Could The Diamondbacks Trade Chris Young?

Important note. Before we begin discussing Chris Young and trades, the word in that headline to which you must pay particular attention, is the first one. It's "could", which is a very different thing from "should". I am in no way suggesting that we should be actively looking to deal our current starting center-fielder, whom I love to watch play. Young is the current true owner of the old-school nickname 'Death to Flying Things, having been credited with more putouts (812) than any other outfielder in the majors over the past two years. Sorry, Franklin Gutierrez... Oh, yeah: then there's the walk-off home-runs, including one at a SnakePitFest. Love the man.

But it seems to me, there are factors which suggest shifting CY is a deal which the club may look into at some point in the future - if they have not already done so. Not that I possess any evidence they have.

There. I trust this is all adequately vague enough for you. Now, let's begin...

Cost and budget
Chris Young will earn $7 million this year, and $8.5 million in 2013, with an $11 million team option for the season beyond that. In absolute terms, that isn't terribly expensive, and based on his past performance, still represents good value for money. Young has averaged a little over three fWAR per year since 2008, so even the option would be a good return on investment, if he continues to deliver at that level. However, Young does not exist in a vacuum. The team is looking at a number of increasing salaries, e.g. Justin Upton, who earns less this season, but will overtake CY in 2013, and the gap widens from there.

Arizona also has to look at re-signing or replacing Miguel Montero and Stephen Drew, both of whom could hit free-agency at the end of this season. Whatever happens, it won't be cheap, and management will likely have to come to decisions about who is retained and who isn't. These decisions will not be easy, and whatever choices are made, are likely to be unpopular with fans, who rarely like to see long-time players depart. However, the hard fact is, the D-backs remain a mid-budget team, and simply cannot afford to pay eight-figure sums to every position on the diamond.

A wild-card in that process could be the TV rights situation. Forbes reported in December that the team could opt out of their current contract with Fox Sports Arizona "perhaps as early as after next season, and secure [a] new deal worth at least $300,000 per game," close to twice the current amount stated as being paid by FSAZ. If that comes to pass [and it's obviously an "if" - would there be competitors willing to pay $45-50 million per year for D-backs games?], the extra $20+ million would permit a significant loosening of the purse strings. However, as more teams take advantage of similar situations, free-agent and other contract costs will likely inflate.

Available replacements

"To me, the key is that once players become too expensive, you're going to have to have players who can step in and fill that void."
-- Kevin Towers.

The above sentence, from our interview with Towers, seems to have particular significance with regard to Young. The outfield is an area where the team does have solid depth. Inextricably linked to cost is the question of who would be replacing him if he was dealt. At the moment (and through the end of 2013), Gerardo Parra would be the obvious candidate: Parra gets close to league minimum this year and probably no more than a couple of million in 2013, so the question is really not, "Will Young be worth $7 million more than a generic replacement player?", it should be, "Will Young be worth $7 million more than Parra?" That's considerably harder to answer.

An equally valid counterpoint, however, is "Will Parra be able to play center?". It's a fair question. Both the numbers and the eyes seem to suggest it's his weakest position, but it's interesting to note that this is an area of his game the team wants to see improve. Just on Sunday, Kirk Gibson said, "I'd like to see him work on center field and be able to play all the positions. He's very good on each corner. He isn't as good as we think he can be in center field." This could be entirely innocuous, simply a means to get Parra's bat in the line-up against righties: Young's OPS there (.719) is 149 points worse than vs. LHP. Or could it be in preparation for a permanent shift?

Parra is not entirely without experience there: of his 353 minor-league appearances in the field, 145 were in center, the majority (101) coming in 2008. But it has been some time since then, and center-field is undeniably a more challenging place to play. On the Bill James defensive spectrum, outside of the battery, CF trails just SS and 2B, but LF is considered ahead only of 1B in the National League. I don't doubt Parra has the raw speed for the position, and of course, there's his arm [I'd be amused to see a catcher thrown out by Gerardo at first, after a hard-hit liner through the box!]. But his jumps and routes sometimes seem problematic, though he is still only 24.

