The Texas Rangers, whose spring training has been marked by uncertainty, disappointment, and injury, received one of their biggest blows of the spring on Sunday when they learned that starting second baseman Jurickson Profar will miss most of the first half of the 2014 season with a torn teres major muscle in his right shoulder. Profar reportedly suffered the injury to his throwing shoulder in Saturday's Cactus League game. That injury blows a giant hole in the infield of a team already concerned about shortstop Elvis Andrus' elbow and that has spent most of the spring trying to piece back together a pitching staff that is in tatters.
The need to open a position for the 21-year-old Profar, one of the most talented young players in the game, was one of the primary motivations behind the blockbuster November trade that saw Texas ship incumbent All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler to the Tigers for superstar slugger Prince Fielder. As I wrote at the time, the relative cost and value of those two players made Profar's performance in his sophomore season and beyond the key to that trade working out for Texas. There's still plenty of time for the Rangers to win that trade over the long term, but with Profar out until at least late June, they're all the more likely to have merely broken even on the exchange in the season at hand.
Profar's success this season was not guaranteed. He has hit just .231/.301/.343 in 341 major league plate appearances thus far in his young career and wasn't having a good spring. Of course, he only just reached legal drinking age in late February, he spent most of 2013 as a man without a position (from mid-June through the end of August, he didn't make more than two consecutive starts at the same position while rotating through second, short, third, leftfield, and designated hitter), and he was beginning the process of making the permanent move to the keystone this spring.
But what Profar does have, and what none of his potential replacements do, is an All-Star upside. In his age-18 to -20 seasons, Profar hit .283/.377/.467 in the minors and averaged 17 home runs, 25 steals, 39 doubles, and 10 triples per 700 plate appearances. That was the player the Rangers were hoping would start to emerge at second base this season. Instead, they are left with literal replacement players, such as veteran utility infielders Adam Rosales and Josh Wilson, who are among the most likely players in camp to inherit Profar's position. Rosales, who will be 31 in May, is a career .219/.287/.335 hitter in 920 major league PAs. Wilson, who will be 33 on Wednesday, is a career .225/.278/.317 hitter in 1,077 major league PAs.
Profar's injury has led to some speculation that the Rangers will turn to top prospect Rougned Odor, a 20-year-old second baseman who hit .303/.362/.472 in the minors last year with 31 stolen bases. Odor has All-Star potential, but he has played just 30 games above High-A, all of them coming at Double-A late last year. Given that he just turned 20 in February, it seems foolish for the Rangers to try to rush Odor to the majors as a temporary replacement. Indeed, Odor replaced Profar in Saturday's game, but it was Rosales (at second) and Wilson (at shortstop) who started in the middle infield for Texas on Sunday.
Another internal option that might make sense is veteran Japanese second baseman Kensuke Tanaka. Tanaka, who will be 33 in late May, came to the United States last year and signed with the San Francisco Giants. He spent most of July on the major league bench, but the rest of the season with Triple-A Fresno, for whom he hit .329/.400/.397 with 22 stolen bases. In Japan, Tanaka was a career .286/.356/.384 hitter with speed but little power. He won't make anyone forget Kinsler or Profar, but as a left-handed hitter (which Odor is as well, it should be noted), he would at least give Rangers manager Ron Washington the platoon advantage in a job share with a righty like Rosales or Wilson. Tanaka, Wilson, and Odor are all non-roster players, but placing Profar on the 60-day disabled list would clear space for one of them.
The Rangers could also look outside the organization. The timing of Profar's injury is interesting in that Tuesday is the day for teams to make decisions on their Article XX(B) free agents. That is, the group of veteran free agents on minor league deals who are guaranteed either a major league roster spot, a $100,000 retention bonus, or their unconditional release by March 25. Middle infielders in that group include Alexi Casilla, Ronny Cedeño, Cesar Izturis, Munenori Kawasaki, John McDonald (who is likely to make the Angels as a reserve infielder), and Ramon Santiago. None is an obvious upgrade on Rosales or Wilson, nor, for that matter, are potential trade targets such as the Cardinals' Pete Kozma or Daniel Descalso.
Whatever the Rangers' solution at second base, it will most likely result in a replacement-level performance, or worse, until Profar's return, at which point the youngster's inexperience at the position and rust from his time on the disabled list will make it all the less likely that he will ascend to the level the team had hoped he'd reach this year.
On top of that, Andrus won't play until next weekend due to a sore elbow (though is MRI was clean). Starting catcher Geovany Soto left Sunday's game when his right knee locked up on him and will miss 10-12 weeks with a torn meniscus. Opening Day starter Yu Darvish is dealing with a stiff neck. Neftali Feliz, who returned from Tommy John surgery late last year and whose velocity has been down this spring, has lost the closer job to Joakim Soria and may not even make the 25-man roster.
Then there's the rotation. Derek Holland will miss the entire first half following a fluke accident at home requiring microfracture surgery on his left knee in January. Matt Harrison, who had two back surgeries last year, will start the year on the disabled list following further back pain earlier this spring. He is expected back by late April, but given that he's been inactive for a year and was only throwing in the high-80s in his first spring start last week (as opposed to his usual mid-90s), he's a chicken that can't be counted until he hatches.
Washington has already announced that righties Tanner Scheppers and Alexi Ogando will switch roles, with Ogando returning to the bullpen as a set-up man and Scheppers, who posted a 1.88 ERA in that role last year, moving into the rotation. That is the best use of Ogando, but questionable use of Scheppers, who has made just 12 starts in five professional seasons, the last coming in 2011, and who had a below-average strikeout rate working out of the bullpen last year. The last time Scheppers made multiple starts in a season was 2010, when he started a career-high seven games in Triple-A. He posted a 6.07 ERA in those seven starts, none of which lasted a full five innings.
Behind Darvish, sophomore Martin Perez, and Scheppers, veterans Tommy Hanson, Joe Saunders, and Colby Lewis are competing for the final two rotation spots with lefty reliever Robbie Ross. The three veteran's spring ERAs are, respectively, 6.43, 9.72, and 18.00. That makes Ross, who started almost exclusively in the minors and with considerable success, and who has pitched well this spring, a good bet to join Scheppers in moving from the pen to the rotation. Of course, if the Rangers move both Ross and Scheppers into the rotation, it will further diminish a bullpen that lost Joe Nathan to free agency this offseason and was counting on a strong comeback from Feliz. Losing Profar on top of all of that is a major blow to the Rangers, even if Profar was something of a question mark himself. With the A's having won the division the last two years and the Angels having improved over the winter, the Rangers, despite a superficially successful offseason, have found their passway back to the postseason littered with stones.