Part of the residue of consistent success in baseball is that a successful, sustainable team generally only has to concern itself each spring with a handful of unresolved roster battles and positions in dire need of upgrade. If you're good, you really don't have that much to worry about relative to the cellar-dwelling types who have glaring material weaknesses at 3-4 different positions, and the kind of rotation uncertainty that would make the early-aughts Rangers beam with pride.
And if you're fortunate enough to be good in the way that the Rangers are good, you get to spend the better part of March obsessing over details like the division of playing time in center field and the first lefty out of the bullpen, and then find later that doing so verged on pointlessness, because virtually everything in this game is fluid. Teams make important decisions during the lead-up to the beginning of the season, and then they exercise their rightful perogatives to change their minds. Players and coaches issue serious proclamations with respect to a specific playing-time arrangement or somebody outright claiming a starting job, and then erase them from memory whenever exigent circumstances dictate they should do so. Anything can revert to square one at any time.
The reason why I'm launching into this vaguely incoherent monologue is because of a couple of different things Ron Washington apparently said yesterday about Josh Hamilton, who's now carrying around a leaner 230-pound frame and, per Randy Galloway's associated column, seems to be fulfilling all of the requirements necessary to attain the best-shape-of-his-life label. As delightful as that all sounds, and as stoked as some people likely are at Washington's prediction of a forthcoming "monster year" from Hamilton (and his borderline unbelievable suggestion that Hamilton's actually faster now than at any previous point in his Rangers career), here's what really caught my attention:
1) Washington, speaking in response to Hamilton's enhanced physical condition: "I'd say [Hamilton's] also in this kind of condition, a peak condition, because he wants to deliver a message to me about playing center field every day, and winning a Gold Glove out there. Josh is our best center fielder, obviously. He'd win the Gold Glove, too. Nobody is better than Josh in center."
2) Hamilton wants to play in center field on an everyday basis, and though that almost certainly isn't going to happen, Washington "conceded" that his plan was to start David Murphy in left field and Hamilton in center field versus right-handed pitchers, with Hamilton only moving to left field if Washington believes Craig Gentry is prepared to play center field on a platoon basis and/or one of Julio Borbon or Leonys Martin step up to the plate with a huge spring.
The first problem? From a scouting perspective, there's an exceptionally strong case to be made that Craig Gentry -- blessed as he is with raw speed/acceleration approaching 70-grade territory, a strong, accurate arm, and the advanced defensive instincts and route-taking abilities required to tie the entire package together -- is the best defensive center fielder in the entire organization, and not Hamilton. The defensive metrics, riddled with sample size issues at they might be (in Gentry's case, at least), concur with the Gentry-over-Hamilton assessment. At the very least, I don't think it's so "obvious" that Hamilton is far and away the best defensive center fielder currently occupying 40-man roster space.
The second problem? In 2009, the Rangers logged 106 games where they started against a right-handed pitcher. In 2010, it was 111 games. Last season, it was 115 games. If Washington were to strictly adhere to his tentative usage plan for Hamilton (and do bear in mind that I have no expectation that this will actually happen), we'd be talking about 100-plus starts in center field -- and, yes, a significantly greater amount of running, given the sheer quantity of outfield ground a center fielder is responsible for covering -- for a player with an extended history of lower-half/abdominal injuries and one especially catastrophic late-2011 injury situation where several different muscles in the adductor group in his inner left thigh were almost completely detached.
The third problem? In response to the "nobody is better than Josh in center field" assertion, each member of the Franklin Gutierrez/Austin Jackson/Michael Bourn set just shed a single tear, and can't quite figure out why.
You know, it's just not in me to fight the Hamilton injury risk in left vs. center field battle this morning. If you've been attuned to the Rangers blogosphere for any period of time, you've probably made your own determination as to whether playing him in center field on a regular basis is so much more dangerous than letting him ride it out in left field, and your particular belief is probably well ingrained by this point. I, for one, had somewhat come around on the notion that utilizing him regularly in center field could maximize his short-term value while shifting most of the risk towards the long-term (when Texas presumably won't be paying him), but then he broke down at the worst imaginable time last fall and, well ... well, I couldn't tell you anymore. The organization itself appears divided on the issue, so we're certainly well within our right in grappling with conflicting feelings ourselves.
What I can tell you with some amount of confidence is this: If you love and cherish run prevention, the disparity between Hamilton/Gentry and Murphy/Hamilton is absolutely going to drive you up the wall. And given that Washington was barking just a few short weeks ago about how his preference was to keep Hamilton somewhat protected in left field, perhaps this entire post is a rambling overreaction to misleading or incorrect information that does not reflect the coaching staff's true intent in handling Hamilton.
If that's the case, it certainly won't be the first time it has happened. Nor, for that matter, the last.