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The Diamondbacks' Three Amigos are no more

The news of Carlos Quentin's retirement last week draws to a close the sad saga of the 'Three Amigos', the selections made by the Diamondbacks in the first rounds of the 2003 draft. So much was hoped for, but none reached their potential with Arizona.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

On the heels of the 2002 NL West championship, the Diamondbacks only had the 29th pick in the draft the following June. However, they picked up the Mariners' slot at #19, after Seattle signed free-agent Greg Colbrunn, and when the draft took place, they took a trio of position players with those two choices and their second-round pick at #65. Only on one occasion since then (2009) have we taken bats with our first three selections: but considering how things eventually worked out for Arizona, there may be a reason for that... At #19, we chose Conor Jackson from Berkeley; at #29, Carlos Quentin out of Stanford; and at #65, Jamie D'Antona from Wake Forest

2004 was the year which saw them dubbed 'The Three Amigos', as the trio destroyed pitching at High-A Lancaster to start the season.. After hitting a collective .323 with 39 home-runs and 162 RBI, in exactly 200 games for the Jethawks, the three players were promoted on the same day to Double-A El Paso. And not much changed, as Quentin, Jackson and D'Antona batted .306 the rest of the way there. That's where their stories start to diverge. D'Antona, who played alongside another future D-back, Craig Breslow, at high school, managed only 19 games due to a biceps injury, and hit just .211, with no home-runs.

At the end of the year, all three were in Baseball America's top 10 Diamondbacks prospects, but with a significant gap between the top two of Quentin and Jackson, and D'Antona at #8, occupied by the likes of Jon Zeringue and Josh Kroeger As a result, the Three Amigos were broken up the following year, D'Antona remaining in El Paso, while Quentin and Jackson continued to move up, joining the Triple-A Tucson roster under current D-backs manager, Chip Hale. While Conor had been an outfielder in 2004, he moved to first with the Sidewinders, though it didn't disrupt his hitting: through late May, both men had OBPs of nearly .500.

Conor Jackson

Their obvious slots were initially both blocked, with Chad Tracy at first and Shawn Green in right for the major-league club that year. This only lasted until the team opted to switch things up in late July, Tracy taking over as the regular starter in RF, and opening a slot at 1B, alongside veteran Tony Clark. Having hit .354/.457/.553 in AAA, despite turning 23 just that May, Jackson was the first of the trio to reach the majors, making his major-league debut on July 28, 2005. It wasn't a legendary campaign for CoJack, as he hit at the Uecker line, with an OPS of .609 over his forty games.

2006 saw Jackson become our everyday first-baseman and he responded in fine style, batting .291 with 15 homers and driving in 79 runs. That set the standard for the following seasons: from 2006-2008, Jackson averaged 138 games, a .292 BA and 14 home-runs, peaking in the last of those years, when he hit .300, had a 110 OPS+ and was named MVP by the SnakePit. But then, disaster struck. Jackson imploded completely at the start of 2009: in his first 30 games, he hit .182 with a .516 OPS, and nobody could figure out what the problem was. He'd been feeling less than 100% from mid-April, but things got worse and he went on the DL with a vague "general illness" in mid-May.

"I’m not going to sit here and say at the end of the day, ‘Gosh, if I didn’t get valley fever I could have been a really good player.’. It’s not in my genes to do that." - Conor Jackson.

That turned out to be pneumonia, which had developed from a case of valley fever, a common respiratory illness in this area, caused by fungal spores in the dirt, though most cases are much milder than Jackson suffered. Our GM at the time, Josh Byrnes noticed something was up: "In the comforts of the clubhouse he would be sort of bundled up, with a hooded sweatshirt, coughing and just looking like he’s very sick." After being diagnosed, Jackson said, "It kind of explains a lot. By the third inning, it felt like I had played 20 innings with an 80-pound backpack on. It was brutal... I haven't lifted a weight, I haven't run, in three weeks pretty much."

Valley fever is a lingering disease, which can take months of recovery. That May, Jackson added, "We haven't even talked about timetable. One doctor told me, 'You're going to be fatigued for the rest of the year.'" And so it proved: he didn't appear again for Arizona that season, and Conor thinks he didn't feel "right" until October. Looking back on that lost tear, Jackson thought it might have been the end of his career. "There were a lot of times when I didn't think that I was going to play baseball again. It hit me that hard."

