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An embarrassment of riches in the middle infield

With incumbents Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus at the middle infield spots, and phenom Jurickson Profar knocking at the door, do the Rangers have an embarrassment of riches, or do they have a problem in determining how to deploy everyone?

Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Evan Grant had a blog post recently that talks about the "mess in the middle infield" that the Rangers have right now with Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, and Jurickson Profar.

Ian Kinsler, of course, inked a contract extension early in the season that keeps him under team control through 2018, but ended up with one of his most disappointing seasons as a pro, a year that Grant describes as a "huge step backwards."

Elvis Andrus has a contract that runs through 2014, when he then is poised to become a free agent at the age of 26. Grant describes Andrus as taking "a big step forward" in 2012, although his numbers, both offensively and defensively, are pretty similar from 2011 to 2012, and his fWAR actually went down slightly, from 4.4 to 4.2.

And then there is Jurickson Profar, the wunderkind whose presence is causing all this discussion in the first place.

Thinking about it, the very notion of breaking of the Andrus/Kinsler middle infield tandem is almost bizarre...they are one of the best pairs of middle infielders in the majors, they are both dynamic players of the type you want to build a team around, and they have both been key parts of the Rangers' great run of the last four years. The Rangers alienated Michael Young by insisting that he move off of shortstop to make room for Elvis prior to the 2009 season, despite his importance to the team, because they felt Elvis was going to be a key piece of the championship team they were trying to build. The Rangers committed significant dollars to Kinsler early this season because they felt he was the type of cornerstone player they wanted to keep into his late 30s.

But Jurickson Profar, widely considered one of the top two or three prospects in all of baseball, is knocking on the door. And if he's going to join the major league team in 2013, either Kinsler or Elvis will have to move, either to another position or to another organization.

Kinsler, after a hot start to the season, struggled much of the rest of the way, and his poor September in particular seems to have a lot of fans down on him. One of the most common responses I've seen from Rangers fans is that the Rangers should build around Andrus and Profar, and get rid of Kinsler. Evan Grant suggests that Kinsler's defense has slipped to the point he should be moved off of second base, and there are those who say, he turned 30 and had a down season, its just going to get worse, the Rangers should dump him, his bad body language and his contract now while someone might take him off of their hands. Grant goes so far as to suggest that the Rangers should consider the extension a "mistake" and find someone to dump his contract on.

However, it is worth considering that these views may be an overreaction to a season that, while disappointing for someone like Kinsler who has been a top five second baseman, was still pretty solid overall. Dave Cameron, in mid-July, listed Kinsler at #30 in his trade value column -- right behind Profar, at #28, and Dylan Bundy, at #29 -- stating the following:

The Rangers second baseman got a big contract extension over the winter and is having the worst offensive season of his career, but he remains in the same spot he occupied a year ago, as he was probably just a bit too low last year. At 30, he’s headed towards the downside of his career, but he’s still a highly productive middle infielder who can hit, field, and run the bases, and the extension he got pales in comparison to some of the recent big deals that similarly valuable players have received.

Gil Lebreton echoed a similar sentiment in his column on a column about the Michael Young problem the Rangers face, Lebreton had this to say:

Don't minimize Kinsler's value. Some teams would leap at the chance to have Kinsler as their everyday second baseman.

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That's a sentiment I agree with. I have to think that, if the Rangers were to put Kinsler on the trade market, there would be a number of teams interested. I've seen a few people suggest that Kinsler is untradeable because he's owed so much money, but that seems exceptionally misguided to me. Kinsler's contract is structured unusually...most deals like his are backloaded, but Kinsler's top two salary years are in 2014 and 2015, when he makes $16 million per year. He gets $13 million in 2013, $14 million in 2016, $11 million in 2017, and has a $10 million club option with a $5 million buyout in 2018. As Cameron noted in his column after Kinsler inked his deal:

Whether Kinsler can remain an elite player going forward is a legitimate question, but at 5/75, he doesn’t necessarily need to in order to make this contract worth signing for the Rangers. This looks like a win-win deal for both sides, even if Kinsler isn’t going to stick at second base long term.

So if Kinsler's contract doesn't make him untradeable -- if it makes him an asset that would bring back a solid return in a deal -- then why not trade him?

Two reasons, I think.

First, given the amount of turnover the Rangers are likely facing among their position players -- Josh Hamilton likely leaving, Mike Napoli a free agent, and David Murphy, Michael Young and Nelson Cruz all free agents after 2013 -- the Rangers would like to maintain some stability in the lineup, and Kinsler is a player they've identified as being someone they want to build around long-term.

And second, Elvis Andrus is a free agent after 2014, Scott Boras is his agent, and there appears to be serious doubts about whether he's willing to sign a long-term deal the Rangers will be comfortable with.

