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01/22/09 5:31 PM EST
Vizquel ready for new role with Texas
Career shortstop hopes to serve as utility infielder with Rangers
By T.R. Sullivan / MLB.com
For 20 years, Omar Vizquel has been one of the best shortstops in the Major Leagues. Now he finds himself in a position of having to deal with the idea of being a utility player.
"The feeling is kind of strange," Vizquel said. "I've never played second or third base; it's something I haven't done. When I was 20 years old and in instructional league, they had us playing all over the place, but when I came up to the Major Leagues, I was a shortstop. But now I'm ready for a new challenge."
The new challenge is being a utility infielder for the Rangers, who have signed Vizquel to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training. The Rangers still plan on using rookie Elvis Andrus, 20, at shortstop with Michael Young moving over to third base. Vizquel's role -- if he makes the team -- will be to back up both of them and second baseman Ian Kinsler.
"It's a pretty rare opportunity for us to add someone of his caliber," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "He's a likely Hall of Famer, one of the best shortstops in the history of the game, someone who has had success in postseason and enjoys a reputation for being an outstanding person. We're glad to have what he offers both on and off the field."
There is still a possibility that Vizquel may not end up being a utility player. Andrus has never played above Double A and there is still a possibility the Rangers will find out in Spring Training that he needs more time in the Minors. That could open the door for Vizquel to be the Rangers' regular shortstop, but Daniels does not foresee that and said that's not why the club made this move.
"I certainly think this helps protect us if that comes to pass," Daniels said. "But that's a hypothetical that we don't expect to happen. We understand we're pushing Elvis quicker than maybe some people think we should, but with his skills and makeup, we think he can handle it. We understand the part about pushing a young player and this is a level of protection but we're not looking at it that way."
This will be the first time in Vizquel's career that he has been asked to fill the utility role. He has been an everyday shortstop since he was a rookie with the Mariners in 1989. Since then, he has played one inning at second base in 1991 (in a 10-2 loss) and one inning in right field in 1999. He didn't have a fielding chance in either game.
The rest has been all shortstop. He has played 2,654 games at shortstop, the most in Major League history. He has won 11 Gold Gloves, second most for a shortstop behind the 13 won by Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, and his .984 fielding percentage is the highest in history for a shortstop in a minimum of 650 games.
"I know it's hard for people to believe that I would take a job as a backup player or a utility infielder," Vizquel said. "But I'm still going to prepare to play every day. I know the plan is for Andrus to play but I'm still going to prepare to play every day. If I don't play every day, I'll be a utility player and I'll be ready to handle it."
Vizquel's presence also gives Andrus a mentor as he prepares to make the jump from Double A to the Major Leagues. They are both from Venezuela, although Vizquel has never really met Andrus other than watching him play in winter ball.
"The only I thing I know is he's from Venezuela," Vizquel said. "I've heard he's a special player with all the tools that a manager and general manager look for. My job is going to be to help him become a Major League player. A lot of young players get into slumps early and get down on themselves. My job is to keep him focused.
"Once he sees what being a Major League player is all about, with all the tools he has, I don't think it will be hard for him to make the adjustment."
Andrus will have Vizquel beside him for the entire Spring Training. Vizquel is on Venezuela's roster for the World Baseball Classic, but said he plans to skip it to be in camp with the Rangers.
Daniels said Vizquel's ability to mentor Andrus is a "bonus," but was not a prerequisite for the signing.
"Elvis is going to have a lot of things going for him, a lot of good people around him and a lot of resources to go to," Daniels said. "Omar will add a good deal to Elvis' experience, but that's not why we signed him. The responsibility is up to Elvis to look to [Young and Vizquel] how they carry themselves, how they prepare and how they can help him."
Vizquel is motivated by the desire to show people he can still play the game. He had a rough season in 2008. He underwent surgery on his left knee in Spring Training and missed the first five weeks of the season. By the All-Star break he was hitting just .159 and losing playing time to rookie Emmanuel Burriss. But he came back strong in the second half, batting .304 and re-establishing in his mind that he can still play.
"Last year I ended up with some bitter feelings about my playing time," Vizquel said. "But I had a strong second half and felt good about myself. It made me feel I can continue to be an everyday player."
Or a very famous utility player.