Spring keeps rolling through for the Rangers in Surprise, Arizona. The big surprise isn’t the Rangers currently lackluster 3-7 Spring Training record; it’s that, well, who the hell is really paying attention to Spring Training this season?
Despite going through pretty much the entire 2000′s decade without anything to tangibly (or intangibly) feel good about, the Rangers and its fans at least had substantial question marks that had to be answered during this preseason stage that, quite frankly, don’t seem to exist with this year’s roster.
I mean, let’s be honest. What really are we talking about this Spring? We’re talking about Yu Darvish and the apocalypse that ensues each time he issues a free pass to a hitter. We’re talking about who’s going to get more playing time in center field out of Craig Gentry, Julio Borbon, and Leonys Martin. There’s no collision of young prospect versus seasoned veteran; no duel to see who is going be the #3, 4, or 5 starter. Those positions have been proven. For the most part, give or take a couple mostly insignificant bench pieces, the roster is set.
We know who’s catching, who’s at 1st, 2nd, 3rd and shortstop. We know Josh Hamilton is in left and Nelson Cruz is in right. We know the rotation will consist in some order of Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz. And that Joe Nathan is the closer.
To me, center field is simple. I assume it’s elementary for the Rangers front office as well. Last season, Craig Gentry produced a 1.4 WAR in just 64 games (many of which he was inserted late as a defensive replacement) and 153 plate appearances. If you aren’t familiar with sabermetrics, I’ll be brief. That number is exceptional. He was a perfect 18 for 18 in stolen base attempts, and batted a respectable .271 in the first season he saw anything more than a cup of coffee with the Rangers. Extrapolated over, say, 115 starts in the 2012 season, I wouldn’t expect Gentry to hit that well, as most American League pitchers are smart enough the second and third and twentieth times around to make the necessary adjustments, but I’m also not of the mind that believes his bat will be what Texas is depending on to win games this year. His value lies in having legitimate burner speed, supreme center field defense, and acting as a third leadoff man in front of Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus when the lineup turns over. Face it: he plays better center field defense than Josh Hamilton or anyone else the Rangers currently possess, and his bat is essentially immaterial to his game and the lineup that surrounds him.
Julio Borbon is another candidate. He was pegged as an above average defender with plus-plus speed, though we’ve really yet to see him show either talent on a consistent basis at the Major League level. Since he played 137 games in 2010, he took a major step backwards last year both on the field and staying healthy off it. Like I said, the number 9 hole is not a slot of priority in our lineup. Because Julio Borbon has always taken with him an undisciplined approach to the plate, his speed tool is largely underutilized due to not maximizing his on-base ability. Gentry is a better defender, faster, and draws walks at a higher frequency. Really the only thing Borbon has on Gentry is that he was once a big prospect and high draft pick. I project something in the 20-30 starts range for Borbon this season, but he seems like a good throw-in candidate during a July trade.
Sans Engel Beltre, the only other potential center fielder in the higher levels of our farm system is Leonys Martin. When the Rangers acquired him in 2010, there was some thought that he only needed a little bit of seasoning in the minor leagues before assuming the center field role later in the summer on the big league club. Obviously those sentiments now seem a tad outlandish as we currently sit in Spring Training 2012, with Ron Washington having already said he’d like to see another full season in the minors out of Martin before he merits serious consideration as the Rangers’ starting center fielder. The book on Leonys Martin is basic: He can’t hit. He can field; he can make contact. But he can’t hit.
Perhaps Washington’s words are just a motivational smokescreen to catalyze the prospect. I tend to think it’s a legitimate plan, because if he was, in fact, ready, he would have already taken over the position without any further discussion. Instead, Texas looks to start a player with less ceiling in Gentry who fully utilizes his upside, rather than the two guys (Borbon/Martin) who have yet to prove the high praise bestowed upon them.
And really, I just dedicated 400 words and change talking about the position of the most minimal importance in an otherwise juggernaut lineup. That is how slow this Spring Training has been.
If I have any trouble sleeping over the next few weeks, I’ll be sure to tune in to these meaningless exhibitions that are helping to decide virtually nothing all of us aren’t already fully aware of.
Wake me when the wins and losses count.