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Of Prospects and Rosters, Part VII: The 26-Man Roster (position players)

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Today a look at one of the bigger problem areas for the 2021 team.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Chicago Cubs Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the 13 position players currently on the 26-man roster:

Catchers
Bryan Holaday

Infield
Nick Ahmed
Asdrúbal Cabrera
Eduardo Escobar
Josh VanMeter
Christian Walker
Andrew Young

Outfielders
Kole Calhoun
Stuart Fairchild
David Peralta
Josh Reddick
Pavin Smith
Daulton Varsho*

*currently the team’s second catcher


Bryan Holaday
Even with the recent trade of Stephen Vogt, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Holaday’s presence on the 26-man roster. Holaday is the textbook definition of a journeyman veteran player. This is his tenth season in the league. The Diamondbacks are his eighth team. He has spent his entire career working exclusively as a backup catcher. During that time, he has been as typically average as one can get defensively, while being a below average bat. However, his overall value has been only slightly less than that of an average backstop. He is the discount store brand vanilla ice cream of backup catchers, and he is 33 years old. There is no hidden potential left to be unlocked. There is no long history of veteran savvy to pass on to his currently non-existent successor. He isn’t Jeff Mathis with the pitching staff. He’s a warm body doing the bare minimum to not hurt the team from behind the plate. The addition of Holaday to the roster was something of a question mark in the first place, though Vogt moving shortly after gives some clarity to the move. Still, with sufficient at-bats for Daulton Varsho hard to come by and the presence of other, untested backstops in the upper minors, how much (if any) value Holaday is actually providing remains a mystery. Even if the other options wind up suffering from some defensive butchery (Jamie Ritchie) or have issues at the plate that raise questions about their ability to hit at the top level (Jose Herrera, Dominic Miroglio), this is the season to learn if any of those players have a future with the franchise. What could it possibly hurt to turn to players who have not already peaked? Holaday has one foot out the door already. His career-best days are behind him. While the alternatives might prove to be worse, without giving an opportunity, there is no possibility of lucking into someone better.

Nick Ahmed
On one hand, Ahmed brings veteran leadership and a hard-nosed work ethic to a club that has more than a few (and hopefully soon more) young players on the squad. He also brings defensive excitement to the game, continuing to rank among the very best defensive shortstops in the game, despite his recent dancing with Father Time. On the other hand, he’s another ageing veteran whose best years are behind him and who will no longer be with the club in a player capacity the next time the team makes a push for the playoffs, unless the team shocks the world and competes in 2023. This would seem to make Ahmed the perfect sort of player to shop around at the upcoming trade deadline. There is an extra complication though, one that goes back to 2015 and has not received any real attention by the front offices that have been in charge. Ahmed is the team’s only MLB-capable shortstop, defensively speaking. The next-best option in the organization is likely Ketel Marte. Being the team’s next best option is not the same as saying that Marte is a defensively capable option though. However, the step down from Marte to the next several potential “options” is less of a step and more like diving off a cliff. For more than an emergency fill-in of one or two games (maximum), there simply is no one playable at the position. Currently, the team is relying on Josh Rojas to be Ahmed’s backup at the position. Rojas, despite only 163.1 innings at the position spread across 26 games, rates as the worst defensive shortstop in the game in terms of how badly he is “holding down” the position. Over the course of a season, Rojas would be record-breakingly poor at the position.

The team’s best/only viable alternatives to Ahmed at the position are Ildemaro Vargas in Reno (who is only a marginal improvement defensively over Rojas without the offensive upside) and Geraldo Perdomo, who is struggling to find his bat in AA ball in Amarillo. In short (or should it be at short?), the team’s options for shortstop boil down to Nick Ahmed or bust. On the plus side, Ahmed is one of the better shortstops in the game, so at least there is some upside being provided. This dearth of alternatives is precisely why giving Ahmed the four-year extension that runs through 2023 made perfect sense and continues to be a reasonable move. It is also why Ahmed is essentially unmovable at the present time.

Asdrúbal Cabrera
In most seasons, a switch-hitting veteran utility player with above average offensive numbers, a reasonable contract, and experience with playing on a winning club would be the perfect sort of player for a team like the Diamondbacks to have on the roster at the trade deadline. That’s the sort of over-valued player that can often return a low-level lottery ticket, perhaps even a prospect that squeaks in at #20 on a team’s rankings. This is not most seasons. Instead, what the Diamondbacks have is a player who was precisely that profile until such time as trade deadline discussions began. Then Cabrera found the injury bug that has plagued so many teams this season. Now, with only a few days left until the deadline, Cabrera is finally making his way back from his second leg injury requiring IL time in as many months. Nonetheless, every at-bat Cabrera takes for the Diamondbacks is one that is not going to the likes of Josh VanMeter, Josh Rojas, Andy Young, or Drew Ellis. If there are no suitors for Cabrera at the deadline, the best the team can hope for is that Cabrera has some veteran wisdom to pass on. At the same time, it will become something of a juggling act for Torey Lovullo. He won’t be able to simply bench Cabrera for large stretches of time. He also won’t be able to really justify giving too many at-bats to Cabrera over young, developing bats that are in the process of being evaluated for their usefulness to the team’s future. In fact, despite Cabrera being a perfectly acceptable veteran utility player, an easy argument could be made to designate Cabrera should no team show any interest in him.

