The day pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training is special for baseball fans. And really, it truly is a magical day. Forget about previous records. It doesn't matter whether your team won or lost 102 games last year. The first day of spring training injects optimism into the hearts of fans, and ensures that we are on the precipice of the clean slate that Opening Day promises.
That promise of baseball's new season came and went Tuesday, when pitchers and catchers were supposed to report to their respective camps. Alas, baseball's second-longest work stoppage is still in effect, meaning spring training complexes are void of any talent assigned to a 40-man roster. And until the lockout is lifted—likely when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement has been ratified by the owners and players—it shall remain that way.
MLB and the MLB Players Association are still vastly far apart on core economic issues. Dare I speak it into existence, but if the end of the month comes before a new agreement is in place, Major League ballparks will likely be void of paying customers on March 31.
You, the fan, might be struggling to maintain your optimism as your anger and apathy rightfully compounds as the league and union play the most infuriating game of chicken. Even so, with each day that passes, we are inching closer to the start of spring training. And when the Texas Rangers are finally allowed to welcome their Major League talent to their complex in Surprise, there will be a plethora of questions regarding the 2022 roster that need to be answered.
If the standstill between the owners and players lasts long enough, we may be able to address all of those questions. For now, we'll look at just three of them.
Kole and Adolis in the Outfield, But Who's 'Left'?
The smallest chunk of the $561.2 million spent by the Rangers on free agents went to Kole Calhoun. He provides power from the left side of the plate, as he mashed 33 home runs in 2019 and posted a career-best .864 OPS with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the truncated 2020 season. His numbers dipped in an injury-plagued 2021 campaign, and the Rangers took a $5.2-million chance that he can replicate his 2019-20 production while also giving the youngsters a respected voice in the clubhouse.
Based on the talk from Dec. 1's press conference, Calhoun is penciled in as the primary right fielder.
Adolis García was arguably the best story from last year's Rangers team. As a 28-year-old rookie, García broke several franchise rookie records and provided borderline elite-level defense in the outfield. Volatile swings in production leave some questions of whether García will be a mainstay in the Rangers lineup as the club pivots toward contention mode or if he's just a one-year wonder.
Nevertheless, García did plenty to earn another year as a regular. The only question is where he'll play in the outfield. He's capable of playing all three spots, though he is best suited for the corners. In fact, his defensive metrics suggest he could realistically compete for a Gold Glove if he's in left or right field.
However, if the Rangers need him to, García is plenty capable of manning center field as he ranked fourth among American League center fielders in SABR Defensive Index. The largest concern there is if García's big body could handle the grueling six-month season while playing one of the most physically demanding positions on the field. There are some who theorize that García's production slipped last year because his body broke down while in center field.
Bottom line, García is better fit for left field, but can play center. But who's the third outfielder?
The first two choices are Nick Solak and Willie Calhoun. Solak is coming off a year where he posted a massive .301/.379/.534/.913 slash line through May 1, but was demoted in late July after registering a .529 OPS in the 64 games thereafter. After spending a month at Triple-A Round Rock, Solak slashed .290/.367/.387/.754 the rest of the way, which could be put under the "Just Fine" column. He's a fringe defender in left field, but that could be forgiven if his bat becomes more reliable.
The idea of two left-handed-hitting Calhouns in the Rangers lineup would surely drive beat writers like myself crazy, but could satisfy the Rangers' vision of Willie when they traded for him in 2017. Calhoun has been horribly unlucky on the injury front, and that continued in 2021. Unlike the fastball that broke his jaw in 2020, the pitch that broke his arm last year did not deter Calhoun's mental health. In fact, if he finally stays healthy, the bumpy journey might be the catalyst for success in 2022. Willie has always had the tools and he'll get another shot this year.
The combination of Solak and Calhoun could be used as a platoon or have one play left field while the other is penciled in as designated hitter. But there are other internal options, including Eli White, Zach Reks and Joe McCarthy, who was recently signed to a minor league contract. White's speed is a game-changer and he's a super defender to either Solak or Calhoun, but he also needs to prove himself at the plate.
