D-backs win with stars, not grit

Arizona can thank young stars on the rise for its spot atop the standings

Updated: June 14, 2013, 2:06 PM ET
By Mike Petriello | ESPN Insider

Paul GoldschmidtStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesArizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is making a strong case for National League MVP.

Few teams took more public heat than the Arizona Diamondbacks this winter, and for good reason: They seemed to be on the short end of the talent stick in nearly all of their trades. Out went the defense and power of longtime center fielder Chris Young, shipped to the Oakland A's in a three-way deal that brought back low-offense middle infielder Cliff Pennington and Miami Marlins free agent/bullpen bust Heath Bell. Gone was 21-year-old starter Trevor Bauer, barely more than a year removed from being the No. 3 pick in the draft, for reliever Tony Sipp and the questionable offensive track record of minor league shortstop Didi Gregorius.

Those moves were merely appetizers for the main course: the trade of outfielder Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves despite his being just a year removed from a top-five MVP finish and headed into his age-25 season. Upton (along with third baseman Chris Johnson) brought back Martin Prado and four prospects, and, although Prado had long been a solid, versatile player for the Braves, few would argue he possesses anything like the pure raw skill Upton does.

The tenor of the moves might have been easier to infer if not for the fact that general manager Kevin Towers was more than happy to be upfront with his intentions, even telling reporters, "We kind of like that grinding, gritty player." In essence, he wanted to remake the team in the image of Kirk Gibson, his famously crusty manager. 

So the new gritty direction must be working out, right? Well, not exactly. Prado has been mostly awful, and Pennington has been replacement-level. Willie Bloomquist -- the epitome of grit -- and outfield import Cody Ross have battled injury while contributing little. Grit is very often associated with small-ball tactics, and this Arizona club doesn't really play that way; the Diamondbacks rank 26th in stolen bases and are tied for 23rd in bunt hits, and only two other NL teams have fewer sacrifice bunts.

Although there's certainly an argument to be made for Arizona's improved clubhouse culture, the Diamondbacks' current standing atop the NL West isn't really because of the "grinder" squad. It's because of talent: They've had a few hot starts on both sides of the ball, while facing rivals who have failed to live up to expectations.