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Out in left field

I’m a little late to this party, I know. But maybe the
discussion we’re about to have is a little more relevant
now that the Diamondbacks’ season has actually begun.

I must admit, I feel a little awkward when I think about
the Diamondbacks’ left field situation. It’s weird to watch Gerardo Parra receive his Gold Glove Award during the Opening Day ceremony and then start the game as a dugout spectator. And it’s uncomfortable to hear the enthusiastic cheers of D-backs fans after Parra makes a routine throw into second base or is announced as a defensive replacement for the other left fielder — Jason Kubel. And it’s almost painful to watch Kubel fail to get to a high popup down the left field line — one that you know the Gold Glover on the top step of the dugout would’ve been underneath.

While both Kubel and Parra have been supremely
professional in dealing with the situation, it’s still a
bit uneasy, and I empathize with both. I’ve been the quiet
new kid on the block with something to prove and the hard
worker who gets demoted.

In December, D-backs’ General Manager Kevin Towers signed
Kubel to a two-year, $15 million contract that comes with
a mutual option. Kubel, who has started almost twice as
many games at designated hitter than he has in left field,
brought some significant left-handed power to Chase Field,
hitting 81 home runs in his last four seasons. And signing
him to such a large contract made it clear that the D-
backs organization didn’t see him as just another
supplement to a veteran-laden bench, meaning Parra, who
isn’t eligible for arbitration until next year and won’t
be a free agent until 2016, would be the odd man out.

Kubel’s signing raised the eyebrows of D-backs fans and
sabermetricians alike. After all, the many memories of
Parra’s left field pomp were fresh in the minds of the
fans; his splendid 2011 Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive
Runs Saved numbers were yet before stat heads. It was
nearly impossible to catch a Parra start last season and
not notice the 24-year-old’s hustle, and it was even more
difficult to not appreciate it. Parra led the National
League in outfield assists with 12 and committed only
three errors in the 141 games he played in.

While Parra’s dazzle glimmered most vividly in the
outfield — as he chased down hard hit balls, recklessly
dove, and gunned down baserunner after baserunner — he
did finish the year with a .292 batting average, eight
triples, and 15 stolen bases.

And then, those who have really hoarded ammunition to fire
at the $15 million dollar signing of Kubel rear this: the
career American Leaguer had faced NL West starters not
named Jeremy Guthrie (who was traded from the Orioles to
the Rockies in the offseason) a total of 17 times before
the start of the 2012 season. That’s zero at-bats versus
Clayton Kershaw, zero versus Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and
Madison Bumgarner.

It’s this rationale that Parra backers clutch, rendering
Kubel’s pluses moot or modest, at best.

To divulge, let us consider:

• Justin Upton, Chris Young, Miguel Montero, and Paul
Goldschmidt (depending on how idiosyncratic Kirk Gibson is
feeling on any given day) will all undoubtedly benefit
from Kubel’s presence in the D-backs’ lineup. His
reputation as a home run hitter offers legitimate
protection to whoever is hitting in front of him.

• At the beginning of last season, the D-backs’ fourth
outfielder(s) were Willie Bloomquist, Colin Cowgill, or
Ryan Roberts. No one can successfully argue that Parra
isn’t a significant upgrade.

• The versatility that comes with a high-grade fourth
outfielder like Parra or, on some days, Kubel is
inestimably advantageous. If you’re manager Kirk Gibson
and you’re trying to defend a lead, like you were in the
first two games of the season, how fortunate do you feel
to be able to call on a Gold Glover as a defensive
replacement? Similarly, if you need a run and you’ve got
Kubel on the bench, how confident do you feel in his pinch
hitting?

• A fourth outfielder has yet another advantage. Consider
this: Upton and Young missed a combined total of nine
games last season. Nine. Can D-backs fans realistically
count on such uncanny health for another year? Baseball’s
a superstitious sport and, thus, I don’t want to delve
into this too much, but if something does happen to one of
those two, Kevin Towers will be feeling awfully good about
having Parra free to fill in while maintaining an outfield
of three everyday-worthy players.

• Wow, would you look at this club’s depth? Parra,
Bloomquist, Henry Blanco, Geoff Blum, John McDonald, and
Lyle Overbay on the bench. There’s a lot to like in that
cast.

• Kubel is just 29. He played less than 100 games last
season, due to an injury, and could realistically have
some unforeseen upside.

• Young is one of the best center fielders in baseball,
while Upton is a much-better-than-average right fielder.
If you’re the D-backs, there’s some room for a slower
outfielder like Kubel to take residence in your outfield.

• Kubel, a dead pull hitter, has spent his entire career
trying to hit home runs over the 23-foot right field walls
at the Metro Dome and Target Field. Even with such
daunting heights as an obstacle, 73 of Kubel’s 104 career
home runs have been to right field. At Chase Field, a
standard eight-foot fence is all that blockades his deep
ball.

With such a sundry, paradoxical offering of data, whys and
wherefores, the D-backs fan ought to introspect thusly:
what kind of managerial expertise can I boast to
rightly challenge the front office that pieced together
the most surprising and resilient club in baseball last
season?

But I’m not naïve. I know no such introspection will
occur. Instead, I await the back and forth and the fair
weather fandom — the present loyalty to Parra dying with
every heroic Kubel home run, only to be revived with an
electric outfield assist or, perhaps, a blunder by his
counterpart. Meanwhile, Kevin Towers will be in a hard
plastic seat at Chase Field, surrounded by such fickle
skeptics, admiring the versatility and depth that he
forged.