So far, Spring Training has been remarkably kind to Borbon. He has looked solid in the outfield, avoiding the mistakes that characterized his first few games of 2011. He has looked even better at the plate, hitting for an excellent .457 OBP. Although a significant component of that is his .345 batting average, which is obviously unlikely to last throughout the season, he has shown better plate discipline. His career BB/K ratio is .39, but through these 29 AB he’s managed to maintain a 1.2 ration. Obviously the quality of pitching he’s facing in Spring Training is significantly worse than at the major league level, but he has started against some competent pitchers, most notably Mat Latos, who he homered off of. The power component is still entirely absent from his toolbox: his anemic .483 SLG is higher than his career norms, but not outlandishly higher the way his other peripheral stats are.
Borbon’s success stands in stark contrast to the struggles that have plagued Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry, the two other contenders for the Center Field position. Although Martin’s SLG is right in line with Borbon’s, his ability to get on base isn’t nearly on the same level, leading to a lackluster .795 OPS. Perhaps in recognition of this, Ron Washington has declared that Martin needs a full year in AAA, so we won’t see him until September, when he will probably enjoy another callup like in 2011.
Statistically, Spring Training has been a nightmare for Gentry: he is hitting just .136 with no extra base hits. He has some mitigating circumstances interfering here though; he dove to try to make a play on a blooper single, injuring his wrist and potentially sapping him of some power and disrupting his timing. Still, the results have simply not been there.
So, who should be starting in CF for the Rangers? There are a couple considerations other than just how the players have performed so far in Spring Training.
First, what should Josh Hamilton’s role be? If he plays in CF, that virtually locks in David Murphy in LF. Murphy is significantly worse than Hamilton in Left, and Hamilton is somewhat worse than Gentry or Borbon (when he’s mentally together) in Center. Putting them both out on the field together is not an optimal arrangement. However, it is the optimal offensive arrangement. Although Borbon has outperformed Murphy so far in ST, Murphy has the better career stats (wRC+ of 104 compared to Borbon’s 83), and is roughly an equal contributor on the basepaths, despite not having Borbon’s speed. The common counter-argument is that Hamilton will miss more time due to injury if he plays in CF. I don’t really buy this though, for the simple reason that Hamilton’s injury history thus far is mostly freak accidents that would have happened at any position. Last season Hamilton fractured a collarbone sliding in headfirst at home plate, he has torn up his adductor muscle by running too hard, and has crashed into walls repeatedly. While putting him in CF increases the chance that he runs into a wall slightly, it doesn’t do anything to address the injuries he picks up on the basepaths or when swinging a bat.
Second, what kind of ceiling are we looking at here for all our candidates? David Murphy is 31, and is coming off his worst major league season. He plays his heart out, but its looking like there is no place to go but down. Gentry is younger, just 29, but he is currently in his prime and at this point can’t be reasonably to improve much. Borbon, on the other hand, is 26 and probably just entering his prime. He may yet develop some more power, or at least better baseball instincts and plate discipline. His Spring Training performance, especially the improved BB/K ration, could certainly be a sign of that. Giving Borbon regular playing time in CF could really spur his development as a player, and turn Borbon into a useful asset either in a trade when Leonys Martin is ready for the majors, or to take Murphy’s place as a backup outfielder.
What we’re looking at here is a classic offense v. defense tradeoff. All things considered I see this as being pretty close, but I would choose Hamilton in LF with Borbon in CF and David Murphy as the backup. Murphy has been an excellent backup for a very long time, and I would like to see him continue to excel in that role while Julio Borbon is given as chance to fulfill all the high expectations we had for him when he was just starting out.