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Thursday, April 18, 2013
Diamondbacks have grit ... and talent

By David Schoenfield


The Arizona Diamondbacks took a beating in the offseason from the pundits.

Prospect hounds criticized them for trading away former first-round pick Trevor Bauer, a deal made in part because of Bauer's iconoclastic approach to his craft that rubbed the Diamondbacks the wrong way.

Statheads mocked them for apparently focusing on acquiring players with that undefinable attribute known as grit, in the mold of manager Kirk Gibson, who had grit running through his veins in his playing days.

Traditional front-office types and ex-players ripped general manager Kevin Towers for publicly putting talented right fielder Justin Upton on the block, and then not trading him when it became clear he had to be dealt, and then not getting enough in return when they did finally trade him.

The message the Diamondbacks sent was clear: They didn't like Bauer, they didn't like Upton, and they probably didn't like Chris Young, dealt for scrappy overachiever Cliff Pennington. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo wrote in January:
As much as any baseball team in recent memory, the Diamondbacks on Thursday publicly embraced the idea of grittiness and guts, of the inherent and unquantifiable. And in doing so, they finished a two-trade whammy over the last six weeks that has seen them ship out their two most talented players in an effort to better embody this belief. ... The result is a fascinating experiment: a team stressing culture over talent. The Diamondbacks might say otherwise -- (Martin) Prado is an All-Star and in both deals they got young and talented shortstops, one of the toughest things to find -- but a consensus of scouts and sabermetric wonks agree: In both trades, Arizona sacrificed one for the other.

Towers didn't hide behind what the Diamondbacks were trying to do. "Different clubs like to look for certain intangibles," he said. "We like that gritty, grinder type. Hard-nosed. I'm not saying Justin isn't that type of guy."

I thought the Diamondbacks were criticized too heavily for their offseason deals; not that I'm a believer in gritty grinders, but because the other side of the talent issue was that Bauer has had trouble throwing enough strikes, Upton wasn't that great in 2012, and maybe -- let's give Towers a little credit here -- the players Arizona got in return will help them win in 2013 and beyond.

Of course, we're two-plus weeks into the season and Upton has already hit nine home runs -- more than half the 17 he hit last season -- so his hot start has sealed the perception that Arizona got snookered in that trade with Atlanta.

It's way too early to make any judgments on that, but on Thursday we saw both of Arizona's primary trade acquisitions make contributions in Arizona's 6-2 win over the Yankees, as Didi Gregorius, acquired in the Bauer trade, played his first game for Arizona and homered in the third inning, and Martin Prado homered in the sixth. For Gregorius, it was his first major league home run -- on the first pitch he saw with the D-backs, a 92 mph fastball from Phil Hughes launched to right-center and prompting a big smile as he rounded third base.

Prado is a career .295 hitter who hit .301/.359/.438 last season with the Braves, but it's his ability to play superb defense at multiple positions that Arizona liked as well. He's already started games at third base, left field and second base. Check out this trio of plays made at third base against the Yankees: This one on Thursday, this one on Wednesday, and another one from Wednesday.

Gregorius comes with a strong defensive rep at shortstop; the question is whether he'll hit. After batting .265/.324/.393 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2012, he was off to a great start at Triple-A Reno, hitting .387 with two homers and only one strikeout in 33 plate appearances. Sure, it's Reno, but maybe Towers saw more potential in his bat than others did.

Those home runs gave the D-backs a 2-1 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth inning -- Patrick Corbin allowed just two hits in seven innings -- which J.J. Putz gave away, but Arizona rallied with four runs in the 12th off David Phelps.

The impressive aspect of Arizona's 9-6 start is they've done so while being banged up -- maybe not quite to the extent the Yankees are banged up, but enough so that even grit and guts have been sidelined. Projected starting center fielder and leadoff hitter Adam Eaton is out with an elbow strain; Aaron Hill, who hit 26 home runs last season, was off to a good start before breaking his hand; Cody Ross just returned but fellow outfielder Jason Kubel is on the DL with a strained quad; supersub Willie Bloomquist is also on the DL with an oblique strain.

That meant Arizona played Thursday's game, for example, without three of its projected starters in Eaton, Hill and Kubel. But that was a main reason I liked Arizona to win the NL West: I liked their depth more than any other club in their division. They can still plug in Gerardo Parra and A.J. Pollock in the outfield; Gregorius shows their depth at shortstop behind Pennington and Bloomquist; veteran Eric Chavez is around to play some third base or come off the bench. Corbin, the second-year No. 5 starter who beat out prized rookie Tyler Skaggs in spring training, shows that the rotation is five-deep.

Yes, the Diamondbacks will be a punching bag all season on Twitter and in blogs as people make jokes about their latest gritty effort. But don't be surprised if they do some punching back of their own where it counts: in the win column.