When the Texas Rangers called up Nomar Mazara a couple of weeks ago, to replace Shin-Soo Choo, who was put on the 15 day disabled list, the thought was that this was an interim gig. Mazara, who doesn't turn 21 until tomorrow, was thought to be the most major league ready of the Rangers "big three" hitting prospects, but nevertheless, he barely had 100 plate appearances above AA when he was called up, and had an 808 OPS in his 2015 stint between AA and AAA. Mazara was a terrific prospect, who likely would be ready by Opening Day, 2017, but he wasn't kicking the door to the majors down just yet. This would be an opportunity to hold down the fort, get a taste of the major leagues, and then go back down to Round Rock after six weeks or so to resume polishing his game.
It hasn't worked out that way, so far. Mazara has hit the ground running, putting up a .356/.404/.533 slash line in 52 plate appearances, striking out 9 times against 5 walks, and earning praise for both his quality at bats and his solid defense in right field. Mazara doesn't look like a guy getting his feet wet in the majors...he looks like a veteran. And while we have the cautionary memory of the Joey Gallo experience last year to temper expectations -- after his first game, there was clamoring about how Gallo was up to stay, only for Gallo to struggle later on, get demoted, and then still not hit much after being called up in September -- Mazara certainly appears, at this point, to be better-suited to stay in the big leagues than Gallo did a few weeks in.
Which presents the Rangers with a dilemma over the next few weeks...what are they going to do with all their outfielders? Shin-Soo Choo, who was projected to miss 4-6 weeks, has said he expects to make it back ahead of schedule, but even on the 4-6 week timeline, he'll be back in a few weeks. Meanwhile, you have Josh Hamilton, currently playing in extended spring games, who is supposed to return by mid-May. I'm sure the Rangers will take their time with Hamilton, and have him go on a lengthy rehab stint, but even then, we're looking at a May return date for him.
That gives you five outfielders -- Mazara, Hamilton, Choo, Ian Desmond, and Delino DeShields. From a roster construction standpoint, the mix is particularly problematic because the two center fielders, Desmond and DeShields, are both righthanded, while the corner guys who could also DH are all lefthanded hitters -- as are Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland, your current DH and 1B options. The fact that the same-handed hitters all play the same positions limits your ability to platoon, and also lessens the utility of having one of those guys on the bench.
Further complicating matters is that the Rangers are, as of right now, opting for a three man bench and an eight man bullpen. You won't be able to do that once Choo and Hamilton are back, and so a long reliever will end up being dropped from the bullpen. You will also, however, have to drop one of the three backups you currently have on the active roster. Right now, your bench consists of Hanser Alberto, Ryan Rua, and Brett Nicholas. Nicholas isn't going anywhere, since you have to have a backup catcher, and since you need a utility infielder, Rua would seem to be the odd man out.
However...Rua is your lone righthanded hitting bench bat right now, and is also your backup first baseman/maybe platoon first baseman. From a roster construction standpoint, dropping Rua to (effectively) add Hamilton means you are losing defensive versatility, losing a righthanded bat on a team that is already pretty lefty-heavy, and limiting your flexibility.
Theoretically, you could option Alberto, and make Ian Desmond your utility infielder...but then, you are already asking him to be an every day outfielder, and I'm not sure how comfortable the Rangers would really be thrusting him in that role. Part of that depends on how you feel about Rua playing second base and third base...if you feel like he can back up those positions and start once a week at second for Rougned Odor, then Desmond just has to back up shortstop. If you don't think Rua can do that, though, then you're either asking Desmond to fill that role, or you have to keep Alberto.
Which leads us back to the question...is Nomar Mazara going to stay in the major leagues? The simple answer, if he keeps hitting, would seem to be "yes." But from a roster construction standpoint, how do you get all these guys at bats? Do you just bury Hamilton on the bench, give him a start once a week and let him pinch hit occasionally, and roll with your other four outfielders? Do you start sitting Prince Fielder (who has been awful this season, and wasn't all that good in the second half of 2015) more often, using the DH spot to get some of your lefty outfield bats more plate appearances?
One solution that has been thrown out there as a way to break up the logjam would be to either option Delino DeShields, if he continues to slump, or move Ian Desmond. However, that would leave you with no backup center fielder, and doesn't really fix your problem with too many lefthanded corner OF/DH bats. There's also the "trade Choo or Prince" gambit which has been thrown out there, but as a practical matter, that's not a move you can make in May (and that would be very difficult to pull off in July). The Rangers are likely going to have to move Choo or Prince at some point in the next nine months, and will likely have to absorb a fair amount of their contracts to do so, but that's not something that would be realistic to expect to occur at this point.
Oh, yeah, and if you want one more factor to throw in here...Joey Gallo has a .268/.400/.625 slash line through 70 plate appearances at AAA this year. Perhaps most encouraging, he has just a 24% strikeout rate, with 17 Ks (against 13 walks) in those 70 PAs. Joey Gallo with a sub-25% K rate will be an All Star in the majors, and if he keeps this up through Memorial Day, its going to be hard to say he wouldn't be a better option to start than some of the guys the Rangers may have in the lineup. But Gallo, of course, is a lefthanded hitter, and there would simply be nowhere to put him without moving someone else off the active roster.
This is a good problem to have, of course, and could work itself out. If Mazara stops hitting, or Hamilton has a setback, or Moreland or Prince land on the d.l., there's less of an issue. And as those of you who read me regularly know, I'm pessimistic about the chances of Josh staying healthy, which is part of the reason why optioning Mazara when both Choo and Hamilton are ready doesn't bother me that much...most likely, Josh will be back on the d.l. before too long, and Mazara will be back.
But this is a scenario that I think those of us who were less than enthused about the Josh acquisition were concerned about -- a situation where you can't count on Josh in putting together your roster because he can't stay healthy, but where you have to carve out a roster spot for him if he is healthy (even if there are better options available), since you can't just release him or send him to the minors.