The Texas Rangers, especially versus right handed starters, have one of the more impressive outfields in baseball. On any give night, they’ll send David Murphy, who hits right handers well (.296 average, .809 OPS in 2011), Josh Hamilton (2010 AL MVP) and Nelson Cruz (.872 OPS over last 3 seasons) out to attack opposing pitchers.
The problem is, many nights, one or more of those guys simply aren’t healthy enough to play.
Last season, not one of those three managed to play in more than 124 games. Now, that number is a bit misleading, as Murphy typically doesn’t start when a left hander is on the mound, but Hamilton and Cruz are expected to be in the lineup every day. They just haven’t been. In three seasons as a starter, Cruz has missed an average of 42 games per year. Hamilton has missed an average of 48 games per year over his last three seasons.
For this team, perhaps more than any other, a quality fourth outfielder is more than just a luxury; it’s a necessity.
Last season, it was Endy Chavez was saw the bulk of the time as the fourth outfielder and he did well in a role that was more expanded than the Rangers would have liked. In 256 at bats, Chavez hit .301 and provided just enough pop (19 extra-base hits) and defensive versatility to make himself a valuable commodity.
Chavez hit free agency at the end of the season and reports have the New York Mets interested in re-uniting with their one-time playoff hero. At 33, Chavez is an ideal fourth outfielder in that he will be willing to sit and watch on most nights if it gets him a major league paycheck, but he’s still young enough to be reasonably effective when he does play. If Chavez were to depart, the Rangers will be without a much-needed insurance policy.
So, just how comfortable would you be seeing a healthy dose of Craig Gentry in the starting lineup on a consistent basis? Gentry is a fine defender and has good speed, and has a minor league track record of getting on base at a fairly high rate. He doesn’t strikeout often and he walks a good amount, but he rarely hits the ball with authority. The role that Ron Washington used him in through the playoffs is probably what he’s best-suited to do; defense and pinch-running.
If the Rangers decide to and are successful in landing a big-name free agent first baseman, Mitch Moreland could become the fourth outfielder, though he’s surely better-suited to play first base. Moreland cannot play centerfield, something both Chavez and Sizemore can do well, but Gentry’s presence as a fifth outfielder mitigates that issue somewhat. To me, however, this would be a last-resort solution. In the above scenario, the Rangers would get more value from Moreland by trading him and finding another reserve outfielder than they would by using him in that role.
The better bet would be to give Julio Borbon another shot as the first reserve/platoon partner for Murphy. Borbon missed a good chunk of time after injuring his ankle in Triple-A in early July, and struggled to get on base with any consistency over the past two seasons with the Rangers. That said, he also has a career .361 OBP in the minor leagues and was playing well at Round Rock before the injury. If not as a major league option, Borbon could also be used as a trade chip.
The popular choice among fans will probably be Leonys Martin, but I see no reason to bring him up to play every fourth game. Martin has amazing talent and could be an impact-type player when he gets his opportunity, but after tearing up the Texas League, he struggled mightily in Round Rock. He’ll benefit from the regular at bats he can get in Triple-A.
If and when one of the three regular outfielders land one the disabled list in 2012, and if Martin has shown a better ability to handle Triple-A pitching, he’d be the guy I’d expect to see taking over the full-time role in Texas. Until then, however, he won’t benefit from sitting on the Rangers bench.