In 2011, Andres Blanco was Mr. Irrelevant. Blanco, signed at the end of Spring Training in 2010, was just what the Rangers needed in their first World Series run. Second baseman Ian Kinsler was on the disabled list on two separate occasions and, especially the second time, Blanco played steady defense and contributed some key hits as the Rangers steamrolled their way to an AL West title, their first since 1999.
In 2011, Blanco was still around, but Kinsler stayed healthy, as did shortstop Elvis Andrus. Blanco was with the club the entire season but played in only 36 games, only half of which were starts, getting only 76 at bats the entire season and, in one stretch, went 25 says between game appearances. The Rangers sported a potent 11-player line-up that year. Michael Young acted as a “Super Utility” player and Blanco’s services were seldom needed. He was not even placed on the post-season roster, though he did get a share of the post-season money.
Fast forward now to 2015. Our last spotlight looks at the Rangers bench. Like most teams, Texas will have four men on the bench to start every game. Once upon a time, teams carried 15 offensive players and 10 pitchers on the 25-man roster. This was back in the day of the 4-man rotation and before the era of the Designated Hitter. Now most teams have 12 man pitching staffs, leaving room for only 13 hitters.
For most teams, the bench consists of a second catcher, a utility infielder and two outfielders. The only position definitely filled on the Rangers bench is Carlos Corporan as the second catcher. His acquisition from Houston was for the express purpose of being Robinson Chirinos’ back-up. Beyond Corporan, the picture is murky. Here are some of the contenders:
If there’s such a thing as a utility incumbent, it would be Adam Rosales. He provided some pop with the bat and can play just about any position on the infield. Last year, he offered up a .262/.328/.378 slash line with 4 home runs in 56 games. Rosales won’t just be given the job, though. There are several other contenders out there looking to grab the pine for more than 50% of the Rangers’ games. There’s Kyle Blanks, a corner infielder/outfielder who showed promising power for the Padres but injuries have slowed him down the last few years. He’s already behind the other players in camp as he’s still getting over issues with both feet. Elliot Johnson has played with Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Atlanta and Cleveland in five major league seasons. He offers more speed on the basepaths than Rosales. In 2013 he was successful on 22 of 24 steal attempts and twice swiped 43 in the minors. Ed Lucas is another candidate. Just two years ago he played in 94 games with the Miami Marlins, and in both of his seasons there played all four infield positions as well as a few games in the outfield. His versatility gives him a shot. In fact, all three candidates here have played both the infield and the outfield in their major league careers, but it’s likely they won’t play much in the outfield. A very longshot candidate would be Tommy Field, a minor league free agent pick-up who played college ball for Texas State in San Marcos. Field has had a couple of cups of coffee in the bigs with Colorado and the Los Angeles Angels but doesn’t offer the versatility, having never played first base. His signing was more for minor league depth than a serious look at helping the big league club.
This got covered a lot in the look at the left field battle. As mentioned in that post, there are no less than ten candidates vying for the left field starter position and there’s no doubt the 4th and 5th outfielders will come from that group. You can read that post here. Since the Rangers were so injury-prone a year ago, I’m guessing the Rangers brass would really like to see the positions filled by the home-grown talent that hasn’t had injury issues, such as Michael Choice and Ryan Rua, both of whom could outright win the left field battle. Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields Jr. is in the mix as his Rule 5 status requires him to be with the club all year or be offered back to the Astros for $25,000. Ryan Ludwick’s recovery from shoulder issues also will play a factor. Again, the club wants reasonable assurances of health so Ludwick has to show he is a productive and healthy player again. Jake Smolinski is also in the mix.
The question is, what is Jeff Bannister looking for in his club? If he thinks the Rangers’ best chances to win include speed, Elliot Johnson and Delino DeShields both have great opportunities to earn roster spots. If Banny wants for bang from the bats, the likes of Rosales, Choice and Ludwick become the favorites. And don’t count out another player getting signed at the end of Spring Training to put all of them out of a job. It’s how Blanco and Matt Treanor became Rangers in 2010 and it could happen again in 2015.
One nice thing to add to the Rangers bench without costing an offensive roster spot? Yovani Gallardo, the #3 starter acquired from the Brewers, is a good hitting pitcher, with 12 home runs in an 8-year career. He loves to hit and Bannister will almost certainly use him as a pinch hitter on occasion. Not many American League teams have that luxury.
“Get your scorecards here! You can’t tell the players without your scorecard. Get your scorecards here!”
