Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson won the Holy Crap That Team Did Better Than We Thought award in 2011. You probably didn't realize it because the press releases all referred to the award by its former name, "Manager of the Year." Gibson, with his grit and glass-chewing ways, was one part mascot, one part drill sergeant. It was hard to imagine the Diamondbacks being as successful without him.
But he was never really tested. It's not like the Diamondbacks sailed into the playoffs without any adversity, but they won because their good players were good. The lineup controversies were kept to a minimum. The starting rotation wasn't a puzzle. The bullpen wasn't a stream of liquid refuse like it was in the prior season. Gibson got to be inspirational instead of confrontational. The Diamondbacks responded.
It's a new season, and now we might get a little more perspective on what Kirk Gibson is all about. A little thing is brewing. It's not a big thing yet. Might not even be a small thing. But we're pretty comfortable in the taxonomy of things. This looks like one. The last four starting right fielders for the Diamondbacks:
6/2 - Gerardo Parra
6/3 - Justin Upton
6/4 - Justin Upton
6/5 - Gerardo Parra
Is Upton injured? Nope. After his first game on the bench, he said:
"It's a day off … nothing more to it," he said. "I just had to make sure. Obviously, I want to be in the lineup every day, but if (Gibson) thinks I need a day off, that's fine."
Not a thing. Then the second game on the bench.
Upton not happy about sitting. Called today unproductive. But says he understands that Parra deserves to play right now.— Nick Piecoro (@nickpiecoro) June 6, 2012
Still not a thing. But it is the Diamondbacks' best player sitting for two out of the last four games. He hasn't been the Diamondbacks' best player this year, of course:
But I have absolutely zero qualms about referring to him as the Diamondbacks' best player. He's had a rough two months. He is still better at baseball than anyone else on the Diamondbacks. And over the last four months of the season, he has the potential to do more good for the team than anyone within 100 miles of Phoenix.
So here's where we see what Gibson's doing. Is he giving Upton a break, or is he sending a message? Almost certainly the former. At least, based on what I can gather from the outside. I don't know if Upton scowls at Gibson every time they make eye contact, or if Gibson spits and makes the sign of the cross every time Upton speaks up in clubhouse meetings. But it seems like it isn't a thing yet. Just a manager trying to figure out the best way to fix a player going through some struggles.
But this is the biggest test for Gibson so far. He's probably not going to win the Holy Crap That Team Did Better Than We Thought award again, but he can make us retroactively laugh at the award if he decides that sitting a healthy Upton more than once every couple of weeks is somehow in the best interests of the 2012 Diamondbacks. Or the 2013 Diamondbacks. Or the 2014 Diamondbacks.
It seems hard to remember, but this isn't a new thing for a burgeoning superstar in the NL West. From fewer than two years ago:
It would have been interesting to see how the fiery Lasorda handled the immensely talented Kemp. Maybe he gets the most out of him; maybe he crushes him.
Torre has been patient to the extreme, but benching him two consecutive days is his subtle signal of unhappiness. As is his not promising Kemp will be back in the lineup Tuesday.
That was a story about Matt Kemp sitting for Reed Johnson. Typing that sentence makes my nose run for some reason. So ludicrous. But it was a thing once upon a time. And, heck, maybe it helped Kemp develop into the player he is now. The process looked silly, but it's hard to argue with the results.
It's been a disappointing season so far for the team that was widely predicted to win the National League West. The Diamondbacks are nine games back of the Dodgers, but they're still just 5½ games out of a playoff spot. That's the kind of deficit that can be made up in a frantic final month, much less the last four months. But if they do it, they'll almost certainly need Upton to help. As long as Gibson remembers that with whatever strategy he takes, he should be fine.