There is one player that could change everything: Leody Taveras. His speed and defense have been big-league ready since he made his debut in 2020, and his baserunning has considerably improved. But that bat of his...
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Taveras' debut in 2020 didn't blow anyone away, but he did enough to warrant another look in 2021. However, an abysmal .087/.160/.087/.247 slash line through his first 15 games earned him a swift demotion to Round Rock. Taveras fared better after his return in late August, but still only managed to post a .560 OPS in 34 games.
Perhaps Taveras can thrive under the tutelage of new bench coach Donnie Ecker and hitting coach Tim Hyers. If so, the Rangers have their center fielder and García can slide over to left field. If not, left field will remain a revolving door until someone claims the job.
Of course, the Rangers could always explore the free agent market for a left fielder...
When MLB's lockout is over and a new CBA is in place, business will resume at an unprecedented pace. Among the many items on the agenda, more than 140 Major League free agents will be quickly looking for work while clubs explore the trade market and settle contracts with their arbitration-eligible players.
Taking every indication from where things stood prior to the lockout, the Rangers plan to add another outfielder and at least one more arm for the starting rotation. The first phone call might go to Clayton Kershaw to not only check on his recovery from last season's flexor strain, but see if the lure of playing at home—or the signing of former Dodger Corey Seager—is strong enough to pry him away from his legacy in Los Angeles.
If not and Kershaw unsurprisingly returns to the Dodgers, a trade with Cincinnati for one of Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle or Sonny Gray could be a possibility. There are also still plenty of starting pitchers on the free agent market that can help eat some innings while a very young pitching staff continues to sort itself out.
As far as the outfield goes, Seiya Suzuki will likely be target No. 1, but there will be several other clubs willing to make a serious run at the Japanese free agent. Though it's unlikely, but if the new CBA retroactively removes draft pick compensation from players who rejected qualifying offers in November, the Rangers could aggressively pursue the likes of Nick Castellanos or Michael Conforto.
Not unlike the starting pitching market, the outfield market has plenty of options for the Rangers—everything from big money guys to the fourth-outfielder, veteran type.
Who's on Third?
While left field may have the largest field of competitors fighting for a position, third base will come down to one of two players. In one corner, the Rangers have Isiah Kiner-Falefa, an established big leaguer with a Gold Glove at third base in his trophy case. In the other corner is Josh Jung, the Rangers' top hitting prospect and one of the top hitting prospects in the game.
Kiner-Falefa will have a leg up on Jung, but it would be irresponsible to think the Texas Tech product has no shot to win the job outright. Jung checked all the boxes in his first full professional season, was promoted from Double A to Triple A without incident and even answered the question of whether his swing adjustments would result in more in-game power (19 homers in 78 games).
However, Jung still has yet to see a big league pitch. Kiner-Falefa is obviously the superior defender. If the Rangers don't want to rush Jung, they could let him start the year at Round Rock and see what happens. If he mashes, the Rangers will have to figure something out.
In addition, the lockout could drastically affect this competition. If the lack of a new agreement delays the MLB season, then this all could be moot. It won't be too long until minor league camp starts, and no matter what happens with the lockout, the Minor League season will start on time. Obviously, the Rangers would prefer a prospect as valued as Jung to see real game action over sporadic at-bats in the Cactus League.
But even after the lockout concludes and the season begins, it's only a matter of time before Jung gets the call to Arlington. And what happens with the hot corner will be worthy of everyone's attention.
More From SI's InsideTheRangers.com:
- Rangers Free Agency Preview 2.0: Outfield Options Beyond Seiya Suzuki
- Manfred: Missing Games to Lockout a 'Disastrous Outcome' For Baseball
- Rangers Add Former MLB Catcher to Front Office, Sign McCarthy to Minor League Deal
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