Out Of The Gates, Onto The Pine: Bench Battle

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Let’s face it, there are now zero spots in the Texas Rangers Opening Day 9-man roster to be decided (barring injury, of course). Your likely lineup against the Seattle Mariners’ King Felix Hernandez will probably look like this:

  1. DeLino DeShields – Center Field
  2. Shin-Soo Choo – Right Field
  3. Prince Fielder – Designated Hitter
  4. Adrian Beltre – Third Base
  5. Mitch Moreland – First Base
  6. Ian Desmond – Left Field
  7. Rougned Odor – Second Base
  8. Elvis Andrus – Short Stop
  9. Robinson Chirinos – Catcher
  10. Cole Hamels – Starting Pitcher

If you put everyone at 100%, that’s not a terrible lineup. The fact is, not everyone will be 100% all of the time – that’s why you have bench players. This is where the true evaluations in Spring Training will take place.

As of now, the only guaranteed spot on the bench is Justin Ruggianosigned in the off-season for $1.65 million to be the right-handed platoon partner for the now-lucky-if-you-get-40-games-out-of-him Josh Hamilton. With Hamilton now down for who knows how long and Ian Desmond signed and declared by Jon Daniels to be the left fielder for the entire year, Ruggiano still has a place on the bench, but perhaps not as much time in the outfield as he imagined when he signed in December. Instead, Ruggiano looks to be a right-handed platoon partner for both Mitch Moreland at first base and Prince Fielder at designated hitter on Fielder’s days off. Ruggiano has not played a professional game at first base, but hey, it’s Spring Training, no better time to try, right?

That brings us to the rest of the bench. The signing of Ian Desmond serves two-fold – not only does it bring a more consistent offensive bat that can be relied upon for more than a quarter of the season, but Desmond’s ability to play the right side of the infield, plus the belief that his athleticism and determination allows him to play all over the outfield, means that there is technically an extra bench spot.

If the Rangers go with the typical four-man bench, you can have Ruggiano plus a utility infielder, another utility outfielder, and a backup catcher. You could technically carry two additional catchers on the roster as well, with one functioning as a first baseman, if desired. The Desmond signing not only lengthens the lineup, but also increases the depth and options behind your starters.

With a week under our belts in Arizona, several Rangers have stepped up and started to take the lead in the race to make the 25-man roster. Obviously, there’s a lot of time left, but here are a few players that have already put their name in serious running in the minds of Jeff Banister’s coaching staff.

Utility Infielder

1. Hanser Alberto – Something of the incumbent utility infielder, this 23-year old stepped up in a big way when Adrian Beltre went down in the ALDS last season. Since then, “El Potro,” known already as a skilled defensive asset, went off an won the Dominican Winter League Batting Title with an impressive .364 batting average. So far, in the Cactus League, Alberto has played in five games, made a couple of nifty picks and plays on the infield and has collected three hits and an RBI in nine at-bats. If he continues along this line, Alberto is in line to be one of the Rangers’ better-than-your-average-bench-player.

2. Jurickson Profar – The once-hailed Chosen One certainly has a lot riding on the Spring Training, as he aims to prove that his arm can withstand the throws from the shortstop hole. Profar has already shown that his bat is coming back along nicely, going 2-for-4 with two walks in six plate appearances. The Rangers aren’t looking for his bat to be perfect. They’re far more interested in how his defense is coming along. Profar has made several outstanding plays at shortstop, and each throw he’s made has had some mustard on it (with the exception of one that was saved by Mitch Moreland). While Profar might get to start in the minors to continue to see if his production can be consistent, the 23-year old former number one prospect might find himself on the Major League roster to boost his trade value.

2. Pedro Ciriaco – Ciriaco, the 30-year old journeyman has proven that he might be a valuable option as a pinch-runner and late-inning defensive replacement in blowout games. His bat doesn’t and hasn’t played that well since his 2012 year in Boston, but the man has played all over the diamond. Versatility is the name of the game in Banister’s lineup, and despite the 3-for-14 he has going on right now, Ciriaco has made some nice plays and displayed some good base running prowess.

Backup Catcher

1. Chris Gimenez – The man from the Garlic Capital of the U.S. (that’s Gilroy, California), has done anything but stink since joining the Rangers in 2014. Gimenez was part of the definition of the phrase “Greater than the sum of its parts” for the Rangers last year as both he and Bobby Wilson stepped up in a huge way when the team’s two Opening Day catchers hit the DL. In three games, Gimenez hasn’t shown much offensively and had six Seattle Mariners steal bases off of him, but the team knows that he’s working on that aspect of his game and he’s got another advantage – he was Cole Hamels’ personal catcher when he joined the team.

2. Bobby Wilson – The other catcher who helped keep the Rangers afloat in 2015, Wilson has made the most of his four at-bats, compiling three hits after coming in as a replacement in both games. Wilson has a defensive reputation as a good backstop and good game caller, but he has a better chance of being the third catcher on this team – first in line to come back up if Chirinos goes down with an injury again.

