The Arizona Diamondbacks organization is no doubt looking to build on its success from 2011, and there is much work to be done. There are a number of positions that could use attention this winter, but there is one less obvious position that might be ready for an upgrade.
Gerardo Parra has settled in as the everyday left fielder with the Diamondbacks, but just how good is he? A quick glance at his counting stats shows a corner outfielder that failed to hit double-digit home runs and who didn't exactly drive in or score many runs.
Let's assume that the club will use its limited resources to improve other areas of the club via the trade market and free-agent routes. Using only players found in the Arizona organization, let's explore the best (and worst) options in left field for the 2012 season.
As mentioned above, Parra is the incumbent after making 117 starts in left field in 2011. With three seasons under his belt already, the 24-year-old Venezuela native is a decent regular, but his overall offensive approach is limited.
Parra doesn't provide the power that teams like to have from their corner outfielders. He banged out just eight home runs in 445 at-bats in '11, including an Isolated Power rating of .135 (power hitters typically rate .200-plus). Although he's fleet of foot, Parra stole just 15 bases in 16 tries last season.
Because he doesn't hit for power or provide much explosiveness on the basepaths, Parra's offensive value is tied almost exclusively to his ability to hit for average. He has a career .282 batting average, but his .292 average in 2011 was aided by an above-average BABIP of .340 (Batting Average on Balls in Play—league average is around .300).
The edge that Parra holds over his competitors is his ability to play an above-average left field. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) shows us that he's been an above-average fielder for the past two seasons, and he won a Gold Glove for his efforts in 2011. His strong arm has resulted in 29 assists in three years.
Cowgill, 25, leapt onto the prospect landscape during his first pro season when he slammed 11 home runs in just 79 minor league at-bats. It was probably the worst thing to have happen, though, because he got pigeonholed as a power hitter, despite the small sample, and unreasonable expectations arose.
Cowgill, who stands just 5'9'', really isn't suited to playing every day. He doesn't have the power for a corner outfield spot, and he doesn't have enough range to hold down center field. With slightly-above-average speed, good line-drive pop and excellent makeup, he makes an outstanding fourth outfielder.
A great college player at Oregon State University, Gillespie is almost a mirror image (in terms of scouting report) of Cowgill. The former third-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers is bigger (6'1", 205 lbs), but he lacks the power and speed to be a regular outfielder. Gillespie might have a touch more gap power than Cowgill, but he doesn't offer the same defensive promise or baserunning acumen. He's also already 27 years old.
Pollock is a bit of a forgotten man. He was selected 17th overall by the Diamondbacks during the 2009 amateur draft after a solid career at Notre Dame. He had a respectable pro debut in Low-A ball but then missed all of the 2010 season after fracturing his elbow in spring training. He bounced back with a very nice year at Double-A in 2011. He hit .309, stole 36 bases and scored 103 runs.
Pollock, though, doesn't possess much power and would likely top out in the 10 to 15 home run range during a full season. His speed is also just a tick above average; he nabbed his 30-plus bases as much on guile as pure foot speed. Like the two players above him, the former top prospect is more of a fourth outfielder or platoon player.
One of the more underrated players in the system, Eaton was a 19th-round draft pick out of Miami University (Ohio) in 2010. He's flown through the system, having reached Double-A in '11 in just his first full season in pro ball. In one-and-a-half seasons, Eaton has stolen 54 bases and has yet to hit below .302.
One of the most impressive things about the prospect is that he understands his limitations. At 5'9", 160 lbs he is not built for power, and he doesn't try to muscle up and hit home runs. He's fine with playing "small ball" and does whatever it takes to get on base (72 walks in 121 games in '11).
Eaton is the kind of grinder that could hustle his way to a few average to slightly-above-average seasons at the MLB level. With that said, his overall profile looks more like a long-term fourth outfielder.
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After looking at the other in-house options for left field, Parra remains the best option for the short term. The depth in the system is just not that great when it comes to outfielders. Before long, though, Parra will likely price himself out of Arizona's modest budget (25th-smallest out of 30 teams in '11). Arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, he has three years remaining until free agency. It might be wise for the club to begin exploring exterior options.
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