July 31st is coming way too soon for Jerry Colangelo, Joe Garagiola Jr. and the rest of the Diamondbacks front office. At 13 games under .500 and 9 1/2 games out of first place there are decisions to be made. First and foremost are Randy Johnson, Shea Hillenbrand, and Steve Finley. The Diamondbacks have undergone a youth movement. Maybe that wasn't the plan, but injuries to Robbie Alomar, Richie Sexton, Shane Reynolds, and Matt Mantai have forced their hand. That's not the problem though, the problem for the D'Backs is that the kids are playing well. These don't appear to be kids rushed to the majors, these appear to be kids who were waiting for their chance and are making the most of it.
Just look at the 'fill ins' and their production.
1st Base Richie Sexson went down. Now don't get me wrong, the D'Backs should resign Sexson if they get the opportunity, but it has opened a big can of worms for them. Shea Hillenbrand was going to be moved, there wasn't any doubt about that before Sexson's injury. Hillenbrand was the lure the D'Backs were going to use to add that pitcher in July that would put them over the top. He was the carrot, but since Sexson went down he's been the right-handed meat of the lineup. His power numbers aren't what Sexson's would be, but his batting average (.298), and run production (27 RBI 28 Runs Scored) have been stellar, he strikes out less, and so the D'Backs are put in an uncomfortable position. Prior to Sexson's injury, D'Back fans wouldn't have blinked an eye at a Hillenbrand trade. He had, for the most part, been a bust and anything the D'Backs would have gotten in return would have been gravy.
Now though things are different. Hillenbrand has been a stud, do you still move him? Especially when no one's sure if the D'Backs will actually be able to resign Sexson? Tough call, his great play increases his trade value, but if the D'Backs move him and don't resign Sexson, they end up with egg on their face and little to no right handed power in their lineup.
Sexson's injury also opened up a spot for Chad Tracy. The youngster isn't the prototypical 3rd baseman. He doesn't have the power you typically like to see out of a corner infielder, but he's hitting .368 with runners in scoring position, and Brenley has hit him all over the batting order, leading off, second, sixth, seventh and eighth, and he's produced in every spot. It's not easy to find a hitter that versatile, and though Tracy's defense has at times been less than stellar, he's certainly a major league quality player. What does Sexson's injury have to do with 3rd base? If Tracy hadn't emerged, the Diamondbacks could make a stronger case for holding onto Hillenbrand, since he also plays 3rd. Sexson signs, Hillenbrand moves to 3rd, and the Diamondbacks have two great right handed bats, Sexson doesn't sign and Hillenbrand is your first baseman. Now if you don't move Hillenbrand, and you resign Sexson, who is the odd man out? Tracy is younger than Hillenbrand, cheaper than Hillenbrand, and is a very similar bat (not as much power as you'd like, better average and less strikeouts than you'd expect). Does Colangelo go young and cheap, or go with the veterans and try to win next year?
2nd Base This one appears to be a no brainer, but its a little more complicated than one might think. Robbie Alomar signed a one year deal. He was probably going to move on, or retire, at the end of the season regardless of his hand injury. Matt Kata started hot when he was first moved into the lineup, he's young, cheap, a scrapper, a prototypical leadoff hitter. He's your guy right? Maybe, but then Scott Hairston showed up. Always highly regarded within the system, his progression has been faster than anyone expected, and he appears to be a step or two away from being a star in this league. Alomar doesn't bring anything in return if you trade him, so that point is moot, but what do you do with Kata and Hairston?
The answer might be nothing. Hairston starts, and the versatile Kata (who plays 2nd, SS, and 3B equally well) becomes the first guy off your bench. A solid fill in when someone needs a day off, a late-in-the-game defensive replacement (always good to have with the Tracy/Hillenbrand options at 3rd), pinch hitter/runner, and a guy who had played everyday, and thus would be comfortable doing so in case of injury.
The downside of this is that either one of these players (Kata and Tracy) could be that 'sweetener' that brings a big time player, or big time prospects, to AZ. But are the D'Backs comfortable giving up young, talented, and now pretty close to proven major league ballplayers?
