The Arizona Diamondbacks have put together one of the more intriguing rosters as we approach spring camp, and they’ve done so while maintaining flexibility. The Starling Marte acquisition, for instance, secures center field as GM Mike Hazen had hoped – secondarily allowing star Ketel Marte to stay at second base – but that doesn’t mean Ketel’s days in center are done. The Martes could very well play side-by-side in the outfield against tough lefties while David Peralta or Kole Calhoun gets a breather, writes MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert. Most of Arizona’s bench hits from the left side, though Ildemaro Vargas, Domingo Leyba, and Andy Young can all hit righty, making them candidates to spell Marte at second when he vacates. Let’s jump the the Junior Circuit to check in on the Mariners…
The Red Sox are interviewing Luis Urueta for the club’s open managerial position, according to Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes (Spanish-language link). He’s expected to speak with the club today via phone.
Urueta is presently the bench coach of the Diamondbacks, where he serves under skipper Torey Lovullo — who, like much of the top Arizona baseball ops leadership, came over from the Boston organization. The Snakes have given Urueta permission to interview, per Alex Speier of the Boston Globe (via Twitter).
The 39-year-old Urueta didn’t make it far as a professional player, but he has found quite a lot of success by climbing the ranks as a coach. His roots are in the D-Backs organization. The Colombian has also managed his home nation’s World Baseball Classic team and skippered the Dominican winter ball Licey Tigers.
Urueta’s background is generally similar to that of just-hired Mets manager Luis Rojas. Both clubs faced late hiring searches owing to the involvement of their prior managers in the Astros sign-stealing scandal. Urueta becomes the first Red Sox candidate known to have an interview; Mark Kotsay is also rumored as a potential target.
Before shipping him to the Diamondbacks, the Pirates discussed Starling Marte in trade talks with the Mets. But it now seems the New York organization lacked especially serious interest in the veteran center fielder.
According to a report from Andy Martino of SNY.tv, the Mets declined to pursue any of three possible trade structures proposed by the Bucs. That included separate “package” scenarios “centered around” either J.D. Davis or Brandon Nimmo as well as one based around multiple top prospects.
It’s not especially surprising to hear that the Mets were disinterested in skimming from the top of their prospect pool. The club has recently parted with some notable young talent — most notably, in this memorable swap. The ultimate deal that did take place featured two quality, but far-off prospects from a well-stocked Arizona farm that could more readily withstand the loss.
Perhaps it’s also understandable that the New York org was not inclined to move Nimmo. He has had a few ups and downs and missed a big chunk of 2019 due to injury. But he’s also a rare talent in the on-base department, delivers value on the bases, and can play all three outfield positions. Through over a thousand career plate appearances, Nimmo owns a sturdy .254/.387/.440 slash — good for a 130 wRC+ that tops the career mean of teammate Michael Conforto (125 wRC+).
The most interesting news here is that the Mets were not really willing to discuss Davis in order to reel in Marte. True, he’s just 26 and has yet to reach arbitration (though he likely will next year as a Super Two). And Davis turned in a hefty .307/.369/.527 batting line with 22 long balls over 453 plate appearances last year. He rode a .355 BABIP to get there, though that was driven by exceptional contact numbers.
Clearly, the Mets believe that Davis can keep banging. It’s hard not to like what he showed last year. And he was a consistent producer in the minors, though his earlier MLB action didn’t leave cause for optimism. There’s some risk that the offensive profile isn’t an especially sustainable one. Of perhaps greater concern is the fact that Davis isn’t much of a contributor in other areas. He graded as a very poor baserunner (-2.8 BsR). While Davis is capable of lining up at the infield or outfield corners, metrics have generally panned his glovework.
It’s always hard to part with affordable, controllable players that have produced at the MLB level. In that regard, it’s hard to fault the Mets. But this is a season in which the team needs to win, and the roster would be in much better alignment with a true center fielder and one less corner piece. Whether there’s any realistic possibility of landing a new option in center isn’t clear. But there are likely still trade scenarios afoot involving some of the Mets’ corner players. More so than Nimmo or Davis, it’s still tough to know just what the team will do with Dominic Smith if he remains on hand.
5:54PM: “All signs point to a two-team race” between the Dodgers and Padres for Betts, the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier writes, and “Major League sources believe that it’s likelier than not that Betts gets traded, potentially in the very near future.” Price might yet be involved in a potential Dodgers deal, though adding Price alongside Betts “might compromise the prospect return for the Sox,” since Los Angeles doesn’t want to absorb much of Price’s contract. On the Padres’ side, they “seem open on just about any other outfielder” than Tommy Pham or Trent Grisham in trade talks. The Diamondbacks were another team linked to Betts in trade rumors, though Speier hears from a source that there was “no real traction” between Boston and Arizona even before the D’Backs acquired Starling Marte, so Arizona seems to be out of the Betts hunt.
