PHOENIX — Many people make plans to evacuate Arizona this time of year. Major league scouts will go against the traffic.
For the first time since Kevin Towers took over as general manager in 2010, the Diamondbacks will be sellers this July. Towers and chief baseball officer Tony La Russa sat down with the coaching staff last week to evaluate the 40-man roster with an eye toward the future.
"Trying to get a sense of who should be a part of our future and who should be made available," said Towers, who has been a trade deadline buyer the last three seasons.
The D-backs (33-48) are targeting pitching and outfield depth, and possibly catcher, as they proceed toward what could be a series of moves at the July 31 deadline. They have identified possible trade partners and have their scouts checking in at the Class AA and Class AAA level. They would like major league-ready players but would take a blend of both if the right prospect is part of a deal.
Pitching may be more of a commodity for the D-backs this time around as they anticipate the return of Patrick Corbin, David Hernandez and Matt Reynolds from their Tommy John surgeries. The outlook for all is good, but they know from experience that it is prudent to hope for the best but plan for the worst.
"If you are looking at need, it is probably starting pitching and the outfield," Towers said. "You want the best players, but if you have to wait a year or a year and a half for a better player, you do. You move toward getting the best player available."
Part of the process will involve shedding salary from their franchise-record $112 million payroll commitment.
"It’s all part of the equation," Towers said. "When a ball club is 15 games under .500, it’s going to affect attendance. The performance affects attendance. It puts us behind what our projections were. Dollars are part of the equation. That said, it is not all about saving money."
It is not hard to identify rival teams’ targets.
Second baseman Aaron Hill — who has two years and $26 million left on his contract — and third baseman Martin Prado (two years, $22 million) are valuable regulars who could make an impact for a playoff contender in need, and a scout dropped both those names earlier this week. Hill has made a similar move before, when Towers acquired him at the deadline three years ago, and he was a valuable piece on the NL West title team.
The scarcity of reliable left-handed relievers makes Joe Thatcher and Oliver Perez targets for a contender, although history indicates La Russa is more inclined to collect left-handers than discard them. He liked to carry three in St. Louis. At the same time, with Reynolds projected to return in 2015, the D-backs could move a lefty. How much difference can a one- or two-batter lefty make? Ask San Francisco, who would not have won the 2010 World Series without deadline acquisition Javier Lopez.
Scouts last week were intrigued with the possibilities Didi Gregorius presents. The D-backs received Gregorius in the three-team deal that sent Trevor Bauer to Cleveland before last season, and they have never indicated he will not be part of their future. At the same time, if the D-backs were interested in moving Gregorius, they probably would be doing exactly what they are doing now — playing him a lot, using him at several positions, and talking him up.
Gregorius has played second base, shortstop and third base since being recalled June 3 and has shown the same good instincts and at second and third that he brings to shortstop, where Chris Owings is the entrenched starter. Gregorius showed his arm in the 9-8, 14-inning victory over Cleveland on Tuesday, taking a relay throw from center fielder Ender Inciarte 140 feet from the plate and zipping a chest-high strike to catcher Miguel Montero to easily retire Jason Kipnis as he tried to turn a triple into an inside-the-park home run in the 13th inning.
One scout said he could see Gregorius filling the super-sub role so valuable on a National League team, the type of guy who could get 400 at-bats while rotating at several infield and even outfield spots while regulars are rested. Manager Kirk Gibson did volunteer that Gregorius has been shagging in center field and also taking part in outfield drills.
Any infield trade would be a trade from strength. The D-backs believe shortstop Nick Ahmed, one of the five players acquired in the Justin Upton deal two years ago, is as good a fielder as Gregorius. Ahmed, 24, has played some second base at Reno, too, increasing the D-backs’ ability to maneuver.
"We like Didi, Ahmed and ‘C.O.’ quite a bit," Towers said. "It would have to be a special deal" to move one of those. "Our infield should be in good shape" moving forward.
Class AA Mobile third baseman Jake Lamb has probably been the D-backs’ best position player in the first half of the minor league season in his first year at that level. Lamb, 23, is slashing 315/.387/.577 with 27 doubles, 11 home runs and 61 RBIs in 73 games at Mobile. He leads the league in doubles and has taken over the league lead in RBI now that Cubs’ uber prospect Kris Bryant has been moved to AAA. All this in a league that is considered pitcher-friendly. Third baseman Brandon Drury, who led minor league baseball with 52 doubles last season, is still hitting at Class A Visalia this season. He has 26 doubles, 13 homers and 52 RBI and ranks in the league’s top 10 in doubles, homers, RBI and total bases.
Finding a match is always the issue. St. Louis, San Francisco and Oakland, among top contenders could be looking to upgrade at second base. St. Louis also is likely to be a prime suitor for Tampa Bay left-hander David Price, and while the Cardinals have a very deep farm, system, it is uncertain if they will have enough left over if they make a deal for Price.
The money owed to Hill and Prado could mean the D-backs would have to pick up a portion of their salaries to get much of a return. D-backs do not have as much bargaining power there. Gregorius, controllable through 2018, is on the other end of the spectrum.
Towers has fielded most of the calls from trade partners in recent weeks, although some teams, like St. Louis, have spoken with La Russa, the long-time Cardinal manager.
The phone lines are open.
"I’ve read where people are confused," Towers said. "Call either one of us if you want. It’s not dysfunctional."