Profar remains on Rangers after Odor's return, but where will he play?
Rougned Odor’s seven-game suspension for cold-cocking Jose Bautista and inciting a melee against the Blue Jays two weeks ago was supposed to be a punishment. Instead, it may have been a blessing, if not necessarily for Odor, than for his team. In seven games without Odor, the Texas Rangers have gone 5–2 to move ahead of the Seattle Mariners into first place in the American League West, capping that run with a 7–3 victory over Seattle Friday night. The Rangers have done that not despite of Odor’s absence, but, in part, because of the performance of his replacement at second base, former top prospect Jurickson Profar. Profar has been so good, in fact, that despite Odor’s pending return on Saturday night, the Rangers would be well-advised to find a way to keep both in their lineup going forward.
Playing every inning of all seven games of Odor’s suspension, Profar has gone 12-for-33 (.364) with at least one hit in every game and an extra-base hit in four of them, including a towering, 415-foot upper-deck home run off Seattle’s Taijuan Walker Friday night. In addition to which, he has been outstanding in the field, something which was again in evidence Friday night with his diving grab of a Seth Smith liner, and an asset on the bases, as evidenced by his scoring from second on a wild third strike against the Pirates on Sunday.
Obviously the sample size has been small, and Profar has benefited from some luck on balls in play, as on his well-placed infield single in the sixth inning Friday night. However, it’s important to remember that, prior to having his ascension derailed by a torn teres major muscle behind his right shoulder late in spring training in 2014, Profar was considered one of the top young talents in the game. After reaching the majors as a 19-year-old in 2012, Profar was rated the top prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2013 season by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, ESPN’s Keith Law, and SB Nation’s John Sickels, just to name a few. After the Rangers traded Ian Kinsler to the Tigers after the 2013 season, the second base job was assumed to be his, but the torn muscle erased his entire 2014 season and required surgery the following February, keeping him out of action for all but what amounted to a 12-game minor league rehab assignment at the end of the last season.
Still, despite missing effectively two full seasons, Profar is still just 23, less than a year older than Odor or the Rangers’ slugging prospect Joey Gallo and younger than National League rookie sensations Trevor Story and Aledmys Diaz. He finally proved himself healthy in the Arizona Fall League last year, and confirmed that fact by hitting .284/.356/.426 in Triple A through the first two months of this season. As a result, what the Rangers have seen from Profar over the last week has been the player as advertised—a five-tool, switch-hitting middle infielder with a great feel for the game.
The trouble is that there’s not a lot of room in the Rangers’ lineup. Odor is considered a budding star at second base, and his bat had been heating up before the brawl against Toronto (.313/.328/.542 in 134 PA up to and including that game). Elvis Andrus, who is still just 27, is signed through 2022 at shortstop, Profar’s natural position. Adrian Beltre was just extended for two more seasons at third base. Ian Desmond and the team’s current top prospect, Nomar Mazara, have been excellent in center and rightfield, respectfully.
That leaves only the far left side of the defensive spectrum—leftfield, first base and designated hitter—open for Profar, which is a waste of his talents. However, given the poor performances thus far of first baseman Mitch Moreland (.208/.279/.364) and designated hitter Prince Fielder (.187/.257/.288), whose contract ranks among the worst in baseball, Profar would appear to be a clear and easy upgrade over either veteran.
If the Rangers are indeed willing to bench one of those two in favor of Profar, the best arrangement would likely be one that sends the athletic Profar out to leftfield while moving the incumbent there, Ryan Rua, hitting an impressive .296/.373/.459 after going 2-for-3 with a walk Friday night, to either designated hitter or first base. Profar started four games in leftfield in 2013, but has never played first base at any level and would be utterly wasted as a designated hitter.
Then again, there are those who believe that being moved around the diamond so much as a rookie 2013—Profar started games at second, third, short, leftfield and designated hitter for Texas that season—contributed to his disappointing performance at the plate that season. What the Rangers do with Profar in the wake of Odor’s return should not only suit the current roster, but be done with an eye on next year and beyond.
That’s far easier said than done, however. The 26-year-old Rua is not a significant part of the Rangers’ long-term plan, but Gallo, who is crushing the Pacific Coast League to the tune of a .294/.438/.676 line, seems likely to replace Moreland at first base next year, and the Rangers still have Shin-Soo Choo under contract through 2020. Indeed, Choo, who is currently on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, began a rehab assignment Friday night and could return from the disabled list some time next week. Starting Profar with Odor and Choo back on the active roster would mean benching one of the team’s two biggest contracts (Fielder or Choo) or one of its most productive hitters (Rua’s OPS this season is just a few points shy of those of Desmond, Mazara and Beltre). Among the resulting arrangements are a few which could force Fielder to play the field, a move which could drag him even further.
The best place for Profar in the long run just might be centerfield. Desmond, who turns 31 in September, has excelled at the position, but he will be a free agent at the end of the season. Profar would have to learn on the job, which could motivate a return to the minors for the position change, but centerfield would at least put Profar’s athleticism to good use, and Desmond is evidence that the Rangers coaching staff can successfully convert a shortstop to centerfield. That would set up a 2017 Rangers lineup with Beltre, Andrus, Odor and Gallo from third to first in the infield, Choo and Mazara in the outfield corners, Profar in center, and Fielder at designated hitter. With Profar capable of filling in in the middle infield, Gallo capable of moving to third, and Rua, who is under team control through 2020, providing depth at the left side of the defensive spectrum, that’s a tremendously well-rounded lineup in need only of an upgrade at catcher in an offseason when Matt Wieters and Wilson Ramos will be on the market.
Whether or not the Rangers are willing to make that move with their team already playing so well remains to be seen. Still, Profar did everything he could in a limited opportunity to prove to his organization that he is still the same player who earned all of those accolades a prospect, and that he is finally ready to deliver on that promise in the major leagues.