Eduardo Escobar
Back in June, Eduardo Escobar was one of Arizona’s best trade candidates. Now, as the deadline approaches, he is probably still a top-three candidate, but with less appeal. Unfortunately, he is likely only a marginal upgrade for most teams. In many ways, most of what was said can be applied to Escobar as well, sans the ultralight contract and championship experience. Escobar is a better defender, is younger, and has a bit more pop in his bat. That said, he is still another veteran on the wrong side of the ageing curve whose future with this club is limited to the end of this season at the latest. Back in June, other teams were showing interest in Escobar. Reportedly, the Diamondbacks had a high asking price. It is possible they priced themselves out of the market and have missed their opportunity to move him. Hopefully not.

Josh VanMeter
Finally, we come to the first name on the list that is a developing talent who belongs on the 26-man roster. Unlike Ahmed, who is around for lack of alternatives, VanMeter is on the roster to see what he can do at the top level, hopefully learning to identify and hit MLB-caliber pitching while he gets looks that he might not otherwise get if the team was actually competitive. In the minors, VanMeter tore the cover off the ball during multiple stops. He has demonstrated quite clearly that he is better than his minor league peers. What he has yet to do is establish that he is actually a Major League talent. VanMeter has reached the point where he needs to take advantage of the opportunity being presented to him. He certainly has the plate discipline necessary to stick, as he has shown his ability to draw and take walks. What he has yet to demonstrate is an ability to cut down on his strikeouts. While strikeouts are no worse than a flyball out in theory, the rate at which he is striking out has become problematic in that, he simply is not putting enough balls in play to even give himself the chance to elevate his batting average. Sporting an interstate batting average while playing average at best defense is not how to stick at the highest level. As VanMeter is already 26 and has already demonstrated that he is unchallenged at the AAA level, he is in danger of falling into that dreaded pool of being a AAAA player. There is honestly very little reason VanMeter should not be able to find another 30-40 starts this season, getting him into the realm of 250-300 ABs on the season. That’s the sort of sample size that can make or break a determination on whether or not VanMeter has a future as a utility player or not. If not, this is the time to learn that, so that the role can be handed off to someone else for next season.

Christian Walker
Walker is not exactly a savvy veteran. He is also no longer a developing bat to bridge the gap between Goldschmidt and the team’s next regular first baseman. He is simply a roughly average player who is now an offensive liability and is one of the primary obstacles to some of the team’s better prospects getting developmental at-bats. Pavin Smith, Daulton Varsho, Andrew Young, and Drew Ellis are all losing at-bats every time Walker is placed in the lineup. Given that Walker is hurting the team’s chances to win when he is on the field and he is not part of the team’s future, once the trade deadline passes, it will be fair to ask why he is still on the roster rather than designated for assignment. The team won’t be eating any real salary and the team can hardly get worse by moving on.

Andrew Young
Young may be the one man in the game able to give a healthy Tim Locastro a run for his money when it comes to the art of drawing the HBP. Unlike Locastro though, Young does not possess the sort of dangerous speed to make the HBP quite as big a threat as it otherwise could be. On the other hand, Young has more home runs in his 76 MLB at-bats spread across 2020 and 2021 (one and six respectively) than Locastro has in his seven season career and 432 at-bats (six in total). Young is currently a three true outcomes player, with the weight being too heavily skewed towards striking out. If the DH existed in the NL, Young would either be a regular player already, or he would be bordering on washing out. The team’s evaluators seem to have decided that Young can not functionally play at any defensive position save possibly first. Starts at first are almost impossible to come by, so while there may be some hope there, it simply is not feasible to see if he is capable there -even if it is still likely to be a long shot. Regardless of his defensive issues, Young needs to start getting more at-bats so he can work on pitch recognition. If he cannot cut his strikeout rate by a third, he is going to have a hard time sticking, even at DH, when the team still has other candidates to try at the slot.

