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Second-base: A Diamondbacks review/preview for 2015/16

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It was the worst position on the diamond for Arizona this year. Let's look at why that was, and whether next season will be any better.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Why was second-base so weak for Arizona last year? Should the team have seen it coming?

Makakilo: Offense was the reason. 2015 was a transition year, so maybe the team saw the possibility and was not overly surprised.

Steven Burt: I think they understated just how badly injured Chris Owings was hurt. Seeing his results, he obviously just wasn’t right and shouldn’t have played. I think we all expected Aaron Hill to perform that badly and the front office tried to solve that problem by acquiring Phil Gosselin. It’s a problem, and it’ll be interesting to see how they solve it in 2016.

Jim: I think they expected a lot more out of Chris Owings and/or hoped for more of a rebound from Aaron Hill. They probably should have seen it coming, given Owings’ career minor-league walk-rate of 3.6%, but there’s always the hope a prospect will "figure it out". Admittedly, if he had come anything close to matching the .291 MiLB BA, we could have handled the walk rate: Owings was actually better than Ender Inciarte in that area!

Piratedan7: I don’t know about seeing it coming or not, maybe willfully ignoring the production of Drury in Spring Training doesn’t allow me to give them a pass on how they handled it. It’s not as if Owings production allowed him the shiny veneer of veteraness to guarantee him a spot and perhaps sending him down, if he wasn’t fully recovered, would have been the more practical thing to do and ride the hot hand that Drury had shown at the start of the year.

James: I think the Diamondbacks easily should have seen second base as a weakness going into the season. The team knew Owings was still far from 100%. Aaron Hill was already starting to age before everyone’s eye back in 2013. It still seems awfully strange that the team so quickly discounted Drury as a possibility given how strong his spring showing was. Basically, second base was so weak because the Diamondbacks went into the season with Cliff Pennington as arguably the best option for the position. That the team did little to address the issue more quickly is what was even more puzzling.

Why did Chris Owings fail so badly?

Makakilo: This was a year of searching for the best Chris Owings.

  1. He was injured and searched for the best swing, including using his back arm more.
  2. Late in the season, it appears he tried two different hitting approaches.
    a. August was swing often month. Happily, he improved his (BB+H)/SO by 15% over his season average. His BB/SO was 0.1 and his H/SO was 1.0.
    b. September/October was plate discipline month. Sadly, he reduced his (BB+H)/SO by 10% compared to his season average. His BB/SO was 0.3 and his H/SO was 0.6.
  3. He played shortstop more in September/October and second base more in August. Possibly the stress of playing shortstop hurt him offensively and accounts for the lower (BB+H)/SO in September/October.
  4. He played 918 innings at second base, a new position for him. Defensively, this worked out well for him. His Total Zone Fielding was +1 and his BIS defensive runs saved was +5 ( from baseball reference website). These numbers were significantly better than his shortstop numbers of -4 and -4 (261 innings in 2015).

Steven: He swung at 53.3% of all pitches he saw in 2015, a career high and yet his contact rates all fell. When you swing at everything and take walks at an already low rate, you’re in for a bad time.

Jim. Pitchers figured out how to exploit Owings’ willingness to swing at anything, and exploited it ruthlessly. I forget which of our broadcast crew - I’m thinking Bob Brenly - talked about scouting reports on opposing players being tagged "WW" and "CW" for "Won’t walk" and "Can’t walk", or something like that. Owings was brutally in the latter category.

But, it was not so much the lack of walks, as the lack of contact, that was the real issue. As mentioned above, Owings and Inciarte had similar season in a number of ways.

Name                       PA  HR%  BB% XBH% LD% IF/FB
Ender Inciarte            561 1.1% 4.6% 6.8% 29%    9%
Chris Owings              552 0.7% 4.7% 6.5% 29%    9%
League Average                2.5% 7.6% 7.5% 27%   12%

The big difference? Inciarte’s K-rate was 10.3%, Owings’s 26.1%. That’s an awful lot more balls in play for Inciarte, and a split of 24 points of BABIP in Ender’s favor did the rest.

Piratedan7: Everything cited above fails to take into account the curse of the gypsy woman, Madame Halga from Oracle Junction, which proved to be as potent a malicious juju as ever seen in the major leagues since Candy Maldonado fell afoul of the ownership of that Hungarian restaurant in Milwaukee.

