The idea of using Ketel Marte in center field is something which the Diamondbacks have contemplated previously. When A.J. Pollock was lost to injury in May, the infielder reportedly told manager Torey Lovullo, “If we need a center fielder, I’ll be the best center fielder on the team. I’ll do that for you right now.” With Pollock now apparently gone from Arizona, seeking a five-year, $80 million contract in free-agency, and no internal replacement around with a bat of major-league caliber, the idea has been floated again this winter. That has especially been the case since the team re-signed Eduardo Escobar to a three-year extension, potentially causing a log-jam on the infield.
GM Mike Hazen said, “When the Escobar thing went down, we just kind of felt like we wanted to at least talk about it a little bit up front and then spend more time on it as we go through the offseason.” The trade of Paul Goldschmidt may have eased the need to move an infielder somewhat. The team now needs to figure out who’s on first: the options include moving regular third-baseman Jake Lamb there (potentially in some combination with Christian Walker). This would open up third for Escobar, and allow Marte and Nick Ahmed to occupy the middle-infield spots. But the team would still need to find someone to play center field, and neither the minor leagues nor the free-agent market appear to have much to offer in that department.
In 2018, Rey Fuentes was the Reno Aces’ main center-fielder, with Evan Marzilli and Socrates Brito also playing 20+ games there. Brito had comfortably the best offensive production with a .923 OPS, a couple of hundred points better than Fuentes (.739) or Marzilli (.726). But Socrates has struggled to produce at the major-league level: over 82 major-league games, he has only a .580 OPS. Though in his defense, most of those were back in 2015-16. when he was 22 or 23, Those AAA numbers this year could be good enough to hold down the fort in center. Even if we apply the merciless Reno correction. we’re still around .700, not much worse than the .723 the Diamondbacks got from center-field overall in 2018.
Another possibility is Marte is a red-herring, designed to make others believe the team has more options than it has. Whether you’re in the free-agent market, or in trade discussions with other teams, it’s never good to be publicly in the position where you “have” to make a deal. That’s why the team dealt for Escobar before word broke that Lamb was done for the year. So they may still be looking externally, even if the pickings are slim in free-agency, after the signing of Andrew McCutchen by the Phillies. The remaining names (per ESPN) are mostly a bunch of thirty-somethings: as well as Pollock, Melky Cabrera, Austin Jackson, former D-back Jon Jay, Adam Jones, Danny Santana and Chris Young.
If Marte is moved, the question would be whether his defense is up to the task. We have another recent example of an Arizona infielder moving to the outfield we can look at, in the shape of Chris Owings. After A.J. Pollock went down just before the start of the 2016 season, Owings became our Opening Day starter in center. He ended up making 116 starts as an outfielder, almost evenly divided between center and right. The good news is, it didn’t appear to affect his bat. CO’s OPS as an outfielder was .667, almost exactly the same as his overall figure as a starter (.676). But can the same be said about his defense? This turns out to be a considerably harder question to answer.
Basically, it comes down to what metric you believe. Total Zone’s Fielding Runs hates Owings’s defense in both right and center, rating him at 25 and 23 runs below average per year respectively, which would have made him easily the worst full-time outfielder in the majors this season. However, BIS’s Defensive Runs Saved disagrees severely, scoring Owings at +16 and +14. UZR is less enthusiastic, but still somewhat positive: +2.0 and +7.4. Part of the problem is that we’re still in the realm of small sample size, with Owings having barely five hundred innings at either position. It’s still an interesting and curious difference, making it hard to draw any definitive conclusions about how Marte might perform.
His speed would be an asset: Statcast shows him as only slightly slower than Jarrod Dyson, at 28.7 feet per second, compared to 29.0, and quicker than Pollock (28.2) pr Owings (28.3). Hazen said, “We think he’s probably the best athlete on the team. He’s told us that he’s very confident that he can do it. I think those are two good starting points.” But the positional flexibility of our infielders does mean the team has room to maneuver, and take the best value, rather than being locked in on only getting a center-fielder. For example, we could move Marte to center, use Escobar and Lamb at second and third, and get a left-handed first-baseman instead, to platoon with Walker.
It’s an issue which the team will need to address at some point, in some way, but the market this winter has been slow to develop, with the vast majority of players still available. There’s no rush, although it’s certainly something on which to keep an eye as we head into the new year, and the countdown to spring training begins in earnest.
Who should play CF for the D-backs this year?
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