Additionally, the outfield is an area where the franchise has some decent depth, with Adam Eaton and A.J. Pollock both recently described by Towers as "very, very close" to the majors. As Jeff Summers recently noted, Pollock's K-rate at Double-A Mobile last year was strikingly low - a mere 14.1%. Clearly, that's not directly translatable to the majors, but Young's rate at the same level in the minors (albeit at a younger age, 21 compared to 23) was 23.3%. Eaton split last year between High-A and Double-A and struck out even less often in total, at 13.7%. He also has the better walk-rate, but Pollock has more experience at the position, with Eaton playing right-field after his promotion.

Of trimming strikeouts and other numbers
Before 2010, only 14 teams had ever had more than a single player with 145+ K's in a season - the '91 Tigers and '01 Brewers held the record, with three apiece. But the Diamondbacks that season had five such hitters. It wasn't long until new GM Kevin Towers began to address this whifftastic situation. Before that winter was over, Adam LaRoche was allowed to walk and Mark Reynolds found himself traded to Baltimore for relief help. Kelly Johnson followed on the road out of Arizona last summer, and Justin Upton got the message, dramatically slashing his K-rate by almost a third, from 26.6% all the way down to 18.7%.

Which just leaves Chris Young, who led the team in strikeouts last year, with a K-rate that was almost unchanged from 2010 (21.1% against 21.8%) and still sits considerably about the MLB average (17.7%). Now, you can certainly debate whether strikeouts are a "problem". Personally, I don't think the evidence suggests they were a particular issue for Arizona last year - both us and Cincinnati were significantly above league average in K's, but were also significantly above league average in runs scored. However, the evidence of the above paragraph strongly suggests KT is not a fan of them, and it's an area in which Young is the most vulnerable on the team.

But if the team gets rid of Young's strikeouts, they would also be getting rid of his walks. For CY led the team there as well, improving his walk-rate to 12.1%, also well above MLB average (8.5%). Interestingly, that's not too far away from his walk-rate when he was in Double-A (12.7%), which is very similar to Eaton's minor-league number last season (12.9%) - Pollock was not so good in this area, his walk-rate being down at 7.2%. On the other hand, Young did suffer a popupitis relapse last season, with a 26% infield-fly rate; as in 2009, that number was the worst in the majors of any hitter with 400+ plate-appearances.

Possible partners?
This falls even further into the realms of pure speculation. Here's what I've done:
a) Start with MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects, since the odds are the team would be looking for someone with a lot of years of guaranteed control
b) Look at the C + SS positions, since we seem fairly well set in most other places. Towers recently said, "If we were to make a trade, [catching and middle infield] are areas that we think we need to kind of fill a void that we currently have in our system.”
c) Prospects must be fairly advanced - let's say, have spent some time at Double-A or higher last season.
c) Exclude teams that already have a CF better than Young, one signed significantly into the future or a top prospect about to take over.
d) Exclude teams with a record significantly below .500, as they probably won't want to take on salary.

It's an entirely "sausage machine" based approach i.e. turn the handle and see what comes out, but just for fun, let's do it and see what does. Turns out, the answer is...not much, especially on the short-stop front where there are only three prospects on the Top 100 who have advanced past A-ball.

The two Rays shortstop prospects seem the obvious interesting possibilities. Their current CF, Upton minor, is a free-agent after this season, freeing up the $7 million he'll earn this year, and they're clearly looking to compete. Their top outfield prospects, Mikie Mahtook, Drew Vettleson and Josh Sale, appear more corner outfielders than center. Both their SS prospects are sufficiently advanced to be of interest to Arizona, though Tampa will likely want to hold on to one of them, since shortstop was a position of weakness for them last season - regular starter Reid Brignac hit below the Uecker Line in 92 games.

Former #1 overall pick Beckham's stock has fallen a long way since he was drafted in 2008, but it's worth pointing out that he still only turned 22 last month. Lee came to the Rays in the deal for Matt Garza and has the reputation of being a plus defender, though is more likely to hit for average than power. The fact that the Rays have both would seem to suggest they might be interested in moving one of them, though I am not suggesting a straight swap of Young for either one would be sufficient. But if the team is looking to trade Young, it would seem to be a potentially interesting match-up for both sides.

Conclusion
Losing Young would unquestionably hurt, speaking as a fan. He has been an essential piece of two division-winning teams and has appeared in more games for the Diamondbacks than anyone bar Gonzo and Steve Finley. Someone like that would be missed. But I'm a realist, and appreciate it's just not practical for the team to keep everyone. For a team to win, they need to address their weaknesses, by dealing from their strengths: and at this point, the Arizona outfield seems to be such a position.

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