If you didn't take time this weekend to delve deeply into the details of the Rangers' latest trade, you're forgiven. It wasn't exactly the sort of transaction that dominates sports-page headlines.
On Saturday, Texas announced that it had acquired Andrés Blanco, a utility infielder who put up a .252/.303/.341 line over 53 games and 138 PA for the Cubs in 2009, alongside a .304/.353/.474 performance in 64 games and 258 PA with Iowa in the (AAA) Pacific Coast League. Defense is Blanco's calling card, though there's not a lot of statistical evidence to go by at the major league level: he's logged approximately 50 full-game equivalents at both shortstop and second base. Blanco represents the Rangers' latest effort to answer the lingering question of who will serve as the squad's utility infielder in 2010.
The club's struggle to find a satisfactory solution at UIF may seem so much small beer in a spring brimming with larger quandaries: the starting catching situation, Rich Harden's performance, Chris Davis' fatigue, Ian Kinsler's status for Opening Day, etc., etc. But (as Kinsler's injured ankle highlights) the UIF is a more important position than some might think -- especially on a team expecting to contend in an AL West that is, by all appearances, up for grabs.
The Rangers' off-season moves involving backup infielders stretch back to December, when they signed Ray Olmedo and claimed Joe Inglett off waivers. The new year has seen Texas designate Inglett for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for Colby Lewis; sign Khalil Greene, only to void his contract after a recrudescence of his anxiety disorder; claim Hernán Iribarren on waivers and outright him to AAA; trade Olmedo to Milwaukee for backup catcher Matt Treanor; and trade relief pitcher Edwar Ramírez (acquired for cash just 15 days prior) to the Athletics for Gregorio Petit. And now, of course: Blanco.
This cast of infield characters has rotated around a pair of holdovers: Joaquín Árias and Esteban Germán. Over the course of spring training, each of the duo has made less-than-impressive cases for filling the UIF role. It's enough to make a Rangers fan wistful for 42-year-old Omar Vizquel and his sartorial brilliance. (For those especially tuned out over the winter, Vizquel signed with the White Sox. Word is that Texas couldn't convince Vizquel the Metroplex was sufficiently "cosmopolitan"; no confirmation of the rumor that Vizquel simply couldn't abide living among so many men wearing cowboy boots.)
Last season, Vizquel, Germán, and Árias appeared in 84 games for Texas, logging a total of 254 PAs. Vizquel saw most of that action: 62 games, 195 PAs. He certainly wasn't a monster at the plate (.266/.316/.345) -- but who needs a big bat when you have a glove like Vizquel's? Defense was what made the UIF position a relative strength for the 2009 Rangers. The 5.3 UZR that Vizquel logged in approximately 200 innings at shortstop (along with his 3.3 UZR in about 100 innings at third, and a neutral zero UZR in 126 second innings at second) more than made up for his weak offense, making him worth just more than a win above the value of a replacement player (1.1 WAR, to be exact).
And what's a replacement player? Árias and Germán more or less fit the bill. Following a fairly promising 2008 campaign, Árias' .266/.295/.335 with Oklahoma City in 2009 was insult added to injury, and the Rangers somehow resisted the urge to give him more than 20 MLB innings. Árias' bat remains cause for concern, and his defense has been inconsistent; the major points in his favor seem to be that he's fast and knows how to play short.
Germán has seen major league action in each of the past eight seasons, including three years of relatively heavy use with Kansas City. In addition to a singles-and-walks dominated .319/.419/.414 performance with the RedHawks, Germán logged a.304/.360/.391 line with Texas -- a small-sample offensive rebound compared to 2008, but also more evidence that his 2006 was an anomaly. His defense at second and third ranged from unremarkable to subpar, as has been true throughout his MLB career; overall, he's posted a -5.4 UZR over 961 innings at second base, and a -12.3 UZR over 683 innings at third base. He seems a rather unlikely fit at shortstop.
But let's move beyond the numbers for a moment. Last season, Texas' improvement was predicated on much-ballyhooed gains in pitching and defense. The emphasis was on the defense: Rangers' pitchers had more success than they might otherwise have expected because the guys behind them picked them up, time and time again.
Vizquel was a key variable in that equation. Even setting aside whatever benefit Texas might've gained from his mentorship of rookie phenom Elvis Andrus (and any positive contributions he made to clubhouse chemistry), it's not hard to grasp what Vizquel's virtuosity and versatility in the field meant to the team in 2009. And while conclusions based on spring training performances are always dubious, the last few weeks have been an ugly reminder of what happens when infielders play like they left their gloves (or their minds) in the dugout. Thanks to abundant middle-infield miscues, Rangers pitchers who might well have escaped sticky situations unscathed have instead left the mound with another crooked number tacked to their ledger.
If Kinsler begins the season on the disabled list, Texas' hope is that his backup doesn't hurt the team too badly at the plate or in the field before he can return. Germán and Árias can probably accomplish that much in a week's worth of action. But over the course of a season -- even a season as utility infielder -- both players' offensive and defensive shortcomings will likely be exposed.
Given the roster's track record, the Rangers' UIF can probably expect to appear in between 50 and 75 games in 2010. That's enough time for a player like Vizquel -- or, say, Augie Ojeda, or maybe even Andrés Blanco -- to earn the team a win or two. It's also enough time for a guy like Árias or Germán to cost the team the same. Two to three wins in a tight division title race? That should be reason enough for Rangers fans to scour the sports-page headlines with hopes of reading better news about UIF.