James: Owings falling flat comes down to two things. First, he was quite obviously still recovering from shoulder surgery and was nowhere near 100% to begin with. Secondly, and more damningly, is that Owings’ approach allows for no amount of fall-off. If he isn’t being the perfect version of himself, the room for error just does not exist for him to sustain production at the MLB level. The hope originally was that Chris Owings might find some level of Alex Gonzalez success. That no longer appears to be in the cards though. His swing has been tampered with too much, and he simply does not have the plate discipline necessary to keep opposing pitchers from constantly exploiting his willingness to swing at anything close to the zone.

What hope do you have he can turn it around in 2016?

Makakilo: The off-season is the best time to find the best Chris Owings. I have high hope!

Steven: I think a healthy off-season will do wonders for Owings. I hope he does turn it around and produces at a high level. He’s a good player, and could be a starting shortstop on most other teams.

Jim: The walk-rate is probably not going to change - as mentioned, he is what is has always been. The strikeout rate may have some room for improvement, given his minor league K-rate was 20.9%, but he’s simply going to have to make more contact. If he doesn’t, the career of a middle infielder who strikes out a quarter of the time, is not likely to be a long one.

Piratedan: unknown, will have to see if the rest and the workouts and working with a new hitting coach will pay dividends.

James: Chris Owings has always been a hyper-aggressive hitter unable to take walks. I don’t see that changing. The greatest hope I have for him now is that age is still on his side. If he really can dial his hitting eye in a bit better like he had going early in 2014, then he might still turn things around enough to make for a pretty good utility infielder.

What role will Brandon Drury play next season?

Makakilo: Even if Chris Owings is at his best, I would keep him rested (and uninjured) by giving Brandon Drury playing time. A second benefit would be preparing Brandon Drury as the Diamondbacks’ second baseman of the future.

Steven: I think if things go wrong with our incumbent 2nd base options, Drury will have every opportunity to take over the job. If one of them breaks out, he becomes a trade option for pitching help while he rakes in AAA.

Piratedan7 Depends on the FO imho, they should have let Brandon ride the vibe at the end of last year, with Gosselin also in the mix, I have no idea if there’s even a spot on the roster for him at the big league level. Will he get a shot, I think so, but what constitutes a shot these days?

James: With the current personnel, I see Drury as the best possible fit for being the starting second baseman in 2016. On days when Lamb or Goldy need a breather, Drury can slide across and man third base. He plays decent defense at second and has some pop in that bat. He’ll still need to prove he can hit at the MLB level, but if he has another spring like he did last year, the job should be his.

Jim. I think it depends on what happens to those ahead of him, but neither Hill nor Owings should exactly have a long leash. I think he will get an opportunity, probably sooner rather than later, and what happens thereafter depends entirely on performance. If he can hit the ground running, Drury can make the position his own.

Phil Gosselin. Better or worse than Cliff Pennington?

Makakilo: Better, like day and night better. Phil Gosselin is 27 years old with an OPS+ of 148 with the Diamondbacks. Cliff Pennington is 31 years old with an OPS+ of 53 with the Blue Jays.

Steven: With our quality of infield defense, it’s nice to know someone can hit the ball from time to time. Gosselin is a nice upgrade over the defense-first Pennington.

Piratedan7: I hope that he continues to be the grinder that he is, decent base-running (if not steals), decent defense and putting the bat on the ball consistently are pluses that Pennington provided but in fewer numbers. I get the impression that Gosselin WILL move runners up, he will get the bunts down. Not something I always felt confident that Pennington would do.

James: I’m torn on this one. Clearly, it would seem that Gosselin has the potential to be a better hitter. His sample size of MLB ABs is still pretty small, but there are no indications that his bat is poised to fall off of a cliff. In that respect, I prefer Gosselin. However, Gosselin is a fairly decent defensive liability. He plays second and third and could slide out to left if absolutely necessary. Yes, he has played some innings at short in the past, but he is clearly overmatched there. Frankly, as a utility infielder, he reminds me of Pacheco, able to be plugged in at many places, but not exactly creating a warm and fuzzy feeling anywhere.

If he can improve his glove work, he might find a regular home a second though. Pennington could at least field a number of positions and field them all competently, sometimes even very well. In 2014 he put up an OPS+ of 93 in about a half-season’s worth of work. That’s more than many utility guys will ever do. That said, Father Time is not on his side. Gosselin has age working in his favour. Picking one or the other today, I pick Gosselin, but I almost certainly give him less playing time than Pennington enjoyed with Arizona.