Kole Calhoun
Calhoun is a defensively gifted veteran outfielder with pop in his bat who is also on a reasonably priced expiring contract. Again, this should be the sort of player other teams take interest in at the upcoming deadline. The problem is, like so many others on this team, Calhoun has had trouble with injury this season. Only having just returned from a lengthy second trip to the IL, Calhoun has only managed to get into 11 games since coming off the IL and has not performed well at the plate in that time, going 4 for 37 with no extra base hits, three walks, and 11 strikeouts. At this point, any team taking interest in him has to have a strong belief that they can get him back on track - immediately. If the team were going into the offseason, there is little doubt they could find a suitor for Calhoun. At the trade deadline though, that is a different story. Calhoun will be a free agent once the season is over, so offseason trading is irrelevant. Calhon’s presence in the outfield takes at-bats from Stuart Fairchild, Jake McCarthy, Pavin Smith, Daulton Varsho, Josh Rojas, and Josh VanMeter. This is why finding some way to move on from Calhoun needs to be a priority, though one to which there may be only one option, DFA, which the team is likely to find unpalatable, given that he will get paid about $2.67 million for the rest of the season. There is a team option for 2022 with a $2 million buyout. It is hard to imagine much of any scenario in which they do not cut the $2 million check.

Stuart Fairchild
Patience, thy name is Fairchild. Fairchild is precisely the sort of player that should have been on the roster over a month ago. Instead, he has had to fight and claw his way for at-bats at the AAA level and then do his best impression of a big leaguer when he got his chance. His time in AAA was brief. He didn’t miss his shot. He hit for average. He took walks. He hit for respectable power. He showed off speed on the bases and played an above average center field defensively. Now he languishes on the end of Arizona’s bench. In 10 games he has managed a paltry 12 plate appearances. In those 10 games, five were pinch-hit appearances and one (his debut) was a simple pinch-running assignment. Yet, the team has struggled all season long (at least since the early injury to Locastro) to field a reliably competent center fielder. While Fairchild’s MLB future is probably that of a fourth outfielder who primarily plays the corner, he is capable at any of the three positions - at least defensively. As for his bat, no one really knows. The team has failed to put him into a position where they can find out. Because they have no other options for Pavin Smith, they have played Smith in center and relegated Fairchild to spectator. Fairchild should just now be entering his physical prime. He’s checked all the boxes to get a chance to prove himself. Now it is incumbent on the team to give him that opportunity. The team needs a capable center fielder. They have played more than 100 games without one this year. There is something not right with this picture.

David Peralta
As Jack Sommers put is so succinctly a short while ago, “David Peralta is playing like he wants to remain a Diamondback.” Veteran outfielder on a reasonable contract with an extra year of control? Check. Capable of hitting anywhere in the lineup? Check. Gifted defensively in left? Check. Free from injury? Check. Currently performing at at least a league average level? Close, but not quite. While he does lead baseball in triples, both his batting average and home runs are down by quite a bit this year, leading more than one observer to question whether or not Father Time is starting to take his toll on Peralta. Peralta should have been a prized deadline trade commodity. Now he’s a long shot to be traded at all. There are reasons to believe he might benefit from a change of scenery, especially if he were to land in a left-handed hitter’s haven such as the Bronx. After all, it has been shown throughout the years that playing on especially bad teams can deflate the performance of even some of the best players. Peralta presents a true problem for the organization. On one hand, they still have a year of control of Peralta, which means they can almost certainly find a suitor for him in the offseason. On the other hand, Peralta is manning what is probably Daulton Varsho’s best eventual position, not to mention Pavin Smith’s best secondary position. As long as David Peralta is on the roster, he is going to play. At the same time, he is almost certainly gone before next season and is certainly gone after, as there will be no incentive to extend him. Does the team sell low on Peralta, adding in the opportunity cost of getting Smith, Varsho, Fairchild, and others development at-bats? Or do they continue to play him, hoping to manufacture a larger return in the offseason, but doing so at the expense of those same developmental at-bats? For a team as far out of contention as the Diamondbacks, that should be an easy question. Alas, the business side of baseball rarely ever makes such decisions nearly as easy as they ought to be.

Josh Reddick
In essence, Josh Reddick is the Asdrúbal Cabrera of outfielders. He hits left-handed instead of switch, but he is a veteran on a no-cost contract with championship experience and veteran savvy. Alas, after a reasonable start to his time in the desert, his performance at the plate has cratered. It is becoming harder and harder with each passing game to justify keeping him on the roster for any reason. Originally, he was promoted from a trial run in AAA when the team was desperate for players capable of playing in the outfield with any sort of proficiency. Rather than turning to the youth movement, they turned to Reddick. It hasn’t worked. He is an even bigger liability to the team in the field and at the plate than Walker. If he is on the 26-man roster more than a week from now, there will be cause for some hard questions to be put to the front office. With Fairchild, Smith, and others on the roster and in need of at-bats, there is nothing at all to be gained by keeping Reddick around.

