Moving day for Joey. I fill in with some crappy, speculative content on a day when there is nothing better to talk about....
After spending much of the fall watching a deeply flawed professional football team from Arlington, Texas that is run by a megalomaniacal, part-time general manager who claims that his team is full of talent while actually managing to fill only three or four of the 22 starting positions with league-average or above talent, I am once again reminded of how remarkable it is to watch the truly great front office operate next door.
Unlike their hapless and hopeless neighbor, the Texas Rangers seem to be eternally vigilant and relentless in honestly assessing where they are and where they are going, finding talent, addressing needs, maximizing their personnel assets and finding ways to gain competitive advantages. The Cowboys' front office deludes themselves into thinking that giant televisions can fix problems (wait... what problems?) while the Rangers' front office identifies problems that don't yet exist and comes up with five different plans to deal with them.
And so what I would love to know about what's scribbled on Jon Daniels' whiteboards right now, more than anything else, is how he's going to deal with the most obvious problem his ballclub will face in the near future: the mess developing in the outfield.
There is no question that a substantial ingredient in the special sauce that has changed the Rangers fortunes over the past few years has been a recognition of the enormous importance of defensive excellence and there is no question that they have assembled a truly great defensive infield, but the outfield is another story altogether.
Nelson Cruz's ongoing problems with his lower half have turned him into a defensive liability (notwithstanding what remains one of the best right field arms in baseball). His UZR 150 in right field last year was an abysmal -9.3. His declining range makes coverage in center field even more important and it is at least part of the reason that more than half of the center field innings in 2011 were logged by Endy Chavez (a solid 9.3 UZR 150 in 514 frames) and the incredible Craig Gentry (34.9 UZR 150 in 313 innings), but neither is a legitimate long-term solution at such a critical position. Nor is Julio Borbon, who was positively awful in the field last year, regressing three times as much as you might have hoped he would progress.
Josh Hamilton continues to be a plus left fielder (9.2 UZR 150) but a sub-par center fielder. For those of you who suggest that the solution is to accompany Cruz's -9.3 UZR 150 in right with Hamilton in center (-3.3 UZR 150) and David Murphy in left (-8.0 UZR 150), you are advocating what would be one of the worst outfield defenses in baseball in a ballpark where outfield range is critical to the mental and emotional health of the pitching staff.
First up -- and Rangers fans better pray he takes the job and runs with it -- to attempt to remedy this situation is Leonys Martin who, if he lives up to the sunniest projections, will give the Rangers a Jacoby Ellsbury clone in center field and at the plate. But that's asking a helluva lot from a 23 year old kid with roughly two-thirds of a season of minor league experience under his belt.
Even if Martin breaks out next year, shows the kind of range that the Rangers need in center field and manages to cover for Cruz's shortcomings in right, the Rangers are still looking at two physically brittle 30-something outfielders capable of staggering offensive outbursts slated to hit free agency in consecutive years (Hamilton next winter and Cruz a year later), neither of whom is an especially great candidate to maintain elite productivity into his mid-to-late 30's.
The Rangers farm system is deep in many areas, but power-hitting outfielders is not an area of strength. Let's say that Hamilton goes elsewhere in search of an accountability partner next winter (I really don't see the Rangers giving him the 4 / $76-80 million he's likely to get elsewhere) and Cruz's problems with his lower half prove to be chronic, causing his defense to continue to decline at a rapid pace. Cruz can't be moved to DH any time soon (see Young, Michael; $16 million).
What you have right now is substantial uncertainty in center field in 2012; substantial uncertainty in left field in 2013 and substantial uncertainty in right field in 2014 -- with no viable reinforcements at either corner currently in the system who might be expected to step in and fill the void when they will be needed.
It is obviously critical that Martin step into the role the Rangers envision for him in 2012 and stamp himself as a viable everyday center fielder in a hurry, but be on the lookout for the organization to make a move sooner than later to deal for a potential impact corner outfield bat because, unlike their neighbors to the immediate west, they aren't likely to get stuck with with no better option than Terrence Newman at cover corner or Phil Costa at center and they probably won't wait to deal with this issue until they have no choice but to send someone out to fetch Montrae Holland back from the fat farm.