Why? This was a team that made a massive improvement over their previous season, a team that finished second in their division, a team that seems to be just a piece or two away from being legitimate contenders.
The answer is simple, there are too many players for the same three positions.
During last off season's spending spree, maybe the most curious signing was that of Shawn Green. Though a marquee name, who has put up solid numbers throughout his career, Green played two positions, right field and first base. Unfortunately, those two positions were the same ones that three of the Diamondbacks brightest young prospects played.
The most established of the three is Chad Tracy. Tracy made his D'Backs debut in 2004, with an eye opening season as the everyday third baseman. He hit .285, and never seemed overmatched, even against the best pitching the National League had to offer. Despite his solid rookie campaign, his future at third base seemed unsure, because his defense was shaky, and his power numbers (just eight homers in nearly 500 at bats in '04) didn't mesh with the prototypical corner infielder stats.
But the Diamondbacks had plans for Tracy. The front office asked Tracy to go on a weight training program after the '04 season, and Tracy added 15 pounds of muscle by the time he returned for Spring Training in '05. After the Glaus signing, Tracy moved across the diamond to first base, and while it took some time, Tracy started looking more and more comfortable at first, and at the plate, where that 15 pounds turned into a massive improvement in homers. Tracy hit 27 jacks in '05, a 300% improvement, and he didn't sacrifice his batting average to do so, hitting .308 last season. The D'Backs were pleased, and not really all that surprised. In fact, they are expecting more from the youngster next season. It turns out that the weight program Tracy was on is designed to put 25 pounds of muscle on him total, meaning the Diamondbacks expect Tracy to roll into camp this year with another 10 pounds of home run producing weight on him. A .300 batting average, more than 30 home runs, those are the prototypical corner infielder numbers.
Conor Jackson was brought up in late July from Triple-A Tucson, where he was hitting better than .350, showing incredible patience at the plate, and starting to look comfortable at his newest position, first base. It was an opportunity for the youngster, the one that many who know the D'Backs farm system had been waiting for, and though he struggled, hitting just .200 with two homers and eight RBI in 85 at bats down the stretch, it was hardly ideal working conditions for player making his debut. He made back to back starts only three times in '05, and never started three games in a row. He was never given the opportunity to get in a groove, and his numbers suffered. Still, there is no one in baseball who thinks that Conor Jackson will be anything less than a very good pro, and many think he could be an All-Star, a truly dominant player at the pro level.
Finally there is Carlos Quentin. The only one of the three who has yet to make his pro debut, he came into the 2005 season as the top prospect in the organization, and did nothing to change that fact. He hit .301 with 21 homers in Triple-A Tucson, walked more than he struck out, stole nine bases, and when it became apparent that the biggest hole in organization was in the middle of the outfield, he played out of position, in center, to help the Diamondbacks determine if he might be the answer there. The reports on Quentin in center were pleasantly surprising. Though he lacks the blazing speed most expect out of a center fielder, he got great jumps and made plays the many in the organization never thought he'd be able to. Still, his natural position is right, and that's not likely to change.
Add Tony Clark, Shawn Green, and Troy Glaus to the mix, and what you've got is six players who play essentially the same three (four if you want to count center field) positions. That's a problem, and while it's certainly a better problem to have than having too few players, something has to be done. Late in the year Bob Melvin moved Green to center field, and Tracy to right, in an attempt to get Clark's incredibly hot bat into the lineup. It helped the offense, and hurt the defense. Coming into 2006, there are some tough choices to make.
It appeared at the end of last year that Tracy would be the most marketable commodity in the organization. With a thin free agent market, without a lot of available cash to spend, and holes to fill in center, behind the plate, in the bullpen and possibly the starting rotation, it seemed the best chance for the Diamondbacks to make additions might be through a trade. But with Tracy's strides, the Diamondbacks don't feel he's peaked yet. Jackson is young and marketable as well, and because he's just made his pro debut, he opens up even more potential suitors, who know if they acquired Jackson, they'd have him on the cheap for several years to come. When it comes to Green, Glaus, Gonzalez or Clark, all are older players, making much more money, and those two factors immediately limit the number of potential suitors.
So what do you do. All indications are that Tracy is here to stay, but where do you play him? As much as the Diamondbacks might like to believe that a Manny Ramirez for Troy Glaus deal could happen, they would have to give up so much, it seems unlikely, so rule out third base. It seems almost as unlikely that the Diamondbacks resigned Clark for two more years just to let him sit on the bench, so first base seems to be blocked as well. It's possible that Green could stay in center field next season, opening right field for Tracy, but unless the Diamondbacks are willing to trade their longest tenured, and most popular player, Luis Gonzalez, that means Quentin will remained blocked for the foreseeable future.
So no matter which way you go, somebody is going to lose.
The Diamondbacks have a tough choice to make. In order to make any kind of splash in the free agent market, they will have no choice but to move at least one of the G-Force (Green, Glaus, Gonzalez). All are making close to or more than $10 million a year, and that money would allow the D'Backs to make a run at virtually any free agent on the market. But even if you moved one of those players, there are still too many players for the available positions.
At the end of the day it appears the Diamondbacks will have two choices, and both are, on paper at least, tough choices. One of the many deals that has been rumored is Chad Tracy being sent to Minnesota for center fielder Tori Hunter. Hunter is heading into the last year of his deal with the Twins, and since he will be probably the top free agent center fielder on the market heading into the 2007 season, most in baseball feel it is unlikely that the Twins will be able to resign him. The deal could be a good one, giving the Diamondbacks one of the three best defensive center fielders in the game, and a hitter than could be productive anywhere from the #2 to the #6 slot in the batting order.
But it means giving away perhaps the closest to a sure thing the Diamondbacks have in their future.
The trade market for Jackson would be strong, and the Twins have also been rumored to be interested in the young first baseman/outfielder, but in order to get Hunter they would have to throw in more than just Jackson, probably another two prospects, and pitching prospects at that.
Perhaps the most attractive deal that has been floated involves the Red Sox. Manny Ramirez is the best right handed hitter in the American League, but the Red Sox have grown tired of his antics. He makes a massive amount of money, and any team taking him on would have to be shipping a chunk of cash to the Red Sox in return. The latest whispers have the Red Sox offering Manny and a catching prospect for Luis Gonzalez and Troy Glaus. It would give the Sox a replacement for Manny in left, and a power hitting third baseman to replace the underperforming Bill Mueller. The Red Sox would actually take on some salary, but in the last five years that hasn't seemed to be a problem in Boston. If it could get done it might be the best case scenario for the Diamondbacks. Ramirez would be an upgrade over Gonzalez (assuming he actually wants to play), Tracy would move to third, allowing Jackson and Clark to platoon at first. If the Diamondbacks didn't find a center fielder they could play either Green or Quentin in center, with the other player in right field. It wouldn't be the best defensive outfield, but it might be the best lineup the Diamondbacks have put on the field since they won the World Series.
Of course, the odds on that deal are long. Anytime that much salary, and that many marquee players are changing hands, there are high hurdles to clear, but something has to be done. There are too many big bats, and too few spots to play them in, for the Diamondbacks to head into 2006 without a change.