PHOENIX – Having unloaded a number of veterans over the last calendar year and in the last few weeks, the Arizona Diamondbacks are set to look as homegrown as ever in 2015.
New organizational leadership — including Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa, General Manager Dave Stewart and Manager Chip Hale — has quickly cleared the way for some of its younger talent to emerge in the upcoming season.
One day after Stewart sent pitcher Trevor Cahill and cash to the Atlanta Braves to make room for prized pitching prospect Archie Bradley in the team’s starting rotation, Hale announced Friday that veteran second baseman Aaron Hill would assume a bench role in 2015, making way for 23-year-old Chris Owings at second and 25-year-old Nick Ahmed at shortstop.
Before Friday’s exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs at Chase Field, the manager was asked by the media what the leading factor was in the team’s decision-making as it pertained to the roster decisions.
“For me? Performance — I think we’re ready to move on and do it with a younger group,” he explained.
The decisions to promote Ahmed, Bradley and Owings are, of course, nothing new for the D-backs, who have parted ways with all of Cahill, Miguel Montero, Martin Prado, Gerardo Parra, Wade Miley, Brandon McCarthy, J.J. Putz and Joe Thatcher in the last nine months. But they’re perhaps the clearest sign of the organization’s decided direction.
“We’re going to move on to the youth and turn our team over to them,” Hale explained.
This kind of thing happens all the time in sports, almost always leaving victims. Though Cahill will have a starting rotation spot with the Braves, Hill, 33, has been left behind, relegated to a role of occasion.
“As a true pro, he took it as good as you can,” Hale said of his conversation with Hill. “You know, it’s hard. But we’re going to get him as many at-bats as we can and get his bat going and, as you know, in baseball, things change. Sometimes they change quickly.”
For Hill, the change can be plotted on a calendar. After an elite season and a half with the D-backs in 2011 and 2012, the second baseman signed a three-year contract extension with the organization, securing an additional $35 million through 2016. In 2013, he suffered a pair of injuries and was able to play in just 87 games, but batted .291 with an .818 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 327 at-bats.
The next season was a different story. Hill visibly declined in 2014, hitting just .244 in 133 games. He managed just 39 extra-base hits — five less than the amount of doubles he hit in 2012, when he hit 26 home runs and six triples for the D-backs. That showed in his .367 slugging percentage, which was down from .522 in 2012 and .462 in 2013. Late in the season, he was already yielding starts to Owings at second base.
And then in 56 Cactus League plate appearances this spring, Hill was unable to do much for himself in the race for the everyday job at second base, hitting .189 with a measly .232 on-base percentage and just one extra-base hit — a double.
With the former Toronto Blue Jay still owed $24 million between this year and next, the D-backs are reportedly trying to trade Hill off to another team, staying in harmony with the youth movement.
But even as things stand, Hale and the D-backs look to field as many as seven homegrown position players as everyday starters in 2015 — seven players who made their major league debuts with the organization. Outfielder Mark Trumbo could be the only outlier in that group, which includes Ahmed, Owings, Paul Goldschmidt, Tuffy Gosewisch, David Peralta, A.J. Pollock and either Jake Lamb or Yasmany Tomas. Another system-developed player — Ender Inciarte — is the team’s fourth outfielder and has been deemed worthy of “everyday at-bats” by his manager.
And three members of the starting rotation — Josh Collmenter, Chase Anderson and, soon enough, Bradley — all were or will be homegrown debutants for the D-backs.
Bradley, who perhaps received the strongest vote of confidence from the organization in the trading away of Cahill, was quick to express both his gratitude for the opportunity he was given and his interpretation of the D-backs’ recent movement.
“I think it shows that we’re committed to winning,” he said, adding that he felt the team had “a lot to offer” and would be “competitive.”
“I’m just excited that they chose me to be a part of it,” he went on.
The D-backs’ competition Friday — the Cubs — recently came under fire for demoting top prospect Kris Bryant to minor league camp despite his gaudy major league-leading hitting numbers this spring, which included a .425 batting average, nine home runs and a 1.652 OPS. The organization presumable made their decision in an effort to delay the player’s service clock and preserve an additional year of control over his salary, before he becomes eligible for arbitration. Arizona seems less concerned with contractual matters when it comes to their top prospects, like Bradley, who for years has been considered the organization’s No. 1 prospect by Baseball America.
When asked if he knew the D-backs would be headed in the direction they are, turning toward youth, Hill was straightforward with reporters.
“I think everyone could probably assume that at some point throughout the offseason,” he said.
Though he’s the left-behind remnant of the veteran team which once was — the bench player giving way to a guy 10 years younger than him, Hill said he has no plans to carry a bad attitude, only to help the team. And, like the organization at large, he’s excited to see the youth in action.
“The young guys that are playing are unbelievable guys and I hope that everything goes great for them,” he said.
The D-backs begin the regular season on Opening Day, Monday, at Chase Field against the world champion San Francisco Giants.