Missing Puzzle Pieces

When the Rangers signed Lance Berkman this week, they signed a proven bat to fill the third spot of the order with the kind of pop from the left side of the plate that eases the pain of a Josh Hamilton departure. They also locked in one player to project to take approximately 450-550 plate appearances from the DH slot. 
Before Berkman, it appeared the Rangers would attack a DH-by-committee approach, using it as a means of giving regular position players a half-day off. It would be easy to picture a scenario that would see DH plate appearances being divvied up between Mike Olt, Mitch Moreland, Ian Kinsler, David Murphy, A.J. Pierzynski, and Nelson Cruz. Now that Berkman will soak up most of those opportunities, it all but locks those players into their everyday positions.

While the Berkman signing fills a big need for this Rangers team, it also creates more questions than answers. Before they could roll around among the Internets for too long, Jon Daniels eliminated the speculation by matter-of-factly answering many of these questions at the press conference announcing Berkman’s signing this week.

Who is going to play first base? Mitch Moreland.

Who is going to play second base? Ian Kinsler.

What’s going to happen to Olt and Jurickson Profar then? If they don’t have playing time at the MLB level (and right now they don’t), they’ll be in AAA to start the season.

And yet, even after the Rangers GM delivered the answers to the questions, it still felt like something was missing.

It has become common knowledge general managers in baseball are very good at keeping their cards close to their chest. Jerry DiPoto says that he doesn’t see the Angels pursuing Albert Pujols, and a month later they ink the slugger to a 10-year deal. Ned Colletti says that the Dodgers and Zack Greinke aren’t on the doorstep of a deal, much less even out of the car, and two days later have given the 29-year old the largest contract to a right-handed pitcher in history. These kinds of public addresses and status updates from a GM are snapshots in time, and while they are not always intentionally misleading, they also never give even the slightest glimpse into what’s on the whiteboard in the war room.

When Jon Daniels says that he “expects Kinsler to be our second baseman”, and that he “doesn’t see Profar sitting on the bench. He has to play regularly”, and that the Rangers “believe in Mitch Moreland”, he is speaking accurately, but he’s also leaving the door open to better options down the road. Just like when the Miami Marlins say they’re not discussing trading Giancarlo Stanton, it means that they believe it’s their best option to keep him currently, but it doesn’t mean they won’t listen to or even pursue better alternatives.

I believe the Rangers are and should be pursuing better alternatives than the plan that Jon Daniels described for the roster. I also think they’ll find one.

Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt are top-15 prospects in all of baseball, who both just finished highly successful seasons in Double-A. Top prospects don’t need time in Triple-A. These two are ready to hit the major league level. This isn’t a secret to the Rangers, either. Their goal and expectation is that at some point Profar and/or Olt will make their way into a regular playing position at the big league level “naturally”, assumed to mean either through an injury or trade.

There is an advantage to Profar starting the year in the minor leagues, as it could delay his eligibility for free agency. Because Profar logged 33 days on the Rangers 25-man roster in 2012, if he is on the active roster for 139 days or greater in 2013, his clock to free agency begins ticking this year. That means that if Profar is called up to the majors before May 15th, he’ll be a free agent after the 2018 season. A call-up on or after May 15th would mean he would be under team control through the 2019 season. This year of control is of marginally less value if Profar is to be the shortstop of the future for this team and is eventually extended, but it still does have value. Consider Elvis Andrus, who will earn $6.725M in 2014, his last year of team control before free agency. In 2015, he’ll earn upwards of $15M AAV on his next contract. Delaying Profar’s free agency gives the Rangers one more year of Profar at the major league minimum, and one less year of free agency to buy out with an extension.

However, Profar can help the Rangers win this year, and if he is to be a major contributor to the 2013 team, the best way for that to happen is for him to break camp with the big league club in a starting role. To send him to the minors is to expect (hope?) an injury will happen, require a mid-season trade of a key player (unlikely), or a mid-season position shift for a key player (difficult). The Rangers expect to be a winning team in 2013, which means it may be best to throw service clock time to the wind for Profar.

Olt is a different case from Profar, though conceptually the same. While Profar is currently blocked at shortstop by Andrus, his positional value would only incur a slight impact by a switch to second base. Olt, on the other hand, is blocked by Beltre, and his value significantly decreases by a move to first base or corner outfield. Not only would Olt’s premier defense at the hot corner go to waste, it’s questionable just how strongly his bat would play at the other corner spots.

While Profar is a man in need of a position on this Texas team, Olt may be a man without one. But they both have a lot of value on paper, in practice, and in the trade market in 2013. That’s why it feels like there is a piece of the puzzle that we don’t yet see, a scribble on a whiteboard that will change everything. And not in a small way.

If you look at the Rangers as they are currently assembled, they are and should be as JD said, “ready to go to spring with the club the way it is”. They have made solid efforts to replace the contributions of those they lost after the 2012 season. But “ready to go with the club the way it is” also sounds like GM-speak for “actively looking for ways to improve before spring”. And the Rangers should be looking to improve. It’s not a roster without question marks. Mitch Moreland as an everyday first baseman, David Murphy as an everyday left fielder, and the fifth spot in the starting rotation don’t inspire confidence. Meanwhile, the Rangers sit with two highly valuable assets at their disposal in Profar and Olt backed by an entire farm system that is among the top three in baseball, looking for a way to deploy them. There is nothing like a farm system to keep a team’s winning window open for long stretches of time, but players like Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler don’t come along every day, which can dictate using farm assets to win before those playing odometers roll past their most useful mileage.

It all aligns to the Rangers front office searching for a way to effectively cash their assets in. They have remained patient through the whole winter, never biting on a big deal, only making minor trades and signing one-year deals. Now, as the winter’s end draws near, Texas still holds all the cards, and in this game of transaction chicken, can wait for another team to blink first. Their patience doesn’t need to waver, but another team’s might.

Looking at the pieces of the puzzle on the board now, I’m expecting the Rangers to make at least one more big deal before pitchers and catchers report on February 12th. 

I expect Mike Olt to be in another organization by the start of this season. 

I expect there to be some resolution in the middle infield situation that finds Jurickson Profar a starting job at the major league level.

There is no shortage of options for the Rangers to execute this plan and fill the last remaining holes. They are in control of the board, now they just have to find some missing puzzle pieces.

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM

Peter Ellwood

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