We see an opportunity in the next couple of years - and this is just our eyes, the way we view it. This is probably an opportune time to hopefully stay on top if we make the right moves and are able to make our club better, even if it means giving up prospects.
-- Kevin Towers
Giving up prospects? I must admit, my first reaction to the suggestion was basically this image, but once I'd gone for a walk, breathed into a paper-bag for a bit, etc. it's something which should perhaps be considered. Of course, floating the idea does not mean it's going to happen - see last winter, where Towers floated the concept of trading Justin Upton. He's still here (thankfully). Yet there is a point where a mid-budget team like Arizona have to bite the bullet and decide to male its move: prospects need to be converted into pieces that will help the team now.
Are the Diamondbacks at that point?
The Diamondbacks may be the current NL West champions, but how long will the current core be together? Let's start by taking the heart of the existing roster - starting position players, pitching rotation and the front of the bullpen - and seeing when Arizona no longer control them. The following chart shows the years of team control in Sedona Red. Player or mutual options are not included, team options are.
To start with the good news first, our front-line pitching, in the shape of the rotation and our closer, seem more or less set for the next four seasons. Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy appear to provide a very solid core, and if there are questions - of varying sizes - the rest of the way, the team has enough candidates to be able to fill in the gaps. If the prospects develop as we hope, there's a chance we could be running out the best rotation in the National League, top to bottom - and at a fraction of the cost of some teams. And I'm also confident that, if J.j. Putz leaves after 2013 (or even 2012 - the latter season is a team option), David Hernandez will be ready to step up.
But if we're all set for pitching, things are a good deal less stable on the position front - and, in particular, the infield. Even discounting seasons down the road, almost every position has a question-mark of one kind or another. To go around the diamond. Is Paul Goldschmidt the reliable first-baseman we've not had for some time? Which Aaron Hill will show up for the Diamondbacks? Will Stephen Drew be 100% healthy and capable of playing short? Is Ryan Roberts the OPS+ 88 guy he was up to age 29, or the OPS+ 108 one we got last year?
And there there is the fact that, at the moment, Drew and Montero are in their last seasons before hitting free agency, with Hill a free-agent after 2013. And these are all positions where the farm system is perilously thin. In Dan's recent survey of our prospects, the sole candidates at those spots were SS Chris Owings (#9) and 2B David Nick (#21). John Sickels of Minor League Ball had the same two at #17 and #20 respectively. No catchers were present on either list, so if we don't re-sign Montero, it might be some time before we have any other home-grown man in the mask.
That might be to what Towers is referring in terms of "an opportunity over the next couple of years." But it's understandable if Arizona fans are a little gun-shy, having been down this road before. After the team won the division in 2007, then-GM Josh Byrnes pulled the trigger on a trade that got Dan Haren from the A's in exchange for a prospect plethora . Haren had a 141 ERA+ in 2008-09 with the Diamondbacks, 4th best in the NL. But the rest of the team around him crumbled, going 113-145 in non-Haren starts over those two seasons. Meanwhile, former prospects from the trade, like Carlos Gonzalez and Brett Anderson, prospered.
But Towers is right, when he says, "Prospects are prospects. You tend to covet them and think that your prospects are better than 29 other teams because you think you know them better, you signed them, you feel good about them. But there’s no guarantees of what they’re ultimately going to do." And if the team thinks 2012-13 provide a window, with the Rockies rebuilding, Dodgers in debt, Giants intent on ensuring every game next year ends 1-0, and the Padres...doing whatever they're doing in San Diego, then having the best Triple-A club in all baseball is a waste of a chance.
However, the bit that does concern me is the idea of trading pitching for pitching. As we've seen, starting pitching is not exactly an area of great need for the Diamondbacks, now or in the future. Yes, Gio Gonzalez has had a couple of fine seasons with Oakland, posting a 129 ERA+ in 2010-11. But it's not too much of a stretch to think that we could get the same level of production from internal candidates over the next couple of years. Certainly, the upside of our top arms would seem considerably higher than Gonzalez's upside [his BABIP OF .282 over the past two years would suggest he was a little lucky] I believe Dan is working on a longer "Gio Gonzalez = bad idea" piece. :-)
To me, it would make more sense to trade from our undeniable stock of pitching and/or outfield prospects, to strengthen our infield. But even there, now probably isn't the time in my opinion, until we have a better handle on the questions posed earlier, e.g. Goldschmidt and Drew. But we are the reigning champions: having won the division by eight games, this isn't a team that "needs" to get better. While there is scope for regression in some spots, others should be expected to be better, for neither is it a team filled with players trying to outrun Father Time. I'd be very cautious about dealing prospects away at this point.