Personally, I'm bullish on Andrus. If I'm the Rangers, I offer him a 7 year, $140 million extension that would kick in beginning in 2015. That would take him through his age 32 season, and while $20 million is a lot of money, if you believe Andrus is a 4 WAR player, that's more or less market value, before taking inflation into account. If you think he improves going forward, that deal could look like a bargain. And Elvis is the type of charismatic player who makes for a perfect "Face of the Franchise."

And yet, I doubt the Rangers are willing to make that sort of offer. And I'm also not sure Elvis would accept. If he and Boras believe that he is going to improve -- particularly offensively -- over the next couple of years, given his age and the fact that he plays a position of scarcity, he could well get significantly more than $140 million guaranteed as a free agent.

The Elvis uncertainty puts the Rangers in a difficult position in determining how to proceed with Profar. One of the common suggestions is that the Rangers put Profar at second base and move Ian Kinsler to the outfield. If you think Andrus is your long-term solution at shortstop, then there's merit to that suggestion. However, if Elvis is not going to be in Texas beyond 2014, that solution is problematic...realistically, you don't want to have Kinsler and Profar move to new positions in 2013, play them for two seasons, and then move back to more challenging positions in 2015.

Now, if you believe, as some do, that Kinsler is going to be a liability in the field at second base, then it may make more sense to move him now, rather than later. However, if that is your belief, then you probably would want to go ahead and move Kinsler now for value, rather than put him into the outfield at this point.

There's an argument to be made that the smart move is to trade Elvis now, when he's two years from free agency and would command a significant haul, clearing the way for Profar. There are a couple of potential problems there, though, aside from the obvious issue that Elvis is awesome and should never be traded and should be a Ranger for life.

First, a team that is going to trade for Elvis Andrus, with two years left on his deal, is going to be looking to win now. Thus, they are unlikely to want to trade the sort of impact major league pieces the Rangers would likely be looking to acquire if they were to deal Elvis. The Rangers could, no doubt, get a significant group of prospects back for Elvis, but that would simply mean they'd need to turn around and deal similar prospects to add quality to the major league team in an effort to win in 2013.

Second is that it is hard to get a handle on what sort of trade value Elvis has. Cameron's trade value column in July had Elvis at #50, twenty slots below Ian Kinsler, despite the fact that most Rangers fans would probably flip-flop the two of them. The Rangers clearly value Elvis, but there's a not unreasonable school of thought that suggests that teams don't value these sorts of defense-oriented players the way they do sluggers. If Elvis's skill-set makes him an undervalued asset, why should the Rangers sell on him while he's still under team control?

Thus bringing us back around to Profar. Those who cover the Rangers indicate that Profar is as close to untouchable as it gets. I've suggested in passing that the Rangers should consider dealing Profar for someone like Wil Myers or Oscar Taveras, similarly touted prospects who fill more of a position of need, but there seems to be a sense within the organization that Profar is someone special, a transcendent talent who cannot be parted with.

There seems to be a sentiment among some that Profar being with the Rangers in 2013 is a foregone conclusion -- that Profar has given the Rangers no choice but to put him in the major league lineup next year. And Profar had a very solid season in Frisco in 2012. However, his performance was exciting in no small part because he was doing what he did at the age of 19. Profar put up a .281/.368/.452 line in the Texas League in 2012. That is, as I said, solid, and it is that he did that as a quality defensive shortstop at the age of 19 that has folks so excited about his future.

But Profar isn't likely to come to the majors and be a star right away. Profar, if he is a major league middle infielder in 2013, is probably an average to a little below average player. He's not likely to be as good in 2013 as either Elvis Andrus (as a major league shortstop) or Ian Kinsler (as a major league second baseman). So putting Profar in the lineup now would mean downgrading from what you would have with either Kinsler or Andrus in that spot.

Grant suggests putting Profar in a "super utility" role in 2013, but that would seem, to me, to be a disaster. You'd be wasting a year of team control and a year of minimum salary performance for a player that you view as potentially elite so that he can get 200-300 plate appearances at the major league level. You are assuming that Ron Washington is going to be more willing to sit his regulars than he was in 2012. And you are taking a guy who isn't even old enough to drink, who should be getting regular playing time to refine his craft, and asking him to come off the bench while getting irregular playing time. Its a disservice to the team and to the player.

Ultimately, if there isn't a slam dunk trade out there for either Elvis or Kinsler, I'd go into spring training, 2013, planning to have Profar start the season in AAA Round Rock. Let him get regular playing time, let him face older, more polished pitchers, and let him stay in the minors long enough that he's going to have less than a year of service time by the end of 2013, ensuring that the Rangers keep him under team control through 2019.

Profar is, after all, just 20 years old. There will be plenty of time for him to grab a starting job in Texas. And there doesn't seem, to me, to be a compelling reason to push established All Stars out of position, or out of the organization, to make room for him right this second.