The typical progression:
- Prospect gets called up
- Prospect gets playing time
- Prospect does well
- Prospect turns into unquestioned starter
There are variations on the theme, of course. Prospect gets called up, prospect hits miserably for six years, prospect eventually plays for the Long Island Ducks. Prospect gets called up, prospect forever oscillates between promising and frustrating, prospect never locks down a starting job. But for now, we'll focus on that progression up there. It's the way things are supposed to happen, at least, possibly with a little learning curve between the second and third points.
In 2009, the Diamondbacks called up one of their top prospects. The 22-year-old did well enough to get some down-ballot Rookie of the Year votes, showing great range and good speed, but questionable plate discipline. In 2010, he regressed a bit, though he still showed promise.
In 2011, he broke out. He hit .292/.357/.427, stole 15 bases, hit 36 extra-base hits, and won a Gold Glove. He was 24. Naturally, the Diamondbacks did what most teams would in that situation: They made sure to give a two-year contract to an older, slower replacement left fielder and reduce Gerardo Parra's role the following year.
It seemed crazy at the time, but there was a time when it seemed crazy like a fox. Halfway through last season, Parra's replacement Jason Kubel hit three homers in one game, bringing his season total to 20. His line was .294/.368/.566. Kubel is somewhere between Pat Burrell and Greg Luzinski on the defensive spectrum, but the dingers made up for any defensive shortcomings.
Thanks to a horrific end-of-season slump, though, Kubel finished the season at just a win over replacement. He had 100 points of slugging on Parra, but the baserunning and defense dragged him way down. Parra was the better player last season, and he was much likelier to be the better player this season. Naturally, the Diamondbacks did what most teams would in that situation: They acquired 163 outfielders and traded 162 outfielders, and when the offseason music stopped, Kubel still had a job and Parra did not. He was going to be a super-sub again, which is great for teams with three outfielders better than the super-sub. Which doesn't describe the Diamondbacks.
In 2013, the outfield was supposed to be Kubel in left, Adam Eaton in center, and Cody Ross in right, with Parra filling in for defense or against tough right-handers as needed. I'm a big Adam Eaton fan, but there was an argument to be made that Parra was the best outfielder on the Diamondbacks' roster before the season started. He was, yet again, the fourth outfielder.
Eaton started the season on the disabled list, as did Ross. Kubel took a turn on the DL. And there Parra is, like Charlie Brown getting a valentine with someone else's name crossed off, not caring a lick that he's been passed over:
I'm not sure how many other teams would have installed Parra permanently after his outstanding 2011. Twenty-five? Twenty-nine? Maybe a couple of them, if they were so infatuated with Kubel, would have traded Parra to the highest bidder. Instead, he's been the world's most overqualified backup in a glass case, and the Diamondbacks are enjoying his contributions so far. He has more plate appearances than any other Diamondbacks outfielder. It was a Jeffy-looking-for-Barfy way to get there, but the Diamondbacks are finally doing the right thing.
Do they deserve to be rewarded for under-utilizing Parra? In the words of A. Bartlett Giamatti before he killed Little Bill in a baseball-related bar fight: Deserve's got nothing to do with it. The Diamondbacks didn't use one of their assets as well as they could have, but they're still reaping the benefits on the other side. Let's see what happens when Eaton returns, but there's a good chance that Parra doesn't give his job back to anyone.