How much is grit worth?
The Arizona Diamondbacks haven’t gone so far as to create a sixth tool, but it has been clear this offseason that they are looking for players who embody the persona of their manager, noted hard-noser Kirk Gibson, and are ridding themselves of players who don’t fit this mentality.
Every team loves to have gritty players. Managers, who for good reason don’t have the final say on personnel decisions, love to say things like “I’d love to have a whole team full of that guy,” referring to players who play the game hard and display the aforementioned “grit.”
But unless those players also have talent, they wouldn’t really want a team full of them. After all, David Eckstein was great on both the 2002 Angels and the 2006 Cardinals, but I doubt either Mike Scioscia or Tony LaRussa would really want a team made up entirely of David Ecksteins.
I don’t know if the Diamondbacks are actually trying to build an entire team consisting of these kinds of players, but it sure seems that way. Nothing signified this more than their winter-long attempt to trade outfielder Justin Upton and their acquisition of Martin Prado in return, one of the game’s best gritty players.
But in their pursuit of players who fit the mentality of their manager, they forgot one thing—in addition to being quite gritty both in his playing and managing days, Gibson was also a really good baseball player. In fact, he was a star.
The D-backs had a star in Upton, but apparently he wasn’t their kind of player. You know the kind—young, team-controlled, and immensely talented. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports has a quote from a former teammate of Upton in the article linked above after Upton was traded: “Justin doesn’t have that kind of attitude; he has a quiet intensity that doesn’t fit the mold of what (general manager Kevin Towers) and Gibby seem to want. He plays hard, but has to look suave doing it. Slamming into walls isn’t his thing, and they will accept nothing short of all-out sacrifice for the team.”
So he hits plenty of balls over walls but won’t run into one, and that’s not good enough? I love grit as much as the next guy, but not in place of talent. This offseason the Diamondbacks moved Upton and prospect Trevor Bauer with the only justification being philosophical. Neither had off-the-field issues or run-ins with the law or PEDs.
That’s not a good start.
Whose team is this?
Typically a team embodies the personality of its best player. That used to be Upton. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the Diamondbacks no longer take on his laid-back personality, but who will lead this team now?
The most likely candidate is Miguel Montero, who draws Prado-esque reviews for his leadership qualities and clubhouse character. As a catcher, he’s in a natural position to be a leader. It appears that this is officially Montero’s team, at least in the clubhouse, and considering he won the battle between the Diamondbacks front office and Bauer, it appears he has management’s backing.
But more than anything, the Diamondbacks appear to be making the statement that this is Gibson’s team. It’s good that they have such faith in their manager, but at some point, the players have to take on the responsibility of leading themselves. Gibson has instilled the intensity that fueled him throughout his career, but it can only go so far.
Mike Singletary had the same intensity and wore out his welcome with the San Francisco 49ers quickly. Larry Bowa was as gritty as they come, but his inability to get along with talented and hard-nosed but quiet players like Scott Rolen are a large part of why he’s not still managing somewhere. Backing Gibson is great, but the Diamondbacks have to be careful not to take all of the eggs out of the baskets of the players on the field.
Who will play shortstop?
The D-backs ended the 2012 season with a solid offensive lineup intact for this season, and even with the departure of Upton and Chris Young, they appear poised to have a decent lineup again. Their most glaring weakness last September was at shortstop, where Willie Bloomquist did his best but isn’t an everyday player and the Stephen Drew Era has officially come to an end.
But after an active offseason that involved a number of trades, shortstop is still their most glaring weakness.
Arizona traded for two shortstops, parting with Bauer, the third overall pick from 2011, for prospect Didi Gregorius a defense-first shortstop from the Reds who will likely never be better than average with the bat, and parting with Young, a former two-time 4.6-win player for Cliff Pennington, a former two-time .687 OPS-guy. The combination of Gregorius and Pennington does nothing to solidify the Diamondbacks’shortstop situation for 2013, even before Gregorious’ arm issues that have him sidelined this spring.
Pennington has had one season in which he was worthy of being an everyday player. On a truly potent offensive team, he could play every day at shortstop and bat eighth, but the Diamondbacks are not that. Gregorious could become a regular player if he can be a league average hitter, but to assume he is ready to be one in 2013 is a stretch. The Diamondbacks entered the off-season with one obvious hole on their roster, and they entered spring training with the same glaring weakness.
How many closers can one team have?
The Diamondbacks made two bullpen-related moves that appeared to be both unnecessary and redundant. The first was their willingness to take on the contract of Heath Bell, allowing the Marlins to escape from underneath their own mistake. Bell fell off drastically in 2012, finishing the descent from bona fide closer that began in his final year in San Diego. The D-backs are hoping that it had more to do with the unpleasant managerial situation in Miami than his decrease in velocity and swing-and-miss stuff, but even if they’re right, they committed themselves to pay a lot for a closer when they already had other options for the role.
Current closer J.J. Putz had a very strong season in 2012 at the age of 35 and was slated to make $6.5 million for 2013. For a mid-market team, that borders on too much to pay for saves, but Putz was among the better closers in the game, so keeping him to ensure that the back end of the bullpen would be solidified isn’t the worst idea in the world. Unnecessarily extending him into his age-37 season for $7 million after trading for an overpaid closer/redemption project that you really need to be right on? That may be.
Furthermore, they have an internal option in set-up man David Hernandez, who is just hitting his prime. He’s coming off a year in which he was just as good as, if not better than, Putz, and would be getting paid about $5 million more this year if only he had pitched in the ninth inning instead of the eighth.
I might have shopped Putz around this offseason to help out with that shortstop situation and been prepared to hand the closer’s role over to Hernandez, but if the Diamondbacks had decided that it was worth the money to keep Putz and Hernandez together at the back end of the bullpen, I won’t argue. But extending Putz a year early and trading for Bell is an inexplicable use of their limited funds.
What was their plan this offseason?
I asked this question earlier in the winter, before they traded Upton, and I’m even more confused by the answer now.
The Diamondbacks entered the winter with a surplus of outfielders, starting pitchers and bullpen arms, and they had one major hole to fill—at shortstop. Their biggest moves of the offseason involved trading for a potentially washed-up and certainly overpriced relief pitcher, overpaying for a fourth outfielder who needs to be platooned (Cody Ross) and signing an additional starting pitcher (Brandon McCarthy) while trading away a top prospect (who was a cheap, major league ready starting pitching option, by the way) because he couldn’t get along with his catcher. Meanwhile, they did nothing to fully address their hole at shortstop.
It’s rare that a team has such an obvious surplus without needs too numerous to fill. If the Diamondbacks decided this winter that their goal was to rid themselves of Upton (for grit-related reasons, or any other), then I accept that. But how was he not traded for some kind of shortstop solution?
The front office has to believe that this team is close to being ready to compete. Otherwise, why shell out the money for Bell, Ross and McCarthy? That being the case, do they really believe that Gregorius, a prospect with 21 career major league plate appearances and/or Pennington, a player with one good but not great season (three years ago) are the answers as everyday shortstops on a contending team?
Wins became extremely expensive to buy on the free agent market this offseason and the Diamondbacks have limited dollars to spend. They have enough young, cheap talent to make their money stretch into a contending team. But their apparent off-season plan, one that involved spending money on free agents to replace players they had just traded away without bringing back solutions to other problems, was not one that appeared to include any long-term thinking.