AnalysisNL West

Where will Daulton Varsho play?

As the majority of teams in the NL West fought tooth and nail in a jam-packed battle for the division title, another one had to sit back and enjoy the show. The Diamondbacks, who bitterly claimed the second-pick in the 2022 MLB Draft, quickly planted themselves in a less encouraging position than their worthy rivals in the division. Expectations were unquestionably higher entering the season but a catastrophic, on the verge of historic, first-half of the 2021 season forced GM Mike Hazen to consider fully tearing down his ballclub at the trade deadline. 

Few across the industry, if any, thought that Hazen wouldn’t be a seller; most general managers in the game would feel somewhat compelled to sell following a 26-66 record to begin their campaign. However, speculation arose regarding how much would be sold when push came to shove. Hazen kept an open mind at the deadline, as it was rumored that he fielded offers for his most prized assets like Ketel Marte, David Peralta and Merrill Kelly. Competitors ultimately turned to other teams to scratch off their mid-season shopping list, as Hazen clearly didn’t land an offer appealing enough. Subsequently, the core was left intact, for at least the remainder of the regular season. 

While the club couldn’t strike any blockbuster deals, a handful of veterans – all impending free agents – were flipped for a few mid-tier prospects. Perhaps the most under-the-radar deal was catcher Stephen Vogt being sent to Atlanta in exchange for first-baseman prospect Mason Berne. On paper, this one-for-one swap had minimal impact on the Diamondbacks’ roster at the highest level: Berne, 25, played in A-Ball for the Diamondbacks for the remainder of the MILB season. However, the impact of this trade to the organization extended beyond just the player acquired. The domino effect of this trade for the remainder of the season left Arizona salvaging a dismal season.

Although Vogt was dealt a few days from the deadline, his removal seemed foreseeable much earlier. In mid-July, Carson Kelly suffered a fractured right-wrist, which required a fairly long stint on the IL. Arizona saw the glass half full by opting to hand the majority of catching duties to then-prospect Daulton Varsho, providing him with more consistent reps at his natural position than Vogt was given all together. Opportunities continued to dwindle for Vogt once veteran Bryan Holaday was brought up from AAA-Reno shortly thereafter for more catching depth. From there on out it all but seemed which way the wind was blowing for Vogt come late-July. 

To his credit, Vogt’s growing-time spent on the bench was hardly on him. The California-native exceeded expectations following a subpar performance in the shortened season that would’ve likely been his only with the club, if not for a vesting option accrued reached on plate appearances. In 52 games with Arizona in 2021, Vogt batted .212/.307/.386, equating to a 86 OPS+, right in line with the league average at the position. Ultimately, the 9-year veteran bounced-back enough for Arizona to flip to the Braves at the deadline.

 Vogt got off to a hot start, tallying 3 base-hits in his first game in a Braves uniform, but he couldn’t come close to repeating his production to start the season. Nonetheless, his effort was rewarded with his first World Series ring in his lengthy, 9-year career. Fortunately, the Diamondbacks’ success was no longer dependent on Vogt at that point, nor many other players of his kind.

Even after the trade deadline, Arizona did not wait for the offseason to continue reshaping their young ballclub. One month after the deadline, third-basemen Asdrubal Cabrera, who’s played in the bigs nearly as long as some D’backs players have played baseball all together, was claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Reds in what could’ve been his farewell season after 15 years. The club continued its course by releasing 33-year-old catcher Bryan Holaday just a few days later, fully cementing the Kelly-Varsho tandem. Since then, a revolving door of Dbacks prospects got their first taste of the bigs in the last month of an otherwise disappointing season. 

By removing a catcher who’s nearing the end of his days on the field, Arizona was able to bring in one who’s just getting started. Daulton Varsho, perhaps the most promising youngster on a roster filled with them, settled in nicely to a role that would’ve likely been awarded to him on Opening Day, if not for Vogt’s presence. Pegged as Arizona’s most dynamic position-player in a stacked farm system, the 23-year-old quickly rose through the minors, posting boast-worthy numbers at each level along the way. 

The path to the show wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows for Varsho, as he encountered perhaps the first actual roadblock in his pro-career in his first exposure to the majors in 2020. After being called-up in September of the abridge season, Varsho slashed .188/.287/.366, equating to a deficient 76 OPS+ in 23 games. Spring Training wasn’t much different, as his woes at the plate continued. As unusual as it was to witness a player with his potential struggle to such a degree, it surely looked like a mere fluke in a bright future. However, the necessary adjustments were to come at AAA-Reno, where he began the 2021 season. A month into it, Varsho had a brief stint in MLB again but struggled to .212 wOBA in a mere 54 plate appearances. He continued raking in AAA, while Arizona remained employing a backstop unit of Kelly and Vogt. Varsho’s consistent results in AAA insisted that his obstacles would need to be ironed out at the big league level. Once Vogt was dealt on July 17, Varsho was presented with a legitimate opportunity to play in the pros – and a shot at redemption. 

Until season’s end, Varsho went on an absolute tear and performed like the ballplayer the Diamondbacks envisioned when nabbing him in the second round of the 2017 Draft. A product of University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, Daulton is the first Panther amongst a dozen or so drafted from there to reach the majors, which likely won’t be his only achievement in his promising career. 

A handful of Arizona’s higher-level prospects were bound to receive more opportunities once Mike Hazen dealt whichever veterans he saw fit at the deadline, but Varsho in particular greatly benefited from the mid-season departures. Once Arizona shipped Vogt, Varsho at last had his time to shine, playing nearly everyday. In 59 games, he erased any lingering doubts by slashing to a .291/.341/.533, while being utilized at multiple positions, sometimes within the same game. 

