NEW YORK -- For a guy who entered the season as a fourth outfielder, Arizona's Gerardo Parra has quietly found a way to make himself indispensable.
When the Diamondbacks arrived in spring training, manager Kirk Gibson spent more than one media gab session explaining how he planned to find at-bats for Parra with Jason Kubel in left field, rookie Adam Eaton in center and the newly arrived Cody Ross in right. Then Eaton suffered an elbow injury in March, Kubel and Ross both spent time on the disabled list, and Parra and rookie A.J. Pollock both fell into playing time they had never anticipated.
Five months later, Parra is on his way to career highs in everything but rest. He ranks sixth in the National League with 98 hits and third in doubles with 24. With nine outfield assists, he is tied for the NL lead with his friend and Venezuelan countryman, Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez.
He's durable, too. Parra appeared in 81 of Arizona's first 82 games before Tuesday, when he found a novel way to get a night off.
In the ninth inning of Arizona's 5-4, 13-inning loss to the Mets on Monday, Parra nearly made an acrobatic catch near the wall before sprawling to the ground and landing face-first on the warning track. Groggy and disoriented, he told Gibson several times that he wanted to remain in the game before caution and good sense won out and he left the field under his own power.
When Parra arrived in the clubhouse Tuesday night, his dental work was intact and he was concussion-free. But he wore a large bandage on his right arm, and his face was a patchwork quilt of raspberries and scars. Typically chatty and a clubhouse gadfly, he seemed unusually subdued after a fitful night's sleep because of the discomfort. Still, he made it clear to Gibson that he was available to pinch-hit if necessary.
"You could ask 24 guys who's the best teammate in here, and they'd say Gerardo Parra," said Diamondbacks pitcher Wade Miley. "Just the energy he brings to the table every day. That play sums him up. He ran 60 yards and sold his body out, and then he comes in here looking like he got in a bar fight. He'll do anything for anybody in here."
As the Diamondbacks prepared to face Mets rookie sensation Matt Harvey in a nationally televised game Wednesday, the dog days have arrived early. Parra has four hits in his last 28 at-bats, and the D-backs lost 9-1 at Citi Field on Tuesday for their eighth defeat in nine games. Like their struggling counterparts in San Francisco, they're suddenly finding that Yasiel Puig and the hard-charging Dodgers are closer than they appear in the rearview mirror.
Parra said he expects to be back in the lineup soon. And the Diamondbacks need him, even though his bat has been dragging of late and Gibson knows he could probably use a rest.
"I don't even know what adjectives or words I can use to describe how valuable this guy is," Gibson said. "He plays hard every day. He's got the best hands I've ever seen for an outfielder. And he's always had a strong arm, but now he's accurate, too. The other thing is his personality and how vibrant he is every day. He has an attitude that's unmatched in the major leagues. He's unbelievable with every single person he touches on this team."
Parra, who grew up in the Maracaibo suburb of Santa Barbara, combines with Martin Prado and catcher Miguel Montero to give the Diamondbacks a healthy Venezuelan contingent. Parra's father, Gustavo, worked as a security officer for 30 years, and his mother, Misleda, is a housewife. His younger brother, Geordy, is a pitcher with Arizona's Pioneer League affiliate in Missoula, Mont.
As a Venezuelan Little Leaguer, Parra adopted former Phillies and Yankees outfielder Bobby Abreu as his role model, and the two have since become friends. "I liked him because he always played hard, he had discipline at the plate, and he was a lefty too," Parra said. "And he's a good person with a big heart. He's my buddy."
The Diamondbacks signed Parra for a $125,000 bonus in 2004, and he rose to No. 2 in the team's prospect rankings before making his major league debut in 2009. Baseball America raved about Parra's smooth swing and strong arm, but noted that his modest home run power threatened to make him a "tweener" if he had to move to a corner spot in the majors.
You could ask 24 guys who's the best teammate in here, and they'd say Gerardo Parra. Just the energy he brings to the table every day. … He'll do anything for anybody in here.
