2015 Preview – Left Field

It wasn’t long after the 2013 season ended that David Murphy entered into an agreement with the Cleveland Indians for three years. The former Baylor Bear had been a reliable left fielder for the Rangers, a staple for six years running. He had an above average arm, and had been a solid defender, but a career-low slash line of .220/.282/.374 in ’13 prompted the Rangers to let Murph go to Cleveland uncontested. The direction of the club was going elsewhere, and with another power source, Nelson Cruz, practically informed he would not be returning, the Rangers needed someone who could get on base with the potential for pop. Enter Shin-Soo ChooIn 2014: Shin-Soo Choo was the top free agent that Texas acquired for 2014. The fit didn’t look right immediately, as a 7-year contract to a 30-year old player hadn’t exactly been Jon Daniels’ M.O. If you looked at the stats more closely, the more it made sense.
Choo was coming off of a year in Cincinnati with a .285/.423/.462 slash, drawing a career-high (and it’s not even close) of 112 walks and “enjoying” a league-leading 26 HBP. Was Choo the prototypical lead-off hitter? Not exactly. He wasn’t a stolen base threat and not really a bunt-happy player, something that Wash was a fan of having his top two guys doing. The key for Choo was that he could see a lot of pitches from the top of the order, and even if he didn’t get on base, he had a an eye and a reputation for giving scouting reports when he returned to the bench.The Rangers saw what they paid for in the first month and a half of the season. Choo’s OBP never dipped below .412 after the first seven games of the season, peaking at .500 a couple of times, even after spraining his ankle in Oakland. Much was made of the ankle sprain, as it shelved Choo for five games in late April, but when he came back, he was still able to produce at a decent level (he had three five-game hitting streaks in May), it was thought that he’d be just fine. All good things had to have come to an end though, and once June hit, a sharp decline started to happen in Choo’s productivity at the plate. The OBP, which is what the Rangers paid Choo for, trended downward for the rest of the season, ending at a full 80 points below what he yielded with the Reds.Defensively, Choo never looked comfortable in left field. For the majority of his career, Choo was a right fielder, with the occasional stint at the other two spots in the outfield. While never a Gold Glove winner, Choo was much more experienced in right, playing 600 games there with a .984 fielding percentage. Compare that to just 61 games played in left before joining the Rangers, with a fielding percentage 10 points lower, and that all translates to a passable, but not really, decent left fielder.

After the season was done, it was found out that not all was well with Shin-Soo Choo’s ankle, and on top of that, Choo’s elbow began bothering him towards the end of the season. In a post-season interview, the 31-year old South Korean said that he wanted to play through the injuries because he didn’t want to let the team down by sitting on the bench. He also recognized that rest was probably the better course of action and, if given the chance again, he would take the opportunity to heal properly. The elbow became so much of an issue that the Rangers shut him down at the end of August and Choo did not play again in 2014. The season ending string of injuries opened the door for Ryan Rua, Jake Smolinski and Michael Choice, all who have a shot to man the position in 2015. Rua and Smolinski impressed the most out of the potentials, with Rua being seen as potentially the better defender in left field. Both proved to be able to hit against teams that had something to play for in September, and made the idea of not picking up the option for right fielder Alex Rios much easier to digest.

In 2015: Why was it easier to let Alex Rios go instead of bring him back? Go up a couple of paragraphs. The decision was made to open up a left field competition, and move Choo to right field. Defensively, Choo is more comfortable there and has said as much in spring training. More comfort on the field means less stress and more ease at the plate, which will hopefully bring Choo back to his Cincinnati Reds numbers. In left field, though there is a hefty competition to be had over the course of spring training.

At the head of the pack is Rua, listed as an incumbent although he played in only 17 games in left in ‘14. After a very shaky first game in left, in which he did not make an error, but had two plays that were very makeable, the 24-year old settled down and looked more and more comfortable with each outing. At the plate, Rua knocked 31 hits in his 109 plate appearances and more than held his own against major league pitching.

