The Quiet Rise of the Diamondbacks' Juan Miranda

HOUSTON - MAY 29: Juan Miranda #46 of the Arizona Diamondbacks hits a ball foul during a baseball game against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on May 29, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Going into play Wednesday, the top OPS posted by a regular Diamondback this year didn't belong to home-run leader Kelly Johnson, triple leader Stephen Drew, doubles leader Chris Young or even hits leader Justin Upton. Instead, quietly vindicating GM Kevin Towers' belief which led to Arizona trading for him this winter, Juan Miranda has the best OPS on the team. His .368 OBP is the highest on the roster, and a .491 slugging percentage trail just back-up catcher Henry Blanco. But you can probably for forgiven for not having noticed.

The key? Regular playing time. Simple as that. in the Diamondbacks' first 40 games, Miranda was competing for playing time with both Russell Branyan and Xavier Nady at first-base. Juan started only 15 of them. To be honest, the results didn't exactly scream for additional at-bats, Miranda batting .206. While he was taking plenty of walks, which boosted his OBP to a very respectable .342, just five hits went for extra-bases, giving him a mediocre OPS of .707. However, on May 21st, Branyan was released by Arizona, opening the door for Miranda to become our full-time starter, and it's a role he embraced wholeheartedly.

"It feels better to get more of a chance to play now. It's difficult sometimes to play one game and then sit two games. It's difficult to get in a rhythm. I think it's good to get an opportunity to get into the game every day."

Since March 17 through yesterday, Miranda appeared in 15 of the 21 games, all but one as the starting first-baseman. His line over this period: .321/.400/.642, the 1.042 OPS powering his run to the front of the Diamondbacks' offense. Now, while that recent surge is certainly BABIP-assisted - that's a figure of .351 over this time - the same is not true for his overall season. There Miranda is sitting at .300, and this is not abnormally out of line with the NL average to date of .294. That suggests his overall numbers are likely sustainable, and an OPS+ of 132 would be marvelous. In fact, it would be close to unprecedented for an Arizona 1B.

Miranda is on pace for 366 PAs this year, though that number seems certain to be surpassed, with the lack of competition. In the history of the Diamondbacks here are the ten best seasons put up by those with 350+ PAs, and 50% of those or more coming at first-base:

Rk Player OPS+ PA Year Age G AB R H HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Tony Clark 154 393 2005 33 130 349 47 106 30 87 37 88 .304 .366 .636 1.003
2 Chad Tracy 132 553 2005 25 145 503 73 155 27 72 35 78 .308 .359 .553 .911
3 Greg Colbrunn 128 385 2000 30 116 329 48 103 15 57 43 45 .313 .405 .523 .928
4 Mark Grace 113 553 2001 37 145 476 66 142 15 78 67 36 .298 .386 .466 .852
5 Conor Jackson 109 477 2007 25 130 415 56 118 15 60 53 50 .284 .368 .467 .836
6 Adam LaRoche 106 615 2010 30 151 560 75 146 25 100 48 172 .261 .320 .468 .788
7 Shea Hillenbrand 104 604 2004 28 148 562 68 174 15 80 24 49 .310 .348 .464 .812
8 Conor Jackson 103 556 2006 24 140 485 75 141 15 79 54 73 .291 .368 .441 .809
9 Travis Lee 103 630 1998 23 146 562 71 151 22 72 67 123 .269 .346 .429 .775
10 Shea Hillenbrand 94 354 2003 27 85 330 40 88 17 59 17 44 .267 .302 .482 .784

2005, when 1B was split between Clark and Tracy, is the only season in Diamondback history where we have had Miranda-esque levels of production from the principals at the position. Even last year, when Adam LaRoche hit 25 balls out of the yard and drove in 100 runs, his overall value was diminished by the fact that he would take a walk less than once per series.

There are still a couple of question-marks over his play. He has largely been protected from left-handed pitching, with only 35 at-bats facing southpaws this season, and 47 in his entire career since his debut in 2008. He has actually hung in very well against them, 11-for-38 lifetime, with two homers, so it may be time for him to see them more often, as happened on Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh. His defense is also considered suspect: though we are dealing with a very small sample, he currently is at -0.7 by UZR, which works out at -4.0 over a full season. So there does seem some evidence of an issue there.

Though Miranda's biggest problem retaining his 1B spot may not be his own skill-set, rather the same demon which chases every baseball player: the specter of someone younger, cheaper and better coming up from behind. From the Book of Prospects, Chapter 17: "I am come to make ready a people prepared for him, and by my daily reporting of his numbers, to prepare the ground for him who is to come after, and who will thus benefit you much more effectively and powerfully." I think you know who I mean, but if not, let's just say it currently seems more a case of when, not if, Goldschmidt happens.

Admittedly, the usual caveats apply: Paul is still in Double-A, and has yet to face major-league pitching outside spring training. Even if he continues to rake, will he be deemed ready for 2012? Might there be some kind of platoon situation, with Miranda and Goldschmidt sharing playing time, while the latter is eased into a full-time role? Will Miranda become a bench-player, or might it be better to trade him at the end of this year, as a productive starter? And what of Brandon Allen, the forgotten first-baseman of the Diamondbacks? Will he join the ranks of previous, more or less fleeting incumbents like Chad Tracy, Josh Whitesell or Alex Cabrera, and end up in Japan?

Of course, these would be very pleasant dilemmas to have to handle; it's especially nice to have stolen Miranda away from the Yankees, for nothing more than a prospect picked in the 11th round. And I'm even more smugly pleased to report that said prospect, Scottie Allen, currently has a 7.49 ERA over 33.2 innings of work for New York's High-A affiliate. I'll stop here, and just enjoy the warm glow of satisfaction which I'm feeling.

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