Lost in the ugliness of the Arizona Diamondbacks' 4-14 start to the season and the team's marquee hiring of Tony La Russa has been the gradual growth and development of the D-backs' young core position players.
First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is a known quantity in the desert but still struggles for recognition on the national level. It's too bad because there may not be a better pure hitter in the National League. Once the D-backs can identify a cleanup hitter to protect Goldschmidt long-term, his numbers could actually improve as he moves into his prime with more protection.
The 26-year-old Goldschmidt has followed up his 2013 season, where he finished second in the National League MVP voting to the Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen, by having another quality start to this season. While Goldschmidt's walks and OBP are down, the rest of his numbers look like they will be very much in line with what he did last season. It is reasonable to suspect that Goldschmidt has pressed to provide offense during Arizona's terrible start to the season, causing the drop in walks and expanding his strike zone.
Where Arizona can be cautiously optimistic right now is in the development of center fielder A.J. Pollock and shortstop Chris Owings. Given the D-backs' rough start to the season, the fact that both young players have thrived is a really good sign of their ability to deal with the grind of the regular-season MLB schedule.
Pollock is already one of the better defensive outfielders in the National League, but the surprising part of his game has been the continued growth of his offensive abilities. After 49 games, his batting average is solid at .301, and he has an improved OBP of .352. Both are really good signs, but the biggest improvement is in Pollock's power. His slugging percentage this season is .518, well over his .409 number from 2013.
If there is an area of the 26-year-old Pollock's game that the D-backs would like to see improve, it would be his walk rate and his ability to cut down on strikeouts. Pollock currently strikes out at a 3-1 ratio over his walks. If he can make that ratio closer to 2-to-1, Pollock will be an extremely effective and cost-controlled player for the D-backs through 2018.
If Pollock continues to have this type of season, I would expect the D-backs to take a long look at creating a contract extension that would take Pollock through his arbitration years and buy out a year or two of his free agency. With the television revenue that continues to come into the sport, MLB teams are making a concerted effort to lock up their young talent early.
As good as the start of the season has been for Pollock, the only player that has had a better start is Owings. The 22-year-old has been a revelation so far for the D-backs, making the deal last season for Didi Gregorius even more questionable. While Owings has slowed down from the hot start that earned him National League Rookie of the Month honors for April, he has still managed to have good at-bats.
Much like Pollock, Owings needs to work on cutting down on his strikeouts while improving his walks and on-base ability to move to the top of the lineup.
Watching Owings play defensively has been the biggest surprise. Before the season, I believed the D-backs would have been better served to deal veteran Aaron Hill, slide Owings over to second base and insert Gregorius at short. Owings has played shortstop so well that the D-backs are moving Gregorius around the infield at the Triple-A level to increase his versatility.
When the D-backs start making deals at the deadline, Owings should be safely entrenched as the team's shortstop this season and a potential building block for the future. If Owings can improve his offensive numbers during the season, I have to think the D-backs will eventually look at moving him into the leadoff spot or No. 2 hole based on his minor league numbers and solid speed.
If Hill is eventually dealt this season, Arizona can look at having Gregorius at second base, Owings at short and Pollock in center field, letting the D-backs build up through the middle with young players, a key for long-term contention in the NL West.
Now, it will be up to La Russa and the D-backs to determine if 30-year-old catcher Miguel Montero is the right fit for the team behind the plate. Montero is ranked No. 16 overall among regular catchers in baseball defensively and also struggles throwing out base stealers. The D-backs might be in the market for a defensive upgrade behind the plate.
While it is unlikely that the D-backs will turn the season around and get back into playoff contention, there are still many reasons to watch this team during the summer.
And three of those reasons will be to watch the continued growth and development of Goldschmidt, Pollock and Owings.