Once Spring Training gets underway for Texas Rangers position players, even the coaching staff is likely to need a scorecard to unravel the players competing for the left field job in 2015. The odds are excellent no single player will truly win the job. Far more likely is two players will serve as a platoon most of the time unless or until someone gets the hot hand in mid-season and wins the right to play full-time.
First, a recap of last year and it resembles the mess that begins this season. Eight different players were left fielders for the Rangers in 2014. Shin-Soo Choo led the way with 63 games in left, but he moves to right field this year. Also seeing playing time in left, in descending order of games played, were Michael Choice, Daniel Robertson, Jim Adduci, Ryan Rua, Jake Smolinski, Mitch Moreland and Mike Carp. Of that group, Robertson, Adduci and Carp are no longer around.
Still around, though, are four players: Choice, Rua, Smolinski, and Moreland. BUT THAT’S NOT ALL, FOLKS! They’ll be joined in Spring Training by Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields and non-roster invitees Ryan Ludwick, Nate Shierholtz, Antoan Richardson, Carlos Peguero and Jared Hoying. What does this tell you? The Rangers front office is not 100% sold on any single player for left field. It’s a wide open competition. Here’s where each of them likely stand.
Rua is the “front-runner” for the job, mostly on the basis that he was the starter in left field in Game 162 in 2014. A 17th round pick, Rua could become the third Rangers’ 17th rounder to make a name for himself in the big leagues, joining Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland. He began to turn heads in the organization in 2013 when he mashed 29 homers for Class A Myrtle Beach, whose park is NOT conducive to home runs, then adding another 3 in 95 plate appearance cup of coffee with AA Frisco. The power wasn’t as prevalent in 2014, but he hit .300 with 10 home runs in half a season with Frisco, then .313 with 8 home runs in 58 games at AAA Round Rock before getting the call to Arlington just before September roster expansion. With the Rangers, he hit .295 in 28 games with 2 home runs and 11 RBI. Rua has hit at every level and had a positive defensive WAR. Though he largely played second base in the minors, he’s got some experience in left field.
All things considered, if I had a wish for one person to lay claim to left field, the choice would be Choice. Nothing against Rua. The difference is power. Michael Choice has more home run potential in his bat than Rua and outside of Prince Fielder, there’s no other Rangers player with 30 home run potential than Choice, at least until Joey Gallo shows up. Choice outright won the right field job in Spring Training last year after being acquired in a straight up trade that sent popular Craig Gentry to Oakland. A Dallas native, everyone was ready to love to former first round draft pick and he blew his first chance. He never got untracked at the plate, hit a paltry .182 with 9 home runs in 86 games (with a trip to Round Rock mid-season). His defense wasn’t good and Fangraphs had him listed with an overall NEGATIVE 2.1 WAR. Yep, he graded out at worse than replacement level. Still, he’s a former 1st round draft choice with pop in his bat. He will get another chance. We’ll see if he can seize it.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Mitch Moreland will NOT be the regular left fielder. For the most part, he will serve as the Rangers designated hitter, so I will dwell on him in a later post. He is, however, going to see playing time in left field, maybe right field as well, but not as a regular.
Smolinski is an interesting name to add to the mix. A former 2nd round draft pick of the Nationals, Jake signed with the Rangers as a minor league free agent after being released by the Marlins in 2013. Like Rua, Smolinski started 2014 at AA Frisco, earned a July promotion to the majors on the basis of a 10 HR, 43 RBI half season, hit .389 in 11 games before getting sent down to Round Rock when Jim Adduci returned from the DL, then returned to Texas in mid-September after rosters expanded. Overall, Smolinski contributed a .349/.391/.512 slash line to the Rangers with 3 HR and 12 RBI in 24 games. This, however, is considerably higher than the combined .267 he hit in 80 games for Frisco and Round Rock. Like Rua, he also had a low walk rate getting used to the major league strike zone. With stats so similar to Rua’s, the edge goes to the former just because he’s a year younger and thus has a little more upside. I have a feeling Smolinski will be part of a late spring trade that will bring either a utility infielder or a left-handed reliever to Texas.
Son of a former major leaguer, DeShields is a Rule V pick from the Houston Astros, which means he MUST be on the Rangers roster all year or he has to be offered back to the Astros for $25,000. That means DeShields will be given every opportunity to win the job of 4th or 5th outfielder. If nobody wins left field outright, the odds of DeShields getting a job go down substantially. The upside for DeShields is speed. In five minor league season, he’s swiped 241 bases. The downside is he’s never played above the AA level and has a “lazy” tag attached to him.
