In Their Footsteps: The fourth outfielder

One of the most productive offensive seasons ever turned in by a part-time Rangers outfielder was in 2001, when a 35-year-old whose career had been circling the drain worked his way back to becoming a functional major league hitter and, as a result, squeezed another five years out of his career.

I’m unquestionably bending the rules by making Ruben Sierra the fourth outfielder on the all-time Rangers team under the guidelines I put in place, but there are three players I considered deserving of corner outfield spots, and Sierra was the only one who had a solid year as a role player.  So he gets the nod.

For the first six years of Sierra’s big league career, which began at age 20, it looked like he would be generating Hall of Fame debates by his mid-30s.  Instead, after the Rangers traded the 26-year-old to Oakland in 1992, a decline began that saw him traded again in 1995, then twice more in 1996, after which he bounced around for several years at a rate of more than one organization per season.  Sierra’s 10th club was the Cancun Lobstermen of the AAA-level Mexican Pacific League, which is where he was playing when Texas took a return flyer on him in 2000.

After a very good run with AAA Oklahoma that spring, Sierra struggled in a September stint with Texas but was given a second opportunity when the club gave him another minor league deal for 2001.  When outfielder Chad Curtis strained a hamstring a month into the season, Sierra was summoned from Oklahoma, and he made an immediate impact, slugging .706 with 19 extra-base hits in his first 26 games.

Sharing designated hitter duties with Rafael Palmeiro and Andres Galarraga, and appearing 35 times in right field (where Ricky Ledee and Ruben Mateo received the bulk of the starts), Sierra hit .291/.322/.561 for Texas in 2001, contributing 22 doubles and 23 home runs in just 344 at-bats.  

The switch-hitter had not gone into a season with a big league contract since the one multi-year deal of his career expired in 1997.  But Seattle, sold on what Sierra did for the Rangers in 2001, gave him a major league deal in 2002, guaranteeing him $1.9 million.  

Sierra wouldn’t match his 2001 effectiveness over the next five seasons with the Mariners, Rangers, Yankees, or Twins, and his career came to an end with 306 home runs and 1322 RBI on his ledger, impressive numbers but nowhere near the expectations he’d established in his first run with the Rangers.  Considering how his career began, it’s a tremendous disappointment that, at age 35, Sierra was in the midst of a ten-season run of competing year to year for backup outfielder/DH jobs.  

When Sierra was 23, he hit .306 and led the American League in RBI, triples, and slugging percentage and finished second in the American League MVP vote.  At the same age, current Oklahoma outfielder Brandon Boggs was in his third pro season, hitting .261/.352/.444 for High A Bakersfield.  Other than the fact that Sierra and Boggs each hit from both sides of the plate, there’s very little the two have in common.  Sierra’s big season as a fourth outfielder was a momentary revival of a career that took a disappointing turn.  Boggs, on the other hand, has a chance to break into the big leagues in that role and possibly grow into something bigger.

The fascinating thing about Boggs’s 2007 season was that, in his first taste of AA (which didn’t start until May), he posted career highs in hitting (.266), reaching base (.385), slugging (.508), doubles (21), home runs (19), and RBI (55).  Only two Texas League hitters had a higher OPS.  Only 10 hitters in all of the minor leagues drew more than the 84 walks he collected between Bakersfield and Frisco.  With his breakthrough season, Boggs earned a November addition to the 40-man roster so that Texas could avoid exposing him to the Rule 5 Draft.  

In AAA for the first time this spring, Boggs is off to new career bests in each percentage category, hitting .333/.388/.533 in the early going, which continues a fascinating trend – the 25-year-old’s batting average and slugging percentage have improved every year since he signed as the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2004.  

An outstanding defender with a good arm, Boggs is an ideal fourth outfielder from the standpoint that he can more than adequately play all three spots, just as Marlon Byrd and David Murphy have shown.  If Boggs is to grow into a starting role and have a lengthy big league career, his path will probably look a lot more like Byrd’s and Murphy’s than that of Sierra, who had 98 major league home runs when he was Boggs’s age and didn’t fill a supporting role until late in his career.

Admittedly, I might be shortchanging Boggs by suggesting he profiles as a fourth outfielder and nothing more.  But since I’m obviously shortchanging Sierra by tabbing him as the fourth outfielder on my all-time Rangers team – only because there are two corner outfielders who I think deserve starting recognition more – it’s not as if Boggs isn’t in very good company.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.   

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