Former top prospect Kevin Kouzmanoff picking up slack in ailing Rangers offense
Despite adding Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo to their lineup this winter, the Rangers have had a hard time getting their offense in gear. But over the past week, they've received some help from an unlikely source: Third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, who's back in the majors for the first time since 2011.
The 32-year-old Kouzmanoff — "The Crushin' Russian" from his San Diego days (never mind his Macedonian heritage) — lacks the All-Star resume and matinee idol good looks of former teammate and fellow comeback kid Grady Sizemore. But with Adrian Beltre and Jurickson Profar both on the disabled list, he's suddenly become an indispensable part of Texas' infield, hitting a sizzling .414/.469/.690 through 32 plate appearances, with a team-high six extra-base hits. He's collected a hit in each of the eight games he's played, starting with a pinch-hit-single against the Red Sox on April 9. His 6-for-13 tear with five extra-base hits helped the Rangers take three straight from the Mariners this week, lifting them above .500 (9-7) for the first time since April 2:
• On Tuesday, Kouzmanoff followed Fielder's first home run of the season with his first major league homer since Sept. 25, 2011, when he was a member of the Rockies. He added two doubles later in the game, the second of which drove in two runs to help Texas to a 5-0 win.
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• On Wednesday, he sparked a ninth-inning rally by beating out an infield single off Fernando Rodney and came around to score the game-tying run on a wild pitch. Moments later, the Rangers won on Leonys Martin's walkoff single.
• On Thursday, he hit an RBI double and came around to score in a three-run first-inning rally. After the Rangers fell behind 6-4, he kicked off game-tying rally in the third inning with another double. The Rangers went on to win, 8-6.,
Granted, this is all Small Sample Size Theater, and Kouzmanoff's hot streak has come against pitchers who aren't likely to enter the Cy Young conversation: Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, Tom Wilhelmsen, Brett Oberholzer and even Joe Beimel (the time machine from 2011 is really working overtime). But with Profar sidelined by a shoulder injury and Beltre a quad strain, the Rangers will take what they can get nonetheless. The team ranks 11th in the AL in scoring at 3.88 runs per game, and 14th in homers with eight. It has been held to three runs or fewer in nine of its 16 games thus far; miraculously, the Rangers have gone 5-4 in those contests despite being outscored 28-16 thanks to some great pitching performances. Meanwhile, they've scored more than five just three times, a total tied for last in the AL.
With Beltre on the disabled list until at least April 24, Kouzmanoff figures to get at least another week of work, and while he's unlikely to maintain a four-digit OPS, he may force his way into a roster spot for longer than that. It's the latest turn in a career that has taken him through seven organizations in 11 professional seasons, and started at the major league level with an unprecedented bang.
Drafted by the Indians in the sixth round in 2003 out of the University of Nevada-Reno, Kouzmanoff mashed his way up the organizational ladder and made his major league debut on Sept. 2, 2006, hitting a grand slam off the Rangers' Edinson Volquez on the first pitch of his first plate appearance — the first major leaguer ever to debut in such fashion, and just the third to do so on any pitch of his first plate appearance. Blocked by the presence of Casey Blake, he was traded to the Padres in November 2006, and cracked the Baseball Prospectus Top 100 Prospects list at number 52 prior to the 2007 season. He spent three years as San Diego's starting third baseman, hitting a combined .263/.309/.436 (103 OPS+), showing power (an average of 20 homers a year) and solid defense to offset a deficit of plate discipline (4.2 percent unintentional walk rate). Crowded by the emergence of Chase Headley, who played leftfield in 2008 and '09 before returning to the hot corner, he was traded to the A's in January 2010. He slumped to .247/.283/.396 with 16 homers, though with 11 Defensive Runs Saved, he set a career high with 2.3 WAR.
After an even slower start in 2011, the 29-year-old Kouzmanoff's odyssey picked up speed. He was sent back to Triple A in May, then traded to the Rockies in late August. After failing to make the Royals in the spring of 2012, he appeared to be playing his way out of baseball, starting the season with their Triple A Omaha affiliate and then dipping down to Double A Northwest Arkansas after struggling due to a thumb injury. He spent 2013 in the Marlins' organization, hitting .294/.344/.440 with six homers in 60 games at New Orleans but missing 11 weeks due to back and intercostal strains. After a strong showing in spring training, he began this season at Triple A Round Rock and was called up to Texas after Beltre's problems surfaced. Kouzmanoff has never played a defensive position besides third base in the major leagues, though he has 22 appearances at first base in the minors. Between that and a respectable .282/.324/.458 career line against lefties, he could carve out a bench role for himself, if not in Arlington then somewhere else where the injury bug is biting. Otherwise, he'll continue riding the rails as a Quad A organizational type. If nothing else, it's worth rooting for him to stick around. However inaccurate they may be, nicknames like "The Crushin' Russian" are all too rare in today's game.