Perhaps the most valuable skill Varsho’s displayed so far might not even be with a bat in his hands. This season, he showed all-around versatility on the field, manning each outfield spot, in addition to his duties behind the plate. 

Despite his lightning speed, Varsho was planted at the game’s most sedentary position for the chunk of his development in the minors, disregarding the substantial experience he gathered at other positions in college. In 2020, Arizona was finally convinced to get him some work in the outfield after observing his fleet-footedness in the minors, which included two seasons with more than 15 stolen-bases. Varsho’s re-introduction to the outfield couldn’t have been more timely. Two key pieces to the outfield, namely Ketel Marte and Kole Calhoun, battled persistent injuries that sidelined them both throughout the 2021 regular season.

Mike Hazen was forced to get creative with how he’ll configure the outfield in the absences of Calhoun and Marte. Arizona’s farm system was equipped with several highly-coveted outfield prospects, yet their MLB debuts weren’t imminent. Few cards left to play pressured Hazen to assign some unexpected players to fill the vacant outfield. Pavin Smith, who revealed that he’d technically not played outfield since Little League, where he’d catch fly-balls… during batting practice. He performed as well as he could’ve, given the unforseen circumstances. In nearly 700 innings between right field and center field, the 2017 first-round pick posted a horrid -11 DRS per Fangraphs, with particularly terrible results at the latter position. On the other end, Varsho’s outfield performance was a lot more optimistic than his fellow 2017 draftee. While in a slightly smaller sample, Varsho posted a +4 DRS in roughly 300 innings accumulated across all three outfield spots, with the majority coming in center. 

Most who’d observed Varsho’s blooming career were unfazed by his smooth transition to one of the game’s premium positions, one that he hadn’t seen much of since his college days. Dbacks were well-aware of the kind of ballplayer they were getting when they selected him four years ago. Scouts always praised his baseball IQ and athleticism. The former is probably attributed to his father, Gary Varsho, a former big-leaguer himself. The latter can be seen whenever he takes the field, with a sprint speed in the 84th percentile, per Baseball Savant. To put in perspective, only two catchers – Jorge Alfaro and J.T. Realmuto – recorded a faster speed last season. 

Going forward, it would be in the Diamondbacks’ best interest to not deploy Smith in the outfield nearly as much, at least in center field. Mike Hazen did not wait long to ensure that they wouldn’t resort to any unorthodox outfield configurations next season. A week before MLB’s Lockout, Mike Hazen acquired Jordan Luplow, an actual outfielder by trade, from the Tampa Bay Rays. Hence, a roster filled with many uncertainties became slightly more solidified by adding a legitimate outfielder to the equation. 

Luplow, who has three seasons left until free agency, figures to be an integral part of Arizona’s outfield. Smith appears as the most likely candidate to lose time in the outfield. Unlike Pavin, Varsho will probably not be subject to a potential defensive re-assignment. Varsho evidently could handle his own at each outfield position, picking up where he’d left off as a utility man at University of Milwaukee. 

Additionally, there are currently minimal opportunities for Varsho at catcher. Carson Kelly got off to a hot start to the ‘21 season, batting to a .364 wOBA in the first-half. Unfortunately, Kelly couldn’t find his groove after returning from an extended period on the IL mid-season. His campaign ended especially on a bad note, as he batted to a wretched 55 wRC+ in the final month. When healthy, the 27-year old, looked like he’d risen to his full potential since being acquired in the deal for franchise cornerstone Paul Goldschmidt in December 2018. Barring any major overhauls to the roster, Arizona will bank on Kelly’s first-half performance and will lean on him as the primary catcher again in 2022. That’s not to say Varsho won’t see his fair share behind the plate. As tough as Carson Kelly has shown himself to be, Arizona wouldn’t call on him to catch anywhere close to everyday, even in a season free of injuries. In addition, Torey Lovullo has stretched the versatility of a lot of the club’s young players, getting their work in at several positions throughout the season.

The defensive duties for Varsho and several others currently seem up in the air. In the Dbacks’ defense, all MLB teams are facing similar uncertainties surrounding their rosters, as the current MLB lockout prevents all teams from making any MLB transactions. In the meantime, Arizona is discussing their options to continue establishing its up-and-coming players. But determining how they’ll utilize perhaps its most valuable youngster is surely a priority. Arizona could conceivably utilize him similarly to last season, splitting his role between catcher and the outfield. However, an amateur just getting acquainted with the pros being tasked with such a deep utility role for an entire season has its question marks. 

Regardless if he’s capable of fulfilling such a versatile role, the Diamondbacks have expressed an opposing intention for him in the past. Before last season kicked off, assistant GM Amiel Sawdaye voiced Arizona’s vision of Varsho being a catcher who can also play center field- not the other way around. Although, such a role seems unfeasible to carry on that vision given Carson Kelly’s presence behind the plate. 

That intention was expressed by Sawdaye a whole season ago, and a lot has happened since. Arizona might’ve shifted gears and can reasonably holster different plans for him now. As appealing as it would be to play him evenly between catcher, center field, right field, left field and wherever else they see fit, Arizona should not indulge too much in his potent skill-set for the time being. Varsho is still learning the ropes, and it might be optimal to refrain from turning him into a utility-man so early in his career. 

Regardless where Varsho will play next season, it’s crucial that his opportunities and overall development don’t remain contingent on another player. He is indisputably the most versatile player on the Dbacks, and it won’t be that long to list him as one of the most versatile in the entire league: How many catchers can also play center field? If everything goes as planned, Arizona will transform Daulton Varsho into a core part of a lineup in desperate need of a spark. But for now, Arizona should turn their focus from where they need him the most to where he’d play his best. 

Featured Photo from @Dbacks on Twitter

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