Seventh in a series of spring training previews
Shin-Soo Choo, it turns out, isn’t surprised to still be with the Texas Rangers only two weeks before position players report to spring training in Surprise, Ariz.
Choo will be reporting Wednesday to get a jump on 2018 after enduring an off-season in which his name and his contract popped up in trade rumors, especially the week of the winter meetings when the Rangers talked with Arizona about a trade for Zack Greinke.
Those talks fizzled, and in an off-season when teams aren’t adding big-money contracts, Choo remains a fixture in the Rangers’ lineup.
And, from a production standpoint, that’s a good thing.
But the right fielder is staring at the same question that faced him at the start of last spring: How often will he be at designated hitter?
He has the answer: He’s not yet ready to do it every day.
The Rangers, though, want to see him as a designated hitter more often than not, but the final decision won’t be made until a spring training sit-down with manager Jeff Banister. And it won’t be an easy decision.
“I’ve not talked about it with Banister yet,” Choo said. “I have some thoughts, but I want to share them with Banny at the same time together.
“I feel the same way. I’m healthy, my legs feel good, and I still can catch a fly ball. I’m not ready to full-time DH yet. Not yet. I still have confidence playing in the field, and I know I can help the team playing in the field.”
The overriding factor driving the Rangers’ DH decision is keeping Choo healthy. When he has been healthy, the Rangers’ offense has been better off, but he has been fully healthy in only two of his four seasons with the Rangers.
A healthy Choo is a key part of the Rangers’ success. No player gets on base as well as Choo or knows how to work a starting pitcher as Choo does.
Plus, with Choo at DH, Nomar Mazara can concentrate on playing his best position, right field. The defensive metrics, and occasionally the eye test, show that fielding isn’t Choo’s strong suit and that Mazara is marginally better.
But it might not be an easy task for the Rangers to DH Choo daily. The Rangers also value the ability the DH spots gives them to rest regular players without taking their bat out of the lineup.
As important as it is to keep Choo healthy, keeping Adrian Beltre healthy is more important. One way to do it is more DH days for the soon-to-be 39-year-old third baseman, who missed time last season with calf and hamstring injuries.
The hamstring blew out on him in late August while he was playing in the field. He returned two weeks later, but could play only one position — DH. Because of injuries or rotating players through the DH spot, Choo didn’t even play half of his 149 games at DH last season.
“That means my body feels good,” he said. “I know they’re trying to make me feel healthy. Injuries are injuries. I’ve played eight or nine years in the outfield.”
The Rangers aren’t sure how many players will be keeping the DH company this season. They spent much of last season with only three reserves — a backup catcher, an extra infielder and an extra outfielder — to give the bullpen an extra arm.
They could again choose to go that route over the traditional four-man bench, but four reserves might be needed to make the lineup as flexible as Banister would prefer.
Two spots are determined. Someone will back up catcher Robinson Chirinos, and Jurickson Profar will be the utility infielder in part because he is out of minor league options.
The Rangers will need an outfielder who can play center field. That player likely will be Drew Robinson, who can also plug holes in left field and at third base and second base.
That’s a three-man bench, which doesn’t address the possibility of a platoon in left field or what to do at first base if Joey Gallo needs a day off against a tough left-handed pitcher. The right-handed-hitting Ryan Rua can handle both duties, taking over for Willie Calhoun in left field and Gallo at first against lefties.
And if Gallo needs a DH day? Choo won’t be experimenting at first base, so that means either he would have to sit or the outfield would have to shuffle.
Sticking Choo at DH full time isn’t going to be easy.