This position took one of the biggest leaps forward at the major league level in 2008, largely because of the acquisition of Josh Hamilton. David Murphy, Marlon Byrd and Nelson Cruz all have performed well, and Brandon Boggs showed some promise after getting a quick call from AAA. In the minors, the story is all about two more center fielders, Julio Borbon and Engel Beltre. Of those seven, only Byrd, Cruz and Boggs were in the organization prior to the 2007 trade deadline just over a year ago.
Texas (MLB) - Josh Hamilton, David Murphy, Marlon Byrd, Nelson Cruz, Brandon Boggs, Milton Bradley (DH)
Oklahoma - Ben Harrison, John Mayberry, Jason Ellison
Frisco (AA) - Steve Murphy, Julio Borbon, Dustin Majewski
Bakersfield (A+) - KC Herren, Grant Gerrard, Truan Mehl
Clinton (A) - Engel Beltre, Tim Smith, Cristian Santana
Spokane (A-) - Mike Bianucci, David Paisano, Eric Fry
AZL (RK) - Adam Cobb, Chris Dove, James McGraw
DSL (RK) - Ariel Ventura, Edward Ceballo, Juan Polanco
Top OF prospects:
1. Engel Beltre - tools galore, has about four years to get to Borbon's level and that intriguing power potential
2. Julio Borbon - nice first season, especially at the AA level...can hit but needs to drastically improve walk rate to be a quality player
3. John Mayberry - started so well at AAA but faded as the year went on...has become just another face in a crowded franchise
4. Mike Bianucci - gets the edge on Tim Smith because of extra power
5. Ben Harrison - inability to handle AAA at age 26 makes this dubious, but big league club has sucked up the OF depth in the system
Top OF prospects in baseball (loosely ordered):
Travis Snider TOR, Jason Heyward ATL, Colby Rasmus STL, Cameron Maybin FLA, Andrew McCutchen PIT, Dexter Fowler COL, Mike Stanton FLA, Aaron Hicks MIN, Ben Revere MIN, Greg Halman SEA, Fernando Martinez NYM, Austin Jackson NYY, Gorkys Hernandez ATL, Jordan Schafer ATL, Desmond Jennings TB, Chris Carter OAK, Andrew Lambo LAD, Jose Tabata PIT, Michael Saunders SEA, Engel Beltre TEX
Top OF organizations:
1. Arizona - Adam Dunn, Justin Upton, Chris Young, Eric Byrnes
2. Cleveland - Grady Sizemore, Shin Soo Choo, Ben Francisco, Matt LaPorta
3. Detroit - Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, Matt Joyce, Marcus Thames
4. Colorado - Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe, Ryan Spilborghs, Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler
5. Baltimore - Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Luke Scott, Nolan Reimold
Where the Rangers fit:
There is no clear cut group in baseball that stands out above the rest. Like more teams than not, Texas has one standout player (not including Bradley since he's almost exclusively a DH) and like several teams they have a couple more nice players. Neither Borbon nor Beltre are elite prospects at this point, but they make Texas one of about seven organizations with two very nice outfield prospects.
While Bradley is not an outfielder moving forward, he may affect the situation, since his presence uses up the DH spot (when he's healthy). The same could potentially be true of Frank Catalanotto, though his bat has regressed and the rest of the roster has progressed to the point that only money could keep him in Arlington. I plan on operating under the assumption that Bradley is not with the team and that Catalanotto doesn't impact playing time too heavily, whether that means an outfielder or someone like Max Ramirez, Hank Blalock, or a new incarnation of Milton Bradley gets the bulk of the DH time. Cruz is the next large variable, and his excellent September seems to have him back in the picture. Byrd and Murphy have both had solid seasons and figure to play at least half time.
That leaves Boggs as the odd man out, at least in terms of playing time, but I don't see that as a big problem. If there are enough at-bats (including DH ones) to warrant a fifth outfielder, he is on the roster and filling that role. If there aren't, he did not get to play much in AAA and has only hit .229 in the majors. He has options and can be a shuttle guy. If Cruz proves to be fools gold, Boggs takes his spot and becomes the #4 guy.
Similar to the infield outlook keying on when/if Elvis Andrus can take over at shortstop, the dynamics in the outfield could change quite a bit if Borbon develops into a legitimate center fielder. To me, whether he can do that is much more in question than in Andrus' case, but he's also more likely to see meaningful playing time in the majors in 2009 than Elvis. If Borbon were to take over center field, Hamilton would move to a seemingly favored right field spot (or maybe left field if Cruz establishes himself), and at least as far as outfield spots go, the others are all looking at one position to share. I could see a situation forming where Borbon is ready about the time that Byrd is a free agent, and Muphy and Cruz potentially being platoon partners in a corner. Again though, none of that is too certain because Borbon is no sure thing, at least in my eyes, to become a major league starter. One other thing to keep in mind, if Hamilton, Borbon and Murphy became the three regular outfielders, is the lefty/righty situation. At the least guys like Boggs, Cruz and maybe Mayberry could be handy in offsetting a matchup nightmare with a team like the A's.
Engel Beltre represents the potential next big thing positionally in the Texas system. His upside easily eclispes Borbon's, but he has a huge hole in his game that must be closed before he can become that next guy in the line of Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa, Pudge Rodriguez, Ruben Mateo, Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Pena, and Chris Davis. His BB/SO ratio this season was 15/105, and even repeated benchings for his poor approach at the plate didn't make much of an impact, though he did at least walk five times in August. He'll likely be in High A as a 19 year old next year, as he still hit .283 with 43 XBH in Low A as an 18 year old and was a midseason top 100 prospect according to BA.
Aside from Borbon, Beltre and the enigma that is John Mayberry, the outfield pickins are pretty slim. Mitch Moreland could see time in the outfield since he figures to be on the same roster as Justin Smoak (and Beltre), but I have a bit of a hard time projecting him there long term. At any rate, his bat looks more promising than anyone else at the position. Another positional question mark is Cristian Santana, who might need to repeat Low A after a season that looked very similar to Beltre's but with a batting average about 50 points lower. It would be good news to see him back at catcher, but I don't get the impression that this is a certainty. Mike Bianucci had a nice summer, following a good season in the Cape with a .316/.386/.535 line in 31 games for Spokane. That usually leads to a jump to High A for college players, but depth chart issues could send him to Low A. There is a thought that Clark Murphy could get a look in the outfield, but like Moreland, my impression is that he's probably only going to wind up back at first base anyway.