Cintron Gone+Counsell Hurt=SS ??s

Alex Cintron never really got the chance to be more than an insurance policy with the Diamondbacks. He had opportunites, but there always seemed to be a veteran there to claim his spot. Last week when it was announced Craig Counsell has suffered a partial tear of the labrum in his throwing shoulder, it seemed that that insurance would finally pay off. And it did, for the White Sox, who traded for Cintron Wednesday. Counsell says he'll be ready for opening day, but if he's not, then who is?

Alex Cintron is gone, Craig Counsell has a torn labrum, and the door is open.  The question becomes, who's coming in first?

Jeff Bajenaru is a prospect with good stuff and a closer's mentality.  On a team that clearly needs to repopulate its bullpen arms, the deal is not a bad one for the Diamondbacks, but the timing, just days after it was announced that the team's starting shortstop, Craig Counsell, suffered a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder, leaves something to be desired.

The Diamondbacks were clearly shopping Cintron this offseason, and when GM Josh Byrnes announced the signing of veteran utility man Damien Easley the writing was no longer on the wall, it was on Cintron's jersey.  Short of a want add that read, "YOUNG, VERSATILE SWITCH HITTING INFIELDER AVAILABLE" the Diamondbacks could not have made it more obvious that he was on the block, and reports had a variety of clubs interested.

But once Counsell's injury was announced the speculation changed.  If Counsell was to miss significant time this season, suddenly Cintron's value to the Diamondbacks shot up exponentially.  While Easley is a solid fill in, capable of playing all four infield positions for a game here or there, at 36 years old he is no longer an everyday player, and the Counsell's injury is one that is always one diving play, or even one swing, away from sidelining him for the year.

So clearly the door has been opened for someone to step up and make a name for themselves.  Who are the options?

The clearest answer is a youngster by the name of Stephen Drew.  After being taken 15th overall by the Diamondbacks in the 2004 draft Drew held out until the last possible moment before signing, but once he did he showed that he was worth the reported $5.5 million dollars the Diamondbacks paid to get him into the organization.  He destroyed the Hi-A California League and though he struggled after an August promotion to Double-A most inside and outside the Diamondbacks organization blamed his lack of production on a hamstring injury and not the competition.

He continued his stellar play in the Arizona Fall League, continuing to hit for a high average, power, and showing better than advertised defensive work at shortstop.  The plan all offseason has been for Drew to start at Double-A Tennessee, get at bats against better pro pitching and promote him either midseason (if the Diamondbacks fall out of contention early) or in September (if the Diamondbacks are in the NL West race). 

However, if Counsell is not ready for opening day, or if he is but re-injures the shoulder early in the season, the Diamondbacks will have to evaluate whether the risk of rushing Drew is worth the opportunity to unleash one of the most talented players in all of the minor leagues on the Majors.

Option number two has been here before, and might finally find himself with the opportunity he's been waiting for.  Andy Green was at the top of everyone's surprise list last season with his .340+ batting average and incredible versatility in Triple-A, and after a late season call up Green continued to play well, and play everywhere.  He will be comfortable at shortstop, and familiar as well, both because he's been up with the big league club during parts of the last two seasons and because the player he is most compared to is, Craig Counsell.  Green came into camp gunning for the 25th spot on the roster.  His best chance was to be the sixth infielder (behind the starters and Easley) and fifth outfielder (behind the starters and likely fourth outfielder Jeff DaVanon) all at the same time.  A super-sub who could hit a little, run a little, and bring four gloves to the park everyday.

Now though he may emerge as the top choice if Counsell is unable to go, for one prime reason:  he can lead off.  As it stands Counsell is expected to be the Diamondbacks' lead off man, and after him the pickings are pretty slim.  Orlando Hudson strikes out too much, Chad Tracy briefly led off in '04, but that was before he started showcasing 30+ home run power, Eric Byrnes is far too inconsistent for the top spot in the order and none of the others expected to be in the starting lineup have ever hit at the top of the order, or are ever likely too.  Green on the other hand hit in the #1 spot for the majority of the '05 season in Tucson.  He takes pitches, works counts, can steal a base and drew 68 walks last season.  He is prone to the strike out (he K'd 82 times last season in Tucson), but clearly would be the logical choice if he were in the lineup, and would even be a preferable lead off man to Drew, who profiles more as a #3 (later in his career) or #6 (now) hitter. 

One name that Diamondbacks fans may be unfamiliar with might actually have been the insurance policy the Diamondbacks had stashed in their back pocket before they pulled the trigger on the Cintron deal.  Alberto Callaspo came over to the Diamondbacks last week in the trade that sent reliever Jason Bulger to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  A slick fielding shortstop Callaspo's biggest claim to fame thus far has been that he has averaged fewer strikeouts per at bat than any other minor league player.  Just 30 Ks in 562 at bats last season split between Double-A and Triple-A.  He stole just 11 bases, but his over .300, and while he doesn't walk often (38 bases on balls last year) he makes contact, hits behind runners and is generally considered a sparkplug.  Is he the Diamondbacks shortstop of the future?  Absolutely not.  Could he be the Diamondbacks (extremely) short term answer until they conclude that Drew is ready for the bright lights of Chase Field?  Very possibly.

Of course there are always other, less likely, options.  Jerry Gil, he of the potential golden glove and constant .200 batting average, is in camp as a non-roster invitee, and thought Brian Barden has never played shortstop, there is some speculation that if Counsell were to miss an extended period of time Barden might take over second base and Orlando Hudson could slide to shortstop, and if the Diamondbacks were really feeling adventurous they might just go off the deep end and name 18 year old 2005 #1 overall pick Justin Upton the opening day starter.

Still, all of this speculation stems from the idea that Counsell will not fully recover from the labrum tear.  He's been examined by the top surgeons, including Dr. James Andrews, and the consensus has been that at this point surgery is unnecessary and after 10 days of intensive rehab Counsell will have strengthened the muscles in his shoulder sufficiently to prevent further damage.  Remember this though, Counsell's injury, while not as serious as the one Richie Sexson sustained at the beginning of the 2004 season, is similar, and could put Counsell on the operating table, and out for the year, literally on any play.  If that happens the Diamondbacks have options, and once Drew is deemed ready they have an obvious heir apparent, but for an infield already pock marked with questions (is Conor Jackson the .355 hitter we saw in Triple-A or the .200 hitter we saw with the D'Backs last year?  Can Tony Clark repeat his miraculous 30 homers in 367 at bats performance?  Can Chad Tracy catch and throw the ball at third?), an outfield of aging stars, a bullpen without a single sure thing and a starting rotation that goes exactly one deep, Counsell seemed to be the rock, and now he's a chipped stone, at best. 


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