PHOENIX — It happens every fall. Teams make time for their young talent, not only to evaluate performance but also to let the players work through the newness of the stadiums, the charged atmosphere and the level of competition before the anticipated full immersion.
So it is with the Diamondbacks, who have used rookies Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings exclusively at shortstop the last 12 games. Each has started six times apiece, and it is likely to play out that way for the rest of the season. It makes a lot of sense.
Both Gregorius and Owings appear to figure in the team’s 2014 plans; so, the thinking goes, the more experience, the better. Willie Bloomquist and Cliff Pennington have been the odd men out this month, but both understand the situation and have handled it well, manager Kirk Gibson said.
“We want to see what they can do. We want to give these guys some experience. K.T. will have to make some decisions as the offseason approaches,” Gibson said of general manager Kevin Towers.
It seems certain the D-backs will be asked about Owings — and third baseman Matt Davidson, for that matter — in potential trade packages. Owings was the Pacific Coast League MVP and Rookie of the Year at Class AAA Reno, and he did that most of that as one of the youngest players in the league. A sandwich pick in the 2009 draft, Owings did not turn 22 until Aug. 12.
Other teams may look at the D-backs’ embarrassment of riches at shortstop and figure gunslinger Towers must make a move. Towers sees it differently. While 2014 is too far away to see, Towers suggested that Gregorius and Owings not only will have spots on the roster but could form a tag-team at the position.
“You can’t have enough middle infielders,” Towers said. “I don’t know anybody who would say we have too many middle infielders, we have to move one. There are ways to get them enough at-bats up here. Didi and ‘C.O.’ are two young players. It’s perfect that one is right-handed (Owings) and one is left-handed.”
Handyman Bloomquist will be back on the free-agent market and is likely to attract plenty of interest because of his versatility, as was the case when he resigned with the D-backs for a two-year deal in 2012 in which he left money on the table. If he goes, the D-backs would have the depth to compensate. Pennington could serve as a super sub both at shortstop and behind second baseman Aaron Hill. Owings also could play some second and third.
Gregorius, who was delayed out of spring training because of an elbow sprain, had shown flashes of the player Towers compared defensively to the New York Yankees’ Derek Jeter in his first full season. Scouts rated his arm a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and he has used it. He has 13 errors in 94 games, a relatively high number, and metrics rate him an average defender, but the D-backs believe in his tools at the position. They would not hesitate to make the three-deal that brought Gregorius at a cost of Trevor Bauer again.
Gregorius got off to a quick start at the plate, homering off rhe Yankees’ Phil Hughes on the first pitch he saw in his D-backs’ debut April 18. He was hitting over. 300 for the first two months before slumping as pitchers starting attacking him on the inside part of the plate, but Gibson believes Gregorius has countered with an adjustment that enables him to cover more of the plate. He is hitting .260 with seven homers and 26 RBI in 342 at-bats.
“He’s taken the time to develop a good routine,” Gibson said. “Ideally you want to have more things you can do with more pitches than just one little area. Before he’d pull some of the off-speed pitches … and he got into some bad habits. He has a better understanding of how to deal with that now.”
Owings did a little bit everything at Reno, hitting .330 with 31 doubles, 12 homers, 81 RBIs and 20 stolen bases and setting career highs in batting average, doubles, RBI and stolen bases. Like Adam Eaton last season, Owings has no worlds left to conquer at the minor league level.
“I don’t know what more you would ask for him to do,” Towers said.
Owings made his first start Sept. 6 in San Francisco and had two-hit games the next two nights. Owings has six hits in 23 at-bats with the D-backs, and Towers said he has liked what he has seen in a small sample size.
“C.O. has come up and done a real nice job. Defensively. Swinging the bat. Much more disciplined at the plate than I saw a year ago,” Towers said, pointing to Owings’ ability to lay off sliders outside of the strike zone by Carlos Marmol and Jhoulys Chacin in the last week.
“Two guys with wipeout type sliders, and he’s drawn walks off both those guys when he has started out down in the count. Which is a pretty good sign.”