Leading Off: Arizona Diamondbacks Farm System Q&A with Chuck Johnson

Aaron Blair
Doug Hall
Written by Doug Hall

One component of judging a team’s performance is by evaluating their farm system. After a year of having Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart at the helm, we wanted to see what the current state of their system was. We turned to prospect evaluator Chuck Johnson of MLB Prospect Pulse, to get his thoughts on the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system and their prospects.


Clubhouse Connection: What are your thoughts on the overall state of the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

I believe they were a top ten system heading into the 2015 season, although with injuries and graduations they’ve taken steps backwards where we sit now. They were a pitching heavy system a year ago and I believe that’s still the case. Outside of Dansby Swanson, Brandon Drury and Domingo Leyba, their top ten list is dominated by pitchers. Archie Bradley, Braden Shipley, Aaron Blair are all potential top of the rotation starters, with Yoan Lopez, Cody Reed and Alex Young a notch below.

Pitching, from both sides, is clearly their strength, positional depth is a weakness. I don’t see any impact position players in the system currently. At the time of the 2015 amateur draft, GM Dave Stewart compared Swanson to Nick Ahmed, which, in my opinion, is not a compliment reserved for the first overall pick.

I like Drury, I think he can be a decent player either at second or at third. I believe in O’Brien’s bat, but there are question marks surrounding is positional value and I believe he’s a strong off-season trade candidate. OF Socrates Brito had a good 2015 which included a .303 average in 33 major league at bats, but the Dbacks strength in the majors is their outfield, so somebody likely would need to go in the off-season for him to get significant playing time in 2016.

CC: You’ve been a big proponent of Aaron Blair as he has moved through the system. What makes Blair stand out in your opinion?

True, and his being named system Pitcher of the Year for 2105 justified that opinion, at least for now. No question part of my attachment to him is the fact he’s been forced to take a back seat to Bradley and Shipley based just on draft pedigree. Bradley was the 7th overall pick in 2011 from Oklahoma. Shipley was the 15th overall pick in 2013 from Nevada. Blair was the 36th overall pick in 2013 from Marshall. You know how many major leaguers have come from Marshall University? Four.

Everyone knows about Bradley; power fastball, above average curve, at least average slider and changeup. But his problems going back to college have been with his command, and as you know, stuff without command is nothing. Combined with two arm injuries (elbow in 2014, shoulder in 2015), I think it’s safe to say the shine has come off his star somewhat.

I have nothing against Shipley as a prospect, but Blair has been better across the board since they were signed. Blair has continued to improve while Shipley’s development seems to have stagnated. He had a hard time missing bats this season while Blair continued to develop.

I preferred Blair in 2014, and I prefer him now.

Peter O'Brien - Arizona Diamondbacks

Photo Credit: Ryan “Moose” Morris

CC: One prospect that consistently generates excitement among fans is Peter O’Brien. How do you feel that his bat will play in the majors? Where do you see him fitting in on the roster?

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t see him on the roster. That’s not a knock on O’Brien as much as it is a fact he’s defensively challenged no matter where you put him and the Dbacks are strong at his primary positions. I saw O’Brien in the AFL and in spring training and I believe he’s better defensively behind the plate than he’s been given credit for, but that doesn’t make him an everyday catcher. The Dbacks depth at the position isn’t that great, so it’s certainly feasible he could make the opening day roster as part of a platoon, but I just have the gut feeling his bat is too attractive, especially to an American League team.

We have to give caution to the numbers O’Brien put up last year, Reno is a notorious hitting environment. He hit 17 of his 27 homers at home, and he also destroyed LH pitching at an unsustainable rate, at least to the extent of it carrying over to major league pitching.

I think the Dbacks will make some off-season transactions looking for pitching, and I think Chris Owings and O’Brien will be the chips they use to get it.

CC: Every season a prospect emerges that wasn’t on the national radar. Who do you feel will be that person in 2016 for the Diamondbacks? Why?

Good question. And a difficult one. As mentioned, the Dbacks depth is in the outfield, from the majors on down. My favorite position player in the system right now is centerfielder Marcus Wilson. I saw him in 2014 in the Rookie League and he was pretty impressive. He’s a 6’3”, 175-pound toolshed who was their second rounder in ’14 from a California HS. He’s a couple of years away, as is Gabby Guerrero, Vladdy’s nephew whom the Dbacks are pushing based on his current roster status in the Arizona Fall League.

If your question is to guess a guy who could impact the major league roster this year, my pick is lefty  Alex Young, who was the Dbacks second rounder in 2015 from TCU. He’s not a hard-thrower, topping at 92-93, but his secondaries are good and he can pitch from the rotation or the bullpen.

CC: What makes scouting the international market so difficult? How has Arizona fared in your opinion?

I don’t think it is difficult, it’s a matter of organizational choice. The world is much smaller than it used to be, with telecommunications and video, plus most teams have development complexes in the Dominican Republic. Every team has the same process in place to find, develop and sign international players, so the Dbacks are no different than any other organization in the sense they’ve always had an international presence, both in the Asian and Latin markets.

The Dbacks main deterrent to being a player internationally is money. Only twice in franchise history have they had a payroll higher than $100 million, so in their mind it’s not financially sound business to sign Masahiro Tanaka to a 7 year, $155 million major league contract, or even the 7/72 the Red Sox gave Rusney Castillo.

Now, with that said, they did sign Yasmany Tomas to a six-year, $68 million major league contract and pitcher Yoan Lopez to an $8 million minor league deal, so perhaps the presence of Tony LaRussa is going to change things.

CC: The Dbacks fielded a predominantly homegrown lineup in 2015 in addition to having the first overall draft pick. Can you touch on their history in the draft and how you see their future?

No one in Arizona would ever question Jerry Colangelo’s quest to make the Dbacks relevant, although their 2001 championship came at a price, much like what our Yankees are going through now. Using the farm system as a band-aid for the major league roster eventually leads to a wound that doesn’t heal.

The Dbacks have had 32 first-rounders or supplemental first-rounders in their history, with 22 making the majors, a 68% success rate, which is major league average. Dansby Swanson, Braden Shipley, Aaron Blair and Styker Trahan are almost certain to make it, as is Touki Toussaint even though it won’t be with the Dbacks. That’s pretty good.

They’ve had success in later rounds too, Jake Lamb was a sixth rounder, Paul Goldschmidt an eighth rounder.

Fans here were pretty opposed to the Trevor Bauer, Jarrod Parker and Justin Upton deals, but you have to give up quality to get quality. And anyone who tells you they thought Max Scherzer would become the pitcher he has, isn’t being honest.

Injury history aside, the Jarrod Parker deal wasn’t a win, neither was the Carlos Quentin trade. I’ve always believed trades aren’t always about what you get, sometimes what you give up is more important. If trading a Bauer or Upton made the clubhouse better than I’m all for it


All in all, I think the presence of Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart will do nothing but improve the farm system, which in turn will improve the major league product.


The Arizona Diamondbacks have the ingredients that are needed to build a healthy, productive farm system. With players like Aaron Blair and leadership from Tony LaRussa, better days lie ahead for the team and their fans. We would like to thank Chuck for taking time out of his busy schedule to conduct this Q&A session.

You can follow Chuck Johnson on Twitter @prospect_pulse

About the author

Doug Hall

Doug Hall

Creator of Clubhouse Corner, Doug has been covering Minor League Baseball since 2014. His work has been featured on YES Network-affiliated Pinstriped Prospects, Heels on the Field and Pinstripe Alley. He's also appeared on ESPN and NBC Sports radio. Every Friday, Doug hosts the Short Hops podcast with Bernie Pleskoff.

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