A week ago, I wrote about the Rangers quiet offseason and how it could perhaps suggest some optimism from within the organization that a solution in the outfield might already be within the organization for 2015. Specifically, I referred to Ryan Rua as the likely beneficiary of that optimism.
At that time, I also put up a poll asking fans to vote for the player they'd like to see win an outfield spot in 2015. To my surprise, a little over 75% of people voted for someone not named Ryan Rua. They voted for Jake Smolinski.
I suppose the result doesn't surprise me so much as the margin by which, at the time of this writing, Smolinski leads in that poll of which 89 people have voted. Smolinski is the type of undersized, undervalued player that is always fun to watch succeed.
Prior to 2014, Smolinski was a lifer in the minor leagues for the Nationals and Marlins organizations. In December of 2013, Texas signed him to a minor league deal, and sent him to Double-A Frisco. After a mid-season promotion to Triple-A Round Rock, Smolinski didn't stay there long -- only long enough to log 34 plate appearances -- before being called up to Arlington to play for an injury-depleted Rangers club. Then, he raked.
In 92 plate appearances, Smolinski put up a .349/.391/.512 line with a wRC+ of 154. Yes, the sample size is small, but impressive nonetheless. It was good enough for an fWAR of 0.7. As it usually is, however, the devil is in the details, and the details suggest that Smolinski might be something a bit closer to a 4th outfielder than an everyday player.
As I mentioned in the piece last week, strikeout and walk rates tend to stabilize a bit more quickly than an entire offensive repertoire, at 60 and 120 plate appearances, respectively. Smolinski had a strikeout rate of 26.1% and a walk rate of only 3.3%, both alarming numbers that would -- if held up over an entire season -- arguably have him even lower than Chris Davis's 2014 OBP of .300.
Chris Davis is a large man. Jake Smolinski, at 5 feet, 11 inches tall, is not. Short of possessing Dustin Pedroia type power from his small frame -- which his minor league pedigree doesn't really suggest -- you're looking at a player that may not get on base a ton, and isn't a very good bet to hit for any kind of consistent power.
Beyond just the offensive toolbox, Smolinski probably doesn't figure to be as valuable defensively as Ryan Rua. Rua, of course, has the ability to also play some of the infield positions if needed in a pinch, and probably projects as a better defensive outfielder as well.
So, while I'm not saying that Jake Smolinski can't improve and stabilize his K% and BB%, I don't perceive him to be as "sure" a thing as perhaps Rua is. The organization, I think, may be leaning in the same direction.
All that said, there's a very real opportunity that Jake Smolinski can snag a 4th outfielder spot, a role in which, if used properly, he could flourish, much in the same way David Murphy did at times during his tenure as a Ranger. I also have a bit more faith in Jeff Banister to appropriately use platoon-type players as such rather than trotting them on the field on a daily basis just for the sake of doing so.
There's definitely an argument to be made that Smolinski could have some sort of meaningful role on the club in 2015. I'm just not real sure what it is beyond that 4th outfielder role. At the very least, if my small poll is any indicator, his small amount of time in Texas left an impression on people, and perhaps he's left the same sort of impression on the front office, who likely didn't expect much out of a December minor league signing. I think the corner outfield job is Ryan Rua's job to lose, but Smolinski might at least make it interesting.
Edit: As I've seen pointed out by a Redditor and Eric down below in the comments section, I massively overlooked Smolinski's .485 BABIP, which would almost certainly indicate a regression of epic proportions from his 2014 production at the Major League level. So, there's that.