Jim. To be decided. Probably going to hit better, but not be quite as good with the glove, and where the overall balance lands, it’s too early to tell with less than 300 major-league PAs under his belt. Not arbitration eligible until 2018, he’ll certainly be cheaper, and I’m fine with that.

Aaron Hill for Brandon Phillips. Discuss.

Makakilo: The Reds are opening trade dialogue on all their players. Although the players are about equals, this swap is unbalanced because Hill is owed $12 million while Phillips is owed $27 Million. Could I balance the trade? I would suggest the Reds throw in Ramon Cabrera - a 26 year old catcher who can hit (and with 13 games in the majors), and the Diamondbacks throw in a major league ready player.

Piratedan7: I’d actually be okay with this, chances are Phillips maintains his production levels and he LOVES the game and I think that would shine through. Not sure what other pieces have to be included to make this work, they dump salary, so do we, they see relief sooner, we get more production sooner.

James: As I mention elsewhere, if the Diamondbacks do make that trade, I would hope that they loosen the pursestrings a bit and accept a salary limit closer to $115-120 million for 2016 and 2017. Bringing Phillips and his salary in for 2016 commits the Diamondbacks to a 2-year window to go big or go home. I’m okay with the move, but only if they leave themselves enough money to make other necessary upgrades.

Jim. A straight-up swap would probably help a bit in 2016, but at the cost of handcuffing us to the burden of a dubious contract for 2017. But I’m not sure we wouldn’t be almost as well off giving Drury a full shot, even though we’d still have to be paying Hill that way. Not much of a game changer, it would have to be the first in a series of dominoes, e.g. packaging Drury up as part of a deal for starting pitching.

Otherwise, when will we see Aaron Hill’s last game as a Diamondback?

Makakilo: Although he will be 34 years old in March, his numbers show defensive value at second base. In 2015, Aaron Hill played 634.1 innings. He must be more valuable to another team where he will play more innings. During this off-season, I’m confident that Dave Stewart will encounter another team that sees Aaron Hill as an opportunity to add value, and knows that Dave Stewart will insist on a fair deal. Therefore, I am confident we have seen Aaron Hill’s last game as a Diamondback.

Steven: Please no. Dat dude BP reminds me of Aaron Hill and despite the rebound last season, his best days are behind him. I think we dump Hill a la Bronson Arroyo in the off-season, at least I hope anyway.

Piratedan7: I wonder if they make him a player/coach position on the team. I know that he has the respect of the FO or else they would have eaten his contract already imho.

James: I would like to say that Hill has already played his last game for Arizona. At least, I certainly hope he has. The more realistic side of me is skeptical of that though. Other than the trade for Phillips, there are few scenarios where it would make sense for a team to bring Aaron HIll on. I suppose a push might be made to reunite Hill with the Blue Jays, but I think Toronto would rather simply take a chance on Goins. If the Diamondbacks cannot find a taker, I think they may look at the other options for second base and decide that Hill adds a veteran presence and necessary depth. We could potentially see Hill actually play out his entire contract.

Jim: I’m surprised he lasted this long, seeing how desperate the new front office were to get rid of other Towers acquisitions like Bronson Arroyo, Mark Trumbo and Trevor Cahill. It probably says a great deal about how badly Owings performed; if CO had even been replacement level, we might well have cut bait. Hill will stick around only long enough for the D-backs to find a better alternative: whether that’s Owings, Drury, Phillips or someone else, remains to be seen.

Future prospects. Are we now eagerly awaiting the Jamie Westbrook era?

Steven: It sure feels like it. He’s currently playing in the Australian League but isn’t doing very well. Despite being a homegrown kid, I think it’s too early to anoint him heir apparent at 2nd base.

Piratedan7: I’m thinking he’s just a transitional guy until Isan Diaz is ready…..

James: Sort of? I’m not convinced he is still with the organization when he finally arrives (if he arrives). Also, I want to see another season of ball like that out of him before I get too excited. Given that it is unlikely he arrives before the middle of 2018, I’ll pump the brakes on pinning my hops on him.

Jim. Hopefully, one of those who played for us this year, will step up and make us forget all about Westbrook for the season. There aren’t many places on the offense where I can see room for much improvement, and indeed, there’s more scope for regression: getting something - anything! - good from second-base this year thus becomes almost essential.