"-- Diamondbacks pitcher Wade Miley
Gibson prefers playing Parra at the corners because of his dominant arm, which scouts label a 70 on the 20-80 player evaluation scale. But Parra's 52 starts in right field, 29 in center and six in left are testament to his versatility. Two years ago, Gibson asked Arizona hitting coach Don Baylor to try to get Parra to turn on more balls and develop his pull stroke in pregame drills, and the approach appears to be paying dividends. Parra has seven home runs and 33 extra-base hits in 326 at-bats, and Gibson thinks he is capable of hitting 15-20 homers consistently in the big leagues.
Regardless of how Parra is hitting, his energy never wanes. He and Prado are in charge of the Diamondbacks' pregame music, and they alternate between techno "house" music, Latino selections and the occasional country offering.
"He's got a little redneck in him, for sure," said Miley, a Louisiana native. "He likes to wear his cowboy hats and his cowboy boots now and then."
Parra is also a formidable presence in clubhouse card games of pluck, although Miley steadfastly maintains that he "cheats."
The Diamondbacks laugh when Parra chirps in the clubhouse and the dugout -- he refers to Baylor as "Meester Baylor" -- and are constantly on alert for his mischievous side. Parra carries around a manual air horn and has been known to spring it on coaches and teammates when they least expect it. Earlier this year, Prado commandeered the horn and used it to get back at Parra while he was sleeping on a table in the trainer's room.
Arizona fans sense Parra's earnestness and have embraced him as one of their favorites. Parra routinely mingles with crowds behind home plate before games in Phoenix, and team officials say it's not uncommon for him to pull a youngster out of the group for an impromptu visit to the clubhouse. Moments later, Parra will emerge from the dugout, and the young fan will be carrying a bat or a pair of batting gloves as a souvenir.
"I love my fans," Parra said. "They talk to me and I talk to them, and I love to see them smile. I appreciate that."
All-Star long shot
Parra still has room for improvement in several areas. He has a .727 OPS on the road, compared to a .922 OPS at Chase Field. He has also been thrown out stealing nine times in 15 attempts this season, although Gibson claims that he has been victimized by two or three bad calls and has been "blown up" on a couple of aborted hit-and-runs.
Realistically, for all he's given the D-backs, Parra is a long shot to make the All-Star team. Carlos Beltran, Carlos Gonzalez and Justin Upton are the three leading NL outfield vote-getters in fan balloting. Bryce Harper is a close fourth in fan balloting. Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen, Shin-Soo Choo, Jay Bruce, Hunter Pence, Michael Cuddyer, Domonic Brown and Parra's buddy CarGo are all having strong seasons, and Yasiel Puig has suddenly injected himself into the debate with his torrid first month.
But the new-age, all-purpose value calculations substantiate the notion that Parra belongs in any discussion of Major League Baseball's most underrated players. With a WAR (wins above replacement) of 3.3 -- 12th-best in the National League -- he is quietly emerging as the Venezuelan Ben Zobrist. Parra is also prominent in Bill James' "total runs" rankings, which combine offense, defense and baserunning to gauge a player's overall contribution to the team. With an aggregate total of plus-76, Parra is tied for 12th in the majors with Robinson Cano, McCutchen and Hisashi Iwakuma.
Prado, who has emerged as a veteran mentor to Parra, sees a young player who has logged the obligatory winter league at-bats, made some difficult cultural adjustments, and is ready to take his game to a new level. Parra has worked hard on his English and made a noticeable improvement in the past year, and he's become increasingly more comfortable in media interviews. At the rate he's going, he's bound to have a lot to discuss.
"It takes a lot of guts to be in a new country, speaking a new language and playing the sport we love the most," Prado said. "So many guys want to be in his position, and he understands that. He's a young kid who's waited for his opportunity to shine, and he's taking advantage of that."
At age 26, Parra is brimming with energy and ready for his close-up. Facial scars and all.