Every now and then, I'll start researching something for the express purpose of converting it into the focal point of a morning article, and during that process something of even greater interest will end up catching my eye, and before I know it 40-60 minutes have elapsed and I've deviated completely from my original plan. As such, my planned discussion of the Rangers' 2011 payroll situation has temporarily been shunted to the back burner in order to open room on the slate for one of my favorite topics: the center field situation.
About three months ago, Julio Borbon found himself mired in funk of all funks. There were few line drives to be had and even fewer walks, with the end result being an historically terrible offensive pace from a major league center fielder. That, fortunately, is no longer the case, but with him today sitting at .266/.305/.345 (.285 wOBA), we can't exactly pretend that his age-24 season has been one earmarked by great progress; things became so bad that he was basically relegated to fourth-outfielder duties during the first few weeks of August, an arrangement which would have likely remained in place if not for Nelson Cruz's ill-timed hamstring flare-up and the lack of any better active-roster outfield options.
Borbon, to his credit, did secure a 2-for-3, one-walk performance in yesterday's series finale against the Orioles, but let's face facts -- if/when Cruz returns, Borbon will again be superseded in playing time by every other active-roster outfielder, and probably isn't going to be relied upon very heavily in a post-season series beyond the duties of a pinch-runner/late-inning defensive replacement. And the problem is that it's difficult to see how a player whose stock has eroded so severely in the span of 4-5 months is going to go into next season as the overwhelming favorite to nail down the vast majority of the playing time in center field.
At this point, I would guess that next year's median projections for Borbon will probably going to look something like .280/.320/.380; extrapolated over 600 plate appearances with the built-in assumption that he saves you in the vicinity of 5-10 runs defensively per season, you're looking at somebody who's worth around 2.0-2.2 wins above replacement on a full-time basis. That's league-average production at a league-minimum price, something you look to exploit as long as you possibly can, but there are a few issues here: (a) as a guy who's battled some huge plate-discipline demons this year and has limited upside to begin with, I'm concerned about the chances for recurrence of an awful season like this, and (b) the Rangers are now clearly in a position where they're going to have to pony up some cash/assets for a solid 2011 backup plan.
Josh Hamilton qualifies to play that part again (in theory, at least), but he's not somebody you should reasonably expect to log more than 15-20 games in center field per season going forward; he's about to enter his age-3X years, will be handsomely compensated by some means after this year's MVP-caliber campaign, and had already been administered two cortisone shots for his aching knees before the regular season's two-thirds mark. More than anything else, that's the kind of player you strive to protect physically. And neither Nelson Cruz nor David Murphy are options there, so there's little in the way of an internal hedge against Borbon falling off a cliff again.
I don't want to proclaim that I'm a total non-believer in Borbon, because that's not the case at all. A good-fielding, cost-controlled center fielder with a decidedly mediocre bat does give you something, but it's definitely not a "franchise center fielder"-type solution so much as it is something that you look to improve upon if the right opportunity presents itself ... and maybe that's a kink in my own team-evaluating abilities. Maybe I need to learn how to be satisfied with every position not being solidified multiple years into the future and scale back my obsession with long-term solutions. After a season like this one from Borbon, however, you can hardly begrudge anyone for wondering how this drama's going to end up playing out.