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Center field and the incomplete offseason

The Texas Rangers made strides to be competitive this offseason, but the work feels incomplete, particularly in the middle of the outfield

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Chicago Cubs v Texas Rangers Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

We all were well aware that the Texas Rangers, coming off a third straight losing season and with a new park opening for 2020, were looking to be active in the 2019-20 offseason, seeking to make significant moves that would, if not make the team a favorite for a playoff spot, and least put them in the mix and make them a team could be a contender, that would win more games than it lost and have a chance of playing meaningful games late in the season.

And strides were made.

A rotation that had Lance Lynn, Mike Minor, and a bunch of young guys who might or might not be quite ready yet has been fortified with Corey Kluber, Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles. Yes, Kluber missed most of last year with injury and may not (probably isn’t) the Cy Young caliber pitcher of a few years ago, but there’s still significant upside there. Gibson has been a useful starter when he’s not been slowed by ulceritive colitis, a condition the Rangers have experience treating. And Lyles is a wild card, a guy who got a two year deal and who has shown brief flashes of brilliance among a lot of underwhelming performances.

The bullpen added Nick Goody via a waiver claim and Joely Rodriguez as a signee from Japan, and has the usual mix of potentially interesting veteran NRIs in camp together with a lot of internal options that could be fun — Jonathan Hernandez, who was throwing 98-100 over the weekend, has opened some eyes, for example.

And the lineup. Coming into the offseason, there were four positions where it was clear the Rangers would want to explore potential solutions outside the organization — third base, catcher, first base, and center field. Texas went big for Anthony Rendon, missed out on him, and settled on Todd Frazier, a perfectly acceptable short-term solution who gives them a righthanded bat that can play both the corner infield positions, but for now is penciled in at third base. Texas also brought back Robinson Chirinos, acknowledging their mistake in letting him go last year, and he’s going to be the starting catcher.

First base looked for a while like it might be manned by Nicholas Castellanos, who the Rangers were reportedly in on before he signed a complicated 4 year, $64 million deal that includes opt-outs after 2020 and 2021 and a $20 million 2024 mutual option. 4/$64M is reasonable for the 28 year old (in two days) Castellanos, who is a solid hitter, but who hasn’t been terribly competent at either third base or the outfield, defensively. The opt-outs complicate the situation and I think its reasonable to have passed on Castellanos, given how they limit the upside of such a deal, but it means the Rangers have Greg Bird and Ronald Guzman battling for a first base job.

And you know, both of those guys could maybe be good! Bird, 27, was a well regarded first base prospect who put up an 871 OPS in 178 plate appearances as a 22 year old getting his first major league shot in 2015, who then saw his career derailed by injuries, which is why he’s now in the Rangers’ camp on a minor league deal. Guzman is a terrific defender who hasn’t hit enough in his career, but who spent the offseason working with Nelson Cruz, and who hopes to tap into more power this year. And then you’ve got Sam Travis as a righty hitting platoon option, and maybe Todd Frazier if someone (Isiah Kiner-Falefa? Matt Duffy?) shows they deserve to get regular time at third base, and maybe Scott Heineman...

But yeah, first base is not a strength for the Rangers right now.

That leaves center field.

You know, we talked about the glaring need for a righthanded middle of the order bat all offseason. And the Rangers pursued Rendon, they pursued Castellanos, they ended up with Frazier, who is righthanded and, well, has a bat. They didn’t really address that issue, but you can get around that...its not like you have to have a big time righthanded bat in the middle of the order just to fill out the lineup card.

You do have to have a centerfielder, though. And with Opening Day less than four weeks away, the Rangers don’t seem to have one.

I mean, presumably, they have one, in the sense that someone will be starting in center field on Opening Day. They have, actually, a number of guys who they seem to be at least looking at in center field. Danny Santana, who hit well last year until September, but who hadn’t hit well prior to that since 2014*, and who has limited center field experience and doesn’t appear to be that good at it defensively, seems to be the starter by default right now, rather than filling a Swiss Army Player role off the bench.

Santana’s major league OPS+ by season from 2014-20: 130, 46, 64, 55, 54, 112. Weird, huh?

There’s also been much talk of Nick Solak taking balls in center field. Solak is, of course, a quality Hitter Without Position. He can play second base, but isn’t real good at it, and besides, Rougned Odor is going to get at least until Memorial Day at second. He was tried at third base in 2019, and that didn’t go very well. Tampa Bay traded him in the first place at least in part, reportedly, due to the belief he couldn’t handle the outfield well.

But Nick Solak, who has 20 professional games in center field, and just 82 in the outfield, is being looked at as a center fielder.

And you know, it may work! He’s got the speed — with the “its a small sample size” caveat, he was 86th out of 568 major leagues in sprint speed last year, per Statcast, . His makeup and work ethic are reportedly off the charts, so it isn’t like there are concerns he won’t make the effort and put in the time to get better out there. The arm isn’t great, but its probably okay for a center fielder.

So why skepticism about him making it in the outfield? Were I to guess — and this is just a guess — I’d say it is about reaction time. My guess is that what Tampa determined when working with him on the outfield was that he lacked the quickness in his reactions to get a good enough jump to make him an asset in the outfield. I could be wrong, and maybe this isn’t the issue, or even a issue — he might end up being fine out there in center field, at the end of the day.

