2016 Position Preview – Center Field

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Sometimes the greatest help can come from the most unlikely of places. For the Rangers, their biggest surprise contributor came from the Rule 5 Draft. To recap quickly, the Rule 5 Draft enables teams to claim any player from another team as long as they are not on their 40-man roster. Fortunately, the Houston Astros decided that this player wasn’t a part of their future.

In 2015: Coming out of Spring Training, DeLino DeShields, Jr. was always going to be on the Opening Day roster. Being a part of the Rule 5 Draft, DeShields was required to stay on the 25-man roster for the duration of the year (DL notwithstanding) or be offered back to Houston for $25,000.

Why was DeShields made available for the taking? The knock on the speedy DeShields was his effort. It had been perceived that he wasn’t putting in the time necessary to be a contributor to the Astros future plans. For DeShields’ part, he was more than willing to accept a fresh start in Arlington and came to the Rangers with a chip on his shoulder.

The starting center fielder on Opening Day, however, was the golden-armed Leonys Martin. Martin had proven that he belonged as a Major Leaguer, after several years of needing to prove himself coming out of camp. Bringing DeShields into camp wasn’t necessarily a way of providing competition for Martin, but a way for both players to make sure they didn’t get complacent with their spots on the Major League roster. Manager Jeff Banister had let it be known that playing time on his team would be on a merit system, and if someone wasn’t pulling their weight, a change would come. Leonys Martin didn’t help his own cause.

Despite his defensive advantage in center field, Martin’s bat never reached its full potential, never cracking higher than .238 during the first two months. It was at the beginning of May that Banister started turning to DeShields, sometimes starting him in center, sometimes in left, but the 23-year old was making the most of his time. On top of showing his ability to adapt to being an outfielder (he had been drafted as a second baseman), he displayed discipline at the plate, proving to be a very capable leadoff hitter. He finished May with a slash line of .283/.383/.380. The lack of power was never a concern, as he never profiled as a power hitter, but an average like that, getting 24 hits in 25 games, that opens some eyes.

A game in mid-June caused a scare to the team and the fan base, who had taken a liking to the center fielder who was actually producing at the plate. DeShields injured his hamstring in a game against the Twins and wound up on the disabled list for just around four weeks, slated for a return after the All-Star break.

Martin took back everday duties in center, and while he was able to push his average just above the .250 line, it became quite clear by the end of DeShields’ tenure on the DL that Martin was going to be relegated to riding the pine. DeShields came back after a month away and didn’t skip a beat, showing continuous improvement as a bat and a glove, while Martin was brought in as a defensive replacement, still finding a place on the team with his arm.

By the end of the season, Martin found himself demoted to Triple-A, then wound up fracturing his hamate bone. This effectively ended his season, as he made only one more appearance on the big league club after his rehab starts. After the All-Star break, Martin only played in 20 games, starting in only four. With DeShields continuing to be a force in the Rangers lineup, finishing the season with a .261 average en route to being named the Rangers’ Rookie of the Year, there was no place for Leonys Martin on the postseason roster. He was asked to go to Arizona to keep fresh in the event of an injury, but Martin, indignant that he wasn’t included on the postseason roster at the outset of the Division Series, refused his assignment.

DeShields went on to garner seven hits in the series against Toronto, driving in two runs and being at the forefront of some incredible, Statcast-worthy baserunning moments that were essential to the Rangers’ two victories.

In 2016: Perhaps in part because of his refusal to support the team as a reserve in the playoffs, perhaps in part because it became clear that DeLino DeShields was already turning into a better overall player after one year, whereas Martin had four years to develop, and perhaps in part because Martin will cost $4.15 million and DeShields will cost the league minimum, Leonys Martin will not be a Texas Ranger in 2016.

The Rangers decided to trade Martin, along with swing-man reliever Anthony Bass, to the division rival Seattle Mariners in exchange for high-leverage reliever Tom Wilhelmsen. Will Martin make the Mariners better? Probably. Will Wilhelmsen make the Rangers better? Probably. We’ll talk more about this deal next week with the Bullpen segment.

For now, the Rangers have DeLino DeShields. This is his sophomore campaign. While his rookie season was nothing short of outstanding, there is still a lot of room for improvement, and as we saw with Leonys Martin, nothing is guaranteed. There is still a month to go before spring training opens, and with recent talk that the Rangers are talking to the more-experienced Austin Jackson, Jon Daniels could be making sure again that complacency doesn’t occur, and that DeShields has something to push him to be better. DeShields also faces internal competition from number two prospect Nomar Mazara. While Mazara starting the season on the big league roster remains a longshot, he is not very far away from being a contributor at the Major League level. We detailed Mazara in the last pieve about Left Field, but it’s important to mention here that the main advantage that Mazara has over DeShields is the power game. Mazara possesses a slugging percentage nearly 70 points higher than DeShields, even though it’s from the left side.

Potentially a more legitimate internal option for Texas to turn to this year is number four prospect Lewis Brinson. Brinson, 21, pulled through high-A, Double-A and briefly, Triple-A. Over 100 games with the three teams, Brinson slashed .332/.403/.601. Although he showed that advanced pitching might still cause him issues, Brinson is a dynamo in the field and could be one of those under-the-radar options to break camp with the big league club.

Make no mistake, though, the Rangers happened upon something special with DeLino DeShields, and his presence at the top of the lineup, his threat on the basepaths, and his rapport in the clubhouse and community can’t be overlooked as the team takes him into 2016.

On that last note, DeShields did trade his original number 7 for a number 3, opening the door for a potential and probable retirement for Pudge Rodriguez‘ famous jersey number. What a guy.

From the Hot Stove: As mentioned above, the Rangers are looking into a potential deal, probably minor-league level with a Major League invite, for center fielder Austin Jackson. Jackson, a Mariner and Cub last year, slashed .267/.311/.385 with 9 HR and 48 RBI over 136 games. He maintains a career .990 fielding percentage as a center fielder in his 6 professional seasons and profiles as a leadoff hitter.

The “Richard Durrett” three questions at this position:

  1. Should the Rangers have traded Leonys Martin away, leaving center field in DeShields’ hands?
  2. How far away is Nomar Mazara from his Major League entrance on the big stage?
  3. Is DeLino DeShields the center fielder of the future for Texas? Or does he belong somewhere else on that diamond?

We have one more outfield position remaining, and we’ll take on Right Field 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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