I think what we have on our roster currently and with Eduardo gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility. Guys that play multiple positions around the diamond. We’re going to hopefully use that to our advantage. How it will ultimately look at the end of the off season is still to be determined.
— Mike Hazen
As opening statements for the off-season go, the surprising news on Monday that the Arizona Diamondbacks signed infielder Eduardo Escobar, certainly went. A team many expected to be rebuilding, went out and made the first big splash of the winter, inking Escobar to a three-year contract, worth $21 million, before he even hit free-agency. Everyone - and I include myself there - expected Escobar to enter free-agency after his mid-season trade from the Minnesota Twins. Interestingly, the AAV of the deal signed with the D-backs is exactly at the $7 million I guessed - though that was for a four year deal. The general opinion is that Arizona got something of a bargain.
It’s an unexpected move, not least because of the circumstances of Escobar’s arrival. The team traded for him, largely because they lost everyday third-baseman, Jake Lamb, for the rest of the season with a shoulder issue. Shortly after the trade, GM Mike Hazen said they called the Twins and made a quick deal for Escobar before word leaked that Lamb would be out for an extended period, because they knew the price would go up if Minnesota knew. [Supply and demand at work, folks!] With Lamb expected to be fully fit again for the start of next season, it appeared the need for Escobar’s services in Arizona would be considerably diminished in 2019.
The current roster
However, the key to the signing is perhaps Escobar’s positional flexibility. While he started only at third-base for the Diamondbacks, while with the Twins he also started at shortstop and even one game at second-base. [Heck, the previous season he played both left-field and catcher for Minnesota, though I’m not suggesting the Diamondbacks signed him as a replacement for Jeff Mathis] The ability to play multiple positions opens up a number of potential scenarios, helped further by the fact that Escobar is a switch-hitter, who handles the bat reasonably well against pitchers of both arms. His career platoon split is less than forty points, with Eduardo better against lefties, as a right-handed bat.
This is in stark contrast to Lamb, whose career OPS vs. right-handed pitching is 281 points better than when he faces left-handers. With no further moves around the infield for Arizona, we would probably see a situation next year where Lamb starts at third against RHP, with Escobar at short. Facing a left-hander, Escobar would slide over to third, with right-hander Nick Ahmed playing shortstop, and Lamb available off the bench [Ahmed is +165 in his career platoon splits] On the other side of the infield, another switch-hitter Ketel Marte would be the everyday second baseman, and I’m sure we can find someone on the Diamondbacks roster capably of playing first-base now and again. :)
The odd man out would appear to be Chris Owings. Even with the (probable - I’m giving up on making predictions!) loss of super-utility guy Daniel Descalso to free-agency, it appears Owings’ only route to the 25-man roster for 2019 would appear to be as an outfielder, given the players available right now. With the departure of A.J. Pollock and Jon Jay, our Opening Day outfield currently would be David Peralta, Jarrod Dyson and Steven Souza (despite rumblings about maybe moving Marte to CF). The sole other outfielder under contract for 2019 on the current 40-man roster is Socrates Brito. If you close one eye and squint slightly, there's a case someone could make that Owings is an improvement over Dyson and Brito.
I think as you go into the off season feeling like you are strong, or even to a place where you might have a surplus, I don’t see that as a problem, I see that as a benefit.
The odds are, however, that the signing of Escobar is far from the last move Hazen makes this winter. And it gives the GM considerably more flexibility over what else he can do. While Marte seems close to untradeable (the long-term contract implies he’s part of the long-term future under this regime), Escobar's presence makes the other infielders potential trade chips. Let's look at the possibilities for each of them.
- Nick Ahmed. Career-highs in most offensive categories, including more than doubling his previous best for RBI, suggest we might be selling high on Ahmed. Especially if you like bWAR, since that rated him (3.2) considerably higher this season than fWAR (1.7). He also has two years of team control currently, and having earned just $1.275 million in his first year of arbitration, will be highly affordable. For Arizona, Nick would appear to be on the short-side of a platoon at shortstop, so is most dispensable of the infield. If he wins the Gold Glove, that would boost his trade value even further.
- Jake Lamb. It’s always going to be tricky to trade a player who finished the season on the DL after undergoing surgery. Even though the procedure in mid-August went well, and Jake is expected to make a full recovery, potential buyers may be skittish, and prefer to see Lamb in action. Like Ahmed, he is under control through the end of the 2020 campaign. And we are still talking about a 2017 All-Star who, when healthy, came close to posting consecutive seasons with thirty home-runs and a hundred driven in.
- Paul Goldschmidt. The nuclear option remains on the table. Sell the team’s perennial MVP while we still get something back, rather than letting his walk in free-agency. If we deal him before the season, rather than waiting until it starts, his new team could then make Goldy a qualifying offer at the end of 2019, likely notching a bonus draft pick. That increases the potential value of a winter deal to Arizona. The D-backs could then move Lamb across to first, where his well-known throwing issues would be less of a problem. Or there’s always Christian Walker, too, once his face heals.
Right now, what would you do with our other infielders?
This poll is closed
Keep them all
Arizona’s overall philosophy
It would appear to take the “full rebuild” option off the board for the D-backs, at least immediately. However, if the first half of 2019 goes south quickly, it would still be very possible to move Escobar at the trade deadline, if Hazen decides to cut bait. Arizona should get a considerably better return than Minnesota received, due to having two years of additional control. Again, the key here was flexibility. This is (hopefully!) not a Greinke-like contract which will be difficult for the Diamondbacks to move. There will always be a market for reasonably-priced middle-infielders, and Escobar should remain a potential trade chip for the duration, being neither old nor over-priced.
As Jack noted earlier in the week, the team’s projected payroll for 2019 now sits at just shy of $142 million. We don’t know what figure Ken Kendrick and the other owners have set as the salary cap, but based on last winter, it may well turn out to be at least somewhat more than expected. There are also potential savings to be made if the team opts to non-tender some of its arbitration eligible players, with Owings and Shelby Miller being the most obvious potential candidates there. There are still holes which will need to be filled. Center field, clearly, and at least one if not two spots in the rotation. But right now, the “retool” option seems to be the most likely direction. I still don’t see us being players for any of the ‘big’ free-agents, so Hazen will need to spend smarter rather than harder this winter.