Coming in to 2017 the Rangers had known commodities at four of the five infield positions – including catcher – and a good plan at First Base. With Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Rougned Odor set in the infield and Jonathan Lucroy in place at catcher, you knew what you were getting or so we thought.
A potential platoon at centered around free agent signee Mike Napoli and a host of others including Joey Gallo. The Rangers appeared to be in good shape.
Let’s take a look back at how everything turned out in the infield for the Texas Rangers in 2017:
We’re going to rank the whole infield but let’s start with the elephant in the room: After signing an extension prior to the start of the season, Rougned Odor had a bad, bad year. In a year that saw him stay basically completely healthy and come in second only to Elvis Andrus in at-bats with 607 he slashed an abysmal .204/.252/.397. That is very bad.
So bad in fact that his batting average was the second worst among qualified hitters – you’ll never guess who was last. Rougie is an average to below-average defender who has average to below average speed. He has good power – in fact his 30 HR were second on the team – but he almost never walks. This is a bad combination for a winning piece at second base, and his feistiness can only carry him so far. There’s no way around it – Rougned Odor has to get better in 2018.
For everything Rougned Odor didn’t do this year Elvis Andrus pretty much made up for all of it. Elvis may have finally come into his own this year. His defense continued to be above average with the occasional bone headed play and the occasional sensational play, but his offense is where we saw the most improvement.
Whether it was his renewed approach, or his new dad strength, we saw a new side of Elvis. After years of lackluster offensive performance we saw Andrus take a big step forward at the plate. He hit a robust .297 while leading the club in at-bats (i.e., he stayed healthy all year), runs, and doubles all while hitting a career high 20 HR. He’s still a weapon on the bases and he was really the central piece to the Rangers offense this year.
Joey Gallo, forced into action by Beltre’s season opening calf injury, earned himself a nearly every day role – at various positions. When Beltre was healthy Gallo split time between first base, DH and left field and blossomed in his first real opportunity at every day time in the big leagues, appearing in 145 games.
He may be a statistical odd-ball – with the high strikeouts and high walks his average isn’t pretty – but there’s no questioning that he was an effective member of the Rangers lineup. A staggering 41 out of his 94 total hits were home runs and he ranked 33rd in the league (out of 140 qualifiers) in OPS at .869.
He continues to show an absolute cannon of an arm and adequate fielding abilities whether it’s at the infield corners or the outfield and he has definitely earned a shot at the everyday lineup next year – likely as the new fulltime first base option when Beltre is healthy.
Adrian Beltre is the wind beneath the wings of Rangers’ fans everywhere. He is Making Baseball Fun Again one antic and one-legged home run at a time… the problem is those legs are nearing 40 despite Beltre being young at heart. When he was there, he was Adrian Beltre collecting his 3,000th hit and fueling to offense. When he was not there, the offense sometimes looked lost without its leader.
Even with a more than competent fill-in this year with Gallo the Rangers missed Beltre’s presence when he was absent – and Gallo’s versatility means he ended up moving around the lineup and remaining effective when Beltre was healthy.
Mike Napoli was a major disappointment. Brought back into the fold on a one year deal plus an option this past winter, it was apparent from about May 15th on that Mike Napoli was not the old Mike Napoli. He had spurts of production here and there but an overall lackluster year, befitting the tone of the team.
He is the quintessential veteran presence and his “clubhouse guy” reputation cannot be quantified but most of the things that can be quantified weren’t pretty. A .193/.285/.428 slash line is about as disappointing as you can expect out of an everyday player, veteran or not.
Napoli started to every-so-slowly see his playing time wain with the emergence of Joey Gallo and he was never able to mount a convincing case that this shouldn’t continue to be the case next year. A bat-first platoon first baseman is usually expected to put up big power numbers, and 29 HR is not terrible, but it was feast or famine for Napoli, who struck out at a Galloian pace without the walks.
The Rangers will probably pass on picking up Napoli's option and move on.
