Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
The rest of 2014 will likely include general preparation for the 2015 season. Among the Rangers list of priorities over the next 6-7 weeks of play is getting an extended look at some young relievers, let Nick Martinez/Nick Tepesch have a chance to finish strong, evaluate what Colby Lewis might have left in the tank, and give some young outfielders a chance to showcase themselves, especially in light of the ankle injuries suffered by Shin-Soo Choo and Alex Rios.
Among the positions potentially being competed for is the Rangers’ 2015 fourth outfielder. Having a fourth outfielder that can play adequate (and ideally above average) defense at all three positions and play a solid role in the lineup is a priority for most teams looking to contend. The Oakland A’s are a good example, having sent a fledgling top prospect in Michael Choice to Texas for the fourth-outfielder type Craig Gentry earlier this year.
Gentry, of course, plays terrific defense, has great speed, and can get on base at a respectable clip, making him a worthy target of Billy Beane and an underrated piece in a highly efficient Oakland lineup. Beane’s genius speaks for itself, and this move reinforced his evident emphasis on making a well-balanced lineup the priority rather than keeping the player with a higher ceiling but whose skill set fit less appropriately into the 25 man unit.
In a season filled with so many injuries, few Ranger fans can deny the need for a competent and productive fourth outfielder. After all, injuries happen all the time and the likelihood of an injury to not one but three players (an outfield) is more likely than not at some point in a 162 game season.
Through the Rangers most successful stretch in team history from 2009-2013, David Murphy provided the team with exactly what they needed in the field. For every wall Josh Hamilton crashed into and for every hamstring tweak Nelson Cruz sustained, David Murphy filled in and contributed nearly full time, even securing a starting job following a fantastic campaign in the penultimate year of his tenure as a Ranger.
Murphy accumulated 9.6 WAR in his 6+ seasons as a Ranger. Every year from 2008-13, David had between 404 and 432 at bats, evidence that he did in fact start a good deal of the time whether due to injuries or his own solid play (typically a combination of each). Regardless, Murphy provided the Rangers with offensive depth that they have lacked this season. Robinson Chirinos wouldn’t have played any DH this year had a strong fourth outfielder been in the mix. Michael Choice wouldn’t have had such a long, painful stretch this season either. With a productive bench player or extra outfielder, those at-bats could have been consolidated in one more offensively capable player.
Murphy played all the outfield positions, albeit slightly below average. He also gradually played left field most, cutting down on play in right and center. In a perfect world, the next outfield swingman will be slightly speedier and athletically inclined defensively but no one questioned his effort, offensive consistency, and ability to at least cover his ground adequately in almost all scenarios.
Considering the Rangers recently acquired big contracts and subsequently tight budget, I figure extending Alex Rios contract through the club option isn’t as worthwhile as bolstering the pitching staff. Should Rios’ option not be picked up, the need for outfield depth is heightened further.
Assuming Shin-Soo Choo will take over in left full time and that Leonys Martin will reclaim his starting job in center (hopefully he finishes strong himself too), right field and the fourth spot would be open to the in-house options of Daniel Robertson, Jim Adduci, Jake Smolinski, and Michael Choice should Rios’ option in fact be declined.
Of the aforementioned options, Daniel Robertson best fits the profile as a fourth outfielder with respect to his defensive versatility, speed, and ability to get on base. In fact, Robertson has proven all throughout the minors that he can hit. In his career, he has just four more minor league strikeouts than walks (316 K’s to 312 free bases) and has stolen 133 bases too. His .303/.381/.411 career slash line in the minors is better than all those options minus Choice, whom the Rangers hope will fill a full time role anyway.
I personally like Daniel Robertson and think he could be a successful piece to most Major League teams. Frankly, I wish Ron Washington would let him lead off consistently and get him some extended looks over the next few weeks to prove himself as a serious possibility. In two full seasons at AAA his OPS was two thousandths apart (.758 and .756) and he had identical on base percentages suggesting he has learned all that he can in the minors and is ready for the last jump.
David Murphy averaged nearly 14 homeruns in each of his six 400-some plate appearance filled season with the Rangers, power numbers that Robertson is almost certainly incapable of duplicating. Still, Robertson would measure up with is speed, defense, and ability to get on base.
Should Robertson or another one of the in-house options thrive over the next six weeks, it will be interesting to see how management treats the outfield situation this off-season. If no one steps up, Alex Rios looks like a better bet to return. If Michael Choice accelerates in AAA, the Rangers could be persuaded to put him in position again to get good time in the field in 2015. I think if the its Adduci or Robertson that steps up though, the Rangers will be looking for a right fielder opposed to a fourth outfielder in which case options like Michal Morse, Josh Willingham, and Nelson Cruz come to mind, but cost will be a big consideration.
The Rangers have nine players in line to make nearly 108 million in salary next season, not including Alex Rios’ option. In my opinion, that option should be declined in order to reallocate funds to the staff. While money is tight and the need for a swingman/offensive plug in the outfield is apparent, the Rangers would really benefit from one of their young players putting on a show with what time in 2014 there is left. The only question is who steps up and what role upper management envisions for all those remaining candidates.