2015 Preview – Third Base

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One of the more stable positions on the field this year was the Hot Corner, manned for the majority of the year by Adrian Beltre, the man many consider to be the current Face of the Rangers. With a perfect mix of intensity and levity, Beltre has kept the left-side corner of the infield under control since 2011. Adrian was one of those gambles that Jon Daniels ended up taking and it worked. If JD had been able to keep Cliff Lee following the World Series run in 2010, there’s an incredibly strong chance that Texas would have had Michael Young holding down third. Young, past his prime, did not have the defensive or offensive capabilities that Adrian Beltre brought. While the move for Young caused a bit of controversy, the move has worked for Texas in the long run, as they pulled off another World Series appearance in Beltre’s first year with the club and worked their way to the playoffs the following year. Now, in the last guaranteed year on his contract, Beltre needs 584 plate appearances this season to turn an option into a guarantee, and rumors have been swirling about his future with the organization and the twilight of his Hall of Fame career.
In 2014: Coming off of a year in which he played in all but one game, 2014 looked to be another banner year for Beltre and his team. With new teammates Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, more people were projected to be on base for Adrian to drive in from the clean-up spot. Yes, it would be Beltre in the 4-spot, protecting Fielder, who had spent the prior three years protecting a league MVP. As Rangers started to crumble and fall around him, due to injury, Beltre stayed strong and firm in the cleanup role and at third…after a stint on the disabled list.

Beltre’s history with leg injuries bit him again this year, but fortunately for the team, it happened early in the season. He spent the second and third weeks of the season on the DL with a quad injury, a problem that nagged him during Spring Training. After several years of dealing with hamstring problems, the quad injury was new, probably a result of overcompensation to avoid the hammy issues. But Beltre is one of the best in the game at knowing how much his body can take and how to adapt his playing to his injuries. He maintained he wasn’t happy about being on the DL, but the Rangers needed to be pro-active with Adrian at that point in the season. Beltre ended up spending the minimum amount of time on the disabled list and wound up playing the rest of the way.

During Beltre’s stint on the DL, a 32-year old minor-league journeyman made his way to the Rangers’ main roster with low expectations. Kevin Kouzmanoff, who hadn’t played in a Major League game since 2011, stepped in to merely be a placeholder until Beltre could get back. What the Rangers got was something much more, as Kouzmanoff became an offensive threat and made Beltre’s pending return the potential cause of a difficult decision. Kouzmanoff played in 13 games for Texas, crushing two homers, and hitting to a slash line of .362/.412/.617 – a line that certainly would not have held up over the course of the full season, but was good enough to earn him American League Player of the Week honors in his first week. The conundrum of where to play ‘Kouz’ when Adrian got back ended up resolving itself, sadly, as the injury bug moved from one third baseman to the other, ending Kouzmanoff’s season with a herniated disk in his back.

Adrian would go on to contend for the American League batting title, often trading places towards the end of the season with Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano and Victor Martinez. He ended up with 614 plate appearances, 178 hits and a slash line of .324/.388/.492, ending the season with a Silver Slugger award and an All-Star nomination. Defensively, Beltre continued to make dazzling plays on the most difficult-looking of plays, making just 12 errors in 362 chances and putting up a .967 fielding percentage. Beltre continued to play strong and be the motivating leader and example of “playing the right way” in a clubhouse full of has-beens, never-was’s, and could-be-somedays.

In 2015: Beltre’s name has unavoidably been circulated as a trade candidate with the Rangers coming off of a 95-loss season. Going into his age-36 season, with this year and an option left on his contract, if the Rangers are in the sad condition of losing through July with an over-performing third baseman, the possibility is real that Beltre ends up being jettisoned for a reboot for the future. Certainly if the legs hold up and the bat still causes cries of “OhS—!” teams will be looking for a boost for their lineup and could pay a nice price for Beltre.

If the Rangers are in a contending mood, Beltre stays and is undoubtedly a key cog in the machine that Jon Daniels and Jeff Banister are building. As Beltre becomes another year older, however, the amount of playing time in the field becomes a concern. Whenever interviewed about saying he would give Beltre a day off, only to slot him in the lineup hours later, former Ranger manager Ron Washington would say (maybe half-jokingly), “I don’t want Adrian mad at me. He practically held me hostage until I put him back in.” It may not have been those words exactly, but you readers know what I’m talking about. Adrian Beltre wants to play. He wants to contribute to wins and he doesn’t want to see the bench any longer than in-between at-bats. With new manager Jeff Banister and his #NeverEverQuit mantra, will the two mesh well when it comes to deciding his playing time? Or might Jeff stand his ground and have Beltre take a break if he notices fatigue in the field? The chemistry of Banister and clubhouse leader Beltre might be one of the more intriguing stories that develop through the season.

Backing Beltre up, there aren’t a whole lot of readily-visible options. Adam Rosales figures to be the primary utility infielder for the club and likely the first up when a player needs a day off his feet. On the Non-Roster Invitee list, Ed Lucas stands out as having a chance to be another backup infielder. Lucas was claimed off of waivers from the Marlins and can play practically every position on the diamond. Voices will start to clamor for Joey Gallo to make the team, but make no mistake, Gallo is being invited to Major League spring training as part of his development, not because he will be making the team on Opening Day. Gallo will start in the Majors and should be viewed as nothing more than a possible September call-up. As multiple outlets have said, if Gallo comes up at any point before then, things have taken a serious turn south for the Rangers.

Beyond that, Beltre will work towards the 584 plate appearance milestone (giving him 1,200 combined for ’14-’15) that will kick his option in. In order for that to happen, Adrian is going to need to be the primary third baseman for the whole year. Beltre continues to show that he is like a fine wine, getting better with age, but inevitably, time will catch up to number 29 and the signs of deterioration will show. The Rangers are hoping that they can get at least this full season out of Adrian to slug it out with Prince Fielder and push towards the postseason again.

Hot Stove: It wouldn’t be a terrible idea for the Rangers to look around at other Spring Training camps to see what options exist to back up third base. Ideally, a proven defensive commodity at the Hot Corner would be the preferable option. With all of the ground ball pitchers currently in the mix for the rotation, offense might figure itself out should Beltre be shelved, but Texas will need a more-than-capable glove if they have to fill that hole for any length of time.

Can Beltre stay healthy this year and be a contributing factor on a playoff contending Texas Rangers team? If the Rangers are out, what do you think Beltre could fetch from another team in a trade? Do you want to see Joey Gallo up before September? Leave a comment below and discuss. Next week, as more players start to join Pitchers and Catchers in Surprise, we’ll see just how vital the shortstop position will be for your 2015 Texas Rangers.

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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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