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The Hot Stove Corner, Part 6: Left Field

            BA  AB  R HR RBI BB  K  OBP  SLG  OPS 
Gonzalez  .271 576 90 24  79 76 89 .364 .458 .823 
Tracy     .348  23  2  0   2  0  4 .348 .435 .783 
Others*   .130  23  1  0   1  3  2 .231 .217 .448
McCracken .133  11  2  0   0  1  4 .188 .133 .321 
Totals    .265 637 95 24  82 80 99 .355 .441 .796
NL Rank      9   -  4  8 =10  5 14    8   10   10  
* = Hairston, Cruz, Jackson and Terrero 

2005 review
Arizona entered the season welcoming the return of Luis Gonzalez in left-field, who had missed the last third of 2004 with an elbow injury. How would his arm stand up? Would his return to health also produce a return the form that saw him hit 25 homers and 100 RBIs for five straight seasons? Or would he continue the decline, which had steadily continued since his landmark 2001 season?

At first, the signs were decent enough: on June 24, through 74 games, Gonzalez was batting .307 with 10 HR and 49 RBI. But then, tragedy struck, with the death of his stepfather, who'd been married to his mother for 20 years. Gonzo missed only a handful of contests, and on July 2nd, provided a highlight reel moment, saving a game against Los Angeles with an eighth-inning diving catch into the stands at Chavez Ravine, to rob Jason Phillips of a home run.

But when he came back, he was a different player somehow. In 80 games the rest of the year, he hit only .238, with just 29 RBI, and reaching even this lowly figure required an 11-game hitting streak to end the year - before that, Gonzo spent the previous three weeks mired in an 8-for-61 slump. His defense was still also challenged far too often by opposing runners, as the word spread that his arm (never a strong point) remained weak. However, he did win the 2005 Branch Rickey Award for community service, devoting more than 1,000 hours and generating more than $1 million in contributions for Arizona charities.

2006 Possibilities

Free Agents
Again, with Gonzalez solidly signed through 2006, this wasn't an area we were ever going to explore. But as a comparison here are some of the other major deals that went down in the 2005-2006 off-season. As with every other position, pickings were slim: only three left fielders signed multi-year deals. Top of the pile was Hideki Matsui, who was rewarded for his .305, 23 HR season for the Yankees, with a 4-year, $52m contract, even as his OPS dropped from .912 to .863.

Former D-back, Reggie Sanders, was the other to get an eight-figure deal, with a $10m agreement that'll see him with Kansas through 2007. Sanders, now 38, keeps on ticking, with five straight 20-homer seasons. And Orlando Palmeiro signed for Houston, a 2-year, $1.9 million deal. Rondell White got the best one-season contract, a $3.25m from Minnesota which, I have to say, seems rather more than market value.

Trades
It's probably fair to say that any shopping of Gonzalez done over the winter was more in hope than any actual expectation of a deal: "...and would you like a former 57 home-run hitting outfielder to go with that pitcher/third baseman/pair of relievers? No? Oh, well - never mind." The basic problem was that Gonzalez is now overpaid for his performance; not that I mind too much, given he was underpaid early on in his career, but it does make him almost impossible to shift.

So, there was hardly even a peep of a rumour of a whisper of a trade - y'know, not with any actual names attached to it. Diligent research (Google is my friend - though it doesn't helped that there are now 3 Luis Gonzalez's rattling around baseball, two of whom genuinely were involved in trades this year!) could only come up with this: "The St. Louis Cardinals will have holes to fill in the outfield and love Gonzalez as a person." Hey, who doesn't. :-)

Also blocking any move would be Gonzo's full no-trade clause as a 10-5 veteran (ten years in the majors, five with the same team), something he would seem reluctant to waive, because by all accounts, he likes it here and is very happy. And it's mutual: few people in the state are more popular than Luis. When he dies, he'll probably end up buried under that pyramid thing in Papago Park, alongside Arizona's first governor, George Hunt.

Prospects
There's a reason John Fogerty did not write, "Look at me, I can be... Left field," and it isn't just a sense of rhythm. It's one of those positions where you'll rarely find an actual "prospect": it's probably the outfield position where defense is least important, so tends to be a last refuge for the arm-ically challenged. If you've got a good arm, you'll be put in right; if you've got speed, center may be your home; if you've got neither, but can still lacerate the ball, say hello to left field. And if you still can't cope with that, there's always first base: hello, Conor Jackson.

Down in Tucson, 2005 started with Doug Devore patrolling left, but he was shipped to the Giants for Matt Herges in June. That worked out well, didn't it? [Herges: 7 games, 13.50 ERA, in case you'd forgotten] The rest of the season was filled by a random grab-bag of players including Andy Green, Victor Hall and the man with the best name in the organization, Noochie Varner. Varner, who came from the Brewers as the PTBNL in the Sexson deal, had a solid season, batting .321, good enough for 3rd on the team behind Kroeger and Green. Tho' Kroeger, who hit .332 in 200+ ABs, was still released this winter - which says just how much faith the team puts in Tucson stats.

This illustrates nicely the difficulty of picking out left-fielders, since they could be lurking anywhere in the outfield. Or even elsewhere: the position has been mentioned as a destination for Stephen Drew, should Upton end up squeezing him out at shortstop. So, the roll-call of left-field prospects is long - basically anyone who can strap on a glove. Carlos Gonzalez is likely top of the list, but we'll cover him later; Jon Zeringue is another name who might end up in left. When Luis Gonzalez goes, while we might not have a seasoned left-fielder ready to go, there should be no shortage of potential candidates to take over.

Summary + Prediction
Barring injury, Luis Gonzalez will be in left field on Opening Day, and has been saying all the right things. He has admitted that he had a disappointing 2005, but pointed out that he has been able to do off-season work this winter, something not possible last year. We could certainly do with a bounceback, as the .796 OPS posted from the position was only 10th best in the NL. Here's how that compares to the five previous years:

  • 2000: .934, 3rd in NL
  • 2001:1.115, 2nd
  • 2002: .864, 7th
  • 2003: .916, 3rd
  • 2004: .827, 9th
  • 2005: .796, 10th

From being a position of strength, left-field is now something of a liability, and Luis may be replaced as a regular by the end of the season, as the club looks towards 2007 and beyond. While there's little chance the $10m option for that year will be exercised, I wouldn't be surprised to see a smaller contract get worked out, allowing Gonzo to end his career as a Diamondback, albeit in a bench role. For this year, I expect him to be the regular starter, though he may well be benched in favour of Eric Byrnes and/or Jeff DaVanon - especially against left-handed pitching, which has given Gonzalez significant trouble throughout his career.

We may also get some glimpses and omens of the future: will it be Carlos Quentin that is replacing him? Or perhaps Chad Tracy might be moved from 3B, if his defense there remains woeful? Gonzo's performance and the team's playoff hopes, will likely decide how things alter as the year progresses. Also, keep an eye on where Quentin plays down in Tucson this season. If, as some suspect, he's slated for LF in 2007 (with Green playing right, and Chris Young likely in center), then we may see him in this role for the Sidewinders, to gain experience.