The signing of Russell Branyan came as a surprise to most Diamondbacks fans, muddying further the waters at first-base in 2011 for the team. While fandbacks has already gone over the candidates at first, the multiple positions which some of them play make things even more complex. Brandon Allen is regarded by some as the best option at both 1B and in left-field - a piece on Fangraphs.com recently said, "He’s the most logical candidate to start at not one, but two different positions in the Diamondbacks lineup." But will he even make the Opening Day roster?
After the jump, we examine the looming crunch and how things may pan out.Assuming the team goes with the standard pitchers - five-man rotation and seven relievers - that leaves 13 spots for position players. Our starters at each position except for first appear to be locks: Miguel Montero, Kelly Johnson, Stephen Drew, Melvin Mora, Xavier Nady, Chris Young and Justin Upton. Almost certainly guaranteed places would be Gerardo Parra [the only credible back-up for CF], plus the veteran presence of our AARB's, Henry Blanco, Willie Bloomquist and Geoff Blum. That leaves just two spots, for a first-baseman and a bench player. Even discounting Russell Branyan entirely, three of our young guns are set up for a Gunfight at the SRF@TS Corral.
It's interesting to note the similarities between, Juan Miranda, Tony Abreu and Brandon Allen - all young(ish) players who have not made the impact at the major-league level for which one might have hoped. Here are their ML numbers to date:
|Tony Abreu (26)
|Brandon Allen (24)
|Juan Miranda (27)
Allen obviously has the advantage of age on his side, having just turned 24 this month, though it would probably be cold comfort to suggest that it's not totally the end of the world if he doesn't make the cut this year. While we are talking a small sample size, Arizona would have wanted more than five home-runs in 172 career PAs for them - especially given he has pounded 37 during 145 games for Reno since coming from the White Sox in July 2009. Abreu is about 15 months older: though playing the middle-infield is a position where offense is less important, a 65 OPS+ is very anemic, especially with five times as many strikeouts as walks.
He and Allen are perhaps seen as products of the previous regime, while Miranda played for GM Kevin Towers in New York, and was brought to Arizona by him. As for Juan, not many active players had less than 100 at-bats in the majors by the end of their age 27 season - here's the list, and most seem to be catchers, with Miranda the only one primarily a first-baseman [I note Ryan Roberts is also on that list]. It wouldn't be unprecedented for someone to arrive late and become very productive - the poster-child for such is Baltimore outfielder Luke Scott, who debuted in 2005, his age 27 year, and has a 126 OPS+ over six hundred games since. It would, however, be rare.
At the moment, it appears to be Miranda who will make the team as a first-base starter - he is out of options, so would need to be found a roster spot or risk being lost to another team. Indications are that the first-base spot is Juan's to lose at the moment, even if Branyan would, by almost every indicator, likely be more productive. However, the word from Nick Piecoro is that Russell the Muscle's signing "is mostly a low-cost, no-risk insurance policy: In the event that Juan Miranda and Brandon Allen each tank in spring training, they could turn to the proven Branyan to carry the load at first base."
That's because Nick goes on to say that, "What the Diamondbacks want to have happen is for Miranda or Allen to win the job outright. They fit better in the organization’s long-term plans." Allen's versatility gives him an edge on making the roster, providing he puts up a decent showing in spring. Brandon has shown himself capable of holding his own in right-field, so during the regular season, he can get playing-time by backing up both Miranda and Xavier Nady. In that situation, it would probably end up being more of the latter, as he platoons better there, than with the similarly-handed Miranda.
But how genuine will 2011 spring-training competition be for the Diamondbacks? Are we talking Marine boot-camp or American Idol competition? There is always the inevitable "Get Out of Jail Free" card for management, who can, with some justification, say that spring-training statistics are meaningless and have no correlation to production in the regular season. Use that, and you can ignore all the numbers and announce that the guy you picked makes the roster, regardless of his production. However, there would be a danger to doing that, which Steve Gilbert expressed very eloquently on his blog, though he was talking more about the pitching.
The theme of the D-backs spring seems to be competition with the theory being that no longer will jobs just be handed out to players, they will have to be earned. It's a great idea that will foster a competitive atmosphere and force everyone to work harder than they have in the past and help them to reach another level, but it isn't without some risk. And if they decided to keep [Zach] Duke over someone who clearly outpitched him, what kind of message does it send to the clubhouse after you've spent weeks preaching that everyone has a chance to make the team? What does that do to the trust factor?
Much the same applies with the young players discussed above. What if, say, Abreu comes to camp and blows away "established" backup middle-infielders, Bloomquist and Blum? There's no doubt Kirk wants that competitive attitude, saying, "We want to create competition to make us better. We know we have to do a better job of competing when we are playing throughout the long season, so why not compete all the time?... If you can't compete at some of the simpler things, you have no shot in the ninth inning when there is a lot of pressure." The aim is to forge a team who "love pressure situations," says Gibson. "That’s when we do best."
At the moment, we've no evidence to suggest anyone is being other than 110% genuine about this. But the odds of all the spring-training performances falling in exactly the anticipated order are slim: there's always someone whose numbers come out of nowhere to make an impact e.g. Jordan Norberto last season. Would Gibson and Towers be prepared to sacrifice veteran presence if a young player "out-competes" a vet? We'll find out in the coming month.