DALLAS - Pitchers are throwing in September to audition for three supposed rotation spots and a bullpen that saw itself in need of a few new faces this season. Similarly, there are going to be a number of position player slots open going into 2018. Some of them are obvious on the surface, but others require a little more thought.
The approach to constructing the lineup and roster would appear to need a change. Much in the same way the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians changed the way bullpens are used and constructed, the Dodgers and Nationals have built a 25-man roster with a core of franchise players and consistently contributing bench players.
Consistently contributing is the key.
Going into next season, there are really only two core players whose spots are guaranteed – Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor. Even those two may not end up being on the team, but that’s an article for a different time. For argument’s sake, assume Andrus and Odor are on the club.
What other holes do the Texas Rangers have to fill for 2018?
Who wants center field? Since the departure of Lewis Brinson (the more you say it, the easier it gets, I think), the Rangers have been without a true center field prospect ready to take the job. Even Willie Calhoun, the prized prospect taken from the Dodgers in the Yu Darvish trade, is going to have to be more of a corner outfielder.
Carlos Gomez, with his track record and $11.5 million contract has gotten the majority of starting center assignments. Delino Deshields is in the middle of playing his best baseball and has been able to work his way into the starting lineup on a regular basis. Gomez, however, is going to earn more than the $11.5 million tendered to him for this season.
Deshields isn’t even arbitration eligible for another two years. No, Deshields isn’t anywhere near the level of center field defender that Gomez is. He’s not the worst you could put out there, but he’s certainly on the negative side of things. But Deshields can flag down fly balls with a lot of range. It may not be the most traditionally pretty route to get there, but he can get them. This year, he’s been able to make a few above average plays.
Deshields is playing in September to show that the Rangers can live with his defensive shortcomings by being a fire-starter in the offensive lineup. With Gomez out with a high ankle sprain, DeShields is getting his shot. Since becoming a mainstay in the lineup, he’s hit over .290 and had an on-base percentage of well over .380. And if you’re a fan of WAR, Baseball Reference and FanGraphs have Deshields at .5 WAR better than Gomez.
We sure do love our Mike Napoli around these parts, don’t we? The beard, the everyman appearance, the monster jacks, the leadership – all of those are things that endear him to the fans. Unfortunately, even a 30+ home run season isn’t going to justify picking up the $11 million team option. At -0.3 WAR (that’s negative), Texas would do better to pay the $2.5 million and let Napoli finish up his career elsewhere.
Or would they?
The option exists, not just because that’s how the Rangers were going to get him to sign this year, but also in the event that nobody else stepped up to assume the mantle of everyday first baseman. This year, there have been three that could take that position next season – Joey Gallo, Ronald Guzman…and Will Middlebrooks?
While it always seems like Adrian Beltre could play forever, the truth is that his body won’t let him. As magical as this ride was this season for The Captain, and as much as he contributed when he was on the field, Beltre was only on the field for half of a season. The Rangers have to assume that he’ll play even fewer games next year. Gallo and Guzman might be your corner infielders to start 2018, but Middlebrooks, a strong minor-league contributor over the last couple of years, is playing for the chance to be next man up.
Since coming up with the roster expansions, Middlebrooks has shown that he can be just what Texas needs from a utility and backup fielder – someone who’s not a gaping black hole in the lineup or the field when he’s inserted. Over 342 plate appearances with Round Rock this season, the former Boston Red Sox prodigy-to-be contributed a .258/.327/.529 slash line with 23 homers and 64 RBI.
Middlebrooks’ major league career has been nothing but partial seasons, and while a lot of that has had to do with the fact that he severely underachieved, perhaps this month’s stretch of games can be what he needs to get him back to what Boston thought they’d be getting in 2012. If that’s the case, and if Middlebrooks can fit as a bench and role player, he’ll add an exciting dynamic to put in Banister’s back pocket.
Jurickson Profar was held out of Round Rock lineup last night. Hearing he's expressed unhappiness over not being dealt today— Evan Grant (@Evan_P_Grant) July 31, 2017
While the superficial reason for Jurickson Profar’s non-call-up has to deal with service time, it doesn’t appear that he’s doing himself any favors to force his presence on the Major League team. Further complicating matters is the Drew Robinson factor. Up and down sporadically for two, one-game appearances in the first half, Robinson came up around the All-Star Break and stayed.
