Free Agent Wish List Part 2: Center Field

Free Agent Wish List Part 2: Center Field

Baseball purests will tell you that to have a winning team you have to be strong up the middle. Catching, pitching, shortstop, second base and center field. A quick look at the 2005 Diamondbacks reveals that baseball purests would not look at the Diamondbacks as a winning team, and they'd be right. While there were problems seemingly everywhere, there was a big gaping hole in the middle of the outfield all year long. Part two of FutureBacks Free Agent Wish List looks to fill the void.

What do Luis Terrero, Shawn Green, Jose Cruz Jr. and Quentin McCracken have in common?

They couldn't get the job done.

Center field, especially as expansive a center field as the one in Chase Ballpark, is a position that demands results, and not just one sided results.  A catcher can be a defensive specialist with a T-Ball bat (see the Red Sox Doug Mirabelli), a first baseman can be an offensive powerhouse with only a vague recollection of how to catch the ball (see Jason Giambi).  A center fielder, in this age of baseball, must be a complete player.  Nobody is mistaking Tori Hunter for Babe Ruth, but he'll hit .260 with 25 jacks.  Nobody is mistaking Juan Pierre for Willie Mays, but he'll hit .290 and steal 50 bases. 

The best (Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds) can do it all.  They'll show up on Web Gems twice a week and hit 40 jacks at the same time.  Those players are few and far between.  Rarely though has a team seen a group of center fielders fair as poorly as the D'Backs middle outfielders did in '05.  At the start of the season I'll admit, I was one of the believers.  I believe in these very pages I wrote that Jose Cruz Jr. was the best free agent signing the Diamondbacks had made in a very busy offseason.

You can't win 'em all.

Cruz hit just .213 during his stint as the everyday center fielder for the D'Backs, and he couldn't even get his job title right.  It was nearly 100 games into the season before the Diamondbacks outright released the injury prone outfielder, but the problem was that they never bothered to find a replacement.  The job became Luis Terrero's by default, but Terrero, who was the top Diamondbacks prospect three years ago, has never realized his massive potential, instead favoring showy plays over steady defense, and huge swings over actual contact.  He appeared in more than 60 games and racked up less than 175 at bats, striking out nearly 25% of the time.  Quentin McCracken did everything you could expect out of a journeyman career 5th outfielder, and while his average and stolen bases ranked higher than either Terrero or Cruz, that isn't exactly a high bar to reach.

Late in the year, in a desperate attempt to find some offense, Bob Melvin asked Shawn Green to move over from right field, where he's played virtually his entire career, to center.  It wasn't the ideal move, and Melvin admitted as much, but with an offense struggling, he had to find a way to get Green, Chad Tracy, and Tony Clark in the lineup at the same time.  The offense got better, but again, the bar wasn't exactly at World Record heights to begin with.

The defense on the other hand got exponentially worse.

It's not like Cruz Jr. was in contention for a Gold Glove during his stint in center.  He lacked the pure speed of a true center fielder and while he took good lines and got better than average jumps on the ball, his arm has always been his best defensive tool, and he got to use that far too often after a ball looped into the gap rolled all the way to the wall.  Terrero on the other hand has astonishing speed, but seemed at times to view playing defense as some sort of punishment, rarely taking good lines and too often making plays that should have been routine seem downright miraculous. 

McCracken tried hard, but there's a reason he's been a 'bench contributor' his entire career.  It's not that 'Q' is bad...he's just not good enough.

In fact, to be honest, one can't even place all the blame on Green.  While he lacks speed, he got to quite literally everything he could possibly get to.  But when the corners are manned by Luis Gonzalez, who has never ever been confused with a good defensive left fielder, and Chad Tracy, who started playing right field roughly 15 minutes before he made his first start in right field, your center fielder better be able to go get 'em.

Shawn Green could not go get 'em.

While Troy Glaus and Conor Jackson trade rumors continue to persist, as it stands now the outfield would remain Gonzo, Green and Tracy, and that should keep every Diamondbacks pitcher up late, drinking bourbon.  During the last 40 games of the season, when Green was officially entrenched in center, there seemed to be an average of four balls a week that even average Major League center fielders would have gotten to, that in D'Back Land fell, and often fell for extra bases.  Runs were scored, officially they were earned, but every hitter in the bigs would admit, the word 'earned' didn't often enter the vocabulary when playing the Diamondbacks.

