As a Diamondbacks outsider -- as a Twins fan, more specifically, one who had watched Jason Kubel on a regular basis for most of six years -- I joined the rest of the baseball world in feeling a bit puzzled by the D-backs' signing of Kubel last offseason to a two-year, $15 million deal. It's not that the money is outrageous, but Kubel's natural position is designated hitter, his only other position is left fielder, and last year, Arizona had a guy who played that position really, really well. It was an odd fit.
It took about a year, but it appears that the Diamondbacks' front office is starting to look at it the same way. Per Nick Piecoro a few days ago, there are signs that they'll be looking to part with either Kubel or Gerardo Parra this winter:
"They're two different kinds of players," General Manager Kevin Towers said Thursday. "One is more of a defender. The other one is more of a power guy. In a perfect world, they both fit, but I think it just depends on the rest of our club."
The implication: this isn't a perfect world, and they don't both fit. Parra has (the same article notes) admitted that he's been unhappy with his playing time this year. Odds are that by Spring Training, Justin Upton will be firmly entrenched in right field, Adam Eaton in center...and either Kubel or Parra in left. Not both.
But which should stay, and which should go?
I suspect that most fans would hold on to Kubel. He hit 30 home runs and carried the Arizona offense for much of the season, at one point claiming the NL lead in RBI. People love offense, people understand offense.
Make no mistake, though: Parra is almost certainly the better player. He'll only provide about average offense, which isn't what you generally want in a corner outfielder, but he's also, as Piecoro notes "is a game-changing defender," with "tremendous range" and "perhaps the best outfield arm in baseball." He's also at least an average runner, while Kubel (as you no doubt learned) is incredibly slow thanks to an old leg injury. Add it all up, and all three wins above replacement systems agreed that Parra has been the better player: in 2011 and 2012, averaging the three systems, Parra earned 3.1 wins per 660 plate appearances (my own approximation of a full season), Kubel 0.9. This season alone, the D-backs gave Kubel 141 more plate appearances than Parra, and Parra still beat Kubel under each system. (Sure, part of that is that he played a lot of center field, which gets more credit...but that's because the ability to play center is, in fact, more valuable.)
Then, of course, there's the fact that Parra is five years younger. Parra won't be a free agent for three more seasons, and will cost the team comparatively little while, presumably, staying the same or getting a bit better; Kubel will make $7.5 million in 2013 and another $7.5 million (if his option is picked up) in 2014, while, potentially, getting a bit worse.
As recently as three or four years ago, the analysis would end here: keep Parra, trade Kubel to some goofball GM that loves home runs and RBI. Now, though, there are very few goofball GMs left. Parra is exactly the kind of player most of baseball now covets -- cost-controlled and defense-minded. You're not getting any kind of bargain if you pick up Kubel, assuming the Diamondbacks don't retain some of the contract; $7.5 million a year is, at most, roughly the maximum a GM would be willing to pay over the next two years. A GM who acquires Parra, though, is getting at least an equally solid player, and at a much, much better value.
That's not to say that Kubel doesn't have value (especially to an AL team in need of a DH against righties: Houston, perhaps?), or that Parra would bring back some huge return -- he's still just a slightly above average player. But he certainly figures to bring more of a return than Kubel.
What needs to be weighed, of course, is Parra's value as a trade chip vs. Parra's value as the Diamondbacks' everyday left fielder. They'll be better as a team over the next three seasons if they keep Parra than if they keep Kubel, and as a .500 team with good, MLB-ready prospects in a relatively weak division, that's worth a lot. The money they saved from dealing Kubel could also be used to improve the team even further in the short term, at positions where they do have a need.
All things considered, I would still lean toward trading Kubel and keeping Parra. Take a relatively weak return, confident that the Diamondbacks already have a solid core of young players who can win (and that Parra is part of that), and use the extra $7 million or so to help finance a playoff run. It's a new world, and it's a lot closer than it used to be, but I'll take the guy who is going to help me more now, for less money, over the chance at a better group of prospects down the road.