However, when he returned in 2010, he was a shadow of his former self. Between that year and the following one, as Jackson bounced around between Arizona, Oakland and Boston for 174 games, in what should have been his peak years as a hitter, Jackson's OPS+ was 80, compared to 104 through age 26. Over the following two seasons, he tried to make it back to the majors with the Rangers, White Sox and Orioles, but after being the final man cut from Baltimore's Opening Day roster, then struggling at Triple-A, Jackson announced his retirement on April 14, 2013. "He just said at this point, his heart wasn't in it right now and that was it," said his manager there, Ron Johnson.

Jackson's career with Arizona ended at 526 games, with a .277 average, and a .358 on-base percentage that's still good enough for fourth on the franchise all-time list, fractionally ahead of Justin Upton.

Carlos Quentin
"Trading him is pretty high on my list of regrets - Josh Byrnes

Ailments, but of a more directly obvious nature, also proved to be the undoing of Quentin's career. Over his nine years in the majors, Carlos averaged 93 games, and only reached a hundred on three occasions, never managing more than 131. When he was good, he was really good: he appeared in two All-Star Games and finished fifth in the American League MVP voting for 2008. But he was kinda the position player equivalent of Brandon McCarthy in terms of fragility. Though in Quentin's case, while his knee was especially problematic, it was less a single problem area, more a case of spinning the injury wheel and seeing where it landed. Here's his DL history:

  • Mar 31, 2007: Shoulder labrum (16 days)
  • Aug 2, 2007: Hamstring strain (30 days)
  • Sep 2, 2008: Fractured wrist (34 days)
  • May 26, 2009: Plantar fasciitis (54 days)
  • Aug 21, 2011: Shoulder separation (22 days)
  • Mar 26, 2012: Knee surgery (63 days)
  • July 31, 2013: Knee surgery (61 days)
  • Mar 25, 2014: Knee soreness (49 days)
  • July 27, 2014: Knee inflammation (64 days)
"Over the past several days, it became clear to me that my injuries have taken too great of a physical toll for me to be able to perform at the level I expect from myself. As a result, I believe it is the right time for me to walk away."- Carlos Quentin

There's a point at which you have to accept the inevitable, and for Quentin, that appears to have come on Thursday. He had been signed by the Seattle Mariners to a minor-league deal, but a week with their Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma apparently proved enough to make up Carlos's mind.  Ironically, it was someone else's poor health which opened the door for Quentin. He had joined CoJack in the majors with the Diamondbacks in July 2006, being called up after Clark was forced out of action with a strained shoulder. He made his first appearance here on the 20th, less than a week after another first-round Arizona pick, Stephen Drew.

Quentin did hit after his debut, with nine homers in 57 games for a rookie OPS+ of 115. However, a sophomore slump in 2007 saw him sent back to Tucson in early July. At that point, his line was .210/.299/.350, and the hamstring injury mentioned above derailed things further on his return at the end of the month. Some guy called "Justin Upton" was called up from Double-A to take Quentin's spot, and his success rendered Quentin superfluous to our needs. After being shopped around to virtually every franchise, Carlos was dealt for Chris Carter at the winter meetings in 2007; 11 days later, Carter would be part of the Dan Haren deal, and hit 37 HR for Houston last year.

Carlos took it personally. "I felt like I was kind of given away. I've never been upset at the Diamondbacks, but I just felt like in a young player's career, when a team gives up on you, trades you away, there’s some adjustment to that." Still, the change of scenery apparently did wonders, and he wasted no time in making Josh Byrnes look like an idiot, since Quentin had far and away his best season, with a monster first half. He stayed healthy and hit like a beast, making the AL All-Star squad, blasting 22 home-runs before the break. His second-half was on course to be even better (a 1.117 OPS), but after fouling a pitch off, he broke his wrist

It was a freak accident, doing "something I've done thousands of times." He said, "I just kind of hit down on the bat head with my right hand with a closed fist. I kind of hit a little bit low, nicked my wrist and finished the at-bat... I woke up the next morning and that was that." While he hit decently in his next three years with the White Sox, he never reached those heights again, though did make the All-Star game as a reserve in 2011. While his 2008 campaign was worth 5.3 bWAR, the 2009-2011 ones combined for only 2.3 wins, in part because his defense - never a strong suit - got even worse when he was moved from left-field to right in 2010, when Chicago acquired Juan Pierre.