That seems, however, unlikely.

There are other players discussed as guys who could play center field. Eli White, who came over from Oakland in the Jurickson Profar trade last offseason, is getting run in center, and he’s gotten some good reviews, although his bat for Nashville last year was so underwhelming he was left exposed to (and went undrafted in) the Rule 5 draft this past offseason. Adolis Garcia, acquired for cash from the Cardinals, has a lot of tools, and while Levi Weaver’s article this morning has Chris Woodward saying “I think he’s a plus defender in the corners” while wanting to see more of him in center, he’s likely below-average in center, and is a work in progress with the bat. Scott Heineman is being penciled in as the fourth or fifth outfielder on the Opening Day roster right now by many, but he’s a good defensive corner outfielder who is stretched in center field.

And then there’s Leody Taveras. Taveras, added to the 40 man roster this offseason, is a plus defensive center fielder whose bat has shown signs of improvement, but still has a ways to go. Taveras has gotten positive buzz in camp, particularly for his hitting, and while he’s likely to start the year in AA Frisco, he could move quickly if it clicks for him this year. That being said, Taveras is someone who is only going to be playing center field for the Rangers this year if he forces the issue with a big jump in performance.

I mentioned a lot of guys who could be possibilities — and yes, the Rangers have a lot of options for center field in 2020. But none of them are particularly good options. They are all guys about whom you could say, well, maybe we could put him out there for a little while if we had to, or maybe he could start out there once a week to spell the regular, or maybe he’ll take a big step forward and claim the job.

But none of them are guys that I think you feel confident giving 140 major league center field starts to in 2020.

And if this were 2018, it wouldn’t matter. If this is 2018 and you’re at the nadir of your rebuilding effort you can stick Nick Solak or Danny Santana out there and see what you have, or let Scott Heineman get regular reps or see if Eli White can make enough contact and cover enough ground to be serviceable. You’re not expecting to win anyway, so why not?

But 2020 is supposed to be a year where, if the Rangers aren’t necessarily supposed to be contenders, they’re supposed to be coming out of the rebuild. They’re supposed to be a team that should win some games, and if they get some breaks, possibly sneak into a Wild Card Game. They’re supposed to be a team where a sub-.500 record is a disappointment, rather than an expectation.

Center field has been a glaring hole all offseason, and I kept thinking the Rangers were going to fill it. There weren’t a lot of great options out there on the free agent market, but there were trade possibilities. Starling Marte went from Pittsburgh to Arizona, and we could say, well, Marte’s defense is slipped, he may be more of a corner outfielder now, and so its not worth the price. Kevin Pillar signed with the Red Sox, and we could say, well, his defense isn’t that great anymore and he doesn’t get on base. Manuel Margot was traded to Tampa Bay, and we could say, well, Tampa gave up a really good reliever to get him, and Margot is a really good fielder but doesn’t hit, and maybe it wasn’t worth Texas would have had to give up.

And then Jarrod Dyson signs with Arizona, and Billy Hamilton signs a minor league deal with Giants, and Juan Lagares signs a minor league deal with the Padres, and none of those guys are particularly good but they can at least play a competent defensive center field, and then we’re looking around and there’s no other center fielders who appear to be on the market and the Rangers have done nothing to address that hole.

There are still two trade possibilities out there that, theoretically, could solve the problem in the next few weeks. Jackie Bradley, Jr., is on a one year deal with the Boston Red Sox, and it was thought that he might be dealt, but with Mookie Betts traded and Alex Verdugo out early in the year due to injury, Bradley probably is staying put. Ender Inciarte has two years left on his deal with the Atlanta Braves, and they have Marcell Ozuna and Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall, plus center fielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters who are close to major league ready, so you would think maybe Ronald Acuna would move to center and Inciarte would be dealt, but Acuna apparently prefers right field and they are going to keep him there.

And its always possible that Inciarte or Bradley could be dealt this summer. If Pache or Waters are ready and the Braves see Inciarte as an expensive extra outfielder they might look to move him in a deal to address something that is more of a need. If Boston is trailing the Rays and the Yankees (despite the Yankees continuing to have all sorts of injury issues) by a good amount they could deal Bradley in June or July. Tampa could deal Margot or Kevin Kiermaier, their expensive plus-glove weak-bat center fielder, if both are healthy.

And I suspect that the Rangers looked at who all was out there, decided that the ones who were available for the price they are willing to pay to get them don’t represent a marked upgrade over their myriad of internal options, and they might as well see if Santana continues to hit or if Solak can be decent out there, or if Leody or White show enough the first couple of months in the minors to make one of them an option, or if, worst case, the team is bad and having a competent center fielder ends up being irrelevant. And if the team is good and none of their center field options are working out, well, they can always go trade for one this summer.

And all that makes sense, I guess. But it also means that, in looking at this offseason, it feels like there were a lot of solid moves that were made that would seem a lot more solid if they’d gotten a real center fielder. And so instead, it feels like the offseason is a lot of things were done that make sense in the context of trying to build a team that could contend, but that would be that much better if the front office had addressed that one last glaring hole.