While results have been mixed for the D-backs at the Major League level in recent years, a rapid turnaround of the organization’s farm system could soon make the franchise a perennial contender.
The D-backs’ system was among the most improved in baseball in 2019, as shrewd trading combined with an exceptional haul in the Draft, in which they made seven of the first 75 picks, vaulted the organization from a bottom-half system at the outset of the year to No. 6 on MLB Pipeline’s list of the Top 30 farm systems heading into the '20 season.
• D-backs' Top 30 prospects list
The fruits of the organization’s re-tooling efforts were on full display during this year’s abbreviated Spring Training, as club officials got their first true look at both the quality of talent and overall depth it had accumulated during the previous year.
“It’s very exciting,” said D-backs farm director Josh Barfield. “We actually got a good look at a lot of these guys before Spring Training was shut down because we had an early camp, starting at the beginning of February, where a lot of our guys were out here early.
“Offensively, guys came in swinging it right away and there really wasn’t much of an adjustment period. Everyone just came out banging, even the young guys, and we sent a lot of them over to big league games and they held their own over there. Pitching-wise, we have so many arms. When we were sitting there trying to piece together what our Minor League affiliate rotations might look like to start the season, it was really a challenge thinking about how we’re going to have to find innings for all of the talented arms we have, especially starters.”
As a former Top 100 prospect who joined the D-backs pro scouting department in 2016 after playing 13 professional seasons, including four in the big leagues, Barfield has been around the game long enough to know that the club has assembled a deep, uniquely talented collection of prospects.
“There was a time when I was coming up that the D-backs were kind of the envy of baseball with all the prospects they had at every level -- guys who went on to have really good big league careers,” he recalled. “I remember looking from afar, thinking how cool it would be to be in an organization that has that type of talent. You get to the big leagues together, help the franchise grow together.
“Seeing what we have now, that’s a very realistic possibility, having a group of guys who could do that together. It’s a really special thing.”
But what impressed Barfield the most was how well the organization’s big leaguers and farmhands meshed throughout the spring.
“It’s a really unique situation,” he noted, “because the big leaguers we have want to help the young guys. They’ll come over to the Minor League side and take the time to answer questions and do whatever they can to help. So when our younger players finally go up, it’s like they’re one of the guys from Day 1. You don’t get treated differently, and it makes for a really great atmosphere. Everyone can feel it.
“There are bigger things going on in the world, obviously, but when we eventually get back to playing baseball, we’re all very excited about what these guys are going to do.”
The strength of Arizona’s 2019 Draft is reflected by the fact that eight of the year's draftees cracked the D-backs' Top 30 Prospects list in '20. While many of those players stood out during Spring Training, Tristin English, the club’s third-round pick, was particularly impressive.
“He came in and raked -- and I mean raked,” Barfield said about the D-backs’ No. 25 prospect. “I honestly don’t think he hit one ball soft, and he got a lot of at-bats.”
A two-way player at Georgia Tech who batted .346/.427/.710 with 18 homers as a redshirt junior, English was targeted by Arizona for his right-handed-hitting ability and power, and he offered a glimpse of both during his pro debut by slashing .290/.356./.482 with seven homers and 21 extra-base hits in 50 games at Class A Short-Season Hillsboro.
And though he did play multiple corner infield and outfield positions in college, in addition to his work on the mound as the Yellow Jackets’ closer, the D-backs view the 6-foot-3, 208-pounder as a third baseman in pro ball.
“He can play first base and the outfield, but he was playing third base regularly. I think that’s where his future lies,” said Barfield when asked about English’s future defensive home. “I’ve seen him make every play there. He’s getting better there and working on his footwork, and I think, ultimately, that’s where he’ll end up.”
Prospects we’ll be talking about in 2021
Justin Martinez was primarily an outfielder as a Dominican amateur before moving to the mound full time late in 2017 and signing with Arizona for $50,000 the following spring. The 18-year-old right-hander has blossomed in the new role as a pro, showing velocity that has continued to improve as he’s added strength to his ultra-projectable 6-foot-3, 180-pound frame. He put himself on the prospect radar in earnest in '19, climbing three levels up to the Rookie-level Pioneer League on the strength of a mid-90s fastball that ran up to 98 mph.
“He might have some of the best stuff in our whole system,” said Barfield about Martinez, Arizona’s No. 22 prospect. “He’s really, really young obviously, but I think once we get going, he’s going to be a guy who makes a big leap and jumps on everyone’s radar. With him right now, it’s more about how he uses his pitches and working to improve his grips.
“The stuff is legit, and he has a pretty good idea of the strike zone, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s one of our top pitching prospects by the time we start next season.”
Something to prove
The D-backs received a loaded prospect package from Houston in the Zack Greinke Trade Deadline deal, acquiring a pair of former first-rounders including right-hander J.B. Bukauskas (No. 15 overall pick in the 2017 Draft) as part of a four-player return. Bukauskas has legitimate no-hit-caliber stuff when he’s at his best, operating with a deep arsenal that includes an electric fastball-slider combo.
Being able to consistently harness his power stuff, however, has proved a challenge for the D-backs’ No. 10 prospect. Splitting the 2019 season between Double-A Corpus Christi and Jackson, he pitched to a 5.44 ERA and 1.62 WHIP over 92 2/3 innings, posting 109 strikeouts against 59 walks.
“Command of the [slider] is going to be huge for him,” Barfield noted. “He has a big arm and is really an aggressive guy, so being able to land his breaking ball is key for him, because big league hitters won’t chase out of the zone as much and can punish fastballs. It almost doesn’t matter how good the stuff is if you can’t get ahead in the count and land the breaking ball.”
As a result, the 23-year-old right-hander is focusing on his pitch usage ahead of the 2020 season as he and D-backs officials try to figure out how he can best use his impressive stuff.
“We’re not trying to add new pitches to his arsenal or anything," Barfield said, "just refining what he already has and helping him to understand how to become more economical, without feeling like he needs to try to strike out every batter.”
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.