Trading season has officially opened. This morning the Arizona Diamondbacks, last place in the NL West by 7.5 games, traded outfielder Conor Jackson to the Oakland A’s for 24-year-old minor league reliever Sam Demel. The move not only reflects Jackson’s poor performance this year, but also Arizona’s need for bullpen arms now and in the future.
Jackson, the 19th overall selection in the 2003 draft, was until recently considered a part of the organization’s plan. After dominating Triple-A in 2005 he played a full season at first base for the Diamondbacks in 2006, posting a .352 wOBA. He improved in 2007, posting a .363 wOBA. A move back to the outfield in 2008 proved useful. Not only did Jackson post his best offensive season to date, but he also ranked positively on defense, in UZR and DRS, at both left field and first base.
But then, just as Jackson was entering his prime years, he fell ill. Last week Pat Andriola examined Jackson’s case of Valley Fever which cost him most of the 2009 season. He did make a recovery, but, as Pat notes, the physical tolls of the illness might still be plaguing Jackson. Not only has he hit for far less power, but he also has spent time on the DL this season with a hamstring strain. The Valley Fever might be out of his system, but it appears that the lingering effects remain.
Why, then, would the Diamondbacks, who have the luxury of being patient, trade him away so early in the season? He does, after all, have another year of team control, so if he makes a recovery later in the year the Diamondbacks could have reaped the benefits in 2011, when they might have a chance of contending. The answer appears to be twofold.
First is the obvious need to rebuild the bullpen. Arizona currently sports the league’s worst bullpen. The unit surrenders 5.78 runs per game and allows inherited runners to score 47 percent of the time (second worst in the majors). Demel will immediately join the major league team, and they hope he can somewhat replicate the success he showed this year in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Always a relatively high-strikeout and low-homer reliever, Demel has greatly improved his walk rate this season, 2.8 per nine compared to his minor league average of 4.5 per nine. While he might not become a striking success, he should represent an improvement for Arizona.
The second is to open up a spot for one of the Diamondbacks’ younger players. Jackson makes $3 million this year, and there might be pressure to play him as long as they’re paying him. MLB.com’s Steve Glibert, who broke the story, reports that Gerardo Parra, “will likely get the bulk of the playing time in left field with Jackson gone.” Parra, the Diamondbacks’ No. 2 prospect in 2009, doesn’t have the profile of a corner outfielder. He never really hit for power in the minors, and none of the scouting reports suggest that’s a tool he’s sure to develop. He still had a decent showing in 2009, and his power has increased a bit early this season. The Diamondbacks at least want to get a good look at what he can do.
There are also a couple of players on the farm, namely Arizona’s first and second rounders in the 2009 draft, who could eventually graduate to take Jackson’s spot. First rounder A.J. Pollock is still out after undergoing surgery to repair a growth plate fracture in his right elbow, though he still factors into the team’s plans. Marc Krauss, their second round pick, profiles as more of a corner outfielder. In its organizational rankings, Baseball America commented that Krauss, “could be the first player from Arizona’s 2009 draft class to reach the majors.” He’s currently in high-A ball.
We knew that the Diamondbacks would undergo big changes, and this appears to be just the start. Moving Jackson isn’t a big move in itself, but is part of a longer outlook that the Diamondbacks hope will bring them back into contention. As Dave said in his Diamondbacks trade deadline article, they could save some money after the season by non-tendering Jackson. They instead traded him for a player who, while unspectacular, helps fill a grave need. They’ll now get a better look at a former top prospect, and will, after the season, have a better idea of how to fill the left field spot in the long term.