7:30AM: With camp fast approaching, teams weighing major trades are surely beginning to feel the pressure. The Dodgers are keeping their cool as they continue to pursue Red Sox star Mookie Betts, Andy McCullough of The Athletic writes (subscription link). But they’re also possibly nearing a decision.
Talks between the coastal giants could well be reaching an inflection point, it seems. McCullough writes that the teams have “approached a resolution” in their talks “in recent days.”
Details of the packages under consideration are limited; as McCullough notes, it’s possible to imagine rather a wide variety of permutations. But the talks — at least, in some variations — do involve high-priced Boston hurler David Price. (Shades of another major trade between these teams?)
As we discussed recently in a poll on the subject, there’s no shortage of pressure on the team to make strides. And the goal is obviously to find a major new performer. But the team also has reason to remain comfortable with its existing talent. No surprise, then, that McCullough indicates the organization isn’t really interested in stretching too far to make a deal.
It’s worth noting, too, that holding back assets for mid-season trades represents a viable alternative strategy. Betts himself could be available then, if he’s not poached first by another club (such as the division-rival Padres). The Dodgers can’t assume they’ll coast to another title, particularly now that the Diamondbacks have compiled such an interesting roster, but there’s some conceptual merit to waiting for mid-season roster holes to open before acting.
Speaking of that aforementioned poll … the results were interesting. Respondents were fairly evenly split as to whether the Dodgers would pull off a blockbuster. Among those that foresee a deal, about half think Betts will indeed land to L.A.
The Orioles announced Thursday that they’ve re-claimed infielder Pat Valaika off waivers from the Diamondbacks and designated right-hander Branden Kline for assignment in order to open a spot on the 40-man roster.
Baltimore designated Valaika for assignment earlier this month, surely hoping to pass him through waivers and retain him without dedicating a 40-man roster spot to the 27-year-old. Instead, the Diamondbacks claimed him and briefly hung onto him until needing a roster spot of their own following the acquisition of Starling Marte. The O’s have been on the lookout for infield depth since losing Valaika, and they’ll now welcome him back into the organization at Kline’s expense.
A career .214/.256/.400 hitter who has shown plenty of pop from the right side of the dish, Valaika has experience at each of second base, shortstop and third base. However, he’s also punched out in nearly 29 percent of his trips to the plate in the big leagues, which has contributed significantly to his inability to reach base at a passable rate. Valaika does have a minor league option remaining and a career .275/.315/.498 slash 695 Triple-A plate appearances, making him a reasonable depth option for the rebuilding Orioles to carry on the roster even if he doesn’t break camp with the club this spring.
The 28-year-old Kline made his MLB debut in 2019 but was hit hard, logging a 5.93 ERA and a 34-to-19 K/BB ratio in 41 innings of relief. He averaged a hearty 96.3 mph on his four-seamer in that time but generated below-average spin and yielded hard contact at far too great a clip (49.2 percent, per Statcast). Kline has had some success up through the Double-A level but has yet to post strong numbers in limited time with Triple-A Norfolk or in the Majors.
The Diamondbacks’ top affiliate announced recently that the organization has added catcher John Hicks on a minor-league deal. He’ll participated in the MLB side of camp this spring.
Hicks was non-tendered by the Tigers, who preferred not to pay a projected $1.7MM salary. The 30-year-old is coming off of his worst showing in the majors. In addition to carrying an ugly .210/.240/.379 batting line over 333 plate appearances, Hicks did not fare well in the framing department.
There’s reason to think that Hicks can rebound to some extent from that effort. He was close to a league-average offensive performer over the prior two seasons, slashing .262/.317/.416 in 502 cumulative plate appearances. And he had previously received roughly average marks in framing, blocking, and controlling the running game.
It’s a good spot for Hicks to land. The Snakes have quite often carried three catchers since GM Mike Hazen and manager Torey Lovullo rolled into town. That’ll be easier than ever with a 26th roster spot to work with. Carson Kelly and Stephen Vogt are the clear top two options, with youngster Daulton Varsho coming quickly. But there’s a path for Hicks to crack the MLB roster out of camp or at least to serve as a top depth option.