SS This year's draft might complicate things even further. While many teams passed on Stephen Drew, the D'Backs took the talented young shortstop with their first pick (15th overall). Why? That's a good question, and one Alex Cintron might be asking. Cintron has been the subject of trade rumors since before he even made it to the majors, but the D'Backs always said he was off limits. If the Diamondbacks are going to pony up the cash necessary to sign Drew, they aren't doing it to watch him ride the pine. Does that make Cintron trade bait? If they sign Drew, very possibly. Most scouts agree that Drew could play at the major league level within a year, and since Randy is not available Cintron might be the most marketable commodity the Diamondbacks have. With Cintron having a down year, have the Diamondbacks lost faith? Only the people in the front office know for sure, but a young hungry team looking to unload an older still effective pitcher and pick up a solid young shortstop for less money (the Reds are an option as Cintron would take over for Barry Larkin after the season) or a team looking to fill a gap due to injury (the Cubs) might be interested in Cintron, and the Cubs in particular have the pitching prospects the D'Backs would be looking for.
CF Steve Finley might be having the best season of his career, but at 39, how many more of these can we really expect? An excellent defensive centerfielder with pop from the left side of the plate is always an in demand commodity, and Fins seems the most likely of all the Diamondbacks to get moved. The Yankees immediately come to mind, as neither Bernie Williams nor Kenny Loften has been able to consistently patrol center because of injuries. Yet even moving Finley has become clouded recently, as the Diamondbacks best position player prospect, Luis Terrero, was suspended indefinately, and then ultimately cut, after an incident at AAA Tuscon. Conventional wisdom had said he was Finley's heir apparent, but now the Diamondbacks are left without their best prospect and with nothing coming in return for his loss. Still, if young Yankee prospect Bubba Crosby (also a centerfielder) was part of a Finley deal the D'Backs would be wise to jump at it.
P Mr. Colangelo says Randy isn't going anywhere. Randy is a 10 and 5 guy (ten years in the majors, five in a row with his current team) so even if the D'Backs wanted to deal him, he'd have to approve the deal, and he has said he wants to stay here. So for now we'll dispose of that.
Matt Mantai was horrible this year, and he wasn't supposed to be. During the spring all we heard out of D'Backs camp was how Mantai's velocity was back, his location was back, he was back. A demotion from the closer role and a trip to the DL later Mantai seems to have less than no value on the trade market, but not so fast. July is when things get desperate for teams in contention. If Mantai were to come back, even in middle relief, and throw well, the Diamondbacks might be able to sucker a contender into giving up a mid-level prospect for the once dominant closer. Never count out optimism. I can guarantee there are organizations out there who are thinking, "Well, maybe a change in scenery and a fresh start..." Not likely, but possible.
RF. What? Right field? Yeah kids, Danny Bautista is not 100% safe either. Bautista, while a nice player, has never quite lived up to the hype that surrounded him two years ago. Still he's relatively young, and some teams might look at him as a project worth taking on. The D'Backs can't expect to get a lot for him, but with Doug DeVore impressing in limited duty, the club might decide to fully embrace the youth movement, and look to pick up a young middle reliever (especially if he were a young left-handed reliever) in return. Sure, its unlikely, but if the team finds itself twelve or fifteen games out in mid July, nobody over the age of 25 is safe.
LF Just kidding, Gonzo isn't going anywhere. After the season he'll have arm surgery, so he wouldn't carry much value anyway, but Colangelo would sooner eat off the floor of Friday's Front Row than deal the incredibly popular Diamondbacks star.
Ultimately the biggest problem the D'Backs have is that at this point in the season they don't know if they are buyers or sellers. Typically a team 12 games under .500 is looking to move older, higher priced players and build for the future. Instead the D'Backs find themselves only eight games out of first in a division that no one is going to run away from. They aren't a team of old guys, they are already a young team, with a few very effective, very popular old guys. That's why the next month is so crucial. If the Diamondbacks can make a little run here in the next month, get themselves closer to .500, and within five games of the division, then all this changes. You don't even think of moving Randy, you certainly keep Finley, Hillenbrand keeps his AZ address, and the only player you could justify moving would be Cintron, and even then you would have to get a solid starter that can help you now in return. If the D'Backs tank the next month, and find themselves eight or ten or even more games out of first, then Finley can count on being moved, Cintron should start looking over his shoulder, and even Hillenbrand could be shipped, all for prospects or bottom of the rotation pitching. Wait and see is the name of the game.