Name: Collin Cowgill
Age on Opening Day: 24
2011 Stats: 36 games, 100 PAs, .239/.300/.304, 1 HR, 9 RBI
2010 Stats: N/A
Collin Cowgill did not have a good season by most statistical measures. For those of you who don't feel like adding three-digit numbers together during the off-season, his OPS in 2011 was .604. For the sake of perspective, that's lower than that of such offensive luminaries as Willie Bloomquist, Sean Burroughs, and Xavier Nady. It's lower than Mike Napoli's slugging percentage. Add in the fact that he only got 100 Plate Appearances on the season, and it would be easy to simply write off Cowgill as a member of the 2011 Diamondbacks.
But since Snakepit readers are smart enough to see through such feeble straw-man arguments, you've probably already figured out that it wasn't actually that simple. Despite his meager stats, Cowgill was able to provide surplus value and he may have locked down a role as the Diamondbacks' fourth outfielder for 2012 and beyond.
2011 Expectations: I didn't really have expectations for Collin Cowgill at the beginning of the season, on account of the fact that I had only a vague idea of who Collin Cowgill was before the season started. Therefore, I'll defer to people who actually had a clue of what they were talking about. Our own Dan Strittmatter ranked him 19th in the Diamondbacks' system in 2010, saying, "While many don’t believe he has the bat to man a corner outfield position on an everyday basis, it’s easy to imagine Cowgill finding some sort of role on the 2011 D-backs, particularly given our current corner outfield depth.'" This seemed to be the consensus on Cowgill: a decent, low-risk prospect who probably wouldn't ever be more than a fourth outfielder in the majors.
On the other hand, I did have a very clear expectation of what to expect from the Diamondbacks' backup outfielders. Bench construction was a oft-cited problem with the Josh Byrnes era, and outfielders were a particular issue. To wit, here's a trip down memory lane of recent Diamondback fourth outfielders.
Chruch, Ryan: .265/.345/.490
Gillespie, Cole: .231/.283/.365
Romero, Alex: .248/.306/.338
Oeltjen, Trent: .243/.250/.457
Salazar, Jeff: .239/.335/.365
Baseball maxim: when the best player on a list of outfielders is Ryan Church, tear it up and make a new list. This pattern seemed to be changing in Kevin Towers' first off-season as GM, however, as he assembled a crew of savvy veterans to comprise his bench. Sure, none of Xavier Nady, Juan Miranda or Willie Bloomquist were great outfielders, but they should be at least decent off of the bench, right?
2011 Performance: Once the season started, we found out that Nady had no arm and little bat, Miranda was too busy blocking Goldschmidt at first to be much use in the outfield, and Bloomquist was really only an outfielder in the abstract. Nady's season-ending injury in July finally forced the team's hand, and the team was left scrambling through the minors for answers.
Meanwhile, Cowgill was languishing in Triple-A. As the only true "prospect" in Reno, Cowgill benefited as much as everyone else in the Aces' lineup from Reno's apparent loss of gravity in 2011, as he hit .354/.430/.554 while in Triple-A. He was the obvious choice for the call-up after Nady was lost, and he made his debut in the majors on July 26th against the Padres.
Needless to say, Cowgill did not hit .354/.430/.554 in the majors. He was used infrequently, typically as a right-handed left fielder to spell Parra, and he struggled to find a groove early. He didn't have a single extra-base hit in his first 56 Plate Appearances, and his OPS on August 27th was a dismal .352. But after that time, Cowgill went on a tear, hitting .366/.409/.512 the rest of the way. Sure, it was only 44 plate appearances, but it was enough to provide something the Diamondbacks have not had from a backup outfielder in quite a while: hope for the future.
Cowgill only had one At-Bat in the playoffs, but he made it count. Pinch-hitting for Joe Saunders in Game 4, Cowgill knocked in a couple of baserunners with a two-out single to extend the Diamondbacks' lead. This culmination of a scorching end to 2011 would seem to put Cowgill in the driver's seat for a roster spot next year.
Analysis: So why am I so positive about Cowgill, considering his struggles at the plate? It's important to consider the circumstances around his time in the majors. The always helpful Hardball Times defines a "replacement player" as "a player you could get for the least cost, such as major league minimum, without having to give up value elsewhere." And the Diamondbacks, reeling after Nady's injury, were trying to do exactly that. They went to their farm system looking for a replacement-level player, and they found Cowgill.
The cool part is that Cowgill was actually slightly above replacement-level. Thanks to his skill as an outfielder (UZR rates him as above-average in left field, and the eye test seems to bear that out) and as a baserunner, Fangraphs rates him as 0.3 Wins Above Replacement in 100 PAs. If extrapolated over the course of a full season, this would give him somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 WAR, which would be good enough to be a fringe regular. And the cool part is he's still on his rookie salary, implying that all the positive value he gives the Diamondbacks is surplus value.
And that's ignoring the hope for the future that Cowgill provides. He's only 25, which is not young for a prospect, but still on the sunny side of the aging curve. He's hit for decent power at every level of the minors, and his BABIP of .333 last year is not unsustainable for a player with Cowgill's speed. The best case scenario is that he makes Parra or Young expendable, but a much more likely situation sees him as a right-handed platoon-mate with Parra in left field, giving the team decent production from both sides of the plate in left field for the league minimum. If he can iron out the strikeouts in 2012 (K% of 28.0% in 2011), while maintaining his steady defense in left, he should continue to provide surplus value. Grade: B- with room to grow.
Let's see what the rest of the gang thinks.
Dan: B-. He wasn’t anything special in the big leagues - a nice defensive replacement and pinch-runner, with an occasional hit sprinkled in - but this is about expectations. A year ago, he was a 24-year-old who was just so-so in the Southern League, so the fact that he looks like he’ll have some big-league value is going above expectations. He certainly didn’t crush expectations, and he looks to have some strikeout issues to iron out in the big-leagues, so I’m wary to go much higher, but he’s a better backup outfielder than Willie Bloomquist (who belongs in the infield) or Xavier Nady were. A nice guy to have control of for a few more years at minimum salary.
Cowgill came to Arizona as a polished senior out of college with a good hitting approach. He’s never been graded highly, isn’t expected to hit for much power, and will most likely slot as a fourth-outfielder for the majority of his career. That sounds about right. He’s doing his job the way it should be done without any huge or major flaws to stunt his major league presence.
They say in baseball there’s always someone younger, cheaper and better than you. Unfortunately for Cowgill, that largely applies to two-third of the Arizona starting outfield at this point where he’s concerned. Gerardo Parra and Justin Upton are 11 and 15 months younger than Collin, and not going anywhere any time soon. This made it difficult for Cowgill to get consistent playing time; he didn’t get to start more than three games in a row, and even that was the result of one of the incumbents being banged-up.
That said, he didn’t exactly force his way in to the line-up, in 100 PAs hitting an anemic .239 with a K:BB ratio of 28:8 and a .604 OPS. That’s 53 OPS points below Willie Bloomquist, and a far cry from the .354 and .984 OPS numbers over 98 games in the mythical land of milk and honey for hitters known as "Reno." It’s probably not a big deal - I expect Parra, Upton and "grizzled veteran" Chris Young all to play almost full-time next year - but Cowgill will need to make better use of the opportunities he receives, if he wants any more playing-time.