With the clear exception of the still-unsigned Yasiel Puig, free agency is almost devoid of high-upside contributors at this point. The majority of players capable of securing guaranteed contracts have already come off the board, making this a good time to check in on which teams have spent the most and which clubs have paid the least via the open market. We’ve already gone through the same exercise for the American League, where the Yankees have returned to the top of the heap as the biggest spenders in their league and in the sport in general. Meanwhile, over in the Senior Circuit, reigning world champion Washington clearly isn’t resting on its laurels after a storybook playoff run…
Nationals: $316.75MM on 10 players (Stephen Strasburg, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Starlin Castro, Yan Gomes, Howie Kendrick, Eric Thames, Asdrubal Cabrera, Ryan Zimmerman and Kyle Finnegan; financial details unclear for Finnegan; top 50 MLBTR signings: four)
Brewers: $48.38MM on eight players (Avisail Garcia, Josh Lindblom, Justin Smoak, Brett Anderson, Eric Sogard, Alex Claudio, Ryon Healy and Deolis Guerra; financial details unclear for Healy and Guerra; top 50 signings: two)
Rockies: Signed RHP Jose Mujica (financial details unclear; top 50 signings: zero)
They’re throwing a Marte party in the desert. The Diamondbacks on Monday acquired center fielder Starling Marte from the Pirates in a blockbuster trade that saw shortstop prospect Liover Peguero, young righty Brennan Malone and $250K in international money go to Pittsburgh in return. Arizona now happens to have the top two Martes in the majors in Starling and Ketel Marte, the Diamondbacks’ primary center fielder from 2019 who broke out as a star and will now occupy second base most of the time.
For the Diamondbacks, an 85-win team from last year that’s trying to give the Dodgers a better fight in the NL West, the addition of Starling Marte is the latest win-now move in an offseason packed with them. The D-backs’ previous pickups came via the open market, where they signed left-hander Madison Bumgarner, right fielder Kole Calhoun, relievers Hector Rondon and Junior Guerra, and catcher Stephen Vogt.
There are concerns with Marte’s game, including iffy defensive metrics, a past PED suspension and a career-long aversion to drawing walks. Still, he’s unquestionably one of the most valuable center fielders in the sport. The 31-year-old has accounted for at least 3.0 fWAR in each of his six full seasons, and is coming off his second straight 20-20 effort. Marte posted a .295/.342/.503 line with 23 home runs and 25 stolen bases across in 586 trips to the plate.
Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention that Marte’s contract only makes him more appealing from Arizona’s standpoint. He’ll earn a fairly economical $11.5MM this year and could make $12.5MM next season if the Diamondbacks exercise his club option in lieu of a $1MM buyout. Assuming Marte continues his steady production in 2020, picking up that option will be a no-brainer for the team.
In Pittsburgh’s case, Marte’s age, waning control and the Pirates’ rebuilding status all combined to send him out of the Steel City after months of trade rumors. It was an understandable decision on new Pirates general manager Ben Cherington’s part to cash in the Marte chip, though there’s dissatisfaction in Pittsburgh that the team’s ultra-low payroll shrunk even more as a result of the deal. The Pirates could put at least some money back into their roster by finding a Marte replacement before the season, which is Cherington’s plan, but they’re unlikely to find a player of his caliber.
Regardless of how the Pirates’ payroll looks in the wake of Marte’s exit, the club did land a couple promising farmhands in Peguero and Malone. Both 19-year-olds are a ways away from major league opportunities, having not gotten past the low-A level yet, but they were seen as two of Arizona’s most intriguing prospects. Two months ago, FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel ranked Peguero fifth in the Diamondbacks’ system, comparing him to former D-back Jean Segura. The flamethrowing Malone checked in at No. 10 on the list, meanwhile, with Longenhagen and McDaniel writing that the 33rd overall pick from last year’s draft has “a mid-rotation starter look.”
Thanks to the youth of Peguero and Malone, we’ll have to wait for a while to see how this trade pans out. At first glance, though, how do you like it for both teams? Weigh in below …
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The Diamondbacks announced that they’ve designated infielder Pat Valaika for assignment. His spot on the 40-man roster will go to new center fielder Starling Marte, whose acquisition from the Pirates has been formally announced by the team.
It’s the third time this winter that Valaika, 27, has been jettisoned from a 40-man roster. The former ninth-round pick began the offseason with the Rockies and was briefly property of the Orioles before being claimed off waivers by the D-backs just 11 days ago.
The younger brother of former Reds, Marlins and Cubs infielder Chris Valaika, Pat has spent his entire career in the Rockies organization, appearing in the big leagues in each of the past four seasons. He’s a career .214/.256/.400 hitter who has shown plenty of pop from the right side of the dish and some infield versatility.
However, the younger Valaika brother has punched out in nearly 29 percent of his trips to the plate in the big leagues and generally struggled to get on base at a passable clip. He has a minor league option remaining and a career .275/.315/.498 slash 695 Triple-A plate appearances, so it’s possible another club will take a look at claiming him as a depth option. If not, he’ll remain in the D-backs system and presumably head to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee to Major League camp.
Arizona will have a week to trade Valaika, place him on outright waivers or release him.
