With a batting average of .302, the reclamation project of Elvis Andrus reached the success, or relief, stage last season.
There were but 25 players who hit better than .300 in 2016, and Andrus was one of them. And somewhere, deep in the night, Rangers GM Jon Daniels unscrewed the cap of the most expensive bottle of Boone’s Farm over this fact.
Now our big-money shortstop with the even bigger smile needs to add a new element to his previously frustratingly small offensive game. A batter who hits better than .300, and a player who is one of the highest paid at his position, needs to be a top-of-the-order threat.
It took years, but there was a genuine yield in ’16 in what was a career-year for Elvis, when he was penned in the bottom third of the order in all but 56 of his official at-bats.
The lower he was placed in the order, the higher his average climbed. That’s not a coincidence.
Imagine what he could do if he batted 10th?
Take the training wheels off Elvis and let him swing away from somewhere other than the seven spot. Or the eight spot. And, unless the Rangers bring back the Yankees’ Murderers’ Row lineup, he should never again bat in the nine hole.
The American League is not the National League, meaning there does not necessarily have to be a traditional, delineated top-to-bottom lineup based on averages and anchored around the pitcher. But Elvis Andrus should not be some bottom-two hitter.
It borders on insulting and demeaning.
Move him up. Elvis is good with it, and so is Daniels, who says the lineup is entirely up to the discretion of manager Jeff Banister.
The slots Andrus called home last season are for a defensive catcher or infielder. It’s not for a two-time All-Star shortstop whose price tag is $15 million per year. No “defense only” shortstop makes that much.
Andrus, 28, is entering the prime of his career and he’s capable of handling the responsibility. If he’s not, it only solidifies the criticism that Andrus’ eight-year, $120 million deal was another case of the team being played for suckers by agent Scott Boras.
With Opening Day still a month away, Banister is justifiably moving at the pace of a traffic jam to set his lineup for a variety of reasons. He doesn’t know who will be available and he doesn’t have to do this yet.
At least on the record he believes Andrus could return to a top-end slot in the order. He also recognized the advantages of spreading out productive hitters on the back end to generate runs from atypical spots, and that sometimes you don’t need to stack a lineup.
“There is a track record where he had success in the lower part of the lineup. It correlated to us being a run-producing team at the bottom of the lineup, which is a challenge for some clubs,” Banister said Friday. “If that’s how it shapes up this year I feel confident Elvis is in a good place he can perform wherever we put him. He’s at that stage of this career. I feel comfortable with it.”
He means it, but a lineup tends to expose how a manager genuinely feels about his guy.
Because of Andrus’ deal, the Rangers had no choice but to be patient, coddle Andrus and pray that he came around. Shortly after he signed his deal in 2013, Elvis lost his mind and struggled to do much of anything that warranted the check. For three years, he never hit better than .271 and his overall offensive production was embarrassing against the size of his check.
Part of the “rebuilding process” was simply to put Andrus at the bottom of the lineup. Maybe he would hit or minimize the damage. He came around and thrived throughout 2016.
Daniels’ observation was that Andrus made “real” adjustments in the second half of 2016, when he hit .314 with an on-base percentage of .380. Andrus wasn’t guessing. It was a case of a guy who was figuring things out.
Now the Rangers can leave him at the bottom or trust him near the top.
The last time he was a top-of-the-lineup hitter was 2014. That was when all but 19 of his 600 at-bats were from the second spot. He batted a meager .262 with an on-base percentage of .311.
It was awkward to watch a guy who cares struggle so frequently. Or sad. Or aggravating.
To watch him discover his swing last season was encouraging. Or inspiring. Or relieving.
He may never be a version of Derek Jeter, but he has become a better version of Elvis Andrus. And that version should not be at the bottom of a lineup.