For all the concerns about Shin-Soo Choo and his statistical splits against left-handed pitching, the free-agent prize and on-base machine is going to make a positive impact atop the Texas Rangers’ lineup.
So is new No. 3 hitter Prince Fielder, acquired from Detroit to help bolster production that has been missing at first base since 2007.
No overly loud concerns have been voiced at the Surprise Recreation Campus about No. 2 hitter Elvis Andrus, cleanup man Adrian Beltre or No. 5 hitter Alex Rios. In fact, the first five hitters in the Rangers’ projected 2014 lineup are expected to make everyone forget about the offense’s miserable 2013.
They are also overshadowing the other four players below them in the lineup, a group that isn’t nearly as proven and didn’t do much last year to prevent any doubts from emerging in the off-season and this spring.
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Fewer than two weeks remain until Opening Day, and Mitch Moreland, the catching duo of Geovany Soto and J.P. Arencibia, Jurickson Profar and Leonys Martin remain the players who ultimately could determine if the Rangers return to juggernaut form or remain stagnant at the plate.
“The bottom four, they have to perform,” manager Ron Washington said Monday afternoon.
“I’m not talking about All-Star-caliber. They have to perform and be consistent. If they can be consistent, we will have guys on the bag for the boys when they come up at the top. Then, good things can happen.”
The Rangers have been proactive in recent days in helping those players find a comfort zone at the plate.
Martin was shuttled to the minor league side over the weekend to pile up at-bats. The center fielder led off each inning Saturday and Sunday, and said he went 6 for 17 over the two days.
Soto, who had been out all spring until Thursday, has also been a regular in minor league games, following the same routine as Martin. On Monday, it was Arencibia’s turn the day after he hit a grand slam in a Cactus League game.
“He needs to start seeing the ball and start making contact,” Washington said. “If we can ramp up his at-bats back to back to back, something might start to click.”
Arencibia’s 2013 numbers are the goriest of the group. He hit only .194 in 474 at-bats for Toronto, and he struck out 148 times and drew only 18 walks. Soto’s numbers (.245, 60 strikeouts, 20 walks in 163 at-bats) are relatively good.
Moreland batted .232 in 462 at-bats, but only .185 with runners in scoring position and .107 in close and late situations. Profar was a .234 hitter as a part-time player, but the switch hitter batted only .188 against left-handers.
Martin swooned over the final two months of his first big-league season, then struggled in a brief winter ball stint and entered Monday’s late game against Kansas City with a .182 (4 for 22) average.
Not everything was bad in 2013. Moreland had 23 homers. Arencibia and Soto combined for 30. Martin stole 36 bases. But they need to be better.
“If those guys at the bottom don’t to find a way to get on base and don’t pull their weight, it won’t matter what those guys at the top do,” Washington said.
But Washington isn’t concerned by what has happened so far this spring. If anything, he is for the most part pleased by what he is seeing, especially from Moreland.
The key, Washington said, is that Moreland is relaxed and not dwelling on what he didn’t accomplish last season or by the hits he hasn’t collected this spring. Moreland is also trying to learn to play the outfield again, and he will have to adapt to life as a designated hitter.
“I’m just trying to get acclimated to anything and everything,” said Moreland, who is projected to hit sixth, ahead of the catchers, Profar and Martin. “I’m going to find a groove and a routine that works for me and stick with it.”
Martin, who had a trial run atop the lineup last year, knows that his job at the bottom of the lineup is similar as the leadoff spot. He needs to see pitches and get on base, but also be a better situational hitter.
“I love the ninth spot, man,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of opportunities to score runs.”
If he does, along with the Nos. 6-8 hitters, the Rangers should have one of the league’s best offenses. If not, the bottom of lineup could sink the club’s 2014 hopes.
“I think 1 through 9 is going to be important,” Moreland said. “We’re going to have to go out and do our jobs. I don’t see too many weaknesses all the way through. I think it’s pretty dynamic. I’m looking forward to the season and watching it work.”