We can be pretty darned sure that Tony Campana won’t be a full time center fielder for the D-backs next year. Beyond that, there isn’t a whole lot we can bank on.
Just before Cody Ross got injured, I wrote how the time share in the Arizona outfield was working. Jason Kubel had been edged out, leaving most of the outfield duties to Ross, A.J. Pollock, Gerardo Parra, and Adam Eaton.
Going into the 2014 season, we can expect to have a highly similar outfield crew to the group we have right now. Gerardo Parra is entering year three of arbitration, and is under team control through 2015; Kevin Towers is on record as planning to approach Parra’s agent about an extension, just like the team did last year. A.J. Pollock and Adam Eaton are both under team control through at least 2018 (that could get extended if either player gets optioned for a certain length of time). Cody Ross has two years left on a backloaded contract; he will make $9.5M in both 2014 and 2015. And if you’re wondering how Martin Prado fits in, he’s also here to stay, with three years and $33M left on his current deal.
We’ve heard Towers talk recently about wanting to secure a better hitter for one of the corner spots; since Paul Goldschmidt isn’t going anywhere and the team seems committed to trying Matt Davidson at third (with Prado also getting time there), that upgrade probably wouldn’t happen in the infield. But the D-backs’ current outfield alignment doesn’t allow for much addition without subtraction.
If you’re a regular reader, you know that I think Gerardo Parra is an important part of a winning team. He’s well above average this year, mostly because of his defense; since a team of players with his value should be the goal of the organization, he’s unlikely to get relegated to the bench or back to being a half time player. Gerardo Parra may get spelled by other players a bit more than your normal everyday player, but for all intents and purposes, he’s got the RF spot locked down.
In center field, it’s not clear that Eaton is above-average defensively, but by both UZR and DRS, Pollock is the second-best CF in baseball this year, defensively. Next year, we’re likely to see a lot of what we’ve seen in August and September; each player will start some games in CF, often getting double-switched for each other late in games. Other days, Eaton will start in left and Pollock will man center. Both players profile as above-average outfielders, overall; Eaton’s potential for high on-base percentages more than makes up for any defensive liabilities, and Pollock’s outstanding defense counters the likelihood that he will be 5-20% below average at creating runs.
Eaton will not be the only player getting time in left field, obviously. If Matt Davidson starts most days at third, Prado will be starting in left quite a lot — he played more LF than 3B in Atlanta before coming to Arizona in the Justin Upton trade, anyway. If Prado is getting most of his starts in left, that alignment would actually work quite well with Eaton starting there about a third of the time.
The real unknown, however, is Cody Ross. He makes too much money to get traded in the offseason as he recovers from surgery to repair his hip. More than likely, the team will have to see what they have with Ross; assuming his bat stays 5-10% above average, his defense is a pretty big unknown. Before his injury, Ross was one of the 8 best defensive outfielders in all of baseball — if he slips to merely average in the field, he’d be average across the board. Below that, and we might have another Jason Kubel on our hands. And as with Kubel, Ross might not round into form in 2014 without regular playing time.
Here’s how I think the outfield playing time would break down without Ross (he may not be ready at the start of the season), in terms of percentage of starts:
RF: Parra 90%, Eaton 10%
CF: Pollock 65%, Eaton 35%
LF: Prado 65%, Eaton 35%
Although Eaton would be the rover, functionally, Pollock would be the fourth outfielder. And remember, we’re thinking that Pollock and Eaton might replace each other quite a bit when they aren’t starting on the same day. With Ross in the mix:
RF: Parra 80%, Ross 20%
CF: Pollock 65%, Eaton 35%
LF: Prado 50%, Ross 30%, Eaton 20%
Some of Ross’s at bats would come out of Davidson’s pocket; Parra would lose 10-15 starts, but it’s Eaton who loses the most playing time. I don’t think that the team would carry only 4 non-Prado outfielders next season; but if a guy like Campana sticks on the roster (he’s still ineligible for arbitration until at least 2015), his starts would be extremely sporadic. It might be more likely that the team carries Willie Bloomquist (if re-signed) or someone similar, who can fill in at more places on the field. A guy who could play some first base as well as corner outfield (like Eric Hinske of early 2013) could make sense.
Prado and Ross aren’t going anywhere. So for Arizona to add an outfielder via trade or free agency, Towers would almost certainly trade Parra, Pollock or Eaton. We will speculate on some potential trade matches during the offseason (November, most likely), but even without doing a team-by-team analysis, I find it hard to believe that Towers could extract equal value for any of those three guys. Eaton could be a dream leadoff man, or something close, with OBPs in the .350-.370 range and grade 70 speed on the basepaths. Parra’s production is of the not-particularly-sexy variety, coming as it does on the defensive side of the ball, for the most part. And Pollock… as significant an asset as I think he is for the team, Pollock’s package of skills aren’t generally thought of as scarce in MLB.
If it’s Parra that gets replaced (a more likely scenario if they’re unable to sign him to an extension this offseason), the guesses about time shares I hazarded above would stay more or less constant. But if it’s Eaton or Pollock that gets replaced, how could the team possibly support that roster? If the new acquisition was actually a center fielder, the one of Eaton or Pollock gets displaced — he can’t make up playing time in an outfield corner. And if the new acquisition is a left fielder, with Parra still on the roster… Matt Davidson’s tenure as a full time player will be delayed even more.
The inflexibility Arizona faces in terms of roster turnover in the outfield is large due to Cody Ross. They have too much of the team’s payroll tied up in his contract not to at least see how he performs for a time in 2014; and that means playing time. There are really only three options available to the team to upgrade the offensive impact of next year’s outfield: 1) trade Gerardo Parra, 2) acquire a very good hitter for CF and trade either Eaton or Pollock, or 3) acquire an impact bat for LF with whom Ross could platoon.
Option 1? Eight kinds of terrible — there are only a few players as good offensively as Parra has been defensively, and RFs who are very good on both sides of the ball are also very expensive. A replacement of Parra would almost certainly mean a downgrade. Option 2? Great CF hitters are extremely hard to come by, and are probably too expensive. Option 3? That would be inefficient, as Ross could never play anywhere close to full time and Parra would lose playing time in RF. What makes Option 3 even more kinds of terrible is that with Prado pushed to 3B full time, Davidson would either languish at Reno or get traded to another team.
As we’ll see when we look at the infield, the position player part of the Arizona roster has a lot of moving parts. With the D-backs wedded to Ross, however, and with the team’s other outfielders likely to be undervalued in the open market, any acquisition of an outfielder this offseason is at least as likely to be a step back as it is likely to be a step forward.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll be following up this post with “Roster Breakdowns” of the infield, rotation and bullpen. After that, we’ll start to look at possible targets via trade or free agency for each of those four components of the roster.
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