In Their Footsteps: The designated hitter

The most prolific week a Rangers general manager has ever had was 20 years ago, at the 1988 Winter Meetings in Atlanta.  At those Meetings, Texas acquired the man who settles in as the designated hitter on my all-time Rangers team.  

One day, the final week of July 2007 may be viewed as equally momentous from a player acquisition standpoint.  Among the players the Rangers picked up is a slugger who could become the club’s first steady DH in a decade.

And Texas acquired both from the same team.

Coming off the club’s second consecutive sixth-place finish in the AL West in 1988, a gaudy 33.5 games behind Oakland in the standings, Tom Grieve took a look at his offense and knew he needed to infuse a lineup headed by young sluggers Ruben Sierra (.254) and Pete Incaviglia (.249) with guys who would hit for average and give the club a better shot at sustained offense.  Following the season Grieve talked with the Yankees about a 10-player deal involving Don Mattingly, with Boston about Wade Boggs, and with San Diego about John Kruk.  

Ultimately, on December 5, after those other talks had died, Grieve agreed to trