When the Arizona Diamondbacks traded top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer for shortstop Didi Gregorius in a three-team deal during the offseason, the reaction was predominantly one of scorn towards Arizona general manager Kevin Towers.
Matthew Pouliot of NBC Sports summed up the consensus towards Arizona's end of the deal when he called it "a lousy idea for the Diamondbacks."
The sabermetric community and the scouts seemed to agree that Gregorius couldn't hit. Yet 61 games into the season, the Diamondbacks appear to have gotten the better end of the deal. Gregorius is an example of the importance of scouting for the Diamondbacks.
The Diamondbacks took Bauer with the third overall pick in the 2011 draft. Tower's decision to trade him for a light-hitting infielder less than two years later seemed like a huge blunder at the time. Gregorius' statistics pointed to a future as a utility infielder in the eyes of many sabermetric writers.
Jonah Keri of Grantland opined:
When Didi Gregorius grows up, he has a chance to become Cliff Pennington. The 22-year-old shortstop is also an excellent fielder. But he is, to put it lightly, an unimposing hitter. In 1,909 minor league plate appearances, Gregorius hit .271/.323/.376. He has minimal power, rarely walks, doesn't even steal bases particularly well, with 40 steals in 70 minor league attempts
Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote at the time of the trade that many scouts shared Keri's sentiment. Badler wrote:
Gregorius has enough upside to be a solid everyday shortstop with a defense-first profile, though there's also enough risk with his bat that some scouts project him to be more of a utility man.
Towers and his staff saw something in Gregorius that most writers and scouts weren't seeing. At the time of the deal, Towers compared Gregorius to Derek Jeter.
Towers' comparison of Gregorius to a future Hall of Fame player seemed far-fetched. Though Gregorius has made the trade look like a coup for Towers in the early stages of this season, it's still far too early in Gregorius' career to determine if the comparison to Jeter is accurate.
Through 38 games this year, Gregorius is hitting .322/.386/.497 with 16 extra-base hits. The advanced metric Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) credits Gregorius with three runs saved in the field over 340 innings this season.
Gregorius' hot start with the bat and glove has made him one of the most valuable shortstops in baseball to this point in the season. He's a big reason why the Diamondbacks are in first place in the National League West.
The general consensus at the time of the deal was that Towers had made a mistake in dealing Bauer, a top pitching prospect, for Gregorius. Bauer has a 4.63 ERA at Triple-A this season. He's walked 27 in 46.2 innings. He's also walked 15 in 16.1 innings over three spot starts for the Cleveland Indians.
Gregorius has been one of the most valuable shortstops in baseball this season, while Bauer has been struggling with his control. The consensus opinion against the deal would appear to be completely wrong. However, nearly half a season is not a large enough sample to determine if the trade is a success for the Diamondbacks.
Bauer could still develop better control and deliver on the promise that made him a top pick in the draft. Gregorius could begin to sputter offensively as the league learns how to pitch to him. A lot can change over the rest of this season and over future years, particularly given the youth of Bauer and Gregorius.
What we can ascertain right now is that the trade represents the value of scouting for Arizona. According to Nick Piecoro of AZCentral, it was scout Pat Murtaugh who first discovered Gregorius for the Diamondbacks.
Murtaugh's assessment of Gregorius' offensive potential was more optimistic than that of other scouts. Piecoro wrote:
But Murtaugh saw Gregorius in 13 games last season. After each series, he bumped up the grades in his scouting report, namely as it pertained to his offensive ability and potential. The stats didn’t match up with the scouting report, but Murtaugh thought they might in the future.
If being a general manager were as simple as looking at a few statistics on Baseball-Reference.com, more people would be qualified for the job. Alas, the job is much more challenging than that.
Many scouts and sabermetric writers didn't think Gregorius would hit. Towers saw some Derek Jeter in Gregorius when he watched him play. Murtaugh saw someone who would eventually hit despite his uninspiring numbers.
Early in 2013, it looks like the Diamondbacks got it right by dealing Bauer for Gregorius. Good scouting appears to have paid off in a big way for Towers and his staff.
Time will tell if the comparison by Towers of Gregorius to Jeter will prove to be prescient. For now, the Diamondbacks are happy to be in first place with the one of the game's best young shortstops helping to lead the way.