With Hamilton in left field, center up for grabs
Gentry, Borbon, Martin to compete for position this spring
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton was standing with general manager Jon Daniels at the January awards show when he saw third baseman Adrian Beltre's Gold Glove Award on display."I told J.D., 'That's pretty,'" Hamilton said. "I said, 'When are you guys going to figure out where to play me so I can win one those?'" The Rangers haven't figured it out yet. Manager Ron Washington's preference is left field, but when the Rangers reached the playoffs last year and everything was on the line, Hamilton was in center and David Murphy was in left most of the time. Now the Rangers are in Spring Training and Washington is again talking about keeping Hamilton in left. "Our hope is to keep him in left field," Washington said. "That's our hope." That means Texas must find somebody to play center field. The main candidates are Craig Gentry, Julio Borbon and Leonys Martin, and Washington pronounced the position as being open.
"It's just open and somebody has got to take it," Washington said on Saturday, the day that position players reported to Spring Training. Center field remains the one unsettled position in the Rangers' lineup."We've got some talent there, but we don't give away things in Texas anymore," Washington said. "You've got to earn it." Hamilton started 107 games in center in 2008. But after two major injuries in '09, the Rangers have used him more in left the past two years, at least in the regular season. During that time, Hamilton has started 168 games in left and 59 in center. The idea was left field would be less taxing on his body. But in the postseason, he has started 30 games in center and three in left over the past two years. Hamilton said he is coming into this camp preparing to play center field and weighs 10 pounds less than normal in preparation. "I'm sure if I'm playing center field, it will be better on my joints," Hamilton said. "The last few years, I really didn't prepare to play center field a lot. I haven't talked to anybody yet about it. If they want me to play center field, I'll play center field. The outfield is the outfield. I've played center field more, so it's more natural to me." The most important about center field is being able to play defense. That may be why Gentry is the early favorite to win the spot if Texas tries to anchor Hamilton in left. STATS Inc. rated Gentry with the third-highest range factor and the third-highest zone rating among Major League center fielders with at least 40 games played last season. "The most important in center field is be a leader out there, cover the gaps and make the plays that need to be made, throw to the right base," Washington said. "It's almost like a shortstop. You have to take care of the corner outfielders, let them know where you are. You have to have leadership." Gentry, who played in 64 games with the Rangers after being recalled from Triple-A on May 7, provided some offense as well, hitting .271 with a .347 on-base percentage. He had a .346 slugging percentage that was the lowest on the team (minimum 100 at-bats), but was also 18-for-18 in stolen bases. If the offense keeps coming in Spring Training, he could fulfill his goal of being an everyday player. "I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself, just go out and play," Gentry said. "I just want to put together quality at-bats, get on base, steal bases and score runs. If I do that, I'll be fine." Borbon was the Opening Day center fielder the past two seasons. But he went on the disabled list in May with a strained left hamstring and never returned to the big leagues. Instead. the Rangers optioned him to Triple-A because a platoon of Gentry and Endy Chavez was getting the job done. Borbon's season came to an end on July 8 at Round Rock when he suffered torn tendons in his left ankle sliding into second base. He ended up having surgery and made up for lost time by playing a full season of winter ball. Now he may face an uphill battle to win back his old job. "I'm not looking at it that way," Borbon said. "I'm just going to play my game the way I've been playing since I have been here. It's a matter of competing and leaving it on the field. I'm not going to change anything, just do it more consistently." A platoon between Gentry and Borbon remains a possibility. Texas will have a four-man bench that includes Murphy, a backup catcher and a utility infielder. A second center fielder could complete the ensemble. If one guy claims center field, it would open up a spot for a different player on the bench, possibly either Conor Jackson or Brad Hawpe. "We'll see how it fits," Washington said. "If it takes two there, that's what we'll do. If one guy takes it, that's what we'll do." Martin is the wild card, a 24-year-old from Cuba who was signed last May to a five-year, $15.5 million contract. He made his professional debut in the United States last year, hitting .348 with a .435 on-base percentage and .571 slugging percentage in 29 games at Double-A Frisco despite missing three weeks in June with tightness in his lower back. He was promoted to Triple-A Round Rock on July 9 and hit just .263 with a .316 on-base percentage and .314 slugging percentage. He still got called up in September to the big leagues and was 3-for-8 in limited action. "I don't know if he was tired or what when he got to Triple-A," Round Rock manager Bobby Jones said. "He just started out struggling with the bat, slapping and punching at the ball. But when I saw him in Arlington in September, I couldn't believe what I saw. I watched him in batting practice and he was pulling the ball, putting the ball in the seats. He had a spring in his legs again. "He was so-so in Round Rock, but I saw him in Arlington and said, 'This kid can play.' I'm anxious to see him in Spring Training, when he is fresh and ready to go." Martin has just eight games of Major League experience. but he still believes he can break camp with the club. Washington said he is in the mix and the Rangers will look hard at him in Spring Training. "I learned about the high level of baseball in the big leagues, how good the players are and how good the pitchers are," Martin said of last year's experience. "I think I can play up here, I just need to adjust little by little. I feel I'm 100 percent ready. I feel I can make this team." The Rangers also signed outfielder Kyle Hudson to a Minor League contract this offseason. A former wide receiver at the University of Illinois, he spent the past four seasons in the Orioles' system. He is a left-handed hitter with some speed and a .362 on-base percentage in the Minors. At this point, he is expected to be depth at Triple-A. Right now, there are four elements to center field for the Rangers: How much Hamilton will play there, can Gentry seize the job, can Borbon regain his status and just how good is Martin? Spring Training is the place to start finding out answers.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.