COMMENTARY | It became clear spring training wasn't going to plan when Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson began talking about putting his shortstop in left field.
"It's not the way we planned it or would have planned it, but that's the way it is," Gibson said March 24. "As we get close to opening day, we'll just have to see what we've got and go from there."
Arizona's outfielder problem was supposed to be that the team had too many, not too few. At one point this winter, the Diamondbacks were juggling six starters. And even the trades of Justin Upton and Chris Young still left Cody Ross, Jason Kubel, Gerardo Parra and Adam Eaton fighting for three jobs. Farmhand A.J. Pollack, still trying to bust into the majors, certainly seemed out of luck.
But faster than spit on an Arizona highway, the outfield glut dried up. On March 3, Ross strained a calf muscle. On March 22, Eaton went down with a torn ligament in his elbow. And, on March 24, Gibson stood up before reporters and said SS Willie Bloomquist and even 1B Paul Goldschmidt had started shagging fly balls, just in case.
"It's not what I wanted to be talking about, but I'm aware things happen in spring training and you have to evaluate as you go," Gibson said.
Slump, Rookie & a Gold Glove
An opening-day outfield of Kubel in left, Pollack in center and Parra in right wouldn't exactly be new for the Dbacks. The same three roamed Chase Field last year during injuries to both Young and Upton. But the offensive output wasn't great then and could be even worse now.
Kubel, who finished 2012 in a terrible slump, is having a miserable spring. His 0-for-3 performance in the March 24 game against the Seattle Mariners dropped his spring average to .154.
"I usually start off rough, but pick it up toward the end, " Kubel said of past springs. "This year, the first three or four games were good, then all these things started happening health-wise. The leg got bad and I got into some bad habits. I knew a couple weeks back that it just wasn't feeling good. The swing and everything were just off."
Despite the .154, Kubel isn't worried. This spring is just only a little worse than in the years he spent with the Minnesota Twins, and those seasons turned out just fine.
"I think I'm working out of it, and I'm making progress with how I feel as we get close to the start of the season," Kubel said.
It was Kubel who displaced Parra as a full-time outfielder last year. But, in 2013, the Venezuelan with the cannon for an arm looks poised to compete for his second Gold Glove.
"Parra is a really good corner guy. He's just starting to try and understand how he can get better," said Gibson, visibly impressed after a laser-shot assist from right the day before. "He is really effective. His arm plays up. He catches anywhere, comes in great anywhere, and he really likes playing right field."
Defense has always been a given with Parra. The only question was whether he could hit enough. This spring he has, batting .359 since returning from the World Baseball Classic.
"I think he can be a star," said first-base coach Steve Sax. "I'm seeing him hit the other way well. I see him being pretty selective at the plate, and I know he has some power. It's going to be interesting to see what he can do playing more full-time."
"I'm just happy when I see my name in the lineup," Parra said, denying he was frustrated by his demotion to part-time player last year after winning the Gold Glove. "I just try to prepare myself to be ready for anything."
While Parra played center field during winter ball and the WBC, it's Pollack who will play up the middle when he and the Gold Glover are in the lineup together. But despite his big break this year, Pollack has remained a mystery.
The 25-year-old hit just .247 in 31 games with the Dbacks last year and is hitting just .240 this spring. Yet he insists he's not doing anything differently to prepare than he did in past years when he failed to make the team.
"I think it gets all overblown about technique and breaking it down like a science. It's not. It's competition," Pollack said. "It's just going out there and having the right mindset and playing."
Pollack may have hit .311 in hitter-friendly Triple-A Reno in 111 games, but unless he can approach that in the big leagues, he'll be back on a bus to Nevada once Eaton and Ross return.
The Injured Reserve
Eaton's loss for 6-8 weeks due to small tear in his ulnar collateral ligament -- which the team is calling a "UCL strain" -- hurts the most for the Diamondbacks. The league's top-rated impact prospect, "Spanky" was a lock for center field and expected to be the leadoff spark-plug the team desperately needs.
Before his injury was announced March 20, Eaton said he was just "having fun and feeling out what the coaches want me to do and how they want me to get stuff done." He isn't expected to need surgery, but Spanky won't be doing much for weeks.
Ross, however, retains a faint hope of making the opening-day lineup. Sitting in the clubhouse March 24, Ross said he feels about 70-percent ready, although he's still running the treadmill with 40 percent of his weight lifted off the sore leg.
"Today starts Week 3 post-injury," Ross noted. "The doctors told me three weeks with no running, and I'm running. So I'm ahead of schedule as far as the doctors are concerned."
Ross has been both hitting and throwing, getting about 10 at-bats a day in back-field games. He expects to run under full weight by midweek and, if the leg isn't sore, Ross said he could jump from 70 percent to 100 percent overnight and make the opening-day lineup.
"It's just a matter of going out and testing it and seeing how it feels on flat ground," Ross said.
"Opening day is super important and the goal is to be ready," he said. "But, at the end of the day, it's better if you take the extra time and are healthy down the stretch, as opposed to playing opening day and blowing it out so that the next thing you know it's the All-Star break and you're still trying to get back."
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James is a 25-year journalist who has worked in Washington, New York, Bangkok and Tokyo covering politics, business, travel and sports. With so many homes, he's adopted several teams, most recently the Diamondbacks upon moving to Phoenix in 2012.
Follow James on Twitter at @NotThatBobJames.
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