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2010 in Arizona: Center-field

We now return to your regularly-scheduled baseball programming after yesterday's diversion into the Arena Football League playoffs. What? It wasn't arenaball? Of course it was: Kurt Warner was playing, and the final score was 51-45. I rest my case. Thanks to everyone who took part in the impromptu playoff thread for a game, which even I (who doesn't like the game much) had to admit, was among the most thrilling ever seen. We had over 700 comments - within a hundred of the number over at the 'official' Cardinals' site, Revenge of the Birds. Still, go see them: their postgame analysis is certainly far better than mine! We'll do it all again next weekend, I think.

Anyway... Back to the more pastoral sport - we'll take the reading of George Carlin's monologue on the differences between the two games as read. CF in Arizona continues to pose issues. Remember when Chris Young was being touted as the next Mike Cameron? Perhaps surprisingly - and certainly comforting - thus far in his career, Young has actually been better offensively. Here's a comparison of the two players through their age 25 seasons:

Cameron 296 945 824 121 189 23 100 50 14 96 224 .229 .315 .376 .691 82
Young 472 1902 1697 234 399 71 205 54 16 170 451 .235 .307 .438 .745 86

Thus far, Chris's advantage has been his power, but Young will need to step things up this season if he wants to stay ahead. The age 26 season was when Cameron finally figured it out, posting the first of 11 consecutive (and counting) seasons where hia OPS+ was above a hundred, with a line of .256/.357/.469. Young does also have a lot more major-league experience, with almost twice as many PAs to the same point as Cameron. After the jump we'll take a look at Young's prospects, and what our alternatives might be.

2009 Performance
Chris Young: 117 starts, .212/.311/.400
Gerardo Parra: 34 starts, .290/.324/.404

While center-field is not expected to be an offensive powerhouse, it proved to be the worst spot on the diamond for Arizona in 2009, with an OPS of .672, 45 points below the next-worst position. While not quite the worst in the league (the Reds were down at 650), it was also 90 below NL-average. The main problem was, as we all know, the ongoing struggles of Chris Young. His batting average sank below the Uecker line on the last day of April, and didn't get more than five points above it until the middle of September. That came after a demotion to Triple-A, the result of a particularly wretched stretch where Young had only two hits in 38 PAs.

That did seem to do Young good. In 31 games after his return, his line was vastly improved, at .263/.351/.508, including a three-homer game in Colorado, though did strike out 38 times. Overall, the number that stood out like a sore thumb in 2009 was his infield fly rate: 28% of all the fly-balls he hit came down in the infield. This was the most for any hitter in the majors with 500+ PAs, and it wasn't even close - the next was Yuniesky Betancourt, all the way down at 22%. I'd be interested to see if his post-AAA numbers were an improvement: I do see his BABIP was .328 in September, suggesting better contact was being made.

One area that did show a worrying drop-off was Young's defense, where his UZR/150 dropped to a career-low value of -9.8. This was a major disappointment, as over the previous three-year period, Young had been rated the sixth-best center fielder in the majors, by Bill James's Plus/Minus method. Was this just random fluctuation? [Single-year defensive metrics are generally seen as less reliable than offensive ones] Did Young take his problems at the plate out into center with him? It's definitely something to be concerned about. If you're getting good defense in a position, you can cope with some offensive mediocrity (see Ojeda, Augie); but it's a lot harder to justify a position for no-hit, no-glove player on the roster.

The main back-up to Young was Parra, and we've already talked about his year in some depth, when we discussed the left-field situation. Much the same goes for center, of course. Parra's main weakness remains an inability to hit left-handed pitching, but UZR also rates center-field as his worst position, with a UZR/150 of -12.0, over 328 innings at the position. The remaining eleven starts, should you be interested, were split almost evenly between Byrnes, Oeltjen and Romero.

Top Remaining Free Agents
Name Age 2009 Sal. 2009 OPS+
Rick Ankiel
Randy Winn
35 $9.6m
Rocco Baldelli
28 $500K
Reed Johnson
Chance of AZ free-agent activity: low.

2010 Depth-chart and Projections

  1. Chris Young: .229/.303/.411
  2. Gerardo Parra: .272/.321/.381
  3. Cole Gillespie:.240/.320/.383

It seems Young will get at least a couple of months to prove September's numbers were not entirely a fluke. I linked it previously, but there was a good article on Young at, trying to make sense of his numbers, and work out what they meant. Emphasis on "trying": as they say, "Every statistic is going in a different direction. His strikeout rate has gotten steadily worse, but he’s reaching less often. Perhaps it’s all about his contact rate, which is definitely getting worse, but there are plenty of players that succeed with a 75-ish% contact rate, and with his still-strong walk rate, he has his good qualities." They also lobbed in the Cameron comparison, saying Young "only needs to add about 2-3% to his in-zone swing percentage in order to reach Cameron’s level of production."

The Hardball Times projections above remain unimpressed by all our options, with all the potential occupants in a narrow OPS range, from .697 to .714. However, that conceals some hefty career platoon splits for the candidates: 137 points for Byrnes (.720 vs. RHP; .857 vs. LHP); 155 points for Young (.705/.860) and a startling 331 for Parra (.801/.470, albeit in a small sample size) - last year, the NL average split was 46 points for RHB, and 88 for LHB. Parra is going to have to learn how to hit southpaws, or he won't see any. The good news is, he handled them a lot better in the farm system (.828/.753). The bad news? Double-A and lower lefties are not the same as major-league ones.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that Gillespie narrowly beats out Parra for second on the list, which I know will please at least one regular contributor. However, he's going to have to fight his way through traffic to get there, though may be helped by the fact that, over his minor-league career, he has hit both right- and left-handed pitching almost equally well (.872/.850). On the other-hand, he is not a 'natural' center-fielder: he had only one confirmed game there in the minors before arriving in Reno, where he saw time at all three spots (15, 8 and 19 outings respectively).

While we'll be hoping Young will be the everyday starter for the entire season, it would seem wise to be thinking of a contingency plan, in case he just doesn't work out. That could mean a Parra/Byrnes platoon taking over, but I can't say I feel confident at this stage that Byrnes will be any more productive. Might a move still be to come? For there are rumors, as recently as Friday, that AZ are still interested in Randy Winn. I'm throwing him onto the list of free-agents, even though it's now been six years since he was primarily a center-fielder, since it seems utterly implausible he'd be used in RF, for reasons which should not need stating. I'm just not quite sure what the point would be: of the remaining (admittedly scant) pool of candidates in CF, he's the oldest and also had the least-productive 2009.

Maybe the aim is just to stop him murdering our pitching: in his career, Winn has an .879 OPS vs. Arizona, compared to .762 overall, and bats .335 in 36 starts at Chase. Otherwise, it's hard to see both the reason and the funding for this. With Upton, Young, Jackson, Parra and Byrnes, we have a full slate of outfielders, so the reports make me wonder if either Jackson is going to first, or Byrnes is ...just going - either could conceivably open up a spot for a fifh outfielder. The latter move, depending on exactly what happened, could possibly free up the necessary financial leeway to allow for Winn's arrival. Certainly, it'd be better to pay even $2m for 75 OPS+ than $11m for 67 OPS+. Paying league minimum and working with what we have still seems to make better sense to me.

[Update] Please delete all references to Eric Byrnes from the above entry. :-)