The Rangers have endured an exceptionally rough 2014 but general sentiment around the franchise suggests 2015 is a year for a quick turnaround and shot at contention. For this to be the case the Rangers must bolster their pitching and, perhaps most importantly, stay healthy. I believe that one position the Rangers front office will have to address, in addition to these priorities, for next year though is the setup behind the plate.
All year, Robinson Chirinos has been called a “bright spot” or “surprise” following Geovany Soto’s knee surgery and subsequent absence. Frankly, I agree with this perception of the now 30 year-old journeyman backstop, but hesitate to believe he is capable of logging the majority of a contending Major League teams innings behind the plate. Chirinos has taken his opportunity this season and ran with it, but not all aspects of his game have thrived the way a contending team requires such an integral position player to perform.
In the long run, Ranger fans hope the backstop question will be an easy one. For a while now, it has been the general perception that Jorge Alfaro would take over the Rangers starting catcher’s role and lend stability to a position that has been largely held by short-term solutions since Pudge left Texas. Currently though, Alfaro is just 21 years old and playing his first full season in High-A ball at Myrtle Beach. His arrival in Arlington theoretically could take two more full years and the Rangers, aiming to contend in 2015, are almost certainly aiming to bridge the gap effectively in the meantime.
Robinson Chirinos bolstered his chances to make the roster following a 1.142 OPS showing in Spring Training. Soto’s knee surgery, in addition to J.P. Arencibia’s staggeringly rough start has given Chirinos the chance to appear in 71 games good for 232 plate appearances. This year the Rangers have not come close to contending and therefore Chirinos has had the chance to prove himself over an elongated period for a struggling team.
There are some things Chirinos has done particularly well this season. For one, he has committed just two errors and caught 43.1 (25 of 58) percent of would-be base stealers, a very impressive rate and best in MLB. The combination of sound receiving and a spectacular arm should lend Chirinos a chance to be at least a Major League backup for several years.
Some defensive skills are more intangible though. It is tough to determine exactly how well Chirinos does with the staff, but Rangers’ pitchers ERA’s when he is behind the plate is 4.93, slightly worse than the teams 4.81 ERA overall. Geovany Soto will return to the Rangers lineup soon and is expected to catch Yu Darvish; should Chirinos reclaim his role with the Rangers next season he will need to have a good relationship with his staff, ideally Darvish in particular too.
Offensively, Robinson has the pop to be more than adequate as a catcher (11 doubles, 11 HR’s, .427 slugging) but he has struggled to get on base at a respectable clip (.276 OBP). Still, his bat and ability to drive the ball make him a threat to pitchers and even a late-inning pinch-hitting option (especially this year given the Rangers weakened bench). Really, Chirinos has all the makeup of a productive backup catcher; whether he can make the necessary step to earn a more full time role remains to be seen. Take this into account: Chirinos’ OPS in the minors is, at .767, higher than Jorge Alfaro’s .757 and he is throwing out major leaguers at a rate Rangers fans can only hope Alfaro may duplicate despite the youngsters’ phenom-like throwing reputation. Obviously, Alfaro is very young with a high ceiling and room to improve, but Chirinos has quietly hit all throughout the minors and has a cannon too.
Most troublesome though to me is Chirinos’ BB:K ratio. Chirinos has walked just 9 times this year (not once did he walked in June) opposed to having struck out 55 times (almost exactly one quarter of his 232 plate appearances). Chirinos had 409 career minor league walks against 711 strike outs (.575:1 BB to K ratio), suggesting he does (at lower level at least) have the ability to take a walk, but that hasn’t shown up this year. Should he have maintained that .575:1 ratio over to the major this year, his slash line would make him a far more productive offensive piece.
Do I believe Robinson Chirinos has the ability to be an Opening Day catcher? Yes. Do I believe he should be the Rangers 2015 Opening Day catcher? No. The ability is there but Robinson must first polish his ability to get on base at this level and continue to make progress with the Rangers’ staff, which will be a deal maker or breaker for this teams 2015 chances. Should the Rangers really aim to contend seriously in 2015, Chirinos, in my opinion, would need to take two full steps forward or give way to a more polished MLB catcher.
Chirinos is a good story and the Rangers could have used a few more this year. Ideally, in my eyes he can develop into an A.J. Ellis type player on the Dodgers: someone who also got his first extended chance in the MLB late (Ellis was 31) but proved to be a valuable two-way player that is good with his staff, can get on base, and provide decent offensive depth for a typically weak offensive position while Jorge Alfaro makes his own strides.
Regardless, I think the Rangers will need more production than what Chirinos, Chris Gimenez, Geovany Soto, Brett Nicholas, J.P. Arencibia, or any other in-house candidate can provide in 2015. For that reason, I think the Rangers would do well to take a close look at Russell Martin or similar type players to bridge the gap effectively. Martin his sound defensively, has a good reputation with working with pitchers and gets on base consistently. As a free agent this off-season, a two year deal that would lure him away from Pittsburgh could pay immediate dividends for the Rangers while setting up Jorge Alfaro to make his long-awaited debut perhaps early in 2017.
This article has had very little to do with Geovany Soto, but I believe his role with the Rangers is very simply undefined and will be in limbo until he has a chance to perform during the stretch run. I am of the belief that a Russell Martin type player is worth the extra cash opposed to the Soto option but Soto will have to prove that thought otherwise with what fraction of the season he has left. Until then, I would just consider him another free agent going into the off-season.