The D-backs outfield has been in flux over the last two seasons. Entering 2013, Justin Upton and Chris Young were out, and Cody Ross and Martin Prado were in. Coming off a 30-HR season, Jason Kubel would also start, with Adam Eaton slated to man center. Gerardo Parra would once again be the swing man, playing mainly against RHP and picking up starts at all three outfield positions. But a funny thing happened: Eaton suffered an elbow injury that kept him out for most of the season, and Kubel’s skills completely deteriorated. By the time Eaton was healthy and with the big club, Kubel had been written off, and not long later, Ross suffered the gruesome hip injury that sidelined him for the rest of 2013. That Ross-Eaton-Kubel outfield with Parra as the swing man never materialized.
Instead, Parra was installed on a more or less permanent basis at right field. Whether this was by luck, by design or both, Parra was a very natural fit there, his 80-grade throwing arm suddenly a weapon worth an entire win to his team. Parra’s 4.5 WAR total, fueled by one of the finest defensive seasons on record and nearly average offense, ranked 12th among all major league outfielders.
But something even better came out of the mess that was the 2013 outfield: A.J. Pollock. As Ross held down left field and Parra played more and more right field, it was Pollock who filled in at center — Pollock, the man who was probably fifth on the team’s depth chart in spring training, even after the departures of Upton and Young. And in less than 500 plate appearances, Pollock was the 22nd-ranked OF in 2013 with a 3.6 WAR, essentially a center field version of Parra. The D-backs got lucky in a big way.
And the benefits didn’t end there — based on its 2013 experience, the D-backs knew to install Pollock as the starting center fielder this season. He emerged offensively in response, putting up marks that were bested only by Paul Goldschmidt. Despite being slowed by a groin injury and put on the DL with a broken hand, Pollock has a 2.5 WAR total already this season — as of this writing, he still ranks 8th in baseball among all outfielders in WAR. That, with just 192 plate appearances — every player ahead of him in WAR has at least 258.
Injury notwithstanding, the D-backs should thank their lucky stars, right? Well, yes and no.
There’s more to getting lucky than just luck. Check this out, from an interview in which current Mets executive Paul DePodesta noted that the “guiding principle” of roster construction in baseball now “is figuring out a way to deal with uncertainty.”
A main part of our reasoning is to put ourselves in a position to get lucky. With the amount of competition there is in the industry, it’s hard to put together 25 players that are just way better than everybody else. We drafted some college players at Oakland who we knew would probably be Major League players, but there was a limit to how much impact they might have. We had made the mistake of taking what they were then, and projecting it indefinitely into the future. But they got better.
The D-backs did get lucky with Pollock. But the team deserves credit for having Pollock available, and for working him in when available playing time was limited. They deserve credit for putting themselves in a position to get lucky.
We have to be careful about confusing strategies with individual players — maybe Pollock was exactly the type of guy that, objectively, one could expect to get better. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the Athletics were reportedly interested in Pollock this last offseason, before Eaton was traded away. But there’s a greater lesson here, about the value of putting a team in a position to get lucky, even if those contingencies are unlikely, or only likely to occur in the face of bad luck. Some facets of that:
1. The limits of the 25-man Active Roster. If you’re the Red Sox or Yankees or Dodgers, you don’t have roster spots to burn. You have a mandate to try to win every year, and money to spend to make sure all of your spots are covered. You pick your spots with bringing up prospects: they are probably promising, and happen to fit your organization well. This happened recently in Boston with Jackie Bradley, after the departure of Jacoby Ellsbury (even though that hasn’t really worked out). It happened when the Yankees brought up a young Robinson Cano on a roster filled with veterans. But 25 spots means only so many chances to see what players can do at the major league level, and when a spot opens up — through injury or otherwise — it means capitalizing by using a player who might grow (like Daniel Nava) instead of filling the hole with the best available veteran. It could be that there are dozens of A.J. Pollocks who just don’t have opportunities, and a team owes it to itself to see if Player X is one of those guys when an opportunity opens up.
