The Texas Rangers’ 2017 fortunes, in a lot of ways, are in the hands of their outfielders.
Two of the three spots are already set in stone before position players report to spring training in Surprise, Ariz., on Feb. 21.
Center fielder Carlos Gomez and corner outfielder Nomar Mazara return to starting roles. The third spot is Shin-Soo Choo’s to reclaim after he missed much of 2016 with a rash of injuries.
Choo expects to be back in right field on Opening Day. If he’s healthy — and he says he’s feeling great — he should round out the trio seeing most of the time in the outfield. However, the Rangers have suggested Choo could be used as a designated hitter a couple of games a week to help keep him healthy through a 162-game season. Choo has made it clear that playing the field had little to nothing to do with his injury issues. When asked last month whether he’d be open to DH from time to time, Choo made it clear he’d prefer it to be as rare as possible.
“I feel good. I’ve taken care of my body this whole off-season,” Choo said. “I’m getting tired of answering that question.”
The Rangers hope, of course, that a healthy Choo, who turns 35 in July, can return to the hitter he was in the second half of 2015. Realistically, that may be too much to ask at this point.
“Choo is a huge part of our success,” manager Jeff Banister said. “We missed him every day last year. We were fortunate enough to have a young player that came up and performed extremely well for us in Nomar. He’s a quality player that is going to help us win a championship and we need him in the lineup and on the field on a consistent basis.”
The Rangers are also rolling the dice on Gomez, who joined the club in August after a disastrous tenure with the Astros. Gomez, 31, thinks he found his mojo in Arlington after it went AWOL on him in Houston. He had become an All-Star with the Brewers, earning a Gold Glove in center field in 2013 before being traded to the Astros in 2015. The Rangers are banking on the idea that Gomez can keep it going with the veteran leadership of a player such as Adrian Beltre and return to the type of player he was in Milwaukee. Gomez is banking on it, too, since he chose to sign a one-year deal.
Mazara immediately impressed everyone when he was forced to replace an injured Choo in early April last season. All he did was earn AL Rookie of the Month honors in his first two months in the big leagues. But the league’s pitchers caught up with him in the summer and his batting average dipped. He hit .247 in August and .213 in September/October. His power, however, remained. After hitting seven homers with 17 RBIs in May, Mazara finished with five homers and 15 RBIs in September/October. He finished the season hitting .266 with 20 homers, 13 doubles and 64 RBIs. With a season under his belt, Mazara, who turns 22 on April 26, could be poised for a star-making season.
Here’s a look at the Rangers’ outfield options:
Nomar Mazara: After an impressive rookie season, the 21-year-old could be poised for a breakout season.
Carlos Gomez: The center fielder rediscovered his groove with the Rangers and he and the club are banking that he’ll keep it going in ’17.
Shin-Soo Choo: Injuries limited him to 48 games last season, which has the Rangers considering using him at DH a few times a week.
Josh Hamilton: The former superstar hopes to prove he can still play after a knee surgery wiped out his entire ’16 season. The last time the 35-year-old played a full season was 2013.
Ryan Rua: If he’s not playing first base, Ryan Rua could be an option off the bench at any outfield spot. Rua was the Opening Day left fielder in ’15 before an injury derailed his career path.
Delino DeShields: After becoming an offensive spark plug as a rookie in 2015, he was sent to the minors for over two months last season. This spring could be a career crossroads for him.
Drew Robinson: The Triple A slugger should be fun to watch early in spring training. He hit 20 homers, 24 doubles and 10 triples for Round Rock in ’16 and is likely to earn his first major league call-up at some point in ’17.