While the rest of baseball went quiet for New Year's, the mill grinding out trade rumors about Diamondbacks outfielders never stopped production. By now, Justin Upton trade rumors are mere white noise to most Diamondbacks fans, and the buzz surrounding Jason Kubel is starting to make a similar sound as the Mets, Orioles, Padres, Braves, Rangers, Mariners, Indians, and White Sox have all been reported to have interest in both players.
The source of all of this noise is the fact that the Diamondbacks have seven outfielders with major league experience on their 40-man roster, four of whom they'd like to start. Arizona had a similar problem in October, but seemed to solve it by trading center fielder Chris Young to the A's in a three-team deal that netted set-up man Heath Bell. However, in December, general manager Kevin Towers signed Eric Hinske and Cody Ross, the latter to a three-year $26 million contract that alone indicates the teams desire to have him in the lineup rather than on the bench.
So here's the question: If I was Kevin Towers, or rather, if I were suddenly thrust into Towers' job barely a month before Pitchers and Catchers, how would I solve this glut? My first impulse is to point out the past moves by Towers I would not have made (including signing Kubel and trading Young), but though I disagree with many of the moves Towers made to get his roster to this point, I agree with a number of his reported preferences.
For example, I wouldn't trade Justin Upton unless I was blown away by an offer. My recent look at the significance of early major league debuts reinforced my optimism about Upton, who made his debut at 19 and had an above-average OPS+ over 417 plate appearances in his age-20 season. Given his disappointing 2012 season and the escalation of his salary over the next two seasons (from $6.75 million in 2012 to $9.75 in the coming season and more than $14 million in each of the two following seasons), trading Upton now would be selling low on his age-25 to -27 seasons, his natural peak. In November, I wrote a piece for this site illustrating the upside of an Upton-for-Elvis Andrus swap for the Diamondbacks (Andrus, it's worth noting, was the runner-up for Rookie of the Year after making 541 major league plate appearances in his age-20 season), but the Rangers have been understandably wary of such a trade, and a deal for anything short of Andrus would be a mistake by the Diamondbacks, in my estimation.
As such, my right fielder is Justin Upton, and I'm optimistic about a significant improvement in his performance in his age-25 season now that he's had the offseason to let his injured left thumb heal.
I had similar optimism about Chris Young coming off a season that was ruined by a separated right shoulder in mid April. The only justification that I can see for trading him given his outstanding play in center, strong performances in 2010 and 2011, and the impact of the shoulder injury in 2012 is a combination of salary relief and a desire to give Adam Eaton a shot at the center-field job. Eaton isn't a blue-chipper by any means, but he's never had a batting average below .300 or an on-base percentage below .400 at any minor league level and reached base at a .382 clip in his 103 PA last September. He may not be a future stud, but there's a lot to like. He projects as a center fielder with good range, a strong arm, an excellent plate approach resulting in high on-base percentages and strikeout-to-walk ratios, and he has the speed to steal twenty to thirty bases a year with a respectable rate of success. He lacks serious power, but he's not a slap hitter. If he can build on his debut, he'll be a valuable leadoff hitter under team control through 2018. If he can't, the time is now to find out as he just turned 24.
So my center fielder is Adam Eaton. I believe that's Towers' preference as well, but having signed Ross and Kubel to significant contracts the last two winters, he's somewhat committed to starting those two, with Kubel in left and Ross in center. However, I believe that Gerardo Parra could be more valuable than either one. Parra won't be 26 until May, will be under team control through 2015, and is yet another D'backs outfielder coming off a season in which his production at the plate was compromised by an injury. Parra was hitting .281/.349/.426, a good match for his breakout 2011 performance, when he was hit on the left wrist by a pitch on July 24. He then missed three games and hit .259/.310/.336 over the remainder of the season. Parra adds speed on the bases and above-average play in the field to what amounts to a .280/.350/.425 projection.
Kubel and Ross both hit for more power than Parra, but lack the latter's ability to hit for a solid average and get on base at an above-average rate. You could project both for something in the area of .260/.330/.480, which is roughly equivalent to Parra's projected line above, trading some outs for some power, but Parra has both beat in the other facets of the game, particularly Kubel, who is such a brutal fielder that he was worth less than a win above replacement in 2012 per Baseball-Reference's bWAR despite hitting a career-high 30 home runs, driving in 90, and slugging .506.
Ross is a clear upgrade on Kubel giving their similar offensive profile and Ross's more acceptable play in the field, so the obvious solution is to trade Kubel, who has just one year left on his contract at a salary of $7.5 million (Ross will make $5 million in 2013 before his salary escalates to $8.5 for the final two years of his deal). Kubel's power numbers from last season might make that $7.5 million salary look like a bargain to some, particularly a general manager with a vacant designated hitter position, but I wonder if there are any major league general managers left who can really be fooled by his performance. A luddite GM would note Kubel's .253 batting average and 151 strikeouts, while a more progressive one would balk at his .327 on-base-percentage, career-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.02 if you count only his unintentional walks), and awful fielding. Kubel, who turns 31 in late May and has never played 150 games in a season, also did most of his slugging last year at Chase Field, hitting a weak .244/.309/.449 on the road.
Given that, Towers should lower his expectations for a return on Kubel. If he can find a team willing to relieve him of Kubel and his entire salary, he might not get much more than a backup infielder, middle reliever, or a minor leaguer somewhere outside of the other team's list of top ten prospects. If he eats some salary, he might get a combination thereof. If he can't find a taker (Towers has said, "We're not going to move an outfielder in a lousy deal just to move an outfielder") Kubel would be a nice upgrade on Hinske as the plodding left-handed outfielder on the bench. Hinske has made a nice career out of being a left-handed fourth outfielder/pinch-hitter, but he's 35 and didn't hit a lick in 2012 (.197/.272/.311 with just two home runs in 147 PA for the Braves with most of his peripherals trending in the wrong direction). Of course, finding a team to take Hinske and the $1.35 million Towers has committed to him could be difficult as well, but if no deal develops and Hinske doesn't impress the coaching staff in Spring Training, he could be cut.
So here's my proposal: Open the season with an outfield of Parra, Eaton, and Upton, a trio that offers defense, on-base ability, youth, and upside. Back them up with a power-hitting righty/lefty bench combination of Ross and whichever of Kubel or Hinske proved more difficult to unload. Ross would be the first replacement if any of the starting three falters or is injured and can thus be replaced on the bench by righty-hitting rookie A.J. Pollock, who shares Ross's ability to play center if needed. That sets up Pollock for another season shuttling between Reno and Phoenix, but it's worth noting that he's barely more than three months younger than Upton and profiles as a ‘tweener fourth outfielder (not quite enough glove for center, not quite enough bat for the corners). There's not a lot of potential being wasted in treating him that way.
It's clear from my proposal here that I have little regard for Towers' offseason moves in the outfield, but I still like the talent he has on hand. My lineup would be betting heavily on up-side, but Kubel and Ross aren't going to be any better than they were in 2012, which was very close to a career year for both players (only Kubel's 2009 was significantly better, and that was largely due to luck on balls in play and the fact that he spent half of it as a DH), and Hinske might be done entirely. Unfortunately, it's clear from the timing and size of those three contracts that there's very little chance of Towers and the D'backs taking my advice.