Organizational droughts: Left field

Ed Zurga

When was the last time your team developed a star left fielder? Pipe down, Red Sox fans.

Welcome to the final round of organizational droughts, in which we look at the last time each franchise developed a star player at each position. The last time the Cubs drafted a star catcher, for example, was Rick Wilkins in 1986. And now you're wondering what the benchmark for "star" really is.

It's a four-win season by Baseball-Reference.com's WAR metric. And, yeah, sometimes this method will produce some weird results. Like Rick Wilkins. But instead of "star," think of an organization that's supremely smug and self-satisfied because a player they drafted and developed is laying waste to the rest of the league, even if just for a season.

Today we look at left field, which is generally where you put the clompers who are scared of ground balls. Think the defensive spectrum as a game of of skee-ball, and all of the prospects are tossed up. A few go in the middle (shortstops), a few go just below (third basemen), and a few of them skip over the railing and hit someone playing Ms. Pac Man (Delmon Young). But the ones that miss everything and land in the big catch-all at the bottom? Those are left fielders. So there should be a bunch of recent ones on this list, right?

Surprise, surprise.

Still on the team

Royals - Alex Gordon (6.5, 2012)
Brewers - Ryan Braun (7.0, 2012)
Yankees - Brett Gardner (7.4, 2010)
Mariners - Raul Ibanez (4.5, 2006)

The obvious elephant in the room: Raul Ibanez shouldn't really count. He was drafted by the Mariners in the 36th round of the '92 draft, and he was never a prospect. He demolished the Cal League, but he did it when he was 23. And he was mediocre in the Pacific Coast League, where hitters thrive, when he was 25 and 26. Total non-prospect. He wasn't very good with the Mariners in the majors, which isn't surprising considering he shouldn't have been with them in the first place.

Then the Royals got their hands on him, worked their famous Royals magic, and turned him into a good hitter. Then he went back to the Mariners, thrived, left, and is now back for a third tour. Now he's 41 and slugging .544 in a stadium that usually hurts hitters' feelings.

My Raul Ibanez theory: He lied about his age, and he was drafted as a freshman in high school. Think about it. The career progression makes total sense.

My other Raul Ibanez theory: He's a lizard man from another galaxy, and he'll give the signal for the invasion any second now.

If you don't want to consider Ibanez for the Mariners, 1985 All-Star Phil Bradley is next in line.

Fun fact: Ibanez has played 200 innings in the outfield so far this season.

Recent past

White Sox - Carlos Lee (5.0, 2004)
Reds - Adam Dunn (4.6, 2004)
Marlins - Miguel Cabrera (5.0, 2004)
Rockies - Matt Holliday (5.9, 2008)
Rays - Carl Crawford (6.9, 2010)
Braves - Martin Prado (5.5, 2012)

If left fielders are so easy to find, how come all of these guys are really, really rich? Lee got a big free-agent deal, as did Holliday and Crawford. Baseball nerds used to think that teams could just order left fielders in bulk. Just pick up any ol' Jack Cust or poor man's Jack Cust, let 'em mash, and stay out of their way, the idea went. This was right around the turn of the millennium, and everyone was high on Webvan stock. Don't judge us. The rich man's Jack Cust -- Adam Dunn -- had a few seasons where his bat made up for his glove. But not as many as you think. Left field is an underrated skill position.

Before Martin Prado, there was Chipper Jones. That was something I'd blocked from my memory, and I'm assuming Braves fans have too. Of course, it's always worth mentioning that the 2012 Braves had one of the very best outfields ever:

Rk Year Tm Lg # of outfielders > 5 WAR
1 2012 Atlanta Braves NL 3 Michael Bourn / Jason Heyward / Martin Prado
2 1980 Oakland Athletics AL 3 Tony Armas / Rickey Henderson / Dwayne Murphy
3 1963 San Francisco Giants NL 3 Felipe Alou / Willie Mays / Willie McCovey
4 1925 Detroit Tigers AL 3 Ty Cobb / Harry Heilmann / Al Wingo
5 1921 Detroit Tigers AL 3 Ty Cobb / Harry Heilmann / Bobby Veach
6 1908 Detroit Tigers AL 3 Ty Cobb / Sam Crawford / Matty McIntyre
7 1905 Philadelphia Phillies NL 3 Sherry Magee / Roy Thomas / John Titus


In case you were feeling bad for them about B.J. Upton.

Not-so-recent past

Rangers - Rusty Greer (4.6, 1997)
Indians - Brian Giles (4.0, 1998)
Tigers - Bobby Higginson (5.2, 2000)
Blue Jays - Shannon Stewart (4.0, 2001)
Phillies - Pat Burrell (4.5, 2002)
Twins - Jacque Jones (5.4, 2002)
Angels - Garret Anderson (4.0, 2003)
Cardinals - Albert Pujols (8.6, 2003)
Astros - Lance Berkman (5.3, 2003)

Apparently, this is where that left-fielders-grow-on-trees mentality came from back then. Everyone had a star, homegrown left fielder. They were like a fondue set or Trivial Pursuit. No one remembered exactly where they came from, but everyone had one.

And speaking of late-'90s excess of the dot-com era, I don't think we'll ever see anything like the late-90s Indians again. They had so, so, so many corner players they couldn't even give Giles a job until he was 26, and even then they never really felt comfortable with him. They eventually traded him to the Pirates for a left-handed setup man -- a move that still boggles the mind today. Though if you read this, maybe it's not quite as inexplicable …

Also of note: Giles finished with an OPS between .994 and 1.072 in every season from 1999 to 2002. He never finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting, and he made the All-Star team just twice. That's how different the offensive environment was back then.

Distant past

Dodgers - Tommy Davis (6.0, 1962)
Giants - Ken Henderson (4.1, 1970)
Mets - Cleon Jones (4.8, 1971)
Cubs - Billy Williams (6.2, 1972)
Padres - Kevin McReynolds (4.2, 1972)
Orioles - Al Bumbry (4.0, 1973)
Expos/Nationals - Tim Raines (6.7, 1987)
Red Sox - Mike Greenwell (7.5, 1988)
Pirates - Barry Bonds (9.0, 1992)
Athletics - Rickey Henderson (4.5, 1993)

Originally, I was going to raise the bar to five or six wins and do the entire outfield at once. Except that would have done the Red Sox an injustice. They went from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Rice. There was a two-year dose of Tommy Harper mixed in there, but for the most part, it was a seamless transition of Hall of Famers unparalleled in baseball history.

And then Mike Greenwell comes along, and he has the audacity to be merely outstanding for a short while. The nerve.

Since Al Van Camp in 1931, the Red Sox have had two seasons from a qualifying left fielder with an OPS under .700 (Harper '74, Carl Crawford '11), and 16 seasons in which their left fielder led the American League in OPS.

Red Sox aside, this is a surprisingly long list. A third of the teams in baseball haven't developed a four-win left fielder in at least two decades.

Nope

Diamondbacks

Ah, but Gerardo Parra is already close to three wins with two-thirds of a season left. Not bad for a perennial fourth outfielder. They should get off the list by September.

And the Diamondbacks also got some otherworldly years from Luis Gonzalez in left, so there hasn't been a lot of motive to develop a left fielder in-house in the short history of Arizona baseball.

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