Ludwick is an interesting wild card here. A 12-year big league veteran, he’s only 3 years removed from a 26 home run, 80 RBI season with the Cincinnati Reds. He also once hit 37 home runs for the Cardinals. A shoulder injury in 2013 cost him a lot of his power. If he can find that power stroke again in camp, Ludwick could grab the job outright.
Schierholtz has played exclusively in the National league for the Giants, Cubs, Phillies and Nationals, putting up a career .253/.302/.405 line with 52 home runs. Rangers fans saw him in the 2010 World Series with the Giants. Last year was pertty forgettable for Nate, as he hit a combined .195 for the Cubs and Nationals in 122 games. A longshot at best to make the squad.
Carlos Peguero, Antoan Richardson, Jared Hoying
I’m lumping the last three together because their chances of sticking with the Rangers for the Season Opener are even more doubtful than Schierholtz. Over four seasons, Peguero has never played more than 46 games at the big league level. He’s got some pop in his bat, having hit 30 home runs for AAA Omaha last season but the odds are he’s one of those 4-A players, a AAA All-Star who just doesn’t translate to the big league level. Richardson has had two brief appearances in The Show, 4 at bats with the Braves in 2011 and 16 with the Yankees last year. He’s got little power to speak of but has 324 steals in 10 minor league seasons. If he makes the team it’s because DeShields didn’t and a lot of other people had bad springs. Hoying is a 10th round draft pick of the Rangers who became a minor league free agent and re-signed with the club. He got a non-roster invite as a courtesy after hitting 26 homers with 78 RBI for Round Rock last year. The homers were more than twice as many as he’d ever hit in a professional season. If Hoying is on the roster in April, things have gone horribly wrong for the Rangers.
A lot of people have the opportunity. Seeing how it all shakes out will be the most interesting story for the Rangers this spring.
Trivia Question: In 5 seconds, tell me who led all Texas Rangers first basemen in home runs in 2014.
Sorry, time’s up. The correct answer is: J.P. Arencibia.
Yep, Arencibia hit 4 home runs as a Rangers first baseman. And the two guys you would have expected to be the 2014 leaders, Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland, checked in with 3 and 2 respectively. Even worse? When Fielder went down in May, he had 15 RBI. Arencibia ended up as the team leader for 1st basemen with 17. Prince almost led the team despite missing four months of the season!
All told, Rangers first basemen in 2014 accounted for an anemic total of 14 home runs and 67 RBI.
This is one reason for optimism about the 2015 Rangers.
By all accounts, Prince Fielder, who played in only 42 games with 3 home runs and 15 RBI before neck surgery shut him down for the season, is fully healthy entering 2015. Before the injury, Fielder was an iron man for the Brewers and the Tigers, consistently playing in 157+ games every year. If Fielder returns to his durable form, he will easily surpass the home run and RBI totals Rangers first basemen put up in 2014. Even if Fielder has started an age-related offensive decline it won’t regress as much as 14-67.
The trade-off here is defense. After Fielder went down, first base became the domain of the likes of Mitch Moreland, JP Arencibia, Adam Rosales, Ryan Rua and the almost totally forgotten Mike Carp, Carlos Pena and Brad Snyder. This motley crew actually ranked 5th in the American League defensively in UZR rating according to Fangraphs. Fielder is not Moreland. Or, apparently, Arencibia, Rosales, Rua, Carp, Pena and Snyder. There will be some defensive fall-off.
On the other hand, a presumably healthy Moreland and possibly Rua as well are sure to spell Fielder on a once a week basis, maybe even twice. New skipper Jeff Bannister almost surely will protect the Rangers financial commitment to Prince by having him DH more than Fielder would like.
It’s easy to doubt Fielder will return to form after the type of neck surgery he had. Similar to the surgery Peyton Manning had, there’s no history to refer to in baseball. Reading this story from Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News (http://res.dallasnews.com/interactives/fielder/) alleviates those concerns.
While Texas finished a respectable 5th in batting average in 2014, they were 10th in runs scored, 11th in walks and 14th in home runs, ahead of only the Royals. A healthy Prince Fielder alone will account for a rise of one or two positions in the latter two categories.
SO LONG AND WELCOME BACK
Another week, another Ranger lands on the disabled list. Alexi Ogando is the latest to join the walking wounded. Things have gotten so bad I’m fully expecting to hear that Luis Ortiz, the Rangers #1 pick in Thursday’s MLB
Draft, will need to undergo Tommy John surgery the day after he signs with the club.
