With a large contingent of teams looking to upgrade in center field and few answers to be found in free agency, the Diamondbacks are in an enviable position this winter.
They don’t just have one starting-caliber center fielder. They arguably have four. And there may be no time like the present to strike a deal, not just to capitalize when the market is hot, but to potentially solve one of the team’s on-going needs at another position.
Making a deal happen will be easier said than done, however, for a couple of reasons. First, the D-backs’ asking price figures to be quite high, given how few center fielders are available in free agency and the fact that general manager Mike Hazen does not feel he has to make a move. Second, the D-backs will be targeting young, controllable big leaguers in return, which significantly narrows the pool of possible players they would accept.
The group of four Diamondbacks outfielders, of course, consists of Corbin Carroll, Daulton Varsho, Alek Thomas and Jake McCarthy. They are all left-handed and they all have their flaws, but to varying degrees they have all shown they can be successful, even spectacular, big leaguers at or before the age of 25.
On a macro level, whether the Diamondbacks should trade an outfielder is a question we cannot answer without seeing what offers have been made. What we can more readily investigate is which outfielder makes the most sense to deal. Let’s take each of them one by one to see if we can’t arrive at an answer.
No need to beat around the bush here: No matter what any of us think, Carroll is not going anywhere. Multiple reports have already indicated this.
Carroll being held out of trade talks is far from surprising. In 32 games as a big leaguer near the end of the 2022 season, the 22-year-old lived up to his lofty prospect pedigree, slashing .260/.330/.500. His .830 OPS led all Diamondbacks hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. Carroll also flashed elite outfield defense and graded out as the fastest baserunner in baseball.
Despite playing in just 32 games, #Dbacks OF Corbin Carroll led all NL left fielders with 5 outs above average in 2022.
— Jesse Friedman (@JesseNFriedman) November 26, 2022
Yes, Carroll would command a monstrous return in the trade market. But, for the moment, he is a centerpiece for the future and arguably the favorite for the 2023 NL Rookie of the Year Award.
Based on FanGraphs WAR, Varsho was more valuable in 2022 than Juan Soto, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Pete Alonso. Ironically, that happened in a season that saw both his batting average and on-base percentage dip slightly from the year prior to .235 and .302, respectively.
The simple truth is that Varsho is so fantastic defensively — I wrote earlier this month about why he should have won a Gold Glove award — that even just league average offense makes him a tremendous asset. His offense was slightly above league average in 2022, as indicated by a 106 wRC+ (100 is league average).
Should Varsho unlock another level offensively, he could go from being an underrated defensive anchor who just hit 27 homers to an All-Star level talent. As he enters his age-26 season, that outcome still seems possible.
That is not to say the Diamondbacks won’t or shouldn’t listen to offers from Varsho. By all accounts, they have, and I expect they will continue to do so. But with four more years of control, Varsho is the most valuable D-backs outfielder on the market and would warrant a substantial return should he be traded. In a sense, that already makes him the answer to this article’s question. If the D-backs’ best outfield trade candidate is the player that would net the most in a deal, it’s Varsho — full stop.
That doesn’t make a Varsho trade easy to pull off, though, for several reasons. First, Varsho’s 27 home runs from this past season would be difficult to replace. The only other Diamondback with 25 or more homers in 2022 was Christian Walker, who had 36. After Varsho and Walker, there is a significant drop-off to Ketel Marte’s 12.
Second, the fact that the D-backs would require such a significant return makes it more difficult to pull a deal together. Any trade involving Varsho would almost certainly have to meet one of the Diamondbacks’ two long-term positional needs: third base and catcher. Only a handful of players around the league would fit the bill.
Before moving on, it is worth noting that Varsho’s .214 expected batting average and .389 expected slugging percentage lagged behind his actual stats. It is reasonable to expect some regression moving forward.
On the flip-side, as the most pull-heavy hitter in baseball this past season, Varsho should receive some relief from the shift restrictions that will be implemented in 2023. However, the fact that he hits so many fly balls means the new rules could have a smaller impact for him than for other left-handed pull hitters.
Despite finishing the year in the minors due to a near shutdown in offensive production late in the year, it’s important to remember that Thomas had an above-average wRC+ as late as Aug. 6 after being called up in early May. For three months, he was a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder with above-average offense.
The flaw that ultimately resulted in a late-season demotion to Triple-A Reno was his inability to cut down on an extremely high ground-ball rate. He eventually hit a wall offensively and slashed just .176/.189/.208 in 132 plate appearances from Aug. 7 to Sep. 25 before being demoted.
For Thomas, an overabundance of ground balls is not uncharted territory. Throughout his minor league career, his ground-ball rate has ranged from as low as 46.7 percent (still relatively high) to as high as 56.6 percent. He has shown the ability to succeed when that number is in the low to mid-50s, but his 58 percent ground-ball rate in the big leagues was too extreme. Only Christian Yelich had a higher ground ball rate among players with 400 or more plate appearances in 2022.
