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The Centerfield Situation

With the Rangers in first place (albeit barely) in mid-June, and likely to be in the playoff hunt all season, we naturally are going to start looking at what the problem areas are on the team and what can be done to shore them up.  The bullpen has been the big area of concern, and of course, if you could find a pitcher who you'd feel comfortable starting twice in a 7 game series, you'd probably want the Rangers to try to get in on that.

The position players, however, seem fairly well set.  There are eight spots where you feel like the Rangers are in pretty good shape, and you're comfortable going to battle in October with who you've got.

And then there's one big question mark...centerfield.

The Rangers' centerfield situation has really be in flux for the entire 21st century.  The top five Ranger CF'ers, in terms of innings played in center since 2002, are:

Gary Matthews, Jr. -- 2294

Marlon Byrd -- 1818

Josh Hamilton -- 1694

Laynce Nix -- 1625

Julio Borbon -- 1365

There are 1458 innings in a full season, so basically, in the last 9+ years, no Ranger centerfielder has played more than a season and a half at the position.  GMJ and Byrd were basically looked at as stop-gaps, Hamilton as a potential CF of the future who had to move off the position for various reasons, and Nix and Borbon as potential CF'ers of the future who disappointed.

There's a huge drop-off after that in innings, although not a huge drop-off in the number of players who logged significant innings.  Kenny Lofton is next on the list, at 669 innings -- half the amount that Borbon has logged.

The others who have logged at least 100 innings in center for the Rangers since 2002 are (in decreasing order) Ruben Rivera, Ryan Christenson, Doug Glanville, Carl Everett, David Murphy, Ramon Nivar, Calvin Murray, Craig Gentry, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Ryan Ludwick, Donnie Sadler, Gabe Kapler, Jason Conti, Todd Hollandsworth, and Endy Chavez

Quite the collection of has-beens and never-weres, that list.

That's 21 players with at least 100 innings in center for the Rangers in that stretch.  In comparison, the Red Sox have had 9 (with Damon, Crisp and Ellsbury combining for over 10,000 innings), the Angels have had 12 (with Hunter, Erstad and Figgins combining for almost 6000 innings), the Twins have had 7 (Hunter, Span, Gomez and Ford combining for almost 13,000 innings) and the Yankees, who have had their own centerfield issues this decade, 9 (with Williams, Cabrera, Damon, Granderson and Gardner combining for almost 12,000 innings).

Even for a position that, league-wide, is hard to fill, the Rangers' have had a uniquely-revolving door in center.  I think that certainly helps explain the targeting of young up-the-middle players and the willingness to give Leonys Martin a $15.5 million major league deal...that desire to develop a long-term solution in center.

Right now, the Rangers seem to be committed to running a three-headed monster out there in centerfield.  Endy Chavez is playing against many righthanded pitchers.*  Craig Gentry, the best defensive centerfielder in the organization, is playing against lefties, and is coming into games late when the Rangers have the lead for Chavez.**  And Josh Hamilton is going to be out there once or twice a week, to allow David Murphy to get into the game in a COF spot.

*  Since Julio Borbon was optioned, with many defending the decision to keep Chavez because "he's too hot to send down" and "you have to play the hot hand," Chavez has posted a .240/.296/.280 line.  In his last 6 games, he is 3 for 20, with a .150/.227/.150 line.  In other words, once again, the "hot hand" theory turned out to be nonsense.

**  Reinforcing this important point:  the Rangers have Chavez up here for his bat, not his glove.

What I'm curious to see is whether this mix-and-match arrangement will remain in place the rest of the way, or if the Rangers will go ahead and make a move to get a legitimate starting centerfielder on the 25 man roster.  I suspect that Borbon won't be the guy,* and that he's played his last game with the Rangers...the question is if he'll be used as a package for a reliever in July, or for something else, such as a centerfielder.**

*  I think part of the problem with the perception of Borbon stems from the way he started out his major league career, hitting .312 with a .376 OBP and 19 steals in 46 games in 2009.  I think that created unrealistic expectations, that Borbon was going to be this dynamic force at the top of the lineup who was going to get on base a lot and cause havoc for opposing pitchers.  If you expected Borbon to be a light-hitting glove man in centerfield -- which is what I've always viewed him as -- then what he's done since the start of the 2010 season is in line with expectations.  If you expected him to be a top of the order hitter, though, you're going to be disappointed in what he's done, and more likely to view him as a failure.

**  Julio Borbon, Michael Kirkman, and Tommy Mendonca for Michael Bourn -- who says no?

The Rangers don't look like they'll have the luxury they had at the end of 2010, putting it in cruise control for the last couple of months and gearing up for the playoffs.  Maybe Hamilton goes to centerfield come October (assuming the Rangers make it that far), and the Rangers do some sort of platoon arrangement, with David Murphy playing left field against righthanded hitters, and Mitch Moreland going to the outfield against lefties, with Mike Napoli moving to first base.  

Of course, that would require Murphy to start hitting like Murphy again, rather than hitting like...well, Endy Chavez.

The Rangers could go with the Chavez/Gentry platoon in centerfield down the stretch and in the playoffs, or let Gentry play center against lefties and have Murphy play against righties, meaning Hamilton moves to center against righthanded pitchers.

Or they could go out and trade for a legit centerfielder.

Part of what is hanging over this is the Leonys Martin situation.  Martin got off to a hot start in Frisco and had folks talking about him potentially being an option this season, but I'm leery of dropping a guy into a major league pennant race with so little pro experience.  I'd also prefer to go into 2012 with Martin as Plan B in centerfield, and someone like Bourn or Marlon Byrd (both of whom are free agents after 2012) as your Plan A, which is what makes dealing for a centerfielder like Bourn or Byrd attractive right now.

It is an interesting situation...I'm curious to see how long the Rangers ride out the three-headed monster, if they decide to commit to more of a straight platoon or to more Hamilton in center, or if they go outside the organization for a solution.