The 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks finished 12th in the National League in runs scored. Their position player with the most power, Tony Clark, has left for the rival San Diego Padres. Two of their most productive hitters, Orlando Hudson and Chad Tracy, each underwent offseason surgeries that could lead to reduced output this year.
There's no doubt that this year's D-Backs can use a boost in their lineup. Is Micah Owings, the pitcher who drove in a run every four at bats last year, the man to provide that boost?
"Micah's just a phenomenal talent as far as swinging the bat," praised manager Bob Melvin. "You're not going to see too many guys have the ability that he does."
Owings' phenomenal numbers last year came via a miniscule sample size of 60 at bats, but there is no denying his prowess at the plate. He also batted .377 with 14 RBI in 61 minor league at bats after batting .355 and compiling an OPS of 1.189 in 217 at bats as Tulane's cleanup hitter in 2005.
"His numbers aren't just because they're going to lay it in there for a pitcher," Melvin maintained. "They throw him breaking balls right away. They pitch to him right like a hitter right away. And he responds. He gives us an added dynamic when he's in the lineup to having nine hitters in the lineup."
The question isn't whether Owings can hit, it's whether he should hit when he's not making a start on the mound. Owings went one-for four with two walks as a pinch hitter in the regular season and struck out in his only pinch hitting opportunity in the postseason. Melvin has already indicated that he would use Owings in that role more often this upcoming season. But should Owings perhaps play in the field on the days he isn't taking the mound?
"He would play a position if you let him," Melvin said. "I think in the National League, we get quite a benefit of having an extra guy that I can use who is an actual bat to where you really have a five-man bench; it extends to a six-man bench as far as pinch-hitting."
That value would increase if Owings were allowed to spell starting first baseman Conor Jackson from time to time. On the other hand, Jackson is one of the team's best hitters, and replacing him with Owings isn't likely to provide much of an upgrade. Jackson has never played more than 140 games in a season, but his second half numbers dwarf his first half statistics, indicating that he's not wearing down.
"If I were to ask him to get a first base glove, he would probably run to his locker and pull one out," quipped Melvin in the postseason, knowing that Owings wants to get as many at bats as he can.
Owings played some outfield in college as well as first base. While his value there would be greater, so would the risk of Owings hurting himself in the field.
"You always run the risk of using a starting pitcher [in the field] and potentially having an injury," Melvin admitted, "[But] If I had to, I'd probably even pinch run him. He's that good of an athlete."
Owings loves hitting, and sounded a little frustrated when he wasn't allowed to swing the bat much in the minors. While he'd love to get 200 at bats this year, his daily preparation has always focused on pitching.
"Main thing is I'm here to pitch," reminded Owings. "I take care of that stuff first. If there's a little time, if my body still feels good, then I might get a few extra swings. For the most part, I take BP with the pitchers and take a few extra swings here and there."
If Owings were asked to take the field periodically, he would obviously increase his time in the batting cage. There would be concern about Owings wearing down towards the end of the season, although he pitched his best in August and September last year and has been a workhorse his entire baseball life.
Prediction: Melvin and Owings both sound excited about the idea of getting the second-year pitcher as many at bats as possible without jeopardizing his pitching performance. Expect him to get over 100 at bats this season between extensive pinch hit appearances and no more than a dozen starts at first base. Don't expect him to play the outfield this year, and anticipate increased caution if other members of the Diamondbacks' rotation fall prey to injuries, as the club would not risk Owings under those circumstances.
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