Amongst the others that were already in the Rangers organization were Jake Smolinski and Michael Choice. Smolinski is another strong candidate, although his ’14 season was interrupted by a broken left foot. Before the unfortunate hit-by-pitch, which cost him a little less than 2 months of playing time, Smolinski had been knocking the cover off of the ball, hitting with a slash line of .389/.450/.472 before the injury. In his first at-bat back, against an Oakland team in a pennant race, Smolinski crushed a home run. Over the final 12 games he appeared in, he went hitless just three times. His make-up could be used more as a right-handed supplement to Mitch Moreland in the designated hitter spot, although Jake is adept at both corner outfield positions.

Michael Choice was the coveted outfield prospect acquired in exchange for Craig Gentry from Oakland in December 2013. A local kid, Choice was the “good story” candidate to be the 4th outfielder last year, and still could be this year, but nothing has ever gotten completely in sync for the 24-year old. Almost Mitch Moreland-like in his consistency, Choice has displayed flashes of brilliance over his 95 games with the Rangers, but would be derailed by injury or inconsistency. He always seemed too eager or too anxious at the plate, and far less than impressive with his routes and efficiency in the outfield. Choice has had great streaks and stints in Round Rock for the Triple-A team, but those have never translated at the big league level. Choice has a chance this spring to show the Rangers that he is more than a 4-A player, but he faces a lot of stiff competition.

Among those competing for the starting job in left field or a spot as the fourth outfielder are a myriad of free agents in camp on minor league deals with major league incentives. There’s Ryan Ludwick, the 35-year old who began his major league career with Texas, but most recently spent time with the Reds as their primary left fielder. Ludwick possesses some definite power potential, and a wealth of experience in the outfield. Then comes Nate Schierholtz, the journeyman who the Rangers have had their eye on for a couple of years now, and who projects more as a right fielder, but has experience at all three outfield spots. There’s Rule 5 draft pick Delino DeShields, who must make the team for Opening Day or be offered on waivers and then back to Houston. He has probably the highest ceiling of any of the outfield prospects in competition for a job, but has had questions surrounding his work ethic and drive. Antoan Richardson, a career minor-leaguer who is competing against DeShields to backup Leonys Martin, but could play a corner spot if needed. Kyle Blanks is in camp; he’s the power-hitting prospect who has been with the Padres and Athletics, but whose short career has always been marred by injury. He could be huge as a bench player for Texas – if he’s healthy. Carlos Peguero is the former Seattle Mariner who is another power-potential bat with a strikeout problem. Jared Hoying is in the Rangers system already, coming off of a strong Triple-A season, but might be a longshot to make the team. Then there’s always Mitch Moreland, who is an above average first baseman and perhaps a slightly below average outfielder, but has major league experience at the position as well as the security of already being on the team as the primary designated hitter.

To make a long story short (too late), the field, so to speak, is wide open.

Hot Stove: The Rangers probably shouldn’t make any more minor league acquisitions to compete for the left field or backup outfield spot. They want to be able to get decent looks at all of these players, and an oversaturation might result in decreased proving time for most of these guys.

Who do you see as the Opening Day left fielder? I would think it would have to be a platoon, but who are the two? With the idea that the Rangers will break camp with two back-up outfielders, who do you slot alongside Leonys Martin and Shin-Soo Choo? Speaking of Leonys, we’ll take a look at him, his arm, and his backup next week.

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Matt Fisher
Matt Fisher is an Editor/Staff Writer for ShutdownInning. He is a baseball lifer, preferring to use the eye test and rely on the knowledge and analysis of baseball minds greater than his, while using relevant stats to encourage situational discussions. He is also co-host of The Most Valuable Podcast on the NextWave Radio Network, talking sports, entertainment, and sports entertainment.

While Matt's favorite team will always be his hometown Texas Rangers, he knows the ongoing story lines of every team in Major League Baseball. If you sit next to him at a game, be prepared to hear him try and do play-by-play. If you're famous and reading this, just know that he's not afraid to drop names.

Matt Fisher. ShutdownInning Editor/Staff Writer

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