Gil LeBreton

How Rangers solve this outfield puzzle will be key

The guess is that the combination, in some form, of Delino DeShields, pictured, Ryan Rua and Carlos Peguero will fill the Rangers’ void in left field.
The guess is that the combination, in some form, of Delino DeShields, pictured, Ryan Rua and Carlos Peguero will fill the Rangers’ void in left field. Star-Telegram

Surely by now, less than two weeks before Opening Day, someone has emerged as the front-runner for the Rangers’ starting left-field job, Texas manager Jeff Banister was asked Tuesday?

It was my futile attempt at rephrasing a question that Banister had been asked a hundred times before.

And it drew the same response. Banister slowly shook his head, like a guy who couldn’t solve the puzzle yet on Wheel of Fortune.

“Again,” he said patiently, “I think that’s one of those spots that are going to continue to play out.”

He didn’t even buy a vowel. Left field continues to be a puzzle.

Banister was talking about his starting rotation, but the same thought applies to his outfield:

“It’s not Opening Day,” he said, “so I don’t have to make that decision right now.”

If there’s an unwritten theme to this spring training camp, that would be it.

Banister, general manager Jon Daniels and all the Rangers’ other baseball people have a lot to decide by Opening Day, April 6.

And take note. How Daniels and Banister choose to answer their remaining roster and lineup questions will provide a subtle clue on how they really feel about the 2015 Rangers.

Six earnest candidates remain for the vacant outfield jobs, which also includes roles as a possible backup outfielder and part-time designated hitter. The list includes Ryan Rua, Ryan Ludwick, Jake Smolinski, Carlos Peguero, Nate Schierholtz and Delino DeShields.

Three of the six outfield candidates are expected to make the 25-man roster.

Ludwick, 36, a one-time All-Star, and Schierholtz, 31, who played against the Rangers in the 2010 World Series, are the two veterans in the left field hunt.

If Ludwick and Schierholtz are named to two of the three spots, I think Daniels will be telling you he’s all in — despite the loss of Yu Darvish, despite no major off-season additions to the starting lineup and despite 40 percent of the rotation still undecided.

If some combination, however, of Rua, Smolinski, DeShields and Peguero grab the three outfield places, the feeling here is that Daniels has set his sights further down the road, like the second half of the season or 2016.

Rua just turned 25, Smolinski 26, DeShields is 22 and Peguero appears to have undergone a hitting transformation at age 28.

Peguero began Tuesday batting .440 in 25 spring training at-bats. He had an OPS of 1.157 and had struck out only six times. At Kansas City’s Triple A farm club last season in Omaha, Peguero slugged 30 home runs.

A pop quiz: What was the most gnawing void in the Rangers’ 2014 lineup?

A shortage of home run power.

Banister, therefore, has to decide if he wants to try to fill that void with a remade Peguero or with the veteran Ludwick.

Schierholtz, for his part, has had a steady spring. But he’s a corner outfielder, and he’s had only one major league season with 10 or more home runs.

You could make the argument, meanwhile, that Rua and Smolinski bring similar skills to the left-field competition. Smolinski is the more natural outfielder; Rua has the potential for more power.

Again, the P-word. I’d go with Rua.

The remaining candidate, DeShields, is unique. Over the past four minor league seasons, he has stolen 236 bases. His dynamic skill set has captured the staff’s imagination.

Because he is a Rule 5 player, however, the Rangers have to keep him on their 25-man or put him on waivers, where the odds are high that he will be claimed.

Rua, DeShields and Peguero — that’s my educated guess, therefore, at how the Rangers will fill their three remaining outfield spots.

And, of course, as Banister has reminded us daily, that could all change in the final week.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton

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