2016 Position Preview – Left Field

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Schadenfreude. The word means pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune. In baseball, it tends to take on a much more personal level at various times during the season: star players underperforming, losses during the stretch run of the season, bone-headed game management, etc. For your Texas Rangers there are 182 opportunities to experience schadenfreude, depending on how many times they look into the 7:00-sun-drenched grass of left field through the season.

In 2015: Left Field was something of a doomed position to start the year. Despite finishing out the accursed 2014 season with promise, Ryan Rua and Jake Smolinski had a lot riding on their young and inexperienced shoulders. Going into 2015, Rua was the Opening Day left fielder. Nobody expected him to be the power hitting corner outfielder that the team so desperately lacked, but with a .297/.338/.547 line coming out of Spring Training, he represented the best, low-cost option for the team.

After being the man who broke up Sonny Gray‘s Opening Day no-hitter, Rua soon found himself on the disabled list after, seemingly continuing the trend for the club with injury-prone players. After a game against Houston, Rua landed on the DL with both a fractured heel and high-ankle sprain. That cleared the way for Smolinski and Carlos Peguero to take over left field duties.

Those two performed well enough to keep the club afloat, but it became quite apparent, after just a few weeks with that combination, that another solution was needed.

Enter the drama in Anaheim. After two incredibly below-expectation years with the Angels, coupled with another relapse and other off the field issues, Arte Moreno was determined to rid himself of controversial outfielder Josh Hamilton, at any cost. What was that cost, you ask? Of the $80 plus million remaining on his contract at the time, the Rangers are only picking up less than $7 million. Hamilton surrendered about $12 million, but Los Angeles is writing him a check for the remainder of the contract, which figures prominently into how that team approaches future free agent markets.

Hamilton’s return was bally-hooed and talked about, but for the most part, he was welcomed back with open arms. He showed his value, both as a teammate and as a cost-conscious commodity, early on, with a walk-off double and a two-home run game shortly after being re-activated.

However, as is usually the case with Josh Hamilton, injuries plagued his season. After suffering a knee injury (after a spectacular catch), the team turned to the likes of Will Venable and Ryan Strausborger to fill the gap before determining that a more potent offensive weapon would be needed as they found themselves at the forefront of a pennant race.

Another homecoming had taken place in the form of first baseman Mike Napoli. With both Mitch Moreland and Prince Fielder as primary first basemen, the Rangers needed a right handed bat at the position and brough Napoli back to help fill that void. Eventually, Moreland’s worth at the plate was too great to ignore, Prince Fielder wasn’t going anywhere, and manager Jeff Banister needed to find a way to put Napoli’s bat in the lineup. That began the very notable experiment of putting Napoli in left field.

Even though we were able to write down “Mike Napoli – outfield assist,” the project was a defensive nightmare. The true value of the move came in lengthening the lineup. Being able to insert the power bat of Napoli in a left-handed heavy lineup proved to be one of Banister’s greatest moves, as the mere presence of Napoli changed the offensive approach of the club. That kind of move helped win the American League West crown for the Rangers.

In 2016: The reset button has been hit on the left field position. Gone is Napoli, and subsequently, so is the non-outfielder-manning-the-outfield experiment. Gone are Will Venable, Carlos Peguero and Drew Stubbs, who all figured in the mix during the 2015 season. Joey Gallo might get some reps at the position in the minors and Ryan Rua will have to prove his worth again in Spring Training. Ryan Strausborger, used as primarily a pinch runner down the stretch, will go back to Triple-A.

Josh Hamilton underwent surgery during the winter to repair all of his ailments, including that meniscus he damaged. By all accounts, Hamilton will be healthy entering Spring Training. But a healthy Josh Hamilton is no guarantee. The wear and tear on his body continues to take its toll, and there is nobody in the game planning on seeing the almost 35-year old play a full season’s worth of games.

To that end, the Rangers have their built-in insurance policies: Rua will be in the wings, as will Gallo, but the club also signed Justin Ruggiano to be its utility outfielder. Last year, between Seattle and Los Angeles, Ruggiano played in 57 games with a line of .248/.333/.472 across all three outfield positions. He represents a decent enough backup to ensure that the lineup doesn’t suffer in the event of an injury.

Texas also has its number two prospect Nomar Mazara ready to burst onto the scene. Mazara, who showed significant advancement, not just statistically, but also in his approach and defense, profiles in Center Field. Bringing him up to the majors, a real possibility, would slide DeLino DeShields over to Left Field (where his defense and arm might profile better) to put Mazara in Center.

As it stands, the Rangers will likely begin the season with Josh Hamilton as the Opening Day starting left fielder with Justin Ruggiano as the backup.

And no, Mitch Moreland cannot play left field.

From the Hot Stove: As mentioned, the team signed Justin Ruggiano to a 1-year Major League deal to backup the outfield. Despite the clamorings of the general fan base, Jon Daniels was never going to get in on free agents Jason Heyward or Justin Upton. The team has too many dollars tied up in too many years already, and Yoenis Cespedes may have gone back to the Mets on just three years, but the Rangers were never in on that front. All other options remaining on the market are purely depth options that would likely have little impact on the club. Barring injury, the Rangers are done here.

The “Richard Durrett” three questions at this position:

  1. How many games are you logically expecting from Josh Hamilton and what kind of production are you expecting in that time?
  2. If you were Jon Daniels, would you have gone after Heyward, Upton, Cespedes or any of the other top name free agent outfielders?
  3. Is Ryan Rua a contributing player on a winning Rangers team, or is he a valuable trade piece later in the year?

Next time, we’ll look at Center Field and one of the breakout stars of 2015.

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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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