When the off-season began for the Texas Rangers, one of their top priorities, we assumed, was finding a centerfielder. As the calendar turns to 2012 in a scant two days, it would appear that the Rangers’ focus is everywhere but the center of the outfield.
It might seem silly to some that a club with one of the game’s elite centerfielders would be in the market for a replacement, but Josh Hamilton has missed a lot of time due to injuries and there general consensus is that a full-time shift to left field would allow Hamilton to stay in the lineup a bit more often. Obviously, the more games they can get out of Hamilton, the better this club will be. The American League MVP in 2010, Hamilton is a four-time all-star. He has missed an average of 47 games per season over the last three years.
Early in November, we heard rumors that Texas was in pursuit of Grady Sizemore. A reclamation project to be sure, Sizemore was once one of the best young centerfielders in the game. Injuries cost him much of the past three seasons as well, but unlike the relatively mild toll they’ve taken on Hamilton, Sizemore’s production has suffered dramatically. It seemed that Sizemore would be an ideal “change-of-scenery” guy, but he re-sign in Cleveland instead.
Sizemore was one of just a few true centerfielders on the open market and easily the best of the bunch. While someone like Carlos Beltran would have been a major offensive force in the Rangers’ lineup, he didn’t fit the mold of a guy who could routinely play in center. Coco Crisp remains on the market, but he’s coming off his worst offensive season; one that saw him post an OBP of just .314.
In other words, it’s looking more and more that if Hamilton will get a respite from patrolling center, it will have to come from within the organization.
Last season, no one started more games in center for the Rangers than Endy Chavez, who started 59 times. Chavez turned in a surprisingly good campaign and was rewarded with a $1.5 million free agent deal in Baltimore earlier this winter.
With Chavez gone and no players signed to replace him, the Rangers will be hoping that one of a trio of young players can emerge and claim a starting role. Those players, Julio Borbon, Craig Gentry, and Leonys Martin, combined to start 62 games in center for Texas last year.
Borbon began the year with Texas after a solid, if unspectacular 2010 season. At age 25 and with more than a full season of big league baseball under his belt, Borbon was expected to take a step forward in 2011, but wound up posting a disappointing .305 OBP in his 98 plate appearances before getting demoted to Triple-A. Unfortunately, an injury at Round Rock limited Borbon to just 32 games of minor league ball before his season was cut short. He did use the time in the minors well, however, posting a promising .376 OBP, albeit in a small sample size.
When the Rangers needed outfield help later in the year, Borbon’s injury opened the door for Gentry to get the call. Though he had gotten cups of coffee with Texas in each of the previous two seasons, Gentry was rapidly approaching “organizational filler” status in 2011, playing the season at age 27. Gentry and Borbon are not dissimilar players. Neither possesses much pop, and both are fleet of foot. Both players will have to rely on a high batting average to drive their offensively value. gentry, however, has shown a bit more of an ability to get on base at the minor league level.
But at age 28, Gentry isn’t likely to get much better than he is, and what he is is a career .739 minor league OPS guy who runs well, plays a good defensive centerfield, and is capable of working an occasional walk. Certainly not useless as a major league player, but not exactly a guy you’d target as an everyday player on a championship-caliber club.
That leaves us with Martin. The Cuban defector has played less than a full-season’s worth of games in this country, but made it all the way through the Texas system and to a brief major league stint in 2011. Martin won’t turn 24 years old until March and carries an impressive skill set already.
A guy some have compared to Jose Reyes in terms of offensive ability, Martin is unlikely to develop into a 20+ home runs guy, but his speed will lead to more than his fair share of extra-base hits. He plays a solid defense and has an arm that is strong enough to play in centerfield.
Martin is still young and is still adjusting to live outside of Cuba, no doubt. He did struggle in Triple-A, but had dominated the Double-A level. Given the circumstances surrounding his 2011 season, calling it anything but an unmitigated success would be harsh.
Texas has Martin under contract for four more seasons, and under team control for five. If he gets off to a solid Spring Training, I don’t think it’s a stretch to think Martin would make the Opening Day roster. If he shows he can handle big league pitching, I don’t think it’s a stretch to think he could very well be the Rangers’ everyday man in centerfield by mid-May.