With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at infielder Brock Holt.
For an MLB player, it can’t be a great feeling to have your role be essentially defined as “veteran placeholder.”
“Veteran placeholder” is, to be a clear, a different designation than “one year stopgap,” though there are some similarities. Both of them are generally veterans, brought to camp on either a minor league deal or a one year low salary major league deal, who are not part of the long term plans for the team. Both are generally brought in by teams that aren’t contenders, or at least aren’t serious contenders. Both are necessary because, well, you have to field a lineup, and the signing team doesn’t have an internal option they feel comfortable handing the job to.
But if you are a one year stopgap, you at least have a certain amount of security. You are being brought in with the expectation that you will be a regular and play more or less every day, assuming you show a certain level of competence. Yes, you are going to be looking for a job again come November, but you’ll be able to market yourself as an everyday player. Maybe you’re only a second division starter, but hey, you’re a starter.
A veteran placeholder, on the other hand, cannot come to camp with those sorts of expectations. A veteran placeholder joins a team as a nominal starter, but as one who, in a best case scenario (from the point of view of the organization), won’t actually be a regular, at least for any significant length of time. A veteran placeholder is brought in when there is a young player who the organization is thinking, expecting, or hoping will seize a major league job, potentially as soon as Opening Day, but who has enough uncertainty surrounding their readiness that they have to earn the job, or do enough after starting the year in AA or AAA to show they are primed for a mid-season promotion, that they can’t be penciled in as Plan A.
So when you are signing a veteran placeholder, you are signing someone who you think can play well enough as a starter to at least not embarrass himself (and the team) out there, but who you also are going to be willing to shunt off to a bench role sooner rather than later if things going to plan, and who is going to be accepting of that happening. You are signing someone who comes in knowing that their role is to keep a seat warm for the guy the team really wants to be the starter.
One of the things that I’ve heard folks around the game talk about is the difficulty of putting together a AAA roster. At AA and below, you generally have young players, players who haven’t spent much time in pro ball, players who have hopes of making the major leagues some day. At the lower levels, it is youth and hope for the future.
AAA is a different story, however. At AAA, you are going to have some veteran players, players who are there as depth, players who likely have spent some time in the majors, but either washed out or didn’t get much of a chance or who performed acceptably for a while but are now past their prime. You’re going to have prospects who are knocking at the door of the majors, who are one step away and probably feel like they deserve to be up in the Show. You are going to have prospects and young players who have maybe had a taste of the major league life, have had a brief stint with the big club, but who didn’t perform or who were only needed as a fill in or who were just caught in a numbers game, guys who are fighting to get back up for good. And you’re going to have prospects who have hit a wall, guys who defied the odds, performed well all the way up the ladder, earned promotions, but who now, at the final stage before getting to the big leagues, have found themselves overmatched, are struggling over long stretches for the first time, are starting to see their dreams of a major league career fade just when the goal is in sight.
It is a dynamic that can lead to a toxic environment. AAA clubhouses aren’t generally full of happy people. Which is why you see someone like Tim Dillard stick around so long and be so much in demand — someone who understands and accepts their role as a minor league lifer, exudes positivity, and helps keep things light and upbeat (or less dark and downbeat) over the course of a long season.
That also comes into place when you’re looking for a veteran placeholder. You want someone who has a base level of competence. But you also want someone who understands their role, who is going to have a positive presence, someone who, when the time comes, will support and work with and cheer on whoever is brought up to take his job.
The Rangers have gone the one year stopgap route at third base since Adrian Beltre retired. Asdrubal Cabrera was signed to be a one year stopgap for 2019. Todd Frazier was signed to be a one year stopgap for 2020 (only to be moved to first base by the emergence of Isiah Kiner-Falefa). But “veteran placeholder” is the job that Brock Holt signed on for when he inked a minor league deal with the Rangers in mid-February, 2021. Josh Jung, the Rangers’ first round pick in 2019, had impressed and was coming quickly, and the expectation was that, at some point in 2021, Jung would be ready for the majors, and would take over as the starter at the hot corner, displacing Holt.
Holt reportedly had other offers with better teams, but signed with the Rangers because of the opportunity to be a starter. He won the job in camp, as expected — or at least the big side of the platoon at third base, with Charlie Culberson being the other half of the platoon — but in a rebuilding year, a season expected to be ugly and feature a lot of losses, we were counting the days until we would see Josh Jung in Arlington in 2021.
That never happened, of course. Jung was supposed to start the season at AAA Round Rock, due, I suspect, to AAA being slated to start the season in early April, while the other leagues would start in early May. But then the AAA season got delayed as well, Jung broke his foot and was out until mid-June, and ended up joining Frisco, rather than Round Rock, when he was ready to go. Jung appeared primed for a promotion in early August, though whether to AAA or the majors was up in the air, until he ended up in COVID protocols and missed a week and a half, putting an end to the possibility he’d be in the majors in 2021.
Holt ended up having a difficult season, as well. He ended up having the most innings at third base for the Rangers, just barely — 516.1 innings at the hot corner for the year, compared to 516.0 for Culberson — while playing 69 games there with 57 starts, compared to 68 games with 60 starts for Culberson.
Holt didn’t hit, however — he slashed .209/.281/.298 in 260 plate appearances. And he consistently didn’t hit — his best OPS in any month was 688, in April. He landed on the injured list in mid-April then again in early May, costing him the equivalent of about a month of time. Then after the trade deadline, when he was losing playing time anyway to Yonny Hernandez and Andy Ibanez, Holt missed almost a month due to being on the COVID-19 list after the Boston outbreak.
It was a bad year for Holt in terms of on-field performance. He had a 0.1 bWAR and a -0.4 fWAR. On the heels of a .211/.283/.274 season in 2020, and at the age of 33, his performance suggests that his time as a big leaguer may be over. He will, I suspect, be offered a minor league deal by some teams this winter, but with no guarantees, and with the likelihood that he would have to accept a minor league assignment if he wants to extend his professional career.
That said, Holt got to spend a season playing for his hometown team — a native of Fort Worth, he graduated from Stephenville High School — and so that’s a fun footnote. And he earned praise for his clubhouse presence and leadership on an extremely young and inexperienced team. He will get a chance to continue his professional career in 2022, should he want to do so.