Around the Horn: Outfielders
Byrd, Hamilton and Bradley get the starting nod for Texas
The following is the fourth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each week until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Outfielders.
ARLINGTON -- When Rangers general manager Jon Daniels decided to trade pitcher Edinson Volquez to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Josh Hamilton, he was basically conceding what has become increasingly obvious as this decade has passed.The Rangers outfield, a major strength during the division championship years of the 1990s, has been a major source for concern since the club's last division title in 1999. While the Rangers have had five different infielders appear in an All-Star Game in the past eight years, they have had six different Opening Day left fielders, six different right fielders and seven different center fielders over the same stretch of time. From 1990-99, Rangers outfielders combined to have a .792 OPS, the fourth highest for a group in the American League. Since the beginning of the 2000 season, though, Rangers outfielders have combined for a .763 OPS, the third lowest in the American League. In the previous decade, the Rangers had ten 20-home run seasons from an outfielder, seven 100-run seasons and nine 100-RBI seasons. Since then, they have had an outfielder hit over 20 home runs just twice and score 100 runs just once. They have not had an outfielder drive in over 80 runs since 1999. "Mostly it's been the production of our infielders," Daniels said. "The big offensive clubs of the '90s had production from top to bottom in the lineup. We haven't had that level in some time and the biggest difference is we haven't had the outfield production. We've had some guys have an occasional good year, like Gary Matthews Jr., but we haven't had many and not more than one spot at a time." So the Rangers get ready to start over again. Marlon Byrd, who played all three outfield spots for the Rangers after being called up on May 26, starts out in left. Hamilton was acquired to play center and Milton Bradley, who is coming off knee surgery, was signed as a free agent to play right. David Murphy could fill the crucial role of fourth outfielder. "I expect significant improvement over last year," Daniels said. "The thing that I like is we have four guys out there who can all play center field. That bodes well for our defense and could go a long way to supporting our pitching staff. If Milton's knee is good to go -- and we've only had positive reports so far -- then it has a chance to be a pretty solid outfield." Nelson Cruz and Jason Botts also remain in the picture. Frank Catalanotto can play left, but is more likely to be used at designated hitter. Hamilton offers the best chance of giving the Rangers close to the offensive production they received in the 1990s from Juan Gonzalez, Rusty Greer and Ruben Sierra. A former No. 1 overall First-Year Player Draft pick by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Hamilton, 26, had a once-promising career thrown off course by well-documented personal problems with substance abuse. But, after being acquired by the Cincinnati Reds, he was able to overcome his difficult history and hit .292 with 19 home runs and 47 RBIs in 90 games and 298 at-bats as a rookie in 2007.
The numbers could have been better, but he missed time by going on the disabled list in May with gastroenteritis and again in July with a sprained right wrist. He still finished the season with a .922 OPS. The Rangers haven't had an outfielder with an OPS that high since Gonzalez in 1999."Josh has the ability, and now he's done it to a degree at the big league level," Daniels said. "One impetus of that deal was getting a talented outfielder who is youthful, productive and can be here for some time. Hopefully Josh can do that for us." The Rangers have tried hard to fix their outfield problems through the Draft. They have taken an outfielder in the first or second round in four of the last five years: Vince Sinisi (second, 2003), K.C. Herren (second, 2004), John Mayberry Jr. (first, 2005) and Julio Borbon (supplemental first, 2007). Only Borbon is on the 40-man roster, but that was simply a way to get him signed last summer. He is still at least a few years away. Mayberry remains a prospect but hasn't progressed as quickly as the Rangers had hoped. While 13 of 30 first-round picks from the 2005 Draft have played in the Majors, Mayberry split time between Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Frisco in 2007, hitting a combined .235 with 30 home runs and 83 RBIs in 489 at-bats with 48 walks and 126 strikeouts. "When we took John in '05, it was with the knowledge that he would have to make adjustments," Daniels said. "He made some, but he's still working on others. Right-handed power hitters are hard to find. This is a big year for him. He's going to have the opportunity to be challenged and we'll see how he responds." The Rangers' best outfield prospect may be Chris Davis, who played 36 games out there in 2006 for Class A Spokane after being taken in the fifth round of the Draft. The Rangers moved him to third base last season and he hit a combined .297 with 36 home runs and 118 RBIs between Bakersfield and Frisco. But he has a plus throwing arm and could be moved to right field at some point. "He has done it before," Daniels said. "I think his arm is a profile-type arm that plays out in right field, but we're not going there yet. If he can continue to hit the way he did all last year, we'll find a way to get that bat in the lineup." Another guy to watch is center fielder Brandon Boggs, a fourth-round pick in the 2004 Draft who overcame some early injuries and put himself in the picture by hitting .262 with a .380 on-base percentage, 86 runs scored, 30 doubles, 23 home runs, 72 RBIs and 84 walks between Bakersfield and Frisco last season. He is on the 40-man roster and will be in big league camp. "He's a switch-hitter who can do a lot of little things," Daniels said. "He certainly has a chance. He's a guy we're going to continue to challenge and see how he handles it." Then there is Engel Beltre, the 18-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox in the Eric Gagne trade on July 31. He has had just one season in professional baseball in the United States and hit .243 with nine home runs and 29 RBIs in 65 games and 247 at-bats last year. But he is already showing up in top prospect lists because of his enormous talent. It's the kind of talent the Rangers used to produce in the outfield. But it has been a while.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.