Brad Wilkerson looks to rebound from an ugly 2006.
This week, Rangers Insider begins breaking down all of the position battles awaiting the the team as the Rangers head into spring training.
2006 - The Highs
If I wanted to save as much space as possible, what went right with the outfield in Arlington last season could basically be summed up by naming just two players: Mark DeRosa and Gary Matthews Jr.
Both guys shattered their own personal records and kept the baseball world buzzing for most of the year. After thrusting his way into the starting lineup on a regular basis for the first time in his career, DeRosa outslugged his previous RBI total by a whopping 43 runs (74 last season to 31 in 2004). Matthews also eclipsed his own career highs in hits, runs, doubles, homers, and runs batted in to name a few. Not to mention the fact that he, in front of a national television audience on a steamy Saturday afternoon, grabbed hold of everyone's television and shook it with both hands by robbing Mike Lamb of the Astros with a leaping catch in dead centerfield. Kevin Mench also seemed to be having the breakout year Rangers' management knew he was capable of achieving all along by homering in seven consecutive games, a major league record for right-handed hitters.
Going into the spring of 2006, the big question on everybody's mind was how the Rangers would fit Gary Matthews Jr, Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix, David Dellucci, and Brad Wilkerson into the outfield.
At the end of the year, only Matthews was still in the mix.
A few roster moves and a major shoulder pain later, the outfield featured the likes of a very lackluster Carlos Lee, a highly touted player in Nelson Cruz, Jerry Hairston Jr and Matt Stairs, with Mark DeRosa as the club's featured right fielder.
The year that Brad Wilkerson had in 2006 was one that probably could have rattled even the heartiest of competitors. It began with his trade from the Nationals and his arrival to Texas where his duties quickly shifted from being the toned-down version of Alfonso Soriano to the replacement for David Dellucci. But the right shoulder that had been bothering the twenty-nine year old outfielder wouldn't have any of it. As a result, after fighting a battle against it for half the season, his season prematurely ended due to some much needed shoulder surgery.
The trade just before last year's deadline that brought Carlos Lee to the Rangers and sent Mench, Nix, and Francisco Cordero to the Brewers was heralded at the time as the one that would provide just the bat the Rangers needed to propel them to the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Upon arriving, his bat wasn't the problem: Lee hit .322 during his 59 games in Arlington last season. But the hits with men in scoring position just weren't coming as much as the organization would have liked and neither was his power. Not to mention his defense in the outfield proved to be more of a hindrance than anything else.
2007 Camp - Who's Invited?
Jerry Hairston Jr.
If you're the type of person who buys into hype, then take stock in what Brad Wilkerson has to say. The surgery to repair a partial tear of the rotator cuff and labrum is out of the way, the cortisone injections are a thing of the past, and Wilkerson is working harder than he ever has before to become the player the Rangers hoped he would be when he was acquired from the Nationals. He admits that his performance last season became a mental thing before long and is determined to show the club he's better than the player they saw last year. Before his shoulder troubles really began to flare up, Wilkerson posted a .414 on-base percentage and added 15 RBI in 25 games. Needless to say, those kind of numbers over an entire season would really make some waves.
Don't let his age fool you. Last season, Lofton swiped 32 bases while playing for the Dodgers. This season, at the ripe young age of 39, he's likely be a major contributor to the speed that Rangers manager Ron Washington wants to unleash on the base paths. But he'll have to stay healthy: Lofton has played fewer than 130 games each of the last two seasons.
Lots of different scenarios revolve around the plans for Catalanotto. One of them, taking into consideration Sammy Sosa makes the team, involves him platooning at DH against righties. Another has Ian Kinsler taking his suggested #2 spot in the order against left handed pitchers. Whatever the case may be, it appears as tough Cat won't be playing very much at all against lefties. But the club knows what they have when they reacquired the thirty two year old outfielder: A real run scoring possibility.
Nelson Cruz is currently tearing it up the for Cibao in the Dominican Winter League. The club feels like he can do the same for the Rangers and will evolve into something great someday in the near future. He's definitely shown some glimpses of it with an inside the park homerun in Oakland late last season and a grand slam in his only career at-bat in the big leagues with the bases loaded.
On The Bubble
I can't tell you how weird it feels writing that. Should Sosa make the club, he could find himself sandwiched between the likes of Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock in the order with his a spot as the featured designated hitter. He also brings with him the experience and wisdom that younger players on the team could easily learn from. But he's got to prove himself after a struggle of a season in 2004 and a downright bad time in 2005.
There's not a lot really left to prove for Jason Botts. He developed some excellent discipline for a power hitter and has an understanding of the strike zone like never before. But he'll always have a significant hurdle to overcome in the major leagues because he doesn't have a set position. If given the chance, there's little question that he'll establish himself as a real hitter. But when he gets that chance is hard to tell.
With a one year deal in place for Kenny Lofton it would appear as though the future is now for the one time top prospect of the San Diego Padres. A strong showing in spring training and he could be in line for a spot on the 25-man roster this year with a possible starting job in 2008.
Jerry Hairston Jr.
After sending Phil Nevin to the Cubs for his services last season, Hairston had the occasional spot in the starting lineup. However, his services were mainly relegated to that of a late inning defensive replacement or for added speed on the base paths. Hairston has made it known he wants more playing time and while that probably won't be the case here, he may land another bench job via his non-roster invite to spring training.
Regarding his speed, he's a good piece to the puzzle that Ron Washington wants to put together. But he struggles getting on base and his weak bat is a cause for concern as well.
One of the problems of bringing Sammy Sosa aboard is that his presence in spring training will likely take at-bats away from young guys like Diaz. He was picked up last season through a relatively quiet move with the Mets. Diaz was highly touted in the New York system, is a young player, but strikes out quite a bit.