What's the Plan, Man? A Look at Center Field

It's time for Ron to let Leonys out of the doghouse.With pitchers and catchers reporting to Surprise, Arizona in less than a month for spring training, the dark of the offseason is beginning to lift. With that, there are still some questions that face the Rangers heading into 2013. With the acknowledgement that things could change as soon as this is posted, I’m going to attempt to speculate on some of those questions by asking the hypothetical question of Jon Daniels: What’s the plan?

Up first is the debate over who plays center field in 2013. During the winter meetings, there was much speculation on various signing and trade possibilities that the Rangers may or may not have been exploring. With Josh Hamilton signing with the Angels, there were rumors that the Rangers attempted to trade for Justin Upton. An Upton to Seattle trade was attempted last week, but Upton blocked the deal. It has since been reported that Texas has moved on from the pursuit of Upton, a move that, if true, I happen to agree with. So who plays center field in 2013?

In my opinion, that player is already on the roster, and to this point, Ron Washington hasn’t exactly given him a fair shake. Washington has shown an unwavering loyalty to older players, and at times, the team has suffered from his refusal to inject youth into the lineup. Whereas veterans have been given a certain amount of slack for mistakes, any mistake on the part of younger players has earned them a spot on the bench. Leonys Martin has been one of those younger players at this point in his career.

Chances are high that Craig Gentry will enter spring training with a leg up on Martin for the job in center field, but all things considered, I’d rather see Martin get the nod. At 29 years old, Craig Gentry has already shown us what he is: He’s a speedy athlete, provides good range in the outfield, his arm is strong, and he’ll get his fair share of infield hits. The problem is, beyond that, Gentry doesn’t really bring much to the table. He lacks any sort of power to complement the speed, and the regression we saw in Michael Young’s game last season was largely due to his inability to drive the ball into the outfield. Gentry can be a major asset if he gets on base, but he won’t move runners into scoring position, much less drive many of them in to score. Also, one aspect to consider is that players that rely heavily on speed tend to decline much faster once they reach the age of 30.

Leonys Martin, while not as fast as Gentry, still possesses above-average speed, range, and an ability to read the ball in the outfield. What Martin really brings to the table over Gentry is his talent on offense. His power grades out fairly well, he has good bat speed, and he also has good pitch-recognition ability. He still has the tools to be an aggressive runner on the base paths, something the Rangers certainly missed having enough of in 2012. While Martin didn’t receive enough playing time in Texas last season to really move out of the “small sample size” realm, his 55 games at AAA Round Rock were impressive enough to at least merit getting a shot at a full-time role for the Rangers in 2013. In those 55 games, Martin put up a .359/.422/.610 line for a whopping 1.033 OPS. While those stats won’t likely translate directly to the big leagues, what they show is that the tools are there for Martin to be an impact player on a team that will be looking to replace what was, at times, MVP production in center field.

The biggest issue I have with Gentry playing on a consistent basis is seated in his performance against right-handed pitchers. His OPS of .686 against righties in 154 plate appearance in 2012 raises some concerns for me. I simply can’t foresee a scenario where Gentry finds a way to improve that area of his game significantly enough to make a difference.

At the very least, I could see a platoon scenario – one in which Martin starts against right-handers and Gentry starts against left-handers – being a possibility. Both players, if employed in a manner in which they are likely to succeed, can provide some value for the Rangers. The scenario that entices me most, however, is the one in which Martin is the everyday center fielder in 2013. He’s got the higher ceiling, has the tools to make it work, and I feel like he should be given a chance to become a mainstay in Texas. It’s not likely he’ll be able to come close to replacing Hamilton’s production, but his overall makeup is one of a player that can be a difference-maker for a team that hopes to remain in playoff contention for years to come.