One of the reasons this is one of the duller spring trainings in recent memory (as far as non-Darvish news is concerned) is the lack of meaningful roster battles. We know who the starting rotation will be. We have a pretty good idea who the 7 members of the bullpen will be (Nathan, Ogando, Uehara, Adams, Lowe, Feldman, and Kirkman). We know who 11 of the 13 position players will be, including 8 of the 9 members of the regular starting lineup. We know that #12 of the 13 position players will be a random utility infielder who is pretty much interchangeable with any other utility infielder.
However, there is one regular job that is still up for grabs -- the Rangers' regular centerfield job. I hesitate to say "starting centerfield job," because the reality is that there probably won't be a "starting centerfielder." Rather, it will likely be like the 2011 season, where six players starting in center, five players started at least ten games (did you remember David Murphy started 11 games in center last year? Me either...), four players started at least 28 games, and the team leader, Endy Chavez, started 59 games.
There are four players currently in the organization who could end up getting the lion's share of the starts in center in 2012, and we're going to run them down after the jump while looking at the pros and cons for each player:
Option 1 -- Craig Gentry
Pros -- Best defender and best basestealer among the contenders; had a surprisingly productive season with the bat in 2011 (.271/.347/.346)
Cons -- Minor league track record suggests that last year's slash line is not sustainable; at age 28, isn't likely to get much, if any, better than he is now
ZiPS projection for 2012 -- .247/.309/.334
Gentry became a fan favorite last season, appearing in 64 games and impressing with his terrific glovework and skill on the basepaths (18 steals in 18 attempts). Nevertheless, the Rangers question whether he'll hit enough against righthanded pitchers to be an everyday player, and Gentry may be destined for a reserve role.
Option 2 -- Julio Borbon
Pros -- The former first round pick has a minor league pedigree that suggests he can be a solid all-around player in center, offering quality defense, speed, and some offensive production; his performance in a late-season call-up in 2009 made it appear that he could be a game-changing leadoff hitter
Cons -- Other than in 2009, he hasn't hit in the majors; his decision-making on the basepaths and in the field has led some to question his baseball instincts; his arm is below-average; committing $15.5 million to Leonys Martin indicates the Rangers no longer consider him the centerfielder of the future
ZiPS projection for 2012 -- .276/.319/.363
After his electrifying 2009 debut, Borbon was viewed as the answer for the Rangers in centerfield for the next half-decade, at least. However, Borbon was very disappointing with the bat in 2010, and after struggling early in the 2011 season, he injured his hamstring in mid-May, went to the d.l., was optioned to AAA, got hurt again, and basically had a wasted season. Borbon has become something of a whipping boy among Rangers fans, particularly those confuse a weak arm and sometimes questionable routes with being a terrible defender. Nevertheless, at this point, he seems to have the inside track on the regular CF job, and the Rangers' best case scenario is for Borbon to rebuild his value this year so that he can return value in a trade in the offseason, with Leonys Martin replacing him in 2013.
Option 3 -- Leonys Martin
Pros -- Solid all-around game; seen as a smart player who makes good decisions; quality defender and baserunner; viewed as having significant offensive potential
Cons -- Some scouts question his hit tool; less than a year of being a professional in the United States; has not hit above AA; seen as being raw and in need of regular playing time; is he really 24?
ZiPS projection for 2012 -- .270/.325/.350
If we'd had this discussion around the All Star Break last year, the idea that this would even be up for debate would have been laughable. The question then wasn't who would be the Rangers' regular centerfielder in 2012, it was whether Leonys would seize the job before the end of 2011, or if he'd have to wait until this year. However, after a hot start in AA, Martin struggled upon being promoted to AAA, and the major league coaching staff seems convinced that he needs more time in the minors before he's ready for a regular major league job.
Option 4 -- Josh Hamilton (with David Murphy in LF)
Pros -- The best offensive lineup; gives the Rangers two proven veterans in the starting lineup
Cons -- Hamilton in CF and Murphy in LF weakens the Rangers at two positions, compared to any of the other three options; Murphy doesn't hit lefties; the Rangers have concerns about Hamilton's ability to stay healthy in CF
ZiPS projection for 2012 (for Murphy) -- .269/.328/.422
For some fans, the answer to the centerfield problem is easy -- put Josh in center, put Murphy in left, and let them play everyday. While that is the best offensive alignment, whether that offensive upgrade is wiped out by the defensive downgrade depends on how good you really believe Hamilton is in center compared to the others. In addition, the Rangers have made it clear that they have concerns about Hamilton's ability to stay healthy over a full season while playing center every day.