So who is out there?

Who is on the free agent market?  Who is there that the Diamondbacks could turn to, that could stabilize the outfield defensively, fill a spot (preferably the lead off spot) in the order and truly 'contribute.'

Give me a minute...I'm sure there's somebody.

A look at the free agent market doesn't bring too many smiles to the faces of D'Back fans.  Johnny Damon is perhaps the top free agent prospect on the market, which is precisely why we'll end the discussion there.  Damon has played at least 140 games in all but one of his 11 Major League seasons, has been a member of the high spending Red Sox for the last four, and is currently trying to decide between returning to the Sox, who will pay him very well, or jumping ship for the Yankees, who will pay him extraordinarily well.  Damon will likely earn at least $10 million a year, and will do so for at least the next five years.  After last season's wild spending spree, and with other areas of concern, the Diamondbacks will not pony up that kind of money, and though I'm in the minority, I think that's the best thing.

Looking down the list the next best thing to Damon would be Preston Wilson.  Though Wilson's put up monster numbers the last few years, they've been at Coors Field, a place where some of the more accomplished Keg League softball players could put up monster numbers, and though he played in 139 games last season, he has never fully recovered from the knee problems he suffered in 2004.  He will be asking about half of what Damon will command, both in dollars and length of contract, but that still puts him in the $5 million per for two to three years range.  That's a lot of coin for a guy who might not be able to go a third of the time, and will strike out 200 times a year whether he's healthy or not.

Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, the options get even slimmer when you discount those two.  Jacques Jones has been playing right field in Minnesota for the past seven years, but certainly has the range to patrol center.  The problem with Jones is health, as a season ending knee injury has made him a question mark.  He might be a steal because of the injury, or he might be another long term contract with long term injury problems.  Either way, his $5-7 million a year price tag would run mean the D'Backs were paying their outfield nearly $30 million dollars next year.  For a team that would like to keep the payroll down to a cool $80 mil, and could potentially have another $20 million locked up in Glaus, Ortiz and Vazquez alone, that's not a lot of wiggle room.

The Diamondbacks would love to look to their minors, and Jarred Ball has made incredible strides this fall in the Arizona Fall League, but most feel he needs at least one more year in the minors to prove himself.  The Diamondbacks #2 prospect, Carlos Quentin, has, like Green, been a right fielder his entire pro career, but played center field the last two months of the Triple-A season last year in Tucson.  Though scouts and coaches were astonished by how well he played, it wasn't because he was incredible, it was because he was so much better than they thought he'd be.

It seems likely the Diamondbacks will be looking for a stopgap, and to that end they've got a variety of choices.  One of the more intriguing names would be that of former Yankee Bernie Williams.  Though most assume Williams will retire when the Yanks don't resign him, maybe for a one or two million he might be willing to come back.  Would it be the best move?  Of course not, but the opportunity to plunder a Yankee great, after the Yanks snatched Randy Johnson from us last season, might be too great to ignore. 

A better option might be he of the ever changing jersey, Kenny Lofton.  Though Lofton will turn 87 this offseason (actually 40, but it's the same thing unless you're sharing the cream and the clear with Barry), and has played for 10 different teams during his 15 year career, he's been on a lot of winning organizations, still has the speed to play center field, and is perhaps the most underrated lead off man in the history of baseball.  He's hard nosed and vocal, two attributes the Diamondbacks have been sorely lacking, and he's clutch to the point of insanity, seemingly always coming up not with the hit that wins the game, but with the hit that starts the rally that wins the game.  He'd come awfully cheap, especially if he was given the opportunity to be the undisputed starting center fielder, and maybe his work ethic and love for the game could finally be the thing that teaches Terrero...well...you know, work ethic and love for the game.

It figures that perhaps the position where the Diamondbacks need the most help would be the position where the available free agent talent was the weakest, but a move needs to be made.  If Ball is ready the job is his for the taking, but that's a lot of responsibility to put on a rookie (batting lead off and playing center field), especially one who is showing he might be ready for the first time in a fall league, even one as good as the AFL.  Give Lofton a shot, he'll come cheap, and the worst thing that happens is come June, we're back to Shawn Green lumbering around in the middle, or a rookie getting rushed.

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