The Diamondbacks were handsomely rewarded when last they dealt for a player named Marte, and they’ve doubled down on that strategy. The Snakes announced on Monday that they’ve acquired outfielder Starling Marte from the Pirates. High-upside youngsters Liover Peguero and Brennan Malone are going back in return, along with $250K in international spending money moving to Pittsburgh. The Pirates will also reportedly pay down $1.5MM of Marte’s remaining obligations.
It’s another fascinating gambit from the Arizona front office in what has been a perhaps unexpectedly aggressive winter. When the offseason opened, there was more talk of trading Robbie Ray than of pushing to dethrone the Dodgers in the NL West. But Ray remains with the club. And after dealing away Zack Greinke at the 2019 trade deadline, the D-Backs have now added multiple veteran pieces to the roster — including veteran hurler Madison Bumgarner — and seem poised to contend.
In making this swap, the Diamondbacks are adding a consistently above-average offensive performer who is fresh off a robust .295/.342/.503 slash with 23 homers, 31 doubles, six triples and 25 steals in 586 plate appearances in his final season with the Pirates. The 31-year-old Marte has been at least 12 percent better than a league-average hitter in every season dating back to 2013, with the exception of 2017, by measure of wRC+. He doesn’t walk much but also boasts a low strikeout rate (16 percent in 2019) and high-end baserunning value.
If there are questions about the now-former Pirates center fielder, they center around his glovework. Marte won a pair of Gold Gloves with the Buccos back in 2015-16, but that was when he was playing left field alongside a still-in-his-prime Andrew McCutchen in center. Marte took over center field on a full-time basis in 2018 and delivered above-average to excellent marks in Defensive Runs Saved (+1), Ultimate Zone Rating (+3.2) and Outs Above Average (+10). However, those metrics soured on his skills across the board in 2019 (-9 DRS, -7.6 UZR, +2 OAA).
That 2019 downturn notwithstanding, Marte now seems poised to step into an everyday center field role in Arizona, thus allowing rising star Ketel Marte to settle in at second base on a full-time basis. The pair would anchor a revamped Arizona lineup that has already gained Kole Calhoun and Stephen Vogt this winter. Marte — the prospective new acquisition, that is — is earning $11.5MM in 2020. Because Pittsburgh is paying $1.5MM of that sum, he’ll tack another $10MM onto the 2020 payroll for the D-backs. He’s controllable for another season through a $12.5MM club option that can alternatively be bought out for $1MM buyout.
That contract was a major part of Marte’s appeal. He signed it back in the spring of 2014 — a hopeful time for him and the Pirates organization. Things didn’t quite develop according to plan, though both player and team found success at times. Marte sat out for half of the 2017 season owing to a violation of the league’s PED policy. The Bucs took three-straight Wild Card appearances (2013-15) but haven’t been back to the postseason since.
The situation in Pittsburgh reached a boiling point after a highly disappointing 2019 campaign that significantly downgraded the team’s near-term outlook. This move represents the first major decision for a new leadership team — president Travis Williams, GM Ben Cherington, and manager Derek Shelton — that was installed after the offseason was already underway.
It’s not especially surprising to see Marte on the move. He sat atop our most recent ranking of the top trade candidates in baseball. Given the rough seas the Bucs had sailed upon of late, it made good sense for the organization to cash in the veteran and set the looking glass to the horizon.
Cherington is hunting for gold with this move. Both of the young players acquired are seen as possessing massive ceilings, but they’re also still a long ways off. While it’s tough to glean too much from a singular trade, it’s nevertheless notable that the newly minted Pirates’ baseball ops boss opted for high-ceiling teenagers that aren’t close to MLB-ready rather than focusing on players who could make an impact in 2020 or 2021. That’s not to say that the Pirates did poorly in their return, but perhaps a hint that Cherington and his staff believe the timeline to contention isn’t exactly a short one. Baseball America and FanGraphs each graded both Peguero and Malone among the top 10 prospects in an Arizona farm that has drawn increasing praise for its depth of quality talent.
The 19-year-old Peguero split this past season between the Rookie-level Pioneer League and the short-season Class-A Northwest League, hitting a combined .326/.382/.485 with five homers, 11 doubles, five triples and 11 steals in 249 plate appearances. Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen favorably compare him to Jean Segura in their scouting report, noting astonishingly similar body types and quick hands at the plate; however, they also tout him as a potentially superior defender to Segura.
Malone, also 19, was the 33rd overall pick in this past year’s draft. He draws praise for a heater that has topped out at 99 mph, a plus slider and another pair of potentially average offerings in his curve and changeup. Like Peguero, he’s years from making an impact in the big leagues but possesses a notable ceiling on which the Pirates can dream.
John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7 (via Twitter) reported that the sides were closing in on a deal. Jon Heyman of MLB Network (via Twitter) reported it was done. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (via Twitter), Robert Murray (Twitter link), Heyman (in a tweet), and Gambadoro (via Twitter) had details.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.