In Their Footsteps: The corner spots

As we continue to construct a 25-man roster from the Rangers farm system, trying to project who has the best chance to settle in at each spot, our bench is nearly complete.  We’ve got Manny Pina as our backup catcher, Brandon Boggs as the fourth outfielder, and German Duran as the utility infielder.  We need two more role players.

One needs to play first base, and preferably either third base or a corner outfield spot if needed.  The other needs to cover whichever of those secondary roles the first can’t.  Ideally, given who is already on our bench, one of them should be a runner, the other a guy who can do some damage with the bat late in a game.  Since American League benches aren’t quite as dependent on pinch-hitters and match-ups as they are in the National League, we’re not going to concern ourselves so much with handedness.  

Looking back, the two players who most capably served those two bench jobs in Rangers history were Roberto Kelly and Frank Catalanotto.  

Kelly was an instrumental role player on the Rangers’ playoff teams in 1998 and 1999, playing all three outfield positions in relief of starters Juan Gonzalez, Rusty Greer, and Tom Goodwin and hitting a robust .311/.353/.501 (including .353/.389/.556 against lefties) with 24 doubles, 24 home runs, 83 RBI, and 89 runs scored in a combined 547 at-bats.  His .560 slugging percentage in 1998 was the highest of his career.  His .323 batting average that season matched his career best.

In his age 33 and 34 seasons, Kelly gave Texas as much as you could ever expect to get from a reserve outfielder.

Catalanotto, who arrived in the blockbuster trade after the 1999 season that sent Juan Gonzalez to Detroit, played 37 games at first base, 11 games at third base, 86 games at second base, and 113 games in the outfield in his first Rangers stint (2002-2002), hitting .305/.380/.470 with nearly as many walks as strikeouts.  Used primarily against right-handed pitching, the left-handed hitter didn’t embarrass himself against lefties, hitting .286/.400/.374 in 91 trips, with 14 walks and 15 strikeouts.  

In his heyday, there wasn’t a fastball that Catalanotto couldn’t turn around.

With Kelly and Catalanotto, you have two players who could do a little bit of everything offensively, combined to cover most of the field defensively (particularly the corners), and had playable speed.  Kelly had been an everyday player before arriving in Texas, while Catalanotto has had spurts in his career in which he was one, too.  To fill our final two bench spots from the current Rangers farm, we turn to two players who, not long ago, were seen not only as future everyday players but possibly as potential stars.  

It’s not out of the question that John Mayberry Jr. and Joaquin Arias could eventually fulfill the expectations the Rangers had for them when they joined the organization.  But for now, developmentally, both have used 2008 to put themselves back on the map after disappointing 2007 seasons.

The Oklahoma teammates come from vastly different backgrounds.  Mayberry, the son of the well-known Royals first baseman, had the highest of amateur profiles.  He was a rare two-time first-round draft pick, refusing to sign as Seattle’s top draftee out of high school and then going pro when Texas chose him as a Stanford junior in 2005.  The Yankees signed Arias, on the other hand, as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic for a relatively modest $300,000 – and then allegedly tried disguising him in spring training 2004 (by changing his number and shifting him to different minor league fields) so the Rangers wouldn’t select him as the player to be named in the Alex Rodriguez deal.

After his first two years in the Rangers system, Arias appeared to be on a fast track to Texas, playing highlight shortstop and hitting .300 for Stockton (2004) and .315 for Frisco (2005) before he was old enough to buy a beer.  He saw his average fall to .268 at Oklahoma in 2006 – an unacceptable mark considering how infrequently he walks – but he went 6 for 11 in his first taste of the big leagues that September.  On the season’s final day, he started at third base – something he’d never done in the minor leagues – and the idea that the athletic 22-year-old might be on the verge of seizing a major league utility role was hatched.

But 2007 didn’t go at all like it was supposed to for Arias, who injured a thumb late in spring training and then hurt his throwing shoulder, managing to get only 18 at-bats all year.  Recovering from July shoulder surgery, he’s been limited this season as well, playing primarily second base and designated hitter (both new positions for him) while he works to regain the arm strength that was one of the keys to his game.  He has regained his stroke at the plate, hitting .317/.345/.396 thus far, and he’s on pace to obliterate his career high of 30 stolen bases as he’s swiped 11 bags in 34 games.

If the shoulder bounces back, Arias can be a tremendous asset on a big league bench, an athlete who can play every infield position and possibly center field, who has the plus speed to take advantage of his ability to put the ball in play and to impact the late innings as a pinch-runner.

As for Mayberry, the college first baseman, Texas not only planned to make a right fielder out of him but also knew his Stanford-bred swing would need to be remade.  The transition has been bumpy.  Mayberry’s power has been there from the start (he’s slammed 31 home runs and 36 doubles per 162 games as a pro), but his strikeout numbers have been too high (nearly one per game) and, coming into 2008, he was just a career .251 hitter with questions defensively.

But something good has happened for Mayberry this season.  Over the first three weeks at Frisco, he hit for the highest average (.268) and slugging percentage (.512) of his career, and after a promotion to Oklahoma he’s been even better, hitting .326/.366/.593.  Even more remarkably, after arriving in AAA as a hitter who went down on strikes once every 3.9 at-bats as a pro, he’s fanned only 10 times in 86 RedHawks at-bats.  

He even made an appearance at first base a week ago, his first since starring at that position collegiately.  

While Arias has been surpassed by Elvis Andrus as the organization’s future hope at shortstop, Mayberry remains the Rangers’ top power-hitting outfield prospect.  If he really has figured something out at Oklahoma, there will be no envisioning a bench role for the physical prototype.  He’ll be a player who projects to settle in somewhere in the middle third of the lineup.

But it’s also possible that Mayberry and Arias could develop into tremendous bench weapons, a tandem that offers power, speed, and the ability to cover seven positions.  Good teams have players, like Kelly and Catalanotto, who are capable of starting but who accept their roles and give their team different ways to beat the other guys late.  There are worse fates for Mayberry and Arias.

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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