3. Brett Nicholas – Here’s your wild card. Nicholas, who has shown some definite flashes of power (21 homers in 2013 with Frisco), wouldn’t be too far a stretch to imagine as a Major League option if Bobby Wilson decides he’s tired of his minor league deal and pursues opportunities elsewhere. Admittedly, he’s just 2-for-3, but one of those was a homer and he’s driven in three in his two games. This is one of those options that the team would consider, given that they wouldn’t worry about losing his service time or exposing him to Major League pitching too soon.

Utility Outfielder

1. Nomar Mazara – Mazara is quickly making noise in the Cactus League. Already the organization’s top outfield prospect, Mazara isn’t just knocking on the door to The Show, he repeatedly thumping on it with a battering ram. He’s lit up early Spring Training pitching to the tune of 7-for-11 with a homer and six RBI already. Several reports from staff and other players let on that Mazara is conducting himself with maturity beyond his young 21 years. Despite all of this, Mazara is likely ticketed to start the year in the Minors. With Desmond and Ruggiano ahead of him, plus whatever the team decides to do with Hamilton upon his return, the preference would be for Mazara to get everyday at-bats, instead of just riding the pine. We at SDI asked manager Jeff Banister at the Frisco Winter Caravan about the chances of both Mazara and fellow outfield prospect Lewis Brinson making the big league team.

“…

I’m not going to give a percentage, because, look, there are so many things that have to happen for a young guy to come into Spring Training to make a club, that it’s not fair to them. My expectations of both guys – both guys have been around, they were around last year, they got to participate, they got to see – well, what they get to do this year is they get to show up every single day and be part of Major League camp. I’m looking for them to soak in absolutely everything they possibly can, learn what it takes to prepare themselves for a Major League season. Not only watch our guys, but watch other guys; how they play, how they go about it, because that’s part of this whole process, because they’re going to be starting now, competitively, sooner than they’ve ever started, and it makes the year a much longer year, you can’t recreate that. So, to allow them to come to Spring Training, to compete, feel what it’s like to compete against guys that, hey, you might have played with on a video game, or you watched on TV, or you’ve only seen them from afar, well now you get to see them up close and personal and compete against them. 

And then secondly, just go compete. Show us who you are as a competitor. Just be themselves. Because a lot of these kids come in for the first time, and they try to think about exactly what your second question was: “What’s my realistic chance? What are my chances? Can I make this club?” And then they get caught up into being somebody they’re not, and they don’t show us really who they are and what they can do. I’d much rather these guys just relax and go compete. Show us what type of competitor you really are.”

If DeLino DeShields ends up going through a sophomore slump (or injury), don’t be surprised to see Mazara in Arlington, with a push of Desmond to center. The organization believes that Desmond can play center, and Mazara’s corner outfield profile would be a welcome sight in Texas.

2. Ryan Rua – Perhaps nobody has more of a chip on his shoulder coming into camp than the Rangers’ 2015 Opening Day Left Fielder. After suffering through several injuries shortly after the season began, Rua came back and never found the rhythm again and then refused his assignment to Arizona during the playoffs to tend to personal matters. Rua has a lot to prove if he wants to show that he can still belong with the Big Boys on the Major League roster. Up until Monday, there wasn’t much that Rua had done offensively to throw his name into the hat. The defense had been there, but Rua came up big against the Giants, going 3-for-3 after being put in as a replacement designated hitter, including the game tying double in the bottom of the ninth.

3. Drew Stubbs – Another incumbent backup outfielder, Stubbs is a veteran who has been relegated to defensive replacement. He could end up being more than that if he can regain some of the power he had while with Cincinnati. Stubbs has excellent range in center field, and in four games so far, has gone 3-for-8 with an RBI and run scored.

4. Lewis Brinson – With the allure of Nomar Mazara and all that he’s done, it can be easy to slightly overlook the wiry Brinson. Do yourself a favor and don’t. Like Mazara, Brinson likely starts the season in Triple-A Round Rock to get regular at-bats, but as a Center Fielder, Brinson might get the first look if DeShields struggles and the team decides to call someone up. Brinson has gone 2-for-5, with a stolen base and walk over two games. Brinson has 20-home run potential, as well, with excellent defensive metrics.

5. Ryan Cordell – A little older than the two outfield prospects ahead of him, Cordell is showing that he’s got some great chops in the field and at the plate. He’s made a handful of nice plays in the outfield, showing some range and closing speed, and has gone 3-for-5 in three games with an RBI.

6. James Jones – Acquired in the Leonys Martin trade to Seattle, Jones is a speedy center fielder who has more of a potential to be a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch-runner this year. Jones was released shortly after being acquired, with the intent of just removing him from the 40-man roster. He did return on a minor league deal, however, which has to count for something of his sight to see playing time in Texas. He’s gone 3-for-7 so far as a replacement in Spring Training games, probably a good sign, given what his role on this club might be.

As you can see, the outfield is where the most competition looks to be. DeLino DeShields has a LOT of competition ready to unseat him from his assumed throne in center field (or at least to push him to left field). With three bench spots open, and one has to be a catcher, who do you see making the team out of Spring Training?

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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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