As Ready As They Get

As Ready As They Get

"It's a really exciting Triple-A squad," Arizona Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes says without a hint of understatement. Byrnes is clearly excited by the potential his Tucson Sidewinders have, but he knows it's a big jump from the Pacific Coast League to the Majors. The Sidewinders have talent to spare. The biggest names are talked about with regularity. We start with what Byrnes calls an outfield that is, "As big league ready as they can be."

The Sidewinders have talent to spare.  The biggest names are talked about with regularity.  Shortstop Stephen Drew, outfielders Carlos Quentin and Chris Young, and pitchers Dustin Nippert and Jeff Bajenaru are about as close to household names in Arizona as a minor leaguer could be.  The reasons for their marquee name value vary, but one common link is that all can play, and all are, at worst, close to Major League ready.

The Sidewinders are an amazing collection of talent. 

"The outfield is as Big League ready as they can be," Byrnes says of the regular Tucson starting three of Carlos Quentin in right, Chris Young in center and Scott Hairston in left.

The only reason one could say that these three are not Major League ready is that, obviously, they are not in the Major Leagues.  But that could change sooner than later.  The reason Hairston's name is so familiar is that he has already been to The Show, and now that he's in a better spot defensively, the biggest thing holding him back is an afterthought.

Through Wednesday Hairston is hitting .316 with nine homers and 24 RBI in 146 at bats and he's exploded this month, hitting nearly .370, mostly out of the cleanup spot.  Though his strikeout numbers are still high (33 Ks) with the corresponding power numbers and on base percentage well over .400 his potential is obvious. 

The scariest thing for opponents facing Tucson is that of the three outfielders, Hairston might be the one with the lowest ceiling. 

Chris Young's name has gotten a lot of play in the press because of how he got here, but even before coming over from the White Sox in the Javier Vazquez trade, Chris Young was a prized prospect.  The 22 year old outfielder has blazing speed, but at the plate his defining characteristic has been power.  The was talk that Young might open the season with the D'Backs, but a broken hand in Spring Training shelved that idea.  Once he finally joined the Sidewinders on April 22nd baseball minds everywhere were chomping at the bit to see what right handed hitter would do.  It's been a relatively slow start for Young, who missed another week after getting dinged up at the beginning of May and has hit only .237 with one homer and 10 RBI in 59 at bats, but his most encouraging stat has also been his most surprising. 

In his past two seasons in the White Sox organization the one thing Young failed to show was plate discipline, striking out 274 times in 931 at bats while drawing 136 walks.  Though it is still early Young's 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio (8BB/8Ks) is a sign that this outfielder may have put his one 'detriment' behind him.  If Young stays healthy the rest of the season, and regains his power stroke, he is the prohibitive favorite to be the Diamondbacks starting center fielder in 2007.  Scouts agree that Young has 30 homer power right now, and once he gets to power friendly Chase Field and fills out a little more that power could translate into even bigger numbers.

"His swing is just ideal for a power hitter, it's not real long, and his wrists are strong, so there is almost no pitch he can't hit out of the park," a scout told FutureBacks, "for him the biggest thing is staying back on the ball and trusting those hands.  He's quick enough to get around on anybody's fastball, so he's going to see a lot of off speed pitches, and when he gets out on his front foot it takes some of that power away."

The name that has been getting press the longest in the Sidewinders outfield is Carlos Quentin, and with good reason.  The 2003 first round pick by the Diamondbacks out of Stanford is as complete a player as the Diamondbacks have in their system, and though Quentin has voiced his displeasure at not getting a Big League opportunity yet he just continues to find new challenges in the minors. 

"He's been ready for two years," a fellow Sidewinder says, "he's got nothing left to prove.  Every time another player comes to Tucson Carlos has proven he's still the best in the system, whether he's gotten the chance to prove it at the next level or not."

At 23 years old (he will turn 24 at the end of August) he's the senior member of the Sidewinders outfield, and yet still incredibly young.  His power numbers continue to get better (he hit a career high 21 last year in Tucson), he has hit better than .300 in every season since he joined the D'Backs organization, and his strikeout to walk ratio is nearly 1:1 for his minor league career.

So what does he have left to prove?  Nothing, but he takes on every challenge, most recently center field.  The career right fielder does not have the true natural speed to play center, but last season, before the D'Backs signed Justin Upton and converted him to center, and traded for Young, center field was the weakest position in the system, so Quentin moved over and surprised everyone in and out of the system by how well he played in the middle of the outfield.

"He gets great jumps, just amazing jumps," a scout said, "for a guy who has never played out there, he was fun to watch, because he knew he wasn't going to make up for a bad jump with his speed, so he just always had a great jump, and his arm is just so much stronger than most center fielders that nobody wanted to run on him."

Tucson Sidewinders Manager Chip Hale agreed, "He's surprised a lot of people," Hale said last year during the experiment, "I'm not sure if he really is a Major League center fielder, but I'm not sure Jose Cruz is either," Hale said of the D'Backs starter last season. 

And the Diamondbacks aren't done producing talented outfielders either.  Obviously Upton will be on everybody's radar despite the fact that he is just starting his pro career in Lo-A South Bend, Carlos Gonzalez is coming on strong in Hi-A Lancaster and is currently ranked as the top prospect in the system, Jarred Ball is the fastest player on any Diamondbacks roster and as a switch hitting center fielder with power provides an infringing prospect in Double-A.  Double-A Tennessee also features Jon Zeringue, an LSU prospect who was a second round pick and features a nice combination of power and speed.

All this means that the Diamondbacks have options, and as the season moves forward it is likely as least a couple of these prospects will leave the organization in a trade to bring more veteran starting pitchers to the Valley, but the purpose of the system is to produce, and if that means bringing other valuable commodities to the D'Backs, the way Jason Bulger did earlier this year when he was moved to the Angels in return for another talented member of the Sidewinders infield, Alberto Callaspo, or the way Alex Cintron did when his move to the White Sox netted reliever Bajenaru, then that is another success story for Mike Rizzo and A.J. Hinch.

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