2. Using time shares whenever possible. Player X is never going to blossom into an A.J. Pollock if they’re starting once per week. Backup infielders don’t flourish. Backup catchers don’t flourish. The only way to grow is to receive playing time, which is why Didi Gregorius was installed at AAA when Chris Owings won the starting shortstop job this season. A player needs fairly frequent at bats just to keep a bat in his hands, but should a team really worry if Cliff Pennington isn’t getting enough plate appearances to become a better player? Probably not. Time shares are a way through this mess. The Cardinals employed this method to perfection last season, using a four-man squad to handle right field, left field and first base even though of the four, only Mike Adams had any obvious shortcomings. Time shares are a great way to pick up runs or wins on the margins, because fewer plate appearances go to true backups, and because when one member of a time share goes down, the squad can simply close ranks. But time shares are also a way to get an A.J. Pollock more opportunities. Would it be better to play a guy in virtually every game? Absolutely. But last season seemed to show that if you give a Pollock two-thirds or three-quarters the plate appearances of a starter, he can still grow. Time shares may mean getting one extra opportunity to get lucky.
3. An emphasis on premium tools. Especially defense. Ask yourself who is likely to become an average or above average player: a guy who is slightly below average in all facets of the game, or a guy who is just as good overall who is a standout offensively or defensively? I think the choice is pretty easy. Maybe you can get Mark Trumbo to play better defense. Maybe Gerardo Parra, given more playing time, can improve enough at the plate to become a premium player overall, justifying a starting gig all the while with premium defense. It just doesn’t seem like a team puts itself in a position to get lucky when it rolls the dice that a player will improve in several ways simultaneously. Pollock is again an excellent example of this, but the game is littered with players who justified a starting spot with one or more helpful tools, and then gained ground in other ways because they were getting regular chances to improve: think Carlos Gomez, or Michael Bourn. It may be that some guys take longer to develop in the majors, and so spending precious starting spots on players who have at least theoretical room to grow seems like a great bet.
4. Being open to converting players. I don’t just mean moving players around the infield, or taking advantage of flexibility like that of Martin Prado. Former Diamondbacks architect Buck Showalter is a master of this. In a Showalter organization, fringe prospects are given a chance to do something new — think pitching, more than anything else. Could an Anthony Meo have been a helpful major leaguer if he had been given a shot to start throwing with a lower arm angle, in hopes of being a matchups reliever? This is how most lefty specialists are made, but it’s also how a guy like Brad Ziegler is made. Minor league spots are not unlimited, but they aren’t as precious as Active Roster spots. Why have a slot filled in the minors with an “organizational guy” when the same spot could be filled with someone trying out a sidearm angle? I also think teams have been less open than they should be with turning fringy offensive prospects into catchers, for example. And there’s always the odd player who moves from the mound to the outfield (Gerardo Parra, David Peralta), or from the outfield to the infield (Skip Schumaker).
With the season essentially lost already, the D-backs should use this season as an opportunity to get lucky. Pollock and Trumbo hurt? More opportunities. It doesn’t help that the cupboard is bare in terms of legitimate Quad-A type guys, but this could be a season of experimentation. Ender Inciarte fits the mold, perhaps, as a guy who offers premium defense — you never know if he might improve at the plate with more playing time. David Peralta also fits, as a player more recently come to hitting. It’s a rare thing indeed to be able to give a pseudo-starting role to a player like Peralta who’s no Inciarte or Pollock or Parra in the field, but the path has been made open through injuries.
The team is doing well right now with putting itself in a position to get lucky, with an emphasis on building the best possible roster for 2015 and beyond. Designating Trevor Cahill for assignment is a great move. If Cahill can fix something or learn something new in the minors, so much the better; but in the meantime, we get to see if Will Harris has the stuff we saw last season and in the minors this year. I love trying out Chase Anderson, even if Mike Bolsinger wasn’t given a meaningful chance and Randall Delgado should have gotten a bit more rope. Overall, the D-backs are doing a good job of putting themselves in a position to get lucky now with the roster they have, even though it would have been in a much better luck position if it had chosen to bet on the future in the offseason, and on players like Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs instead of players like Mark Trumbo and Bronson Arroyo.
The team appears to be doing its best to get lucky in 2014, but it can do more. I happen to love Cody Ross as a player and a human, and there’s every reason to give him more time to put things together at the plate. Come deadline time, though, Ross should get moved at whatever price (he may be attractive as a lefty-killing bench option), not so much because moving him would net a nice return, but because moving him also moves him out of the way. That’s what 2014 is now. It’s all about folding on the gambles that can only ever pay even money, instead gambling on options that may have a chance of paying out.
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