When Do You Give Up on a Player?

Over the last few years the Arizona Diamondbacks have begun to reap the benefits of building a strong farm system. Their amateur drafts have been receiving accolades as they selected the best available athlete regardless of sign-ability concerns. As these young ball players have matured it became evident that they were ready for the next step in proving that they could play at the major league level. This left the Diamondbacks in a situation where they had to decide if they would remain committed to a veteran ball club or go with a youth movement and allow the youngsters to earn their way in the Major Leagues. The Diamondbacks choose the latter and executed a plan whereby they would become one of the youngest teams in the National League West. This decision did not come without some angst. It would mean that the team would have to part ways with some of its more popular players. The epitome of this example was when the Arizona Diamondbacks met with long-time outfielder and fan favorite Luis Gonzalez. Gonzalez expected to discuss whether the team planned to pick up his option and if not they could begin discussions of contract parameters for a new deal. Instead the team came to the meeting to express their gratitude for his service but it would not be needed after the 2006 season. While the decision was warranted and the team handled it in a very professional manner it did not go over well with the fans who felt betrayed that their favorite player was being shown the door. I believe the team made the right decision in this case as Gonzo’s skills had begun to deteriorate and the young outfielders in Tucson had nothing else to prove at the minor league level. This whole experience made me begin to think about when do you give up on a player who may be past his prime?

The 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks featured an abundance of youth when they broke camp at the end of Spring Training. It was exciting to see the exuberance in their faces and the energy that they played with. The opening day roster was filled with youth but not to the point of being reckless. The Diamondbacks had augmented their roster with seasoned veterans who could help with the development of these young players so that they learn to play the game the right way at the Major League level. Playing the game the right way is a nebulous term that is hard to explain. To have a long term successful career takes more than just baseball skills. It takes mental toughness and respect for the game and your peers. During the 2003-2004 mini youth movement the Diamondbacks found out that some of their farm hands had the skills but not the intangibles. These players were capable of playing winning baseball but few of them stuck at the major league level and those that did found their roles as utility players. Few of them have become the stars or everyday players they expected. So for that reason it is important to have some veteran presence on the team who are not afraid to get in a rookie’s face and let them know the right way and the wrong way to play the game. The rookies and young players need to remain humble and realize that they don’t know everything that they need to and listen to the sometimes grizzled veterans and heed their advice.

But even then there is a time that retaining the services of a veteran hurts your team’s chances of winning. This appears to be the situation in Arizona. We have a veteran who receives massive ovations whenever he is announced. Kids recognize him and wear his name proudly on their shirts. In fact my son is one of his biggest admirers and one day hopes to follow in his footsteps. But even with all the love the fans feel for him, he is hurting the team. The old guy has lost a step on the base paths and just doesn’t have the skills he once had. We are so used to our heroes being immortal; their skills are at the highest levels that many of us could never match. That is what makes it so hard to watch them as they struggle and fail. I first began to notice the degradation of skills at the end of Spring Training. The final two games at Chase Field were painful to watch. When last year ended he was on such a high note and at times he carried the team on his back while others struggled. Now though time seemed to have caught up to him and overnight changed this hero into a weight that was dragging down the team.

None of us wanted to recognize that fact though. We wanted our heroes and our favorites to remain at their peak. We would therefore cheer even harder to try and will those last ounces of talent and hope for a win. But those wins and those successes began to happen less and less often. The numbers coming out of spring training were bad but I attributed those to the cold weather and that spring training meant nothing. The slow start continued during April but again I tried to ignore it thinking that things would turn around when the weather heated up. To a certain extent that was true. The warmer weather in May helped the success and numbers improve but still it was obvious something was not right. Now after this past home stand when the Diamondbacks were struggling I began to look at everything with a more cynical eye to identify differences between this year and last. The team was much better than the 2006 version which meant that the problems seem to point squarely at my son’s hero as the one who was hurting us the most. It would be a hard discussion but one I had to have with him. It is inevitable that a change must be made. The team has little choice and I wanted my son to be prepared. It would be a good lesson to teach him that time moves on and sometimes you have to make personnel decisions based upon what is good for the team and not let your heart get in the way. I felt it would be better to explain this to Dakota during a road trip so that when the Diamondbacks come to town he will have a more objective viewpoint and help him to anticipate the inevitable. So with a heavy heart I sat him down and began to explain.

Son, I think it is time we talked. As an avid Diamondbacks fan I am sure you want what is best for the team. Sometimes wanting what is best means that someone you love gets hurt. Sometimes a change is necessary and that change may not be popular but it is still warranted. We’ve been to a lot of games this season and while I know you like everything at the ballpark I know there is one who is your favorite. That favorite though is pulling the team down and I fully expect that the Diamondbacks front office is aware of this and about to make a move. I just wanted you to be prepared when the Diamondbacks release Ketchup.

I know you always cheer for him during the Circle K Hot Dog Derby but you have to admit, he is not the same condiment that he was in years past. Mustard and Relish are continually kicking his butt around the base paths. We have seen him lag behind and most nights he is dead last. We just can’t have that if we are going to contend as a play-off caliber team. He’ll always have a special place in our hearts and you are more than welcome to continue to cheer for him but I think his playing time will start to diminish and if the Diamondbacks can find someone to take his contract I am sure they will try and trade him. I wanted to prepare you for this fact in case he does get traded and end up returning to Chase Field wearing a different bun.

I have heard rumors that Onion is tearing up the condiment minor league system bring tears to the eyes of his competitors. Onion has made a few appearances last year and every time he did he impressed fans and coaches alike. You might not remember but he won every contest he was in. That kind of success belongs at the major league level. But as you know there are only 3 spots available on the condiment roster and so Onion is being blocked by Ketchup. That isn’t fair to Onion and it is not fair to us. This is not something you want to hear and it pains me to say it. This is not just an observation though, I have the facts. I’ve been tracking the condiment races all season and while the totals show a fairly close grouping those are deceiving. Ketchup has been dragging ever since spring and gets just enough wins to keep his job. The fire and the passion is gone. He just doesn’t have what it takes to compete at the major league level.

The Diamondbacks may not be ready to bring Onion up (even though I think he warrants a place on the team). They may choose to go a different direction. There has been a lot of talk about international scouting and team diversity. They could decide that sauerkraut would be a good fit. He is really popular with the German crowd which would be a marketing boon as well as position the team for international exposure. You can’t discount the regional implications either. Given that we are based in the southwest so close to Mexico, the team could bring up that new kid Salsa who is popular despite being a hot head. The entertainment value alone of watching a fiery youngster burning up the base paths could be fun to watch. The point is that Ketchup’s time is probably up. Even if he rebounds with a good second half it is clear that he just doesn’t have what it takes. The team is moving towards the future and it might just be time to eliminate some of the present to get us to the next level. Really the only thing keeping Ketchup in the lineup is the fact that he is nearly the same color as Sedona Red and that just doesn’t cut it. Besides, real men don’t eat Ketchup on hot dogs.

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