Around the Horn: DH and bench
Platoon partner for Catalanotto not determined as of yet
The following is the seventh in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Today: Bench/Designated Hitter.
ARLINGTON -- The array of moves made by the Rangers in the winter have only cleared up half of their designated hitter situation.Frank Catalanotto will be their DH against right-handed pitchers. It is unknown who will perform those duties when a left-handed pitcher is on the mound. The Rangers only know that it will not be Sammy Sosa. That was the one move the Rangers did not make this offseason: re-signing Sosa after he led the Rangers with 25 home runs in 2007 while driving in 92. The Rangers steered away from Sosa and other potential free-agent possibilities, including Mike Sweeney, who just signed with the A's, and Mike Piazza, who is still looking for a job. The Rangers prefer to go with Catalanotto and whoever they deem the best from a list of potential right-hitting candidates. Catalanotto, after signing a three-year contract with the Rangers a year ago, played in 64 games in left field, 16 at designated hitter and 14 at first base in 2007. But it now appears that he will be used at DH after the Rangers acquired Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley in the offseason. They join Marlon Byrd in the starting outfield, while David Murphy is the leading candidate to be the fourth outfielder. That leaves Catalanotto at DH. Catalanotto hit .260 in 2007, a career low for him, and his .337 on-base percentage was his lowest since 1999. But he did rally in the second half after a terrible start, hitting .288 with a .363 on-base percentage and a .476 slugging percentage after the All-Star break. That is more of what the Rangers are expecting this season. Catalanotto is not the traditional power-hitting designated hitter, but the Rangers are counting on him to fill a spot at the top of the lineup. His .374 career on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter is the fourth highest among the 54 active players with at least 900 at-bats in the No. 1 spot. Only Derek Jeter (.390), Hanley Ramirez (.380) and Ichiro Suzuki (.379) have a higher career on-base percentage among active players. He also has a .359 on-base percentage as a No. 2 hitter, 15th among 50 active players with at least 900 at-bats in that spot. Either way, Catalanotto gives the Rangers a badly-needed on-base guy at the top of the lineup. "Cat's a good complement to some of the other guys in the lineup," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "He's not going to strike out much, is a tough out, will see a lot of pitches and get on base."
The Rangers will likely need a right-handed bat to go with both him and left-handed hitting first baseman Ben Broussard. Catalanotto, 33, had just 13 at-bats against left-handers last year and it's clear that after 11 years in the big leagues, he is viewed mainly as a platoon player.His partner is unidentified, but it will likely come from within from a group that includes right-handed hitters Nelson Cruz, Chris Shelton and Nate Gold and switch-hitter Jason Botts. Shelton and Gold can also both play first base. Botts has played there in the past and will work there in Spring Training. Cruz is strictly an outfielder. The Rangers turned away from Sosa because he is limited defensively and he hit just .222 with a .410 slugging percentage against right-handers. "We talked about a variety of RH options, since Cat and Broussard are left-handed and have traditionally needed a platoon partner," Daniels said. "But we decided we'd prefer to give opportunity to the guys we already have: Cruz, Botts, Shelton, Gold." This could be a big spring for Botts, who has put up impressive Minor League numbers, but has yet to convince the Rangers that he's ready for an everyday assignment in the big leagues. Over parts of the last three seasons, Botts has played in 78 games and hit .240 with three home runs and 23 RBIs in 244 at-bats. He has struck out 90 times while posting a .329 on-base percentage and a .335 slugging percentage. Now he is out of options and has little left to prove in the Minor Leagues. In a combined 611 at-bats between Triple-A Oklahoma and winter ball this offseason, Botts hit .322 with 21 home runs, 110 runs scored and 132 RBIs. "Jason's out of options, so he's got to make the club, or we've got a decision to make," Daniels said. "I was happy to see him go to Mexico, where he did what he's always done -- produce. He's got the ability and the track record you like to see." Cruz is in the same situation. He hit .352 with 15 home runs and 45 RBIs in 44 games and 162 at-bats at Oklahoma last year, but just .234 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs in 307 at-bats with the Rangers. Botts has the advantage of being a switch-hitter. Being able to play first base could also help. Cruz is more athletic and a much better outfield defender. Shelton and Gold are strictly right-handed hitting first basemen. The problem is, there may be only one spot on the team for any of them. The Rangers figure to go with a four-man bench that will likely include a backup catcher, a utility infielder and a fourth outfielder. That leaves just one spot for a right-handed hitting backup outfielder/first baseman and a potential platoon partner with Catalanotto at designated hitter. Ramon Vazquez is the leading candidate to be the utility infielder, although the Rangers will take a hard look at rookie German Duran and are also bringing veteran Edgardo Alfonzo into camp. Alfonzo, 35, is a long-shot to make the team. He did not play in the Majors in 2007 and hit just .126 in 30 games in 2006. But there was a time when he would have been just what the Rangers needed: a right-handed hitting machine who can play multiple positions.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.