The third baseman will wind up in the Hall of Fame, and his terrific 2016 season should have quelled any voter who had any lingering doubts.
The middle infielders are coming off career years, one in his eighth season and one in his third.
Three-fourths of the Texas Rangers’ infield is in very good hands. If the Rangers aren’t the best in the American League from second base to third, they’re in the conversation.
First base, though, was a mystery after the departure of Mitch Moreland and during the extended flirtation with Mike Napoli. That appears to have been solved, with sources saying Napoli has agreed to a one-year deal.
They just might have the best infield in the AL.
“We can all project and predict,” manager Jeff Banister said. “Their mind-set has all been at a premium. Where they want to be and where they are right now does not match up. They’ve got to continue to work on it, but they have that desire.
“This is a good group, but they still have some measurable strides to make.”
At the very least, at a quick glance, the Rangers have more pop in their infield than any other AL club. Napoli (34), second baseman Rougned Odor (33) and shortstop Elvis Andrus (eight) established career-highs in home runs in 2016, and third baseman Adrian Beltre (32) had his first 30-homer season since 2013.
The Seattle Mariners have pop and defense at second base (Robinson Cano) and third base (Kyle Seager), and they added shortstop Jean Segura in an off-season trade. But they have the same uncertainty at first base that the Rangers were facing before reaching an agreement with Napoli.
The Houston Astros, another AL West rival, might have the two best middle infielders in second baseman Jose Altuve and shortstop Carlos Correa. Alex Bregman was a rookie sensation last year at third base, and Cuban veteran Yulieski Gurriel is expected to play first base and to show more than he did over 130 at-bats in 2016.
The Boston Red Sox have plugged in Moreland at first to go with Dustin Pedroia at second and Xander Bogaerts at shortstop. But they are relying on third baseman Pablo Sandoval to transform himself back into the player he was with the San Francisco Giants.
If the Rangers fall short compared to others in the AL, it’s defensively. The Red Sox have two Gold Glove winners (Moreland, Pedroia), as do the Mariners (Cano, Seager). The Rangers had two Gold Glovers in 2016, but Moreland departed, to leave only Beltre.
“Defense is a premium,” Banister said. “You continue to handle the baseball. Championships are won through making less mistakes and capitalizing on other teams’ mistakes.”
Napoli, though, was a Gold Glove finalist at first base in 2015. Compared to what the Rangers were looking at before agreeing to bring back Napoli, he looks like a Gold Glover.
The Rangers’ best defensive first baseman in camp before the Napoli development was prospect Ronald Guzman, who is ticketed for Triple A Round Rock to start 2017.
Jurickson Profar showed to be a quick learner there last season but with work to do. James Loney, in camp on a minor-league deal, has plenty of experience but has a negative career dWAR. Ryan Rua and Joey Gallo are athletic enough to play there but also are shy on experience.
Josh Hamilton is going to give the position a try this spring for the first time since high school in 1999.
The door shouldn’t be closed on the others, though, as the Rangers can give Napoli days at designated hitter and days off.
34 Home runs hit by Mike Napoli in 2016. Former Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland hit 22
“There are a number of guys with us that we like quite a bit,” general manager Jon Daniels said.
Gallo has the highest upside, with league-leading homer potential, but needs regular at-bats to figure out big-league pitching. A good start at Triple A Round Rock could force the Rangers to give Gallo a shot every day while moving Napoli to DH.
Beltre is expected to continue on his path to the Hall of Fame. He is likely to eclipse 3,000 hits in June. Odor launched 33 homers last season to top Beltre by one for the team lead, and could have more production in him as he becomes more selective at the plate.
The Rangers would like to see his defense improve. Nevertheless, he and Andrus, who hit a career-high .302, helped the Rangers lead the league in double plays.