2015 Preview – Right Field

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Texas Rangers

Acquiring Alex Rios after the 2013 trade deadline for the cheap, very expendable piece of Leury Garcia looked to be a prudent, sensible move for the Texas Rangers. Whether they knew it at the time or not is up for debate, but the team was about to lose Nelson Cruz for the season. While nobody was going to mistake Alex Rios as the kind of power threat Cruz was, it wasn’t like Rios was bereft of power. He was a contact hitter with a certain power presence, added speed and durability, and looked to be in need of a change from the Chicago White Sox. Combine that with the notion that Rios was under control for 2014 with the option available for another year, and the move made sense on a lot of fronts for Texas.

As far as Nelson Cruz went, the writing on the wall became ever clearer as the 2013 winter progressed. The Rangers signed the veteran, on-base machine of an outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, and it was all but official: unless Cruz wanted to be a primary designated hitter with limited outfield time, there wasn’t going to be a spot for him on the 2014 team. Cruz signed with Baltimore and went on to produce a career-year at Camden Yards. As for the Rangers with Alex Rios in right field?

2015 Preview: The Closer
2015 Preview: The Bullpen
2015 Preview: The Rotation
2015 Preview: Catcher
2015 Preview: First Base
2015 Preview: Second Base
2015 Preview: Third Base
2015 Preview: Shortstop
2015 Preview: Left Field
2015 Preview: Centerfield

In 2014: Rios came out of the gates firing on all cylinders for the Rangers. The outlook for the team was already bleak at the outset, having started the season without Derek Holland, Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis, and Jurickson Profar, but the team on the field looked to be serviceable until health brought reinforcements. With Shin-Soo Choo manning left field and Leonys Martin evolving into a high-level center fielder, Rios rounded things out with average speed and arm strength. It looked like the outfield would be formidable on defense, at least.

It didn’t take long, though, for defensive liabilities to become apparent. In the first game of a hope-teasing series in Detroit, the same day it was discovered Prince Fielder would likely be lost for the season, the first instance of extreme miscommunication took place. Those of you that watch WWE will recognize this unintentional Daniel Bryan-esque knee to the face of Daniel Robertson.

That seemed innocent enough. A few weeks later, it was a miscue between Martin and Rios. A few weeks later, another miscue between the two. Both of those miscues were nearly identical, with a ball skied to right-center field with both fielders converging on the ball. Either both called for it, or both didn’t call for it and collided with each other, resulting in a dropped ball. Was it Martin and his meek, baby-soft voice in the outfield? That was certainly a factor, but then you flash back to the almost no-hitter with Yu Darvish against the Red Sox. David Ortiz popped one just behind the shifted Rougned Odor and right in front of Alex Rios. Did Odor call for it? Perhaps. Did Rios call him off? Maybe. Did it look like Rios just kind of backed off when it really should have been his ball because he had the best angle and approach to the “routine” fly ball? Yes. Whatever the issue was throughout the year, lack of communication was an unfortunate major theme in Alex Rios’ season in right field for Texas.

Offensively, that idea of power didn’t manifest itself at all. While Rios was able to get on base at a fairly decent clip, and while the Rangers knew he wouldn’t be Nelson Cruz at the plate, he didn’t even come close to what the team needed from someone they routinely slotted in their five-hole in the lineup. Rios hovered around .300 for most of the season, even having a 12-game hitting streak in May, in the middle of which he had seven multi-hit games in a row. He started a downward trend in August, well after it was determined that the Rangers were out of the race. It was early in that month that Rios suffered an ankle injury, further compounding his usefulness at the plate. At the beginning of September, Rios was shut down for the rest of the season, succumbing to the season-ending injury problems that plagued the Rangers all season long. All in all, Rios ended with a .280/.311/.398 slash and only four home runs.

In 2015: Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that Rios went down in September. The door that opened allowed for two bright, shining stars to find their way to the Rangers main roster – Jake Smolinski and Ryan Rua. Smolinski was a guy that had been in the Rangers’ line-up in the middle of the year, but suffered a broken foot that sidelined him until September. After impressive showings at the plate in the season’s final months, Rua and Smolinski put themselves in the conversation for a starting position in the Rangers outfield. It was this display of energy, athleticism and plate presence that turned the idea of picking up Alex Rios’ option for 2015 into just a once-thought-of notion.

The rise of Rua and Smolinski made it infinitely easier for Jon Daniels and company to part with the 33-year old Rios, who was slated to cost the team $14 million if the option was picked up. Instead, the Rangers paid out $1 million to Rios, let him go to sign with the Royals, and have conducted tryouts for a starting left field position and fourth outfielder.

Wait, left field? Yes, left field, because fight field will be permanently manned by Shin-Soo Choo. Choo, whose dedication to being whatever his team needs him to be both in the field and at the plate should be commended, having admitted that he feels most comfortable in right field. Indeed, Choo has 600 games logged in the nine-spot on the field, while having played just 165 and 125 games in center and left respectively. Is Choo going to be a Gold Glove right fielder for the Rangers? Probably not, but the idea of Choo finding himself in a comfort zone should lead Rangers fans to believe that he will find comfort at the plate as well.

Choo’s strength is getting on base, and while that seems like it should be a great quality in a lead-off batter, where Choo was supposed to be when he signed with the club, the idea really plays to any position in the lineup. Choo, consistent with his nature, has said on multiple occasions both this winter and last that it doesn’t matter to him where he hits. He could hit first, third, sixth, or ninth – his mindset and goal when he steps to the plate is to get on base. With Leonys Martin taking over the lead-off spot for Jeff Banister’s club, and some combination of Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder taking over the 3-4 spots, it does leave some question as to where Choo will find himself batting. This will likely depend on who ends up playing in left field on any given day. The 5-6-7 spots in Banister’s lineup will likely feature some combination of DH-Left Field-Choo. Ideally, I see Choo as the number six hitter, but again, depending on which player impresses the most out of camp, he could wind up hitting seventh. Whatever the case may be, Choo will display the same work ethic, plate discipline and on-base acumen wherever he winds up hitting.

Hot Stove: The left field competition is still up for grabs as Jeff Banister continues to look for someone to separate himself from the pack. Ryan Rua continues to impress as the incumbent, but Carlos Peguero, Jake Smolinski and Ryan Ludwick are also candidates. One of the things the Rangers will have to anticipate is Choo’s aging body, and the potential for injury, so whoever winds up as the fourth outfielder will have to have some prowess in right field. This sort of thing looks like it’s being sorted out in spring training with all of the candidates receiving playing time in right while Choo is restricted to DH’ing with an already aggravated triceps muscle.

Realistically, where do you see Shin-Soo Choo hitting in the lineup for the Texas Rangers? What would you want to see as the backup plan in case of an extended stint on the disabled list? Leave a comment below and discuss. There’s one more season preview article left in our 2015 series. Next week, we look at another revamped area for the Texas Rangers – the coaching staff! From there, I’ll preview what I think the 25-man roster will be coming out of camp and set up a projected lineup on Opening Day. The season is almost here, Rangers fans!

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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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