D-backs’ Torey Lovullo keeping closer eye on roster bubble ‘understudies’ at camp

Feb 27, 2023, 11:55 AM
Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Pavin Smith before a spring training game Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, i...
Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Pavin Smith before a spring training game Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Arizona Sports/Alex Weiner)
(Arizona Sports/Alex Weiner)

PEORIA — Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo has zeroed in on the team’s “understudies” during spring training, as roster depth has been a sharper focus of his since the injury-riddled, 52-win 2021 campaign.

The D-backs enter 2023 having added more options on the MLB roster and in the upper levels of the minors after years of building up the system. The 2020 lost minor league season is further in the rearview mirror, as well.

“Because of what happened in 2021, I am very hypersensitive to depth inside our organization, but not just depth where I write a name on the lineup, but depth as to where guys can perform at a high level,” Lovullo said Saturday.

“My focus is on the understudies, my focus is on quality backups all the time. I know the starters are the starters and some guys are fighting for starting positions, but you ask me what I pay attention to, I pay attention to the understudies a lot more than I do the starters.”

The D-backs had 26 players dig into the box for a plate appearance last year and 31 pitchers throw an inning, excluding position players who took the mound in blowouts.

There are not many position player spots on the active roster up for grabs after the offseason additions of Evan Longoria, Kyle Lewis, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Gabriel Moreno. But the D-backs will rely on those who just miss the cut one way or another.

Pavin Smith is battling for a role on the team, and Lovullo said the lefty will get at-bats this year, even if not in an everyday role. Smith worked at first base and in the outfield last year but was optioned to Triple-A Reno on July 2. He broke his hand in the minors and did not get recalled until Sept. 23.

This year, he’s practiced more at first base with a logjam in the outfield, can backup Christian Walker and fill in against righties.

“Going down, getting hurt puts everything into perspective, just being able to come back from that and then I went and played in the (Dominican Winter League) and had some success,” Smith explained.

“I’m working on hitting, on my swing, just going out there and trying to be myself.”

Smith produced a .920 OPS in 15 games with Tigres del Licey and homered in his second spring game on Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

Arizona designated 2022 contributors Stone Garrett, Jordan Luplow and Sergio Alcantara for assignment in November to promote younger players OF Dominic Fletcher, OF Jorge Barrosa and INF Blaze Alexander to the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 Draft.

Fletcher and Alexander reached Triple-A last year, and farm director Josh Barfield told FanGraphs recently that Alexander is not far from getting his opportunity.

Shortstop Nick Ahmed missed most of 2022 (played 17 games) with a shoulder injury and is banged up in camp with forearm tightness. Lovullo said Ahmed will be fine for Opening Day and could play next week, but he is on high alert to who could fill in if needed.

Jordan Lawlar has received a lot of attention as one of baseball’s top prospects, but he has steps to make in the minors before reaching the show. He made his Double-A Amarillo debut last season.

Alexander is Arizona’s No. 14 prospect on MLB Pipeline with an elite arm, and he slashed .301/.389/.540 with 20 home runs last year across three levels ending with Triple-A. It was a breakout campaign after he struggled at the plate in 2021 following the lost season (.688 OPS).

“He’s tooled up,” Lovullo said. “I said to him this morning, he’s starting to lay down some concepts and he’s turned out to be an excellent baseball player and he’s progressing quickly through the system. Not necessarily step by step as to what he’s gonna do level to level, but what it means to be a quality infielder who puts together quality at-bats.

“He’s racing through that process quickly and he asks good questions and accepts coaching.”

Lovullo’s attention applies to pitching, as well.

He noted Sunday that he hasn’t watched much of Zac Gallen’s work this spring yet and will enjoy the 2022 Cy Young contender’s starts. But the manager said he spends a lot of time with those fighting for spots, such as the No. 5 starter behind Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Madison Bumgarner and Zach Davies.

Ryne Nelson, Tommy Henry and Drey Jameson headline the competition, and Lovullo had the trio start Arizona’s first three spring training games with top pitching prospect Brandon Pfaadt up next on Monday.

D-backs face the Cubs at 1:10 p.m. Monday at Salt River Fields.

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