Gil LeBreton

Prince Fielder’s absence opens door to Rangers’ kids

Prince Fielder is facing season-ending surgery on a herniated disk in his neck.
Prince Fielder is facing season-ending surgery on a herniated disk in his neck. AP

To be precise, the day the earth shifted for the Texas Rangers was Dec. 14, 2012.

An otherwise delightful luncheon with the media at the Omni Hotel was interrupted by the news that Josh Hamilton and wife Katie were signing with the Los Angeles Angels for five years and $125 million.

As I recall, general manager Jon Daniels excused himself from dessert and returned to his office to embark upon Plan B, which turned out to be Lance Berkman.

The Rangers went from slugging 200 home runs in 2012 and scoring 808 runs — fourth-most and first, respectively, in the American League — to 176 homers and 730 runs.

And when free agent-to-be Nelson Cruz rejected their $14.1-million qualifying offer after that 2013 season, they made a fateful decision to fill the power void by trading Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder and pairing him with Mitch Moreland as first base/DH.

The 2014 Rangers hit 111 home runs, next-to-last in the AL, and scored 637 runs. Fielder and Moreland, both injured, combined for five homers.

You can do the math.

There is little need to rub Daniels’ nose in the Fielder trade. He knows it stinks, a smell made even worse by the news this week that Fielder likely is facing a second season-ending neck injury in three years.

Bad luck or a bad deal? Probably both.

Age more often creeps in slowly in baseball. Before coming to Texas, Fielder had enjoyed eight seasons of playing at least 157 games, an ironman pace.

Maybe he hurt himself in the off-season that year. Maybe it was fate deciding that it was his time.

What Fielder has to decide is whether he wants to undergo another lengthy rehab with a possibly uncertain outcome. Necks and backs are tricky.

Fielder will get his money. The Rangers will owe him $78 million after this season. He may have, however, a career-ending decision to make.

His absence, meanwhile, does not leave a yawning void in the struggling Rangers lineup. At the risk of being rude, if it means young Jurickson Profar now has a place to play every day, the lineup just got measurably better.

Moreland has his chance to show he’s more than an average major leaguer. And outfielder Ryan Rua, who likely will play more in Shin-Soo Choo’s absence, gets to show that he can make the adjustments that all big leaguers have to make. Rua’s star has faded as the season has gone on.

Choo is on the disabled list for the third time this season and was given an injection to treat soreness in his back. He should return, and the lineup dearly needs him to.

Choo had seven homers and batted .271 with a .355 on-base percentage and an .869 OPS.

A bad deal? Not in the least.

Choo’s OPS this year is second on the team only to regular Ian Desmond. From May 1 to the end of last season, 133 games, Choo hit 21 homers and had a slash line of .294/.388/.493/.881.

At the end of last year, Choo was playing like one of the best players in the American League.

Choo’s game is working the count, getting on base and scoring runs, and he has done that when healthy during his three seasons with the Rangers. He’s also a tireless worker, the kind of guy who regularly beat the manager to the clubhouse during spring training.

As the Rangers have slumped this month, the problem hasn’t been Choo. It’s been the pitching, which has largely been abysmal.

Fielder wasn’t helping things, so the youth movement clearly has started. If Moreland doesn’t do his part — his batting average has hovered around last or second-to-last among AL first basemen — there are youthful options on the farm.

The man who would be Prince only rarely surfaced these three seasons.

So it’s your turn now, kids. This is going to be interesting.

Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697, glebreton@star-, @gilebreton

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