- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Arizona outfielder Adam Eaton can book it down the first-base line, so it’s only fitting that he should wear a black T-shirt in the clubhouse with the inscription, "Speed Kills." Eaton is blessed with the type of speed that can send a jolt of electricity through the dugout while simultaneously giving teammates an inferiority complex.
"Aaron Hill told me he’s going to get a T-shirt that says 'Average Speed Sucks,'" Eaton said, laughing.
Last year the Diamondbacks gave Eaton a chance to shine in September, and he took the opportunity and, naturally, ran with it. Eaton hit only .259 in 22 games, but he played the game with energy and no fear, recorded a .382 on base percentage, and gave Arizona management reason to believe he’s ready to embrace the role of center fielder and leadoff catalyst for years to come.
This spring, Eaton is at the center of a roster makeover that’s generating enthusiasm in the Arizona clubhouse and incessant snark on Twitter, where the Diamondbacks are derided for their focus on “grittiness’’ at the expense of raw talent. General manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson continue to press on, undeterred.
Chris Young, Justin Upton and Ryan Roberts are gone from the Opening Day 2012 lineup, and they’ve been replaced by Eaton, Cody Ross and Martin Prado. For reasons only the Diamondbacks can fully understand, they concluded that Upton’s time in the desert had come and gone, and they sent him to Atlanta in a seven-player deal in January to end a prolonged and torturous trade vigil. The trade officially marked the end of the “Uptown’’ fan section in right field and the premise that Upton would be the face of the franchise for years to come.
“I think that hurt Justin and hurt us,’’ Towers said. “This deal is going to be good for Justin, because he’ll slot in with a bunch of great players in Atlanta and he won’t be the face of the organization. He won’t have to be 'the guy.' And I think we’ll take a step forward because everyone always felt the only way we could win was if Justin was performing well. It was always, 'We go if he goes.'
“Justin was anointed the face of the franchise at 20 years old, and that’s a lot for a young man to bear. I don’t think he really liked it or asked for it. He always felt that if the team wasn’t playing well and he was struggling, it was his fault. He’s a good kid and he was a great teammate, but I just didn’t see it changing here. It was always going to be Justin Upton and the Diamondbacks.’’
The revamped Diamondbacks envision a lineup that’s more resourceful and less reliant on the home run ball. Jason Kubel, Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Montero and Cody Ross -- the team’s projected 4-7 hitters -- struck out a combined 540 times last year, so the D-backs will generate their share of whiffs. But they should be slightly more adept at putting the ball in play than the 2012 squad, which tied for fifth in the NL with 1,266 strikeouts.
They also hope a greater emphasis on drawing walks, hitting the ball to the gaps and manufacturing runs will serve them well on the road, where they ranked eighth in the NL with 343 runs a year ago. Gibson keeps preaching the importance of applying pressure from the outset, so he won’t be shy about putting runners in motion in the first or second innings. His new assemblage of talent is more in sync with that mindset.
“I don’t know if we have burners on our team, but we have guys who can steal some bases,’’ Gibson said. “Runs are at a premium in the National League. One of Tony La Russa's themes was 'score first.' That’s important.’’
The Ohio Flash
Eaton combines speed with the requisite “scrappy, gritty’’ quotient. He grew up in Springfield, Ohio, near Dayton, in a military family. His father, Glenn, spent nearly a decade in the Air Force before going to work as a fire chief at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. His mother, Robin, served in the Army, and his brother, Zack, is an Air Force contractor in Oklahoma City.
Eaton is listed at 5-foot-9, so his baseball options were limited coming out of high school. His first college visit was to Division II Malone University in Canton, Ohio, and he had his doubts that Division I ball would be in his future until Miami (Ohio) gave him a shot. After three successful years with the RedHawks, he signed with the Diamondbacks for $35,000 as a 19th-round pick.
After stops in Missoula, Visalia and Mobile, Eaton busted out last year with Triple-A Reno in the Pacific Coast League. He scored 119 runs and stole 38 bases while hitting .381 with a .995 OPS. Then he held his own in the big leagues even though the pitchers were constantly probing for weaknesses to exploit.
“Would we like him to be our leadoff hitter and do what he did in Triple-A? You’re darned right we would,’’ Gibson said. “But it’s a lot to expect for a young kid to get 650 plate appearances and lead off as a rookie. We can’t just wish him into that role. It’s a different league and teams are going to do different things to him. He has a lot to learn, and he knows it.’’
As Eaton tries to carve out a name in the big leagues, he’ll have to deal with a bit of an identity crisis. Last spring he received more than $100,000 in MLB licensing checks made out to the “other’’ Adam Eaton -- the guy who spent 10 years as a pitcher with San Diego, Philadelphia and three other clubs. Eaton stared at the checks in amazement before realizing the address at the top wasn’t his. Veteran teammate Cody Ransom told him he had to give the money back, and Eaton quickly returned to earth.
This spring, baseball fans at Salt River Fields keep reminding him that he’s not the first Adam Eaton to appear on a 40-man roster.
“There was a lady here yesterday who said, 'I have a collection of cards for you to sign,'’’ Eaton said. “I told her, 'That’s not me. I’m a little shorter than him, and I’m left-handed.'’’
Eaton has yet to meet his namesake, although it wasn’t for lack of effort. For two years he hung onto every Adam Eaton baseball card that he received in the mail, in hopes of delivering the entire stack to the former pitcher. But the meeting never materialized, and Eaton threw the cards away.
Budding fan favorite
Most of Eaton’s fan encounters leave everyone feeling upbeat. Last year in spring training, he spent so much time signing autographs after one game that the clubhouse attendants started to get antsy. One of the clubbies finally went out to the field, and Eaton peeled off his game jersey so that it could go into that day’s wash. The clubbies let Eaton keep his game pants on, and he lingered by the rail until every baseball card, ball and game program was signed.
Eaton got married over the winter and also grew a beard to inject some gravitas in his persona. “People say I look about 12 without it,’’ he said. The facial hair only helps so much. Gibson refers to veteran utility man Eric Hinske as “Big E’’ and to Eaton as “Little E.’’ The two have quickly become pals and are now the Diamondbacks’ answer to Gilligan and the Skipper.
Eaton reminds Hinske of Scott Podsednik, a late bloomer who stole 212 bases for the Brewers and White Sox from 2003 to 2006. Hinske said both players have the strength to drive pitches into the gap, even though Podsednik and Eaton both swing down at the ball in an effort to maximize their speed.
“He reminds me of Pete Rose because of how hard he plays,’’ Lewis said. “He always has a dirty uniform. He’s always 105 [mph] out of the gate. You look at his size and think, 'He’s probably a little slap hitter.' But the guy has pop. He’s got a cannon. He’s going to be a force at the top of that lineup.
“He’s about as blue-collar as it gets. He takes each plate appearance like he’s got something to prove. I think for him, it’s more a case of tempering his approach. He’ll get down on himself if he goes 2-for-4, because he really believes he should get on base every time. That’s a good attitude to have.’’
If Eaton can bring stability to the No. 1 spot in Gibson’s batting order, it will be a major achievement. Since 2004, the list of Arizona’s Opening Day leadoff hitters includes Steve Finley, Craig Counsell (twice), Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Felipe Lopez, Conor Jackson and Willie Bloomquist. Even Tony Womack, who held the job for four straight seasons before them, lacked the on-base ability to take optimal advantage of his speed.
At age 24, Eaton has a chance to make a more lasting impression as a diminutive, hard-driving rookie on a mission. Will the Diamondbacks be a better or worse team without Justin Upton? The answer begins at the top.