Forget the batting average; Robinson’s on-base percentage has hovered around the .360-.375 mark since August started. To top it all, he’s played virtually everywhere. Left field, third, shortstop, second and even center field have been positions that have seen the 25-year old rookie’s name penciled in by them.
Certainly not the biggest bat in the lineup, Robinson, except for this tail end of August, has shown that he’s definitely not the virtual automatic out that has typically been characteristic of reserve players for the Rangers this year. If he can rebound off of the bench in September, the Rangers’ former #23 prospect could find his way in the 2018 lineup in the role that had been envisioned for Jurickson Profar.
How is this possible? The backstop with a heart of gold was handed an extension through the 2018 season in lieu of a longer extension for supposed superstar catcher Jonathan Lucroy. That was certainly a tremendous show of trust from the front office, going with the older, more injury prone Chirinos.
In truth, the 33-year old has started only 65 games behind the plate this season. He is, however, enjoying a career offensive year. Slashing .268/.378/.553 with a career-high 17 home runs so far, Chirinos has shown that he can be a trusted member on this team and in the lineup.
On top of that, he has a trust level with the pitching staff. Even though Yu Darvish isn’t here, remember that Darvish and Chirinos weren’t always on the same page during a game. When Lucroy arrived, he took over primary duties of catching the high-movement pitches of Darvish. Towards the end of his tenure, Darvish worked exclusively with Chirinos. He has that kind of rapport with his staff, known to be a studious battery-mate with a passion for his game.
Why would he need to play for a spot? First, consider the injury history and age. Chirinos is on the wrong side of 30 for a catcher and has been injury prone. Secondly, the 2017-2018 free agent class is ripe with highly-recognizable catchers with decent reputations either behind the dish or with a bat – including Matt Wieters (who can opt-out of the other one-year and $11 million left on his Washington contract).
While a 2018 tandem of Chirinos and Brett Nicholas is probably the easiest road to travel for Jon Daniels and his team, bumping Nicholas back to Triple-A again to find another primary catcher wouldn’t be out of the question. Chirinos’ play in September just has to show the front office that they don’t need to do that.
Sweet Swingin’ Willie (planning on trademarking that) is in the Big Leagues. It took an unfortunate series of events to get him there – Carlos Gomez’ ankle (pretty bad), Nomar Mazara’s quad (not great), Mike Napoli’s back (doesn’t look minor), Rougned Odor’s ankle (thought it was bad, maybe it’s not), and Joey Gallo’s wrist (TBD) – but he’s here.
He is the centerpiece to the Yu Darvish trade to the Dodgers, and while he profiles mostly as a designated hitter, expect him to get playing time in left field, a transition he made once he made it over to the Rangers. That hasn’t been quite the adventure that Mike Napoli in left field was, but the more that Sweet Swingin’ Willie can stick to swingin’ sweetly, the more valuable he’ll be to the Rangers.
Between the Dodgers’ OKC and the Rangers’ Round Rock this season, Calhoun had an absurd .300/.355/.572 slash with 31 homers and 93 RBI. That’s not the most impressive part – in 534 plate appearances, which is a full season for some Major Leaguers, Calhoun struck out just 61 times. He is renowned across baseball for being Major League ready with his stick and he’s getting the chance to see what he can do for a club that’s on the cusp of a playoff berth with nineteen games to go.
Calhoun looks to be a cornerstone in the lineup next year for the Rangers. There’s a lot of hype surrounding him, especially since he's done nothing but hit since coming over as the Dodgers’ No. 4 top prospect, and now he’s got the chance to show the Rangers that they chose wisely.
“If you can hit, you can stay,” the old saying goes. Never mind the apparent lack of position going into 2018. If Willie can be the consistent contact hitter he has been since entering professional ball, Jeff Banister will work him into a lineup.
There’s a lot up for individual grabs this September. As always, with baseball, there’s a game within a game, a story within the story. If all of the above play to prove something to anybody, this season might not end against Oakland on October 1st.
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