Second in a series of spring training previews.
The best free-agent center fielder finally came off the board last week when the Milwaukee Brewers signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year deal worth $80 million.
Maybe in another off-season, one when the Texas Rangers weren’t penny-pinching, they would have made a play for Cain. He would have made them a better team.
Delino DeShields is a center fielder who makes the Rangers a better team. The numbers don’t lie. They score more and win more when he is in their lineup.
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Yet the one position the Rangers were constantly open to upgrading this off-season was center field. DeShields’ defense, while vastly improved from his rookie season, is still thought to be a question mark.
With the free-agent market moving slower than great grandma, the Rangers haven’t entirely given up on the possibility that they might still add a defensive-minded center fielder. Carlos Gomez and Jarrod Dyson are still available.
DeShields’ consolation prize would be the left-field job should the Rangers find a center fielder they can’t live without. But he is continuing to prepare as if he will be the Rangers’ everyday center fielder.
“It’s been a good winter so far,” DeShields said. “I’m ready for spring training. Really, it’s just about putting my game together. It’s just about building off of what I did last year.”
DeShields forced his way into the lineup more and more after patiently awaiting his turn early in the season. He played in 120 games, batting .269 with a .347 on-base percentage. He scored 75 runs.
The Rangers were 54-48 when he played and 24-36 when he did not.
But rather than continue to mull other options, general manager Jon Daniels should be considering how much better the Rangers would be with Gomez or Dyson or another free agent in center field. DeShields finished last season with a higher WAR (Wins Above Replacements) than Gomez, though barely (2.2 to 1.8). Dyson had a 2.6 WAR but is strictly a platoon player.
Money earmarked for a center fielder would be better spent on a late-innings reliever or to make a last-gasp offer to Yu Darvish.
DeShields is motivated to prove that he is a capable defender. He has the speed to atone for slow jumps, and that speed helps him get to balls that many center fielders can’t. All of that can be better, though.
He claims that he took only a week off after the end of last season to begin working on his stated goal of being the Rangers’ center fielder. Defense was an emphasis.
“I did a lot of work with my explosiveness and just building off that, helping me with my first step, changing directions with efficiency,” DeShields said. “I haven’t done any defensive drills, but I’m going out to Arizona early — really early — and I’m going to get out there and do some stuff to help my routes.”
In fairness to the Rangers, they are committed to having DeShields in their lineup. If they do sign a Gomez or a Dyson, DeShields will be the left fielder. Other dominoes — Joey Gallo to first base, for instance — will fall as a result.
Assuming DeShields is the center fielder, the Rangers will choose from Drew Robinson and Rule 5 pick Carlos Tocci to serve as the backup. Jurickson Profar played center field last year in the World Baseball Classic for the Netherlands.
Though the unprecedented off-season continues to give the Rangers a chance to consider their options in center field, DeShields stands as their best option.