The fact that Thomas is still only 22 and was more well-regarded as a prospect than anyone on the list outside of Carroll means he still has a tremendous amount of value, both for the D-backs and possible trade suitors. The D-backs, in particular, seem to believe his swing is fixable.
In general, selling low is non-ideal, but the D-backs could probably net a significant return for Thomas nonetheless. The fact that he is so gifted as a center fielder and baserunner takes pressure off his bat. If he does find a way to become a .700-.800 OPS guy consistently, he is easily a three to four WAR player and could make an All-Star team or two before all is said and done.
Hazen has never dealt a player as promising as Thomas so early in his big-league career, but dealing Thomas now would be somewhat analogous to when Hazen dealt top shortstop prospect Jazz Chisholm to the Miami Marlins in 2019. It’s not a perfect comparison — unlike Thomas, Chisholm had yet to play in the majors at the time — but Chisholm was in the midst of a down-year in Double-A at the time of the deal and his prospect stock dipped as a result. Nonetheless, Hazen was able to land starting pitcher Zac Gallen, who has become the anchor of the Diamondbacks’ starting rotation.
In short, if the D-backs can acquire another player of Gallen’s caliber, they probably should. Given how well-regarded Thomas still is and how much need there is for center fielders, it is not out of the question that such an offer could fall into their lap at some point this winter.
Not many outfielders can hit .283/.342/.427 with a pace of 38 stolen bases per 162 games. But that’s exactly what McCarthy did in 2022, and any team that thinks he can repeat it — or anything close to it, really — is bound to have some degree of interest this offseason.
Despite being selected 24 picks earlier than Thomas in the 2018 draft, McCarthy never had Thomas’ prospect status. Most evaluators have viewed McCarthy as a fourth outfielder for years. Whether 2 1/2 good months in the big leagues have really changed that perception is hard to say, but at the very least, McCarthy has forced a lot of people to reconsider what they thought he would become.
McCarthy’s breakout season really began in Triple-A Reno, where he had two separate stints in 2022. Offense is easy to come by in Reno and the Pacific Coast League, but McCarthy’s .369/.457/.596 batting line still jumped off the page.
“For me, it was comfort,” said Aces manager Gil Velazquez in a recent interview on the PHNX Diamondbacks Podcast. “Being with the guys that he came up with. Not only that, but I think the coaching staff, our hitting coaches, did a great job with him as far as working with him, not just giving him the answers, but working with him. It’s a back-and-forth conversation that they have. In the end, they made Jake feel like he found the answer himself. Once he found his routine and found what was working for him, he trusted it. It’s easy to trust something that you feel you found yourself.”
When McCarthy was promoted back to the majors on July 11, he didn’t look back. From that point forward, he batted .302/.361/.434 and went 22-for-25 in stolen base attempts. While not as well-regarded defensively as Carroll, Varsho or Thomas, McCarthy’s elite foot speed makes him a viable center fielder. With a little more experience, he should be average or better in the corners.
In complete opposite manner to Thomas, McCarthy is a sell-high candidate for the D-backs. Frankly, his performance down the stretch was something of an anomaly, and both his expected batting average and slugging percentage came in much lower than his actual numbers at .249 and .357, respectively.
Granted, it is normal for Statcast’s expected stats to underestimate the performance of elite baserunners like McCarthy, but the gap between his expected and actual stats is too substantial to be explained by that alone. There is some room for regression here.
But there could even be some room for improvement, too. McCarthy is still only 25, and he is the only Diamondbacks outfielder who has not shown significant vulnerability against lefties in the majors. Any team that believes in his end-of-year success could find him to be an attractive option, particularly because he is not likely to cost as much as Varsho or Thomas.
Whether McCarthy gets dealt has a lot to do with how the D-backs feel about him internally. If they value him more than other teams — which is possible, particularly since his batted ball data won’t do him any favors with other teams — expect McCarthy to stay put.
However, if there is a team out there that is more confident in McCarthy’s future than the D-backs are, a trade would make sense. Regardless, the fact that McCarthy’s stock has escalated as much as it has this year is a testament to his work ethic and the work of the Diamondbacks’ coaching stuff.
So, back to our original question: Who is the Diamondbacks’ best trade candidate? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. If best trade candidate is defined by which player would bring back the most in a trade, the answer is Varsho. If it’s which player’s value is most likely at its peak, it’s McCarthy. If it’s which player would bring back the most in a deal without significantly disturbing the current construction of the roster, it’s Thomas.
Ultimately, whether the Diamondbacks choose to trade out of their outfield surplus or not, they have all the leverage. They don’t have to make a move, but phone calls are certain to fly in from every direction, and they’ll have some big decisions to make.
Top photo: Erik Williams/USA TODAY Sports