Pavin Smith
Would the real Pavin Smith please stand up? It is no secret that I once labelled Pavin Smith as a bust. There have been stretches this season where Smith has played well enough that I began to lightly season the crow I was going to have to eat. Then, he has followed those stretches up with performances that have prevented that crow from ever seeing the smoker. Still, he is an intriguing talent that needs to be playing every day at the MLB level. What is more though is, he needs to STOP PLAYING IN CENTER FIELD. The dogged insistence on playing Smith in center may well be hurting his value as much as anything he himself is doing (or not doing). He still isn’t hitting for sufficient power to be a bat-first corner player. Then again, he isn’t playing on the corners right now. Smith has only three reliable positions he can play, first, left, and DH. With Peralta ensconced in left, Smith has picked up some starts in right. Alas, Smith hasn’t the arm for right - or the instincts. Smith playing in center, especially being flanked by Reddick and Peralta has been an exercise in extreme futility. Routine flyballs drop for hits, and not just once in a while, but frequently. This is not Smith’s fault. If he hasn’t the instincts to get a great break nor the range and speed to close the gap, he doesn’t have those tools. He is not going to suddenly develop them out of the blue, or even through forcing him to play out of position in center field more often than not.

If Pavin Smith was playing as the team’s regular first baseman, the team would almost certainly be better off than giving any of those starts to Walker. It would also open up more at-bats for the likes of Daulton Varsho. It still remains to be seen whether or not Smith can develop into anything more than a completely average first baseman with only marginal pop. However, the team is certainly not putting Smith in the best position to succeed. The longer he is flailing about in center and the longer he is not getting the necessary regular at-bats, the harder it is going to be for Smith to avoid that bust label. Measuring up as a close comp to Jake Lamb is not gong to cut it. However, if he continues to refine his craft and is put in the position to succeed, he could become the good version of James Loney. Not great by any means, but at least that wouldn’t be a total bust.

Daulton Varsho
Daulton Varsho might be the hardest working, most improved catcher in the entire organization. He also should not be a catcher. Since the day he was drafted, there have been serious questions about whether or not, even with perfect mechanics, Varsho possesses enough arm to stick behind the plate. The answer, it turns out, is a resounding no. Varsho is a capable backup catcher. No one should be relying on him to be a 100-game starter at the position, but he certainly can give a team a third catcher and some roster flexibility. He is not a complete travesty behind the plate. As it stands, with Carson Kelly being on the IL, Varsho is able to get a few at-bats he would otherwise not be getting. There is no reason whatsoever, beyond the normal rest a catcher usually receives, for Varsho not to be the primary starter for the Snakes right now. Once Kelly returns, that needs to be the end of Holaday (if not sooner), so that Varsho can still find at-bats there.

Unlike Pavin Smith, Daulton Varsho has the raw athleticism and baseball IQ to play in center field. Eventually, Varsho’s best position is probably going to be left field, though he might or might not have enough bat to stick in the corner if the organization is looking for a prototypical left fielder. The aforementioned lack of arm strength prevents him from being able to play in right. He could play at first, though there are too many other candidates that need that sort of defensive protection. Varsho can play in center. He can play in left. He can fill in behind the plate. He should be playing four out of every five days right now, showing what tools he brings to the team for the future. Like Pavin Smith, Varsho is fighting with veterans to get his developmental at-bats. Those at-bats going to veterans are just what Varsho needs if he is going to be able to better identify MLB-caliber breaking pitches. He has nothing left to prove in the minors. Yet, he is too far down the totem pole to get the necessary at-bats he needs at the MLB level.


TL/DR

Of the 13 position players currently on the 26-man roster, seven of them have no business being on the roster beyond August 1st. An eighth, Nick Ahmed, is on the roster due to the distinct lack of any other viable option in the organization. If not for Josh Rojas heading to the IL, he and Andy Young would likely be fighting for the same roster spot, with Rojas being the easy hands-down choice. Carson Kelly’s return will only further complicate matters, as he is the only “veteran” player on the roster who has a reasonable expectation of still being a part of the team in their next window of contention. However, any sort of at-bats he gets are ones that will come at the expense of players (primarily Varsho) looking to learn at the top level and establish themselves.

The team has two dedicated outfielders capable of playing any of the outfield positions both languishing, waiting for a chance to play, only one of them is even on the roster (but still just warming the bench).

The team has six players currently not doing much to help the team win games that are also taking important at-bats from young, developing talent. In order to improve for the future and to learn what holes they still have to fill and in what priority, the front office is going to need to start making some hard calls that shouldn’t be nearly as hard as they are going to make them out to be.

Next up: The Trade Deadline Update