Towards 2014: Setting the Diamondbacks outfield

Christian Petersen

Who will survive and what will be left of them? It's like The Hunger Games for outfielders...

The way the hot-stove has been running. I'd better get this up sooner rather than later, because who knows what changes may occur by the end of the day... But it's nothing new for the Diamondbacks. Regular fans will know there have been complaints about us being over-stocked with outfielders for at least the previous two winters, and thanks mostly to the rise of A.J. Pollock this year, Arizona finds itself with an apparent surfeit once more. What will they do this time - and is the surplus genuine?

Outfield depth

Both before 2012 and before 2013, due to the signings of Jason Kubel and Cody Ross respectively, there were plenty of complaints about how the move was "blocking Gerardo Parra." That didn't turn out to be the case, with Parra averaging 144 games and 546 PAs over the last two seasons. Part of that was due to unexpected injuries, such as Chris Young crashing into the wall, or Cody Ross's tumble, but these does illustrate that, as with starting pitching, you do need backups. Only four teams had three outfielders with more than 130 appearances last year, and there were a mere 45 across all baseball. so if you used two regulars, you were ahead of the curve.

There's also the platoon side of things. There are a lot of big career splits for our outfielders, as shown below.

vs. RHP vs. LHP
BA OBP SLG OPS BA OBP SLG OPS
Eaton .237 .315 .365 .681 .302 .381 .395 .777
Parra .289 .341 .431 .772 .236 .294 .300 .593
Pollock .254 .313 .331 .664 .280 .331 .480 .811
Ross .250 .309 .407 .716 .297 .362 .578 .938

I'm inclined to think Eaton's reverse split is the result of small sample size - less than 100 career PAs vs lefties to date. If you look at his full-season numbers, across both majors and minors, each of the last four seasons have been as expected, hitting RHP better, by between 32 and 396 points of OPS. That'd probably work out in line with the other three, who have an OPS gap of between 147 and 222 points. That's a lot: across all baseball, for RHB last year, the split was 47 points, for LHB it was 96 points, and we may be better off with a four-man outfield, rotating players in and out to take advantage of the platoon splits.

On that basis, it might make more sense to acquire the power-hitting outfielder first, as that will give us a better idea of who then becomes surplus to requirements. A left-hander like Shin-Soo Choo, and Parra or Eaton can be traded. A right-hander like Franklin Gutierrez? Say goodbye to Pollock. Perhaps we should cover both ends: just sign the switch-hitting Carlos Beltran and be done with it. :)

The home-run famine

Arizona was dead-last in the majors for home-runs from their outfielders last season, managing only 37, and their overall offensive production, by wRC+, wasn't much better, ranking 27th of 30. However, the Gold Glove caliber defense, more or less across the board, was a significant help, and if you look at overall fWAR from the outfield, the D-backs' number of 7.7 was virtually in the middle of the pack, tied for 16th. There is a risk, depending on the player we get, that the benefit to our offense of adding home-runs will be negated by a defensive downgrade: Exhibit A, Jason Kubel.

On the other hand, you can argue the benefits would not just be to the outfield, but to prevent opponents pitching around Paul Goldschmidt. Last year, he tied for the league lead (with Votto) in intentional walks, largely because he was the only guy on the Diamondbacks to reach even 15 HR. But having a slugger bat behind him might not help. Witness the 2012 Tigers, who added Prince Fielder for much the same reason, to protect Miguel Cabrera. Yes, Cabrera was walked a lot less: 66 times, down from 108. But his overall OPS also dropped, due to the lower OBP. Walks, for whatever reason, will always be better than outs. Google "lineup protection myth" for more on this topic.

The Ross question

Of course, the depth question becomes even more pressing, depending on what happens with regard to Cody Ross. This is what happened to him on August 11, when a routine grounder to the infield turned into a season-ending injury requiring surgery.

Will he be ready for Opening Day? Will he ever fully recover? We don't know, because this isn't like Tommy John surgery, with a large database of previous victims; freak accidents like this are largely uncharted territory. Those who tend to fall over and dislocate/fracture hips are not professional sportsmen in their early thirties: your grandmother isn't much of a solid foundation on which to project Ross's return to the field. There's been little in the way of solid updates since late August when he said, "Hopefully I can be back by spring training, the middle part of spring training-ish, somewhere in there. That’s the goal." One imagines the team are monitoring this more closely.

Who should go?

On the likely solid assumption no-one will be interested in taking Ross off our hands at this point, attention turns to the other three, and there are cases to be made for just about any of them. Parra will cost the most this year, but at $4-5 million, is hardly over-priced. With defensive skills apparently being increasingly valued, his pair of Gold Glove and overall skill-set would certainly appear to make him attractive. Pollock has the most control, and having apparently outperformed expectations this year, could be considered a "sell high" candidate. Eaton is the youngest, and was considered the "trendy pick" for Rookie of the Year, until injury derailed his season before it began.

A couple of weeks back, Nick Piecoro talked to various people around the league, and asked them who they would prefer to have: Eaton or Pollock? Eaton was the pick of four of the six polled, with one of the others saying the decision would depend on roster considerations such as handedness. However, Piecoro points out, "Though it appears Eaton won in a landslide, the voters seemed pained to have to make a call," and added :"All of those polled seemed to agree on one thing: If the Diamondbacks end up trading... they’re still going to be left with solid contributors." Any decision will likely depend on who we add, and what offers we receive.

Conclusion

I'm not convinced that the lack of home-runs from the outfield last year was a major problem, at least in the sense that a lot of compensatory value was provided instead by excellent defense - much needed in a park like Chase, and with pitchers, some of whom have fly-ball tendencies. I'd certainly be prepared to listen to offers, but unless the team thinks Ross is toast, I wouldn't necessarily feel any strong impetus to require a trade be made, unless it addressed another area entirely, such as getting a long-term ace.

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