At the start of 2012, Quentin was dealt to the Padres, returning him to the city where he went to high school and re-uniting him with GM Josh Byrnes. His first year was limited by a knee issue, so Quentin appeared in only 86 games, but he hit 16 homeruns and had an OPS+ of 146, almost as high as in his MVP caliber season. That July, he signed a three-year $27 million extension to keep him in San Diego through 2015, but it wouldn't work out. He sat out almost half the games in 2013, and his performance and health both imploded in 2014. He was sent to the Braves as part of the Kimbrel deal, immediately DFA, and was unable to catch on with the Mariners.

Quentin Greinke
[Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images]

But there's one particular incident in his post-Diamondbacks career for which Quentin will be remembered. He had been a magnet for balls through his career: in his first year as a pro, Carlos was hit 43 times in 125 games [only one major-league batter since the 19th century has passed 35 HBPs for a season], and from 2008-2012, no-one in the majors was hit more often than Quentin. But on April 11, 2013, he was hit in the shoulder by the Dodgers' Zack Greinke, words were exchanged and Carlos charged the mound. When the dust settled, Greinke had a fractured collarbone, missing five weeks, while Quentin was suspended for eight games.

In the light of subsequent Greinke-instigated events that season, I think many D-backs fans may look upon Quentin's actions as those of a noble anti-hero, sticking it to the man who is trying to keep him down. Er, or something. If it's an odd note as many people's last memory of him, it's probably better than remembering his time with Arizona, where Quentin was overall below replacement level, and was shipped out before getting a chance to turn things around.

Jamie D'Antona

Finally, what of D'Antona - very much the forgotten man of the trio. That's not surprising as he made exactly one start in the major-leagues, for the Diamondbacks on August 10, 2008, as well as also coming off the bench 17 other times that season. But, as noted in the introduction. D'Antona's struggles began earlier, sitting for more than two full seasons in Double-A, while Quentin and Jackson were forging on into the major leagues. However, he blew the doors off the PCL in 2008, hitting .365 with 21 home-runs for the Sidewinders, and was selected to play in the All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium that July, where he won the Home-Run Derby.

The problem was D'Antona's defense: in 110 games for Tucson, he made a total of 23 errors, most of them at third, but he was also tried at first, and even as a catcher. There was also nowhere for him to play with the D-backs, the corner infield positions being manned at the time by Mark Reynolds and Chad Tracy. [Not that the former was exactly a hot-shot defensively, but Special K did go on to hit 44 home-runs in 2009] D'Antona also tore his knee cartilage, the beginning of a lingering issue that would eventually cause far bigger problems down the road. But at the end of 2008, he was offered a position in Japan and the D-backs released him to pursue that opportunity.

"I walk like a friggin' old man, carrying a stool with me because I can't stand on my feet for more than an hour."- Jamie D'Antona

He signed a two-year deal worth about $750,000 with the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League. As recounted in The Last Best League, he told author Jim Collins, "It was the best time I had in organized baseball, by far." In his first year, D'Antona prospered, batting .276 with 21 home-runs and 83 RBI in 118 games, despite missing three weeks with a hamstring injury, and was named the league MVP for July, batting .416 with a 1.178 OPS. But his knees proved increasingly troublesome, and even regular cortisone injections weren't proving effective. He managed less than a hundred games in 2010, and the Swallows opted to let him walk.

That was effectively the end. The Marlins gave him an invite to spring training in 2011, but released him before games even started, it apparently being clear his body was just not up to it. According to Collins, by the end of 2011, D'Antona had "undergone three more surgeries, had early-onset arthritis and only half of the cushioning cartilage that knee joints should have." D'Antona returned to his alma mater of Wake Forest in late 2013 to try and finish his degree in communications, but lamented, "I walk like a friggin' old man, carrying a stool with me because I can't stand on my feet for more than an hour."

It's a poignant end, and startling to realize that the three players, all with so much promise less than a dozen years ago, have finished their journeys across the baseball sky, their light now reduced to a page and some random memories among the fans that followed them. It's a salutary lesson in the fleeting and fragile nature of success in professional sports, as well as the obstacle course that stands between even the brightest prospect, and fulfilling that potential in the major-leagues.