In the past few years the Rangers have been conducting themselves under the personal theory of build from within. This has had some growing pains, but if properly done the rewards can be extensive and cost-effective. We have seen some of these rewards when looking at the stability of the middle infield, the success of first baseman, and the corps of young arms. But one major area is still of some uncertainty. Ask anyone who is worth their weight in salt in regards to how to build a franchise and they will tell you three areas that are essential, an ace / workhorse pitcher, the middle infield, and centerfield. If a franchise can establish solid, young players at these core positions, building around them is much easier and in most cases cheaper.
Notice the hole for the Rangers, stability in centerfield.
And this is not just the 2011 season, it seems as though the Rangers have not had stability in centerfield in decades, but more of a revolving door. But now Texas is setup with a few options going forward to nail down the position for multiple years of stability.
True, that the Rangers best option would be Josh Hamilton roaming in the middle of the outfield, but no one will argue that is an issue because of his health concerns. Since Hamilton's recent return from the DL and subsequent spark of the offense, it is obvious the Rangers are best with a healthy Hamilton. Common knowledge and thought is that Hamilton roaming in left field, rather than center, could be the best option. Debate that logic however you want, but in order for it to work Texas needs at the bare minimum a viable option in center.
If you look at the Rangers 40-man roster, there are five options to hold centerfield down for 2011 and hopefully years to come. Julio Borbon, Endy Chavez, Craig Gentry, Engel Beltre, and Leonys "Cohiba" Martin.
Before we go any deeper, Beltre and Martin more than likely will NOT be options this season. If both continue to impress at Double-A Frisco then promotions to Triple-A Round Rock are likely, especially for Martin. Both could receive Major League call-ups when the rosters expand in September, but it's way too early to comment on that right now. Currently at Frisco Beltre (21 years old) is batting .224 over 30 games, while Martin (23) in his first 17 professional games is batting .353 with a .438 OBP. Cohiba has 24 hits in 17 games, six doubles, two triples, two home runs, and has already driven in 13 runs. He has walked ten times, while only striking out three, and has eight stolen bases.
Julio Borbon (25) has been the Rangers option since the season has begun and was the option in 2010 for a while as well. Last year Borbon was the starting CF and leadoff hitter, the pressure of both roles proved to be too much and he struggled mightly at both throughout the year. Near the end of the season he made some progress, but was only a bench option when the postseason came along. Again this season Borbon was giving the opportunity to be the go-to guy in centerfield. However, yet again he struggled early on both at the plate and in the field. Borbon batted only .232 in the month of April, with only two of his 13 hits going for extra bases (both triples). However in his 10 games in May, before going to the DL, he was batting .333 and hit in 10 straight games. On Monday Borbon started his rehab assignment at Frisco.
The final two options, Chavez (33) and Gentry (27), both started the season at Round Rock, but are currently with the Rangers. Gentry at AAA in 25 games batted .239 with a .337 OBP, and four steals. Chavez at AAA in 30 games batted .305 with 39 hits, 8 doubles, 2 triples, 2 home runs, and 17 RBI. Since being called-up to the Majors amidst all three Opening Day outfielders seeing the DL this season, both have had their areas of success. Gentry in 16 games is batting .194 but has a .326 OBP, he has been successful in all four steal attempts and become a strong, late-inning defensive replacement. Chavez in 10 games is batting .394 and slugging .667, five of his 13 hits have gone for extra bases and in the past 10 games is the hottest hitter in baseball (.556).
Borbon is the Rangers starting centerfielder according to manager Ron Washington. Wash has stuck by this from the get-go this season, stating he earned the job in Spring Training. Now I'm not calling Wash out for that decision, at that time. But I am going to point out and believe it is time to re-evaluate that belief. At age 25, Borbon still has some serious potential with his ability to reach base, speed, and can become a staple centerfielder.
But this is no longer a growing team, a team working toward making little steps and trying to win a division. Nope, the Ranger expectations have been raised and this is now a "good" baseball team than should "expect" success instead of "hope" for it. So with that in mind, how much longer can the Rangers wait for Borbon to develop and figure out how to play Major League centerfield. Similar situation at first base, where Chris Davis has tons of potential, but is at AAA because the team 1) can't wait much longer and 2) Mitch Moreland is tearing the cover off baseballs. Or as Jamey Newberg says, "#MitchMorelandHitsGoodPitching"
Same thing here at centerfield, how much longer can the Rangers wait for Borbon when veteran centerfielder Endy Chavez is performing and playing above average right now. Chavez was signed to a minor league contract by the Rangers last season as he attempted to come back from microfracture surgery that ended his 2009 campaign with Seattle. He is an 11-year pro, playing with his seventh Major League team, a career .272 / .314 / .371 hitter who is proving once again he can handle the centerfield reigns.
When Borbon returns from the DL and is done with his rehab assignment, I fully expect the Rangers to activate him and return Gentry to Round Rock, to play everyday. There is nothing wrong with that decision as Gentry has once again struggled with Major League pitching at times. My point is that when Borbon returns, I believe it should be as the fourth outfielder. Once activated, Moreland is going to once again become the everyday first baseman, leaving Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, Borbon, and Chavez in the outfield. Based upon the play, both at the plate and in the centerfield, I believe the Rangers should start Chavez more than Borbon.
Great thing about baseball is that so much can and will change throughout a season. This means the decision to start Chavez more is not a set decision, and should be re-evaluated a couple weeks down the road, if necesary. The flip side of that coin is that a team and a manager should always play his hot hand. I don't know how Borbon is going to react when he returns from the DL, he was hot when he got hurt and had to leave. But right now the Rangers hot hand in centerfield is Chavez, and right now it should remain Chavez.
This of course is more of a short-sighted decision, Texas will have to make a much more in-depth analysis going forward as the team, the options, and the space near the top of the centerfield depth chart is beginning to get crowded. Borbon, Chavez, Gentry, Beltre, and Cohiba will all make cases for the starting position, but only one can start. If Texas goes with Chavez this season and maybe even next year, it will give the organization more time to develop the skills of Cohiba and Beltre.
I was asked this morning by a friend who I thought the 2013 Rangers centerfielder would be: Borbon or Chavez? I smiled and said, "Cohiba."