Diamondbacks centerfielder Chris Young has arguably the best range of any National League centerfielder. This makes his inability to hit a curveball or hit safely once every four at bats more tolerable than it would otherwise be. Since Young is signed through the 2013 season with a club option for 2014, it also means that any Diamondbacks prospect with designs on patrolling centerfield at the major league level will need to flag balls down at least as well as Young does.
When gauging a player's range, raw speed is a factor, but initial positioning, reaction time, and taking good routs all rank as importantly. In fact, if you break in the wrong direction, speed can actually hurt you. Finally, good hands are essential, because getting to the ball doesn't mean much if you can't make the play once you're there.
In ranking the best five D-backs prospects at corralling fly balls, we don't favor the fast, unskilled outfielder over the smart, less-athletic player or vice versa. Listed along with each player is their 2008 positional breakdown with some rudimentary fielding metrics (RFg = Range Factor per games played, or putouts plus assists divided by games).
1. Evan Frey (CF: 128 G, 294 PO, 5E, .983 F%, 2.37 RFg)
Evan Frey does it all. He positions himself intelligently for each batter, runs straight lines to the ball, and makes the play once he gets there. His speed is well above average, and he accelerates to full stride very quickly. Incredible diving plays are common to Frey. Given his smallish frame, it might be wiser for him to save his body, but that's just not the type of player that he is. This is the one player in the system who could bump Chris Young into left field, because he even has a good arm. With no question marks surrounding his defense, Frey just needs to show that he can still reach base frequently at higher levels.
2. Ollie Linton (CF: 47 G, 107 PO, 2 E, .982 F%, 2.32 RFg)
Oillie Linton is even smaller than Evan Frey, but he is also faster. He has every bit the penchant for making the eye-popping grab that Frey does, but occasionally makes an initial misstep or takes a less-than-perfect route. Linton works hard on his defense, and does not take his natural ground-covering abilities for granted. With another year of professional instruction, Linton could pull neck-and-neck with Frey in terms of range. His arm isn't anything special, which could make left field his home for part of his career.
3. Gerardo Parra (CF: 101 G, 230 PO, 6 E, .975 F%, 2.40 RFg) (RF: 20 G, 36 PO, 5 E, .865 F%, 1.85 RFg)
A natural centerfielder, Gerardo Parra struggles to read the ball off the bat from right field. He owns a career .979 fielding percentage in centerfield compared to a lowly .940 mark in right. This is a shame, since he boasts an excellent arm and doesn't have quite the range in center to supplant Chris Young. Much of his range is derived from his natural speed, so Parra has room to grow at either position. If he does get more comfortable in right field, he next step for Parra is to develop enough power to warrant playing there everyday. Most likely, he will debut as a centerfielder and move to right field later in his career.
4. Chris Rahl - (RF: 58 G, 115 PO, 3 E, .985 F%, 2.30 RFg) (CF: 55 G, 135 PO, 1 E, .993 F%, 2.45 RFg)
Rahl made the transition from second base to outfield in college. Early in his pro career, he atoned for poor outfield instincts with his excellent wheels. The 25-year old Rahl may have lost a step in terms of pure speed, but what he has gained in defensive aptitude outweighs the extra tick on the stopwatch. The improvement can be seen simply in his error totals; Rahl committed as many miscues in 2007 and 2008 combined as he did in 2006 alone. Although he still doesn't feel fully comfortable in left field, his above-average arm makes that an unlikely destination, anyway. With his inconsistent approach at the plate, Rahl figures to make it as a reserve outfielder who fills in centerfield and right.
5. Greg Thomson - (RF: 75 G, 150 PO, 4 E, .975 F%, 2.11 RFg) (CF: 31 G, 77 PO, 3 E, .961 F%, 2.48 RFg)
After solid offensive showings in 2006 and 2007, Thommy really struggled last year. So it's easy to forget that he has above-average speed and good outfield acumen. His arm is more accurate than strong, so centerfield is a better fit for him than right in that regard. But Thomson doesn't have the blazing speed or the impeccable fundamentals to make it as an everyday centerfielder in the big leagues. Like Rahl, Thomson's path to the big leagues figures to involve being the 24th or 25th man on the roster, providing late-inning speed and defense.
Worth Watching: Joey Side had excellent range before suffering two injuries in 2008. His aggressive play causes a lot of wear and tear on his body. We'll see how he bounces back in 2009 before ranking him here.
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