Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the upcoming season. Some compete for jobs in big league camp, while others vie for spots on Minor League affiliates. MLB Pipeline will visit all 30 camps this spring, and today we check in on the D-backs.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The 2017 Major League version of the D-backs was one of the surprises of the year, flipping around its 69-93 2016 finish to win 93 games, earn a spot in the Wild Card Game and advance to the National League Division Series. There was a filter-down effect in the farm system in a couple of different ways.
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First, there was some success at various levels. Five of the D-backs' affiliates played in the postseason themselves, though none got to hoist a championship flag. But the impact from the success at the top runs a lot deeper than that and wasn't just about winning percentage.
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"It renews everybody's pride, their sense of being part of the bigger group," vice president of player development Mike Bell said. "I think the biggest and coolest part of it is the way [manager] Torey Lovullo and [general manager] Mike Hazen and the other guys made everybody a part of it. Taking our information as guys were going up, and giving us feedback as they come down, what they're looking at. The back and forth has been incredible, so win or lose, that's really what's brought us together as a group."
That has continued this spring and not just with the prospects seeing time in big league camp. The setup at Salt River Fields has the Major and Minor League sides in one building, but the hallway connecting them could seem awfully long. Fortunately, the big league staff makes sure that never happens.
"We've had a lot of Minor League staff move to the big league staff, so there's just constant feedback in this hall right here where the Major League is separated from the Minor League," Bell said. "Torey will come down there, get his coffee, and sit down with a lot of coaches. There was no agenda, just communication and baseball talk."
There's plenty to talk about. Bell has been part of the player development staff with the D-backs for more than a decade now and has seen how the process of readying young players for the big leagues has changed. That's especially true under Hazen, who has brought in a lot of new ideas since he joined the organization.
"He does like to push the envelope at times, but he has a lot of old school baseball in him as well," Bell said. "That's refreshing, too, to be able to see both sides of it. I think they do that very well. It's infused some ideas, we have some staff members who are extremely smart and talented. It's helped them get better. It's been the right place at the right time."
It's allowed Bell and his staff to start shaping a new infusion of talent that's helping improve the overall evaluation of the farm system. A year ago, there were no Top 100 players in this system. Now there are two in right-hander Jon Duplantier (No. 73) and 2017 first-round pick Pavin Smith (No. 91), with a few other really young players (Jazz Chisholm and Kristian Robinson) from the Bahamas who have tremendous ceilings. There might not be a ton of impact talent ready to hit the big league club right away, but the arrow is definitely pointing up.
"I'm just looking forward to watching those guys two or three years in, to see how they develop," Bell said. "It reminds me a little of when we had guys like Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, Chris Owings and Jake Lamb coming through our system and watching them develop. I think we're in a similar situation with these young core guys."
Third-round arms excelling early
Pitchers are typically ahead of hitters early in camp, but this isn't about the arms besting the bats in live BP or early games. It's more that some of the intriguing pitchers the D-backs have look like they're ready to continue taking steps forward.
Duplantier, the club's No. 1 prospect, had a huge breakout season in 2017, his first full year as a pro. The D-backs likely wanted to proceed cautiously with their 2016 third-rounder due to his past injuries, but he kind of blew that out of the water by pitching across two levels of A ball, and the Futures Game, while leading the Minors in ERA and tossing 136 1/3 innings. If anyone thought he'd come into camp resting on his laurels, they thought wrong, which could lead to a faster track to Arizona. "Jon Duplantier is a man," Bell said. "He looks really good. more and more guys are showing up in shape, like they're game-ready. We're almost having to slow them down."
Matt Tabor was the club's third-round pick last June, this time out of high school (Duplantier went to Rice). The No. 9 prospect in the system barely threw in his pro debut, but Bell has been very impressed with how the New England native has thrown early on. "Matt Tabor is a blast to watch," Bell said. "It's fun to watch his bullpens. He's a very intelligent pitcher. He understands what he is trying to do at such a young age."
Not to be outdone, there are some hitters from last year's Draft who also look ready to go. Smith, now the club's No. 2 prospect, is the epitome of the advanced college hitter. Catcher Daulton Varsho (No. 6) and third baseman Drew Ellis (No. 8) were taken after Smith (Ellis before Varsho), also from the college ranks. Often, draftees come to Spring Training looking like a deer caught in headlights. That has not been the case with this trio. "Those guys came in ready," Bell said. "These guys are pros at a young age. They came in prepared, they've handled themselves well and I think they're all headed toward a good year."