about a 6'7" righty with a mid-90s fastball and hard, spiking curve. He's struggled since, baffling talent evaluators who still see big-league impact stuff coming out of his hand. Some attribute it to a lack of confidence, and while he settled in as a mop-up reliever this year, he should, like Gonzalez, get another look at starting.

Pena used to be a total stud as a prospect. This was back when he was known as Adriano Rosario, and the revelation of his true identity in a post-9/11 world set off a firestorm that almost ended with his unable to re-enter the country. The fact that he was a 23-year-old throwing up to 98 mph in the Midwest League as opposed to an 18-year-old changed his prospect status significantly, but upper-90s heat is still upper 90s heat. His age, however, factored heavily into Pena's move to relief, as once he was 23, there was far less hope that he would develop his secondary pitches to a starter level.

Slaten is yet another surprise development for Arizona. A 17th-round pick in 2000 out of a California junior college, Slaten was nearly cut in 2003 when he had a 6.03 ERA for High-A Lancaster while allowing 213 baserunners in 119 1/3 innings. Instead, the D'backs shifted him to the bullpen, where he took off. Last year, he put up a 1.43 ERA split between Double- and Triple-A. A classic long lanky southpaw who gives fellow lefties fits because of the angle of his delivery, Slaten could probably keep doing so for the next decade.

After sharing closer duties over the past four years, Jose Valverde finally got a shot at the job from day one in 2007, and led the majors with 47 saves. The biggest aspect to Valverde's breakthrough was his health. The stuff and demeanor to close was always there, but he's had minor nagging injuries (shoulder, biceps, tendonitis) throughout his career, and one look at his violent delivery explains why. The fact that he's yet to have surgery is a surprise, but he's basically always pitching on borrowed time.

The Future: This is not only one of the better bullpens, but also one of the youngest, with Juan Cruz the elder statesman at 28. While Cruz and Lyon are both arbitration eligible, the bullpen as a whole should be back en masse in 2008, unless one of the long relievers moves to the rotation.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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