General manager Jon Daniels moved swiftly over the off-season as he addressed the Texas Rangers’ needs at catcher.
Two were needed, and Geovany Soto and J.P. Arencibia were locked up before the annual winter meetings to handle the 2014 catching duties.
Their presence made Robinson Chirinos a long shot to make the Opening Day roster, but the oddsmakers have had to reconsider his chances at the halfway point of spring training.
Entering Wednesday, Chirinos was the Rangers’ hottest Cactus League hitter with hits in six consecutive at-bats over his past two games. His .467 average, albeit in only 15 at-bats, was second on the club.
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Chirinos has shown significant improvements defensively, and he also has played first base and third base in the recent past. He is even taking grounders at second base this spring to make himself more versatile.
At the very least, Chirinos is seen as a capable injury replacement should Soto or Arencibia find the disabled list. But he also has made club brass view him as an alternative should the Arencibia move prove to be a bust.
“He’s impressed me so much,” said catching coach Bengie Molina, whose only previous exposure to Chirinos was on video from last season. “It’s nothing like I’ve seen here. He’s way better. But that’s because he’s worked hard.”
Chirinos played for the Venezuelan Winter League champions, Magallanes, and helped power the club to the Caribbean Series. He requested that he play only catcher so that he could get repetitions ahead of big-league camp.
He has impressed in all aspects behind the plate on a team that wants its catchers to focus on receiving, communicating with the pitchers and calling games. Molina, a former Gold Glove winner and the Rangers’ No. 1 catcher during their run to the 2010 World Series, has seen that from Chirinos.
“He can get the job done,” Molina said. “I have a lot of confidence that he can do it.”
While Chirinos wants to be a big league catcher, he wants to help a big league team in any way he can. If that means playing the infield, he’s all for it.
It’s been five years since he roamed an outfield, but he started 10 games last year at third base for Triple A Round Rock and three at first. He also spent 11 games at designated hitter, and the Rangers are looking for a right-handed-hitting complement to Mitch Moreland.
“I’m really open to everything,” Chirinos said. “I’m trying to move around a little bit every day. That’s what I’m trying to do to prove that I can help the team win and I can help the team to win the World Series.”
Manager Ron Washington, though, tapped the brakes when referring to Chirinos as a utility man. Washington said that Chirinos will have to make the team as a catcher and labeled him as an emergency player at third and especially second.
Washington further slowed the Chirinos bandwagon by saying it’s unlikely that he will play anywhere other than catcher this spring. Once Soto returns from surgery on his left foot, possibly as soon as Saturday, Chirinos’ opportunities are going to wither away.
But Washington also isn’t closing the door on Chirinos.
“There’s still competition going on, and that decision hasn’t been made,” Washington said. “So he has to keep doing what he’s doing — receiving, handling pitchers, throwing, blocking — the things it takes to be a catcher.”
So far, Chirinos has outperformed Arencibia, who has more experience but is coming off a season in which he hit 21 homers but batted only .194 and struck out 148 times while drawing only 18 walks. His defense also was lacking.
Molina has seen Arencibia improve with his glove since the start of camp, but the Rangers want to see more all around. He is batting .136 (3 for 22) after going hitless Wednesday in two at-bats.
Washington and Molina, though, cautioned that it’s far too early to settle the Opening Day roster.
“What I want is to make the team and help the team win,” Chirinos said. “There’s a lot of stuff I don’t control. A lot of stuff happens that I can’t make a decision. All I can do is just go out and have fun and do what I love to do.”