Still, the overall news of the week for the Rangers health is positive. Tanner Scheppers returned from the disabled list Thursday and got thrown right in the fire during the 8th inning of Texas’ 8-6 win over the Baltimore Orioles. Scheppers didn’t look particularly good, giving up a home run to Adam Jones, but he induced a double play to end the 8th with only the solo home run as damage. What was heartening to see was the bullpen line-up after Colby Lewis got pulled following five meh innings: Robbie Ross Jr., Scheppers and Joakim Soria. It was the first time this season the pen had a familiar ring to it. Ross Jr. pitched his best outing in weeks, throwing two shutout innings with no hits and picked up the win when Texas broke a 5-5 tie in the 7th.
Another piece of good news on the health front. Fifth outfielder Jim Adduci is likely to return from his DL stint this weekend against the Cleveland Indians. Adduci was off to a great start in 2014, going six for his first 13 with two doubles and three RBI when he broke his finger on the bag while sliding (or diving). While only the “fifth” outfielder, Adduci is definitely a step up from Daniel Robertson, who failed to tag up at third on a fly to right in Thursday’s game and cost the Rangers a run.
Word has it Neftali Feliz is close to returning to the bullpen as well so, believe it or not, the Rangers are actually getting healthier for a change.
ANOTHER SERIES, ANOTHER FORMER RANGER RETURNS
Tuesday marked the return of Nelson Cruz to Arlington. Cruz hit a home run in Tuesday’s win over Texas but the Rangers held him in check the rest of the series. This weekend another favorite from the World Series teams returns. David Murphy was the fourth outfielder for most of his time in Texas but was the starter in left field in 2013. Now he’s back to being a 4th outfielder with the Indians and once again he’s thriving, hitting .280 with 5 home runs and 34 RBI. To put that in perspective, if Murph was still a Ranger, those numbers would lead the club in RBI and rank third in home runs.
CHOICE HEATING UP?
In the second inning of Thursday’s game against the Orioles, I tweeted that a Michael Choice hot streak would help the Rangers immensely. With Prince Fielder out for the season and Mitch Moreland stuck at two home runs, the Rangers have very little power outside of Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo. Choice is that potential power bat but he’s been hitting right around the Mendoza line all season long. As if he’d read my time line, Choice went deep for his fourth home run within minutes of that tweet and he added a double for good measure late in the game. Choice is not a great defensive player in the outfield so if he isn’t hitting he really isn’t doing much to help the club win. If Thursday’s game is any indication, Choice just might be getting the hang of this major league hitting thing. If so, the Rangers offense might start scoring runs more consistently.
This should probably wait a few days because there is likely a lot of movement in the Rangers minor league system coming over the next week or two. Still, I feel the need to point out the incredible season being put up by a couple of Rangers’ prospects. Joey Gallo is tearing up the High-A ranks with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Gallo is currently hitting .330 with 21 home runs and 50 RBI. Myrtle Beach is not a hitter’s park. In fact, the entire Myrtle beach roster hit only 64 home runs in the course of the entire season. Gallo is on a pace that would net him 2/3 of the entire 2013 team if he stayed with the Pelicans the whole season. That isn’t going to happen. Gallo may not even play in the Carolina League All-Star game. In just a matter of weeks if not days, expect Gallo at the AA level with the Frisco RoughRiders. The same could be said of Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez. Last year’s top draft pick is 5-2 with a 2.62 ERA in helping lead the Pelicans to a league best 40-18 record.
On the AA level, looking to get promoted soon is Luke Jackson. The righthander checks in at 7-2 with a 2.55 ERA and could find himself in AAA Round Rock soon. On the hitting side, if Gallo gets promoted as expected to play third base in Frisco, the current third baseman, Ryan Rua, already has a case for promotion to Round Rock as well. Rua is hitting a robust .313 with 10 home runs and 32 RBI. Round Rock would certainly welcome Rua and Jackson. The Express are easily the worst team in the Rangers minor league system record-wise, posting a 26-34 mark despite having a roster full of talent with major league experience. Maybe they’re mostly utility player/back of the rotation major league experienced but still, they’ve been to the Show and fans expected more from them.
Of all the players mentioned here, I think Jackson has a shot at being in Arlington before the end of the season. He may just be a September call-up, but he should get a shot before season’s end. Don’t look for Gallo in a major league uniform until the end of next season at the earliest.