The Texas Rangers are coming off of back-to-back World Series losses, and the majority of the people from those talented rosters return.
The lineup is loaded throughout, and it has the potential to be one of the most potent in baseball, with All-Stars, former and current, occupying six out of the nine spots in the order on most days.
However, there is one place on the lineup card that is still uncertain—center field. Three young players with very different backgrounds and styles are competing to control the spacious center-field slot at the Ballpark in Arlington: Craig Gentry, Julio Borbon and Leonys Martin.
All three have their own advantages and disadvantages for Ron Washington in center. So, let’s take a look at all three players and see who the best fit to patrol the space is.
Gentry ended 2011 as the starter in center for Texas, and performed really well for the Rangers down the stretch. In 63 regular season games, he hit .271, with 13 RBI, 34 runs scored, 13 stolen bases and a solid .314 OBP, hitting at the bottom of the order.
More importantly, however, Gentry provided real stability defensively in center. He played 55 games at the position and had a sterling .990 fielding percentage.
His solid play out there allowed Josh Hamilton to safely slide over to left, where he is less prone to injury. This also gave the Rangers a strong defensive outfield, in which all three fielders had plus gloves—Nelson Cruz in right, Gentry in center and Hamilton in left.
The 28-year-old Gentry is in no way a top prospect for Texas, he has a lower ceiling than the other two options, but he is steady and would give Texas consistency defensively in center, but he would struggle at times at the plate.
If I had to bet, Gentry starts the season with the big club, but does so from the bench as a fourth or fifth outfielder, which allows the players with a higher ceiling to play and develop.
Borbon was the presumed center fielder of the future in Texas when he was drafted in the second round out of Tennessee in the 2007 draft.
At first he looked as if he would fulfill those expectations. He made it up to the big leagues quickly, joining the Rangers late in the 2009 season, and played well. In 46 games, Borbon hit .312, with a .376 OBP, 19 stolen bases and even showed some pop with four home runs.
That performance excited Rangers’ management and fans, and earned him the starting spot entering the 2010 season. He had a bit of a drop-off from those late-season numbers in 2010, but still played solidly. He hit .276 in 137 games mostly at the top of the order.
However, Borbon’s play in center was questionable. He had an average .988 fielding percentage in, but often times he would take bad routes on balls, allowing some extra balls to fall in for hits.
He also has just an average arm in center. This isn’t a terrible thing, but it certainly isn’t an advantage for a team looking for great defensive play as opposed to pop with the bat in a lineup that is already stacked.
Borbon took a major step back in 2011. He struggled early on in the season and then suffered a hamstring injury about 30 games into the year, which sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Well, not completely. Borbon came back healthy in mid-June, but the Rangers were so happy with the play of Endy Chavez and Gentry in center that they left Borbon in Triple-A for the rest of the year.
He didn’t sulk though. He performed well in Round Rock, hitting .298 in his 32 games in the minors.
Borbon comes into spring training this year motivated to regain his starting spot on the big club, and I would view him as the favorite to be patrolling center on Opening Day.
The former Cuban defector is the most interesting prospect the Ranges have in their center-field competition. The 23-year-old has the most potential out of the three and he has the biggest contract, after the Rangers signed him to a five-year $15.5 million contact last May—the second largest deal ever given to a Cuban defector.
Martin was the backup center fielder for the Cuban national team, behind new A’s signee Yoenis Cespedes, and he was considered a top-20 prospect in the world when defected and became a free agent last season.
Early on, the return on Martin looked strong, as he tore up Double-A in his stint with the Frisco Rough Riders, hitting .348. However, when he was moved up to Triple-A Round Rock, the young Cuban seemed to hit a bit of a wall and his average dropped to .263.
Martin was a part of the September call-ups for the Rangers and in eight limited games of action Martin looked good, hitting .375 while displaying a good glove in center.
The Rangers are looking for Martin to build upon the showing he had in Arlington last season, and he has the potential to do so. He has a plus bat and makes good contact to all fields, and does not over swing, looking to hit line drives instead of hitting the ball over the fence.
However, I would expect Martin to be the odd man out of the center-field competition early on, and start the year back in the minors. But if he has a strong camp it could force the Rangers to keep him in the majors, especially with the contract he carries.
If this happens, expect Borbon to be sent down, in the hopes that he has a good season in the minors, giving him as much trade value as possible.