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Of Prospects and Rosters, Part I: Introduction

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Examining the realities facing the Diamondbacks’ farm system and 40-man roster.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Here it is, only the beginning of June the end of June, and it has already become one of those seasons. It’s the sort of season every fan dreads, being out of even wishful thinking range of playing .500 ball on the season. It’s the sort of season where fans start doing math to figure out just how good the team has to be to first, not put up the worst record in history, and second, how to avoid 100 losses. As bad as the Diamondbacks have been so far this season, they still look to be a fairly safe bet to avoid the all-time loss record. Avoiding 100 losses, on the other hand, that’s going to be a tall order, especially once (if/when) the team starts to trade away veteran players from the 26-man roster. Given the quality of those likely trade candidates, the impact the return will have on the 26-man roster this season is negligible at best. You generally have to give up quality to get quality in return, and there is simply precious little quality to give up at this point.

After the math is done, there is something else that tends to grab fans of losing teams. That’s getting to see exciting talent. In the past, that came in the form of aging stars who were too proud to hang them up just yet. One can look at the historic roster of the Tampa Bay Rays to get an idea of what I am talking about. Sure, these players were washed up, but fans could still go to the park and then say that they got to see so-and-so play in person. Back in the days of A/B free agency, this was very common. The other “exciting” sort of player that fans get to see is the young, unfinished player. Instead of waiting for September call-ups (which essentially no longer exist) to see the future of the team in action, fans of dismal teams get to see the young stars of tomorrow breaking their teeth on MLB-level competition. Sometimes, one of those prospects surprises everyone, showing they are even more ready than they were given credit for. Other times, some of those near-ready prospects show just how far they actually are, possibly not so “near” after all.

It makes sense that these overmatched players would get significant playing time. It accelerates their development and prepares them for the future, one in which they are expected to make significant contributions to the future success of the franchise. When the team is mired in a lost season, there is nothing left to lose (other than some service time) by seeing who sinks and who swims. The thing is, even service time is not much of a detractor in this sort of season. The sort of player a team would be wary about starting the clock on would be a Kris Bryant, a Wander Franco, a Bo Bichette. Those are immediate impact players that the team has significant interest in keeping around as long as possible. The thing is, in order to avoid a catastrophic losing season, those sorts of talents would either already have been promoted before the season began, or are simply held back until the super-two cutoff. No one is blocking them and there is no long waiting period for them to debut. They are already part of the team. So, more bluntly, there is essentially nothing to be lost by starting the MLB auditions for the minor leaguers that an organization feels are going to play a part in helping the next competitive version of the team.

Despite the new realities of MLB rosters, the 2021 Arizona Diamondbacks have their fair share of one-year appearances by aging veterans. This wouldn’t be quite so big an issue if the why of these players being rostered wasn’t so backwards to begin with. We’ll be getting into that side of things in much greater detail over the next few days as we go beyond just the prospects and also look at how the prospects and veterans shape the 40-man roster.

A great deal of fuss has been made over just how improved the Arizona farm system is now that Mike Hazen has taken over the blazing dumpster fire left behind by Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart. From one of the worst farms in all of baseball, Hazen has managed to place Arizona’s farm in the top third. He’s managed to do this while also not being afraid to trade from it. The trades of those minor leaguers have mostly paid off nicely. Some, such as Michael Perez for Matt Andriese, while starting off looking bad, wound up being a wash. To date, what might be most impressive about Hazen’s dealings from the farm system is that he has yet to make any real missteps. (I’ll be addressing the two Starling Marte trades in Part III. So wait until then to rip into me about those if you disagree.)

With Arizona now having a much-improved farm system, it would then seem like a natural progression for a team playing as poorly as the 2021 Diamondbacks are, to start auditioning players from that system. Except, the team really isn’t. There are a few reasons for that, mostly though, it comes down to the fact that the lion’s share of the talent in the improved system is still in the low minors. To some, okay to many, a lack of impact talent in the system that is near-MLB ready raises some eyebrows and also some questions as to whether or not the farm’s improvement might be highly overrated. That is what we will be examining over the next few days before jumping into roster expectations. Today, we will start by looking position players. Or, more accurately, we will start by looking at the baseline for position players and how the Diamondbacks stack up versus their NL West peers.

For this exercise, “prospects” fall into one of three categories; future impact talent, future MLB-caliber talent, and fringe MLB/AAAA players. Everyone else is essentially what is commonly referred to as org-filler. Sure, every team can point at an org-filler that panned out and provided some value at the MLB level, even the Diamondbacks. But no one should be pinning their hopes on those players panning out. Not everyone is going to agree on where the dividing line is for those categories, but regardless of where it is, the buckets of players are going to look remarkably similar. This is where I make sure to thank Jack Sommers for doing some leg work and providing me with a list of tables that will help with defining these categories. While not specifically my definition of a future impact talent prospect, Jack’s tables come awfully close and have the advantage of being very specific in nature.

Impact Talent

For this exercise, impact talent will be defined as a player aged 25 or younger, with 50+ PA and a wRC+ of 120 or higher. That’s actually on the low side, but it gets the conversation moving and is still a respectable cut-off. Right away, it becomes apparent why the Diamondbacks have, for a number of years now, seemed to be lacking in players moving from the farm and onto the big league roster when compared to their division rivals. The Diamondbacks only have eight such players. In fact, they only have a total of 15 that are at 100 wRC+ or better.

Diamondbacks Minor League Hitters

Of those hitters, only Daulton Varsho (154) and Seth Beer (127) are at or near MLB-ready. Drew Ellis is the next closest, falling into the next category by virtue of his 116 wRC+ just missing the cut. The rest of the players are injured or in the low minore. The one exception is Alek Thomas, who is currently hitting away in AA.

For comparison, here are the other teams in the division (wRC+ 120+/100+).

Dodgers (13/22)
Giants (12/20)
Padres (7/17)
Rockies (8/17)

A quick glance shows that the Diamondbacks are not far off from the Padres and Rockies in terms of raw, numbers without context. Additionally, it should be noted that neither Josh Rojas nor Pavin Smith will show up on the chart, as both of them managed to hit their way onto the 26-man roster out of spring. This puts the Diamondbacks in a better position than the Rockies, though that is a low bar to clear, given how publicly dysfunctional that organization has been for more than a decade. The Padres aren’t doing much better presently, but that is where context comes into play. Their current situation has as much to do with all the talent just recently traded away and the relatively recent graduations of Fernando Tatis, Jr. (burgeoning superstar) and Jake Cronenworth (budding all-star) from those ranks as it does anything else. Now, while it isn’t fair to expect the Diamondbacks to have a Tatis in their system (only potentially the Rays do in Wander Franco and they just promoted him), it is not entirely unreasonable to hold out expectation/hope for a Cronenworth in the mix. The Diamondbacks aren’t there yet though.

So what do the Diamondbacks have?

Up next: Part II: The Position Players