Who is the Texas Rangers center fielder in 2012? I have found myself pondering this question for a couple of weeks now. In retrospect, this has been a viable question since the 1999 season, when Tom Goodwin last patrolled the outfield at the Ballpark. Since that time, only Gary Matthews Jr. and Gabe Kapler led the team in consecutive seasons in games played in CF (and neither of those players ever felt like permanent fixtures). Every year has seemingly been a new audition for the CF of the future. 2012 will likely be no different.
The good news is that the Rangers have several candidates for the position.
It is difficult to say that Hamilton is still a candidate to play CF, at least not every day. He has the ability to play the position and to play it quite well. In fact, Hamilton playing CF would be the best case scenario, as that would allow David Murphy to play LF every day, and would give the Rangers their most offensively potent OF lineup possible, with Murphy-Hamilton-Cruz. The problem is that Hamilton is too big, too fast, and too brittle for his own good. In the minds of the Rangers braintrust, and evidence points to this, playing Hamilton in CF is an injury waiting to happen. His bat is too valuable to risk losing it for extended periods of the year (even though he hasn’t played a full season since 2008 anyway).
I really love to watch Gentry play baseball. He is a defensive weapon in CF, as his speed and ability to read the ball gives him the opportunity to catch anything. He also has the knack for the outstanding catch. And he is no Juan Pierre out there; he has an impressive throwing arm as well. He is scrappy at the plate, and is the best base stealer on the team. I root for Craig Gentry, and I want him on my team. I can’t say that he is an everyday CF though. He is too much of a liability at the plate to trot him out there with full confidence every day, and will likely be a 4th or 5th outfielder for the entirety of his career. But, he is an excellent 4th or 5th outfielder.
The Cuban defector who the Rangers invested 5 years and $15.5 million in could very well be the CF of the future for the Texas Rangers. Like Gentry, he is a defensive weapon with excellent speed and perhaps an even better arm. Unlike Gentry, he has also flashed the ability to hit the ball with authority. But Martin only has 351 plate appearances since coming to the United States, and is still just 23 years old. There are many who think he will not yet be ready to take the CF reins in 2012, and that would be just fine with me. The Rangers are in a position where they no longer have to rush prospects to the big leagues to put a competitive product on the field. If need be, Martin can stay in AAA a little while longer to develop his fielding, base running, and adjust to the higher quality of pitching seen stateside.
Not mentioned here are Endy Chavez and Julio Borbon, as Chavez has not yet re-signed with the Rangers (and I think would be the 4th-best alternative from this list), and Borbon has so regressed as a baseball player and prospect that it seems his fate is to be cut by the Rangers, or be included as a throw-in on a trade to another team.
If nothing changes from the way the roster is constructed today, it seems the most likely scenario is that we will see a platoon between Hamilton, Gentry, and maybe Martin throughout 2012. I believe the Rangers would receive a worthwhile contribution from the CF position with a full season of such a platoon.
However, if I were a betting man, I would suggest that the Rangers CF solution for 2012 is not yet on the roster. Some possible names that the Rangers may consider trading for would include: Marlon Byrd, Adam Jones, and B.J. Upton. The Rangers have already shown they are interested in adding to their CF alternatives by pursuing Grady Sizemore before he re-signed with Cleveland, as one of only two teams who were going to ask him to play CF, instead of a corner OF position.
I have fond memories of the days of Tom Goodwin, David Hulse, and Oddibe McDowell. But when I look back at their time in Texas, statistically, they were nothing special. I think what I miss is knowing I can depend on one guy to roam CF for my team, and give me confidence that he is going to be out there every day, ready to make every play. Here’s to hoping that in 2012, the Rangers move one step closer to having that kind of confidence in the center field position.