Pick `Em: Arizona’s Shortstop Conundrum

There are some teams that wish they had more or better shortstops. With Jose Iglesias now missing an indeterminate amount of time in Detroit, the Tigers may now start Eugenio Suarez. Don’t feel bad if that name is new to you. The Twins and Marlins are poised to start pure fielders Pedro Florimon and Adeiny Hechavarria. The Mets have the never-ending Ruben Tejeda story, and that other New York team will start somebody who used to be Derek Jeter. At least the Yankees have Brendan Ryan in reserve; the rest of these teams lack viable backups beyond their own version of Suarez. On the other end of the spectrum are the Arizona Diamondbacks, which feature three or four viable shortstops.

This isn’t to say the Diamondbacks have an excellent situation at shortstop. Their options are well-defined, but our depth chart page ranks Arizona’s shortstops as the 24th best unit in baseball — immediately behind the Boras City Free Agents. What the D-backs do have is plenty of major-league depth, with Chris Owings, Didi Gregorius, Cliff Pennington and Nick Ahmed. The latter option is ticketed for the minors, but Owings, Gregorius and Pennington are in a race for playing time.

The fun part about this competition is we’ll get some insight into the organization’s preferences. There are clear choices for the club if they want a superior bat, glove or a combination of both. They could also punt a decision and platooning based on the starting pitcher or game state. Owings bats righty, Gregorius lefty and Pennington is a switch-hitter. Arizona can use any platoon imaginable.

Owings is the bat option. One insider I spoke with compared him to Michael Young — complete with a future move down the defensive spectrum. Young gave away about one or two wins per season when he started at shortstop, and my impression is Owings would be a little less damaging in 2014. I’m more interested in the bat comp, though. Young was a BABIP fiend, with a career .333 mark. He was especially good at finding a hittable pitch and barreling it up. Owings’ skill set at the plate looks remarkably similar, from plate discipline to quality of contact.

Gregorius is seen as the glove. Our defensive metrics haven’t exactly drooled over him, but scouts and players enjoy his work in the field. His bat showed some surprising pop last season, but nobody is ready to cry Jimmy Rollins. He projects to give away about a win with his bat in a full season. Owings sits right at league average. For the sake of argument, let’s say Gregorius is a win better in the field, which would mean both players are equal in overall value.

Option number three is Pennington. His past two seasons at the plate have been ugly, but back in 2011, he mixed a little bit of Owings’ high-contact game with a solid defensive reputation (UZR didn’t like him that year). If he can recover some of his bat, he would offer a little more glove than Owings and a little more bat than Gregorius. If you step away from the scouting reports and rely more on UZR, Pennington looks like the best defensive option.

We can argue all day about specific expectations. All three players have some range of possible outcomes from totally injured to a hypothetical 100th percentile performance. Let’s settle for saying Owings and Gregorius are about equal and both have value to the franchise. Pennington is maybe a couple hairs worse than the youngsters, and he’s also a short-term asset. The club has several options it can try.

  • Start Gregorius, bench Pennington and option Owings.
  • Start Owings, bench Pennington and option Gregorius.
  • Start Pennington and option either or both Owings and Gregorius.
  • Platoon Owings and Gregorius based on opposing pitcher-handedness.
  • Platoon Owings and Gregorius based on Diamondbacks’ pitcher ball-in-play tendencies.
  • Mix Pennington into either platoon scenario.
  • Make a trade.
  • Fail to commit to any obvious strategy.

Let’s first address the pros and cons of a platoon. The hitting platoon doesn’t appear warranted. Owings’ sample is too small, but he hit same-handed pitchers well. Gregorius has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching, but it’s probably harmful to his development to isolate him from lefties at 24 years old. Pennington has hit better against righties than lefties in his career, but his year-by-year splits are all over the place. In short, only Gregorius looks like a classic platoon player, and he still has time to develop.

A platoon based on the Arizona pitcher that day makes more sense, except they all share a similar profile. The Diamondbacks will probably allow lots of balls in play now that Patrick Corbin is out for the season. Of the current projected rotation, Wade Miley is the strikeout champ at 17.4% of hitters. With Corbin and Archie Bradley in the rotation, Owings could be used with the strikeout guys while a defensive option is used for Miley, Cahill and McCarthy. As it stands, this platoon doesn’t really work.

Another disadvantage to the platoon is it can be hard for players to perform at peak efficiency. If Owings is only facing lefties, then there will be periods where he sits for most of a week. To get top value out of Owings, he needs to be sharp at the plate. Both players would probably develop more slowly with fewer at bats, which hurts the club’s long-term outlook.

Rather than run a platoon, the club could trade one of its prospects and count on Ahmed if the injury bug bites. I’ve seen this scenario proposed many times, but I don’t see the advantage to the Diamondbacks. Certainly, the team should make a deal if its getting a strong return. The issue is the club has no obvious hole that can be fixed by trading either shortstop. Additionally, both youngsters have the upside to be average or better players. Will they both reach that ceiling? Probably not. The club can easily hedge their bets by standing pat.

The worst choice would be to juggle all three players without any coherent, long-term plan. If the players don’t know what to expect day-to-day, then it could interfere with their performance and development a lot more than a simple platoon. That’s based on purely on theory, since individual outcomes are unpredictable.

That leaves three options that boil down to “pick one player and go.” If we’re right to presume all three players have a similar value in 2014, then it’s up to the Diamondbacks to decide what they prefer this year and into the future. Is it a glove, a bat or a little of both?



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Dbacks Fan
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Dbacks Fan

With the Dbacks dangling Gregorious for a major league ready SP, what type of SP could they reasonably obtain? Rick Porcello? Not him specifically, but something like that?

Didi is a young, cost controlled, major league SS; that has to have SOME value, right?

Steve
Guest

There is no way they could ever get Porcello back for Gregorious. That would be ugly.

Dbacks Fan
Guest
Dbacks Fan

Curious why exactly the Dbacks couldn’t get Porcello for Gregorius?

Aside from the Tigers lack of depth at SP, what is the reason? Porcello isn’t performing better than a “mid-rotation, major league-ready pitcher”.

Steve
Guest
Steve

I mean, that and the fact that Porcello has been a +3 win player for 2 seasons in a row now. Didi was barely over 1 win in over 400 PAs, not to mention he got fortunate at the plate. Detroit would have to be pretty high to do anything like this swap.

LHPSU
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LHPSU

The thing is, there are very few teams that have an unsettled shortstop situation; many already have a young, cost-controlled, major league SS or an established star at the position. Gregorius would be a nice player for a lot of teams, but not really one that they need per se, and most of the time they will end up with the same dilemma that the D-backs are facing now.

boltu43
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boltu43

no way that deal would ever happen. the tigers are too smart of an organization to just trade away one of their good starting pitchers for absolutely nothing.

Za
Guest
Za

I see what you did there.

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