Parra goes from extra outfielder to indispensable

For at least a moment Monday, Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig looked like the rookie he is, foolishly trying to go from first to third on a single hit to right fielder Gerardo Parra.

It went exactly as you would expect for Puig. Parra fired a strike to third baseman Martin Prado, who easily tagged Puig out. The Diamondbacks TV duo of Steve Berthiaume and Bob Brenly summed up the events perfectly afterward.

“Don’t run on Gerardo Parra!” Berthiaume exclaimed. “Somebody finally checks Yasiel Puig, and it’s the Diamondbacks outfield ace.”

Added Brenly: “That, my friends, is a rookie mistake. We love the energy, we love the hustle, but it’s misguided that time. That’s the best arm in the National League out there in right field.”

Parra punctuated the play with a wag of his finger, as he has so many times in his career, and later made another highlight in the D-backs’ 5-4 win when he robbed Tim Federowicz of extra bases with a wall-banging catch.

But Parra has been much more for the D-backs this season than an ace outfielder. He’s been an offensive game-changer and one of the reasons the D-backs remain atop the NL West despite seemingly endless injuries.

With all Parra has done this season, he’s gone from a fourth outfielder to a player manager Kirk Gibson knows he can’t keep out of the lineup. Adam Eaton’s spring-training injury created an opportunity, and Parra seized it. He has played in every game this season and started all but two.

“He’s going to play pretty much every day,” Gibson said recently. “If I see ‘G’ getting tired, I’ll get him out of there, but he doesn’t want to get out of there. He’s already played through some injuries, already played through some sickness.”

Gibson elaborated that Parra had been sick the night before a home game last month and required multiple IV bags before going out and playing.

“He was throwing up all night and just came in and said he wanted to play,” Gibson said. “He likes to play. He’s unreal.”

Parra and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt have thus far carried the D-backs offense, which has suffered from the losses of Aaron Hill (broken hand), Eaton (sprained elbow) and Eric Chavez (strained oblique) and the struggles of Prado and Miguel Montero. Parra leads the team with 80 hits, and his 42 runs scored trails only Goldschmidt. He’s also behind only Goldschmidt for the team’s best on-base percentage (.382) among regulars.

“He just keeps getting better,” Gibson said. “He’s got a very quick bat.”

Combined, Goldschmidt and Parra have contributed 4.5 offensive wins above replacement (WAR), according to baseball-reference.com. That’s easily more than any other pair of D-backs players combined.

Further, by Baseball Reference’s calculation, the Goldschmidt and Parra have more combined WAR (7.0) than any other pair of NL teammates except Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura, who have 7.1 combined. It’s hard to imagine the D-backs would still be where they are without either player.

Parra’s offensive development this season has been impressive, but elite defense has remained his calling card. He’s back to primarily playing a corner outfield spot, which suits him better than center, and might well be on his way to another Gold Glove.

With eight outfield assists already, Parra leads the NL and is tied with White Sox right fielder Alex Rios for the major-league lead. His play on Puig Monday night was his second remarkable throw in as many games. Sunday, he let a shallow fly ball drop in before picking it up and firing to second base to get the a force out on the runner coming from first.

But for as much as Parra has done in the field and at the plate, he still has a ways to go on the base paths. Ever an overly aggressive runner, Parra has been caught stealing seven times this season, second most in the majors behind Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro. That’s two fewer times in 63 games than he was caught in 163 games last year.

There’s a silver lining, though. One contributing factor to Parra’s larger caught-stealing total is increased opportunty. Parra’s on-base percentage last year was .335 — more times on base equals more chances to steal.

This was the second year in a row that Parra came to spring training as a fourth outfielder, something he never complained about, as frustrating as it might have been. Prior to 2012, the free-agent signing of Jason Kubel pushed him out of a starting job. This year, the plan was to make space for Eaton and Cody Ross.

While those decisions might have made Parra tempting trade target for other teams, the D-backs were in no hurry to move him. That’s looking smarter all the time.

“He’s just really coming into his own,” Gibson said. “He certainly earned this opportunity.”