March 31, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Texas Rangers: Shortstop Depth
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the shortstop factories of the Braves and Rangers.
Not every team can be good at developing or acquiring talent at every position. Some teams are good with young pitchers. Some teams are good at finding and using post-hype prospects. Some teams are good at exploring new markets. The Texas Rangers know the thing they’re good at, and it’s developing middle-infield talent, particularly at the shortstop position.
That stock of talent comes not from the draft, where the Rangers take a lower percentage of middle infielders (as calculated over the last five drafts) than the rest of the league, but from their successes in the Latin American1 signing field:
The development system plays a part in this, as well as the Rangers’ liking for athletic talent: Nick Williams, Jamie Jarmon, Jake Skole, Jordan Akins, Jameis Winston; the list could go on.2 The most athletic amateur talent is usually found either at shortstop or center field, and those players can be moved down the defensive spectrum as their shortcomings become apparent at the professional level. The Rangers gamble on players being able to develop hitting later in their career. This willingness gives them a deep pool of athletic defensive talent to work with, meaning that only the best of the best shortstops get to stay at shortstop.
Even with this shortstop machine humming away at places like Frisco and Hickory, Texas signed Elvis Andrus to a massive extension prior to the 2013 season, making him an unlikely trade candidate. Though continuity at the position is definitely an asset, particularly with instability in the infield, this still leaves the Rangers molding talented shortstops and then moving them around the diamond as they become major-league ready. Jurickson Profar was a shortstop his entire stay in the minors, but played second, third, and left in his brief major-league sojourn. Both Luis Sardinas and Leury Garcia were primarily shortstops before being promoted into a utility infield position. While they potentially suffer from learning the ropes of a new position, the Rangers benefit from their newfound flexibility in the long term, either with the major-league team or in trade.
One benefit of their middle-infield depth and scouting prowess is the freedom to take all those pitchers in the draft. If any pitcher is a lottery ticket, the Rangers can take more and more of those tickets, increasing the chance they’ll hit jackpot. This strategy appears to be bearing fruit, as a group of young pitchers selected in recent drafts have made strides toward contributing at the major-league level: Chi Chi Gonzalez, Keone Kela, Luke Jackson, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher.
The Rangers have also taken advantage of their middle-infield depth to bolster the thinner parts of the major-league team. Not only was Ian Kinsler perhaps one of the first products of what would become the Rangers’ middle-infield development pipeline, but Texas was able to trade the former 17th-rounder for Prince Fielder without feeling a squeeze at second base. An injury to Jurickson Profar put somewhat of a kink in that plan, but after starting the year with replacement-level-or-worse flotsam and jetsam, the middle-infield factory spat out another emerging talent molded in the Rangers’ minor leagues, Rougned Odor.
In 2013, Garcia, a rangy infielder with utility ability, was traded for Alex Rios, a needed replacement after Nelson Cruz’s suspension for PEDs came down in August. This winter, Jon Daniels acquired much-needed starter Yovani Gallardo for yet another rangy shortstop with positional flexibility, Luis Sardinas (plus Corey Knebel and Marcos Diplan). These trades haven’t put a noticeable dent in Texas’ long-term plan in the middle infield and it’s unlikely that either Sardinas or Garcia would have seen regular playing time in Texas. In fact, if Profar hadn’t still been hurt and undergone surgery at the beginning of 2015, there was some concern about what to do with both him and Odor. Additionally, the 2014 Texas League batting champion, Odubel Herrera, a shortstop moved to second, went unprotected before the 2014 Rule 5 draft, and was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies, where he’s expected to start the year in center field.3
The most recent example of this scouting success, just-turned 18-year-old shortstop and second baseman Michael De Leon, hasn’t forced any issues yet, but played at Double-A Frisco, Low-A Hickory, and High-A Myrtle Beach, as well as in the Arizona Fall League as a 17-year-old in his first year of professional baseball. Despite multiple trades and injury, the middle-infield factory, clearly, is still going strong.
1. This might be something to look for in the San Diego Padres, soon. A.J. Preller’s area of expertise as the Rangers’ Director of Professional and International Scouting and Assistant GM was scouting Latin America, and he was very good at it.
2. So far, none of the extremes in drafting for athletic ability have panned out particularly well. Nick Williams is possibly the biggest success, and there are questions about his ability to hit consistently in the upper minors. Jamie Jarmon and Jordan Akins are both out of baseball, Jarmon quarterbacking at the University of Delaware and Akins a member of the receiving corps at the University of Central Florida. Jake Skole is a defensive whiz with contact issues who last played for Double-A Frisco.