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The Hot Stove Corner, Part 7: Center Field

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            BA  AB  R HR RBI BB   K  OBP  SLG  OPS 
Cruz Jr.  .224 174 23 12  26 35  50 .352 .483 .835 
Terrero   .235 149 16  4  19 14  38 .320 .362 .682 
Green     .310 145 21  5  15  9  24 .355 .490 .844 
McCracken .234 128 15  1  11 17  18 .324 .320 .644 
Totals*   .250 596 75 22  71 75 130 .339 .419 .758
NL Rank     15   - 15  5   9  4   7    9   10   11  
* = Includes Hairston, 0-for-1

2005 review
It says something about our season that four different players had 125 at-bats in center-field, but none of them reached 175. Popular perception had Jose Cruz Jr. as a disaster both at the plate and with the glove, but if you discount his woeful batting average, he wasn't so bad. He showed more patience at the plate than just about anyone, and swatted balls out of there about one at-bat in 15 - an OPS of .835 is actually well-above the 2005 NL average for the position, of .777.

However, Cruz was troubled by injuries, his first DL stint coming as early as April 17, and a pinched nerve in his back caused grief all year. He was also defensively challenged, to the point where someone taped a picture of Darth Vader wearing eye-black to Cruz's locker in June [later claimed to have been done by Cruz himself...] This threw us to the mercy on our reserves, McCracken and Terrero, for whom an OPS of even .700 would have been an improvement; and Terrero, of course, also succumbed to the hidden-ball trick.

Finally, management had had enough, with Cruz designated for assignment on July 27 [he bounced through Boston in eight days, and ended up in LA, where he signed a $2.9m contract for this season]. Shawn Green gamely took over the role, and performed credibly enough there. It also didn't seem to affect his bat too badly, as he hit .310 the remainder of the season: the highlight was probably a grand-slam against the Phillies on August 28, in Green's first game back after the birth of his daughter.

2006 Possibilities

Free Agents
This was always an avenue of interest, with the aim being to allow Green to return to right-field. However, after the acquisition of top prospect Chris Young in the Vazquez trade, it became a case of finding a stopgap to cover us through 2006, while Young receives some final polish down at Triple-A. It's a good job we didn't want more than that, as there was little on the market, with the only longer contract going to Johnny Damon, who signed a four-year, $52m package with the Yankees.

Fattest of the one-season agreements was Preston Wilson's $4m offer from Houston and Kenny Lofton signed for $3.85m with LA; they also (as noted above) signed Cruz, who'll likely end up in right. We paralleled San Diego, both teams picking up center fielders through 2006 for $2.25m: however, despite my qualms regarding Eric Byrnes, I'd rather have him than Dave Roberts, whom the Padres acquired. We signed Jeff DaVanon for $525K, which doesn't seem so bad, considering Endy Chavez went for $500K. Both our players are coming off disappointing seasons, and have bounceback potential, especially if platooned wisely. Though I remain unconvinced of Byrnes' worth in particular.

Trades
We were buyers, rather than sellers, though at time of writing, I suspect we are still trying to get something...anything...for Luis Terrero. [Hey, I figure the amusement value he'd provide has gotta be worth a prospect, at least?] However, up until the signing of Young, there didn't seem to be many solid rumours - if that's not a contradiction in terms - that would bring a centerfielder to Arizona.

A few names did crop up though, such as Brad Wilkerson and Corey Patterson, with perhaps a small side-dish of Juan Pierre, and a dash of Milton Bradley. [Mike Cameron, a topic during the season was sent to San Diego in mid-November, squashing that speculation] Patterson was the main course: in early December, he was rumoured to be part of a trade with the Cubs involving Javier Vazquez. Wilkerson or Pierre would certainly have given us the lead-off hitter we also wanted, but in the end, we opted to aim for 2007, with the acquisition of Young.

Prospects
Yes, it must have sucked to be a center fielder in the Arizona farm system this off-season. It'd be like discovering Brad Pitt is coming to work in your office: there go your chances of making it with anyone in the typing pool. Rated the #8 overall prospect by Baseball Prospectus - to put that into perspective, Conor Jackson didn't even make the top 50 - Young looks set to own CF from next season through 2012.

However, as noted earlier in this series, it's easier to move from CF to another outfield position than the other way round [Bill James listed this in his "defensive spectrum", which goes DH - 1B - LF - RF - 3B - CF - 2B - SS - C. It's much easier to go to the left than the right]. And fate may yet still have surprises in store; we had a pre-season scare when Young hurt himself in a freak accident, breaking a bone in his hand. The informed medical opinion is that this should not affect him long-term, and though he'll miss spring training, he should be ready to occupy center field for the Sidewinders not long after that.

Last year, Carlos Quentin played there in Tucson, and did a credible enough job there (only a single error), as well as hitting .301 with 20 homers. But it's most unlikely this is where his future lies, especially after the arrival of Young; right field would seem the most likely destination, if only we could figure out what to do with Shawn Green. Injury or total failure excepted, it probably won't be this year.

Jarred Ball occupied the slot for the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, and was probably the top "true" prospect in the organization before the arrival of Young, despite a disappointing .253 average last season. He did pick it up in the AFL, batting .321, and was rewarded with an NRI to spring training. He seems to have been around for ever (a 9th-round pick in 2001), but was drafted out of high school, so is currently only 22 and still has time to turn it around. He did lead the team with 39 stolen bases, good enough for second in the league.

He pipped Marland Williams, who had 38 SB in only 45 attempts, and certainly has the raw speed for the position - not for nothing is his nickname "Smoke". But his approach at the plate leaves a lot to be desired, and he hit only .234 at Tennessee, with a K/BB ratio approaching 3:1. That will need significant improvement if he's to go anywhere. Finally, we nod to Jereme Milons, acquired in the Elmer Dessens trade, who hit .265 at South Bend.

Summary + Prediction
As far as production goes, I'm not actually convinced we'll be much, if any, better off than we were in 2005. Few projections for Byrnes have an OPS much above .735, and it's doubtful DaVanon will contribute enough to boost the overall total above last year's .758, even with the anticipated careful platooning. Whether management decides to live with this will likely depend on the division standings, and what other options are available. If Byr-vanon suck as badly as I fear they could, I really would not be astonished if Green ended up in CF again, with Quentin manning right.

Defensively, Byrnes' approach is best described as "enthusiastic", and he will probably be this year's version of Terrero, alternating between highlight reel material and woeful incompetence. At least the Boston Red Sox won't be coming to town, so Byrnes should be safe from Mike Lowell's hidden-ball trick. Health issues may also come into play: DaVanon's shoulder is rumoured to have delayed a trade earlier in the off-season, while Byrnes is perhaps the player whose head is most likely to contact the outfield wall.