The catching situation for the Rangers headed in to 2017 was about as bright as it’s been in a long time around here. Robinson Chirinos, the poster-child for generous nice guys, was given a reasonably-priced extension for what appeared to be the second catcher role behind perennial all-star, and new fan favorite Jonathan Lucroy. Acquired in a flurry of a last minute trade deadline deal in 2016, Lucroy was primed to give the Rangers their first solid season from a single catcher since…. Pudge? Does Gerald Laird count?
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Lucroy – known for his pitch framing and offensive potency – became bad at both of the things he was known for. Instead he became known as the guy who cost the Rangers Lewis Brinson and took up space until Chirinos was back to hitting home runs as everyone’s favorite again.
The Rangers eventually moved Lucroy to the Rockies for a bag of gemstones from the Rocky Mountain National Park visitor’s center and a player to be named later after one of the most baffling, disappointing seasons in recent memory.
Robinson Chirinos made strides behind the plate defensively and did his best Johnny Bench impersonation for a few weeks at a time and then was extremely mediocre at the plate for weeks at a time and had an overall solid year. His solid year was bolstered by streaks like hitting four home runs in his first 18 plate appearances to start the year and a stretch in June where he hit a home run in three straight game.
A few stragglers made it into the fray of the Rangers’ infield this year. Drew Robinson – perhaps most notable among those – showed his defensive adeptness at multiple positions and some pop with the bat. Depending on Hanser Alberto’s health it appears “Petey” could be a frontrunner for next year’s utility bench player out of spring training. He can basically play all nine positions (although he hasn’t played SS, P or C) and is a left handed bat with some upside.
Brett Nicholas was a solid backup catcher in the post-Lucroy era and continues to be a valuable organizational depth piece for this club. Catcher A.J. Jimenez is near the top of the list of “people you forgot played on the Rangers in 2017” right next to utility infielder Phil Gosselin.
Will Middlebrooks, who was injured in AAA for much of the year, ended up having a nice year in Round Rock and was up with his childhood team in Arlington for the end of the year. He’s likely moving on this winter in search of greener pastures, as a competent corner infielder who probably deserves a shot at Major League utility role and that is perhaps just not in the cards in Texas.
Ryan Rua never really took the next step many of us expected him to after a decent 2016 campaign. He ended up appearing in only 63 games and 144 PA with the big club, nearly half the plate appearances he had in 2016. Pete Kozma was on this team for what felt like ages, basically never played as the backup shortstop, and was prominent in the background of the dugout shots during broadcasts eating sunflower seeds.
This brings us to Jurickson Profar. This is not the place for a memoriam of his time as a Ranger but suffice to say, the 58 at-bats we saw in 2017 were likely his last for this franchise. Faced with an underperforming second baseman (discussed at length about 1000 words ago), Profar would have made for an obvious choice to fill that role in a September where meaningful games were still being played and rosters were expanded.
The catch with that was Profar’s service time, which was on the edge of eclipsing another year’s worth of accrued time and therefore the Rangers (and whoever the Rangers trade Profar to) would lose a year of control and lose value as an asset going forward.
Now is not the time to delve into whether that was a morally right thing for the Rangers to do, or whether it is even going to be considered permissible by the players’ association, but it was pretty obvious that this was the plan and they were sticking to it – and sticking with Odor when a better option seemed to be waiting in Round Rock with nothing better to do.
Profar is likely headed elsewhere – maybe San Diego or Minnesota where former Rangers assistant GMs are now in charge of their own teams and need shortstops. Maybe somewhere else, or maybe the Rangers have something massive up their sleeves and plan to use that control themselves. Only time will tell but the saga of Profar feels like it's just beginning despite it all beginning five years ago.
The Rangers are going to be hanging their hopes on this established group of core infielders again in 2018, and you can bet that whatever success they have will largely depend on the success of Beltre, Andrus, Odor and Gallo.
You may see another cast of characters entirely (save Nomar Mazara) in the outfield, and heaven only knows what the pitching staff will look like, but it’s pretty clear that the Rangers have hitched their wagon firmly to Beltre, Andrus and Odor and there’s no reason to think that next year can’t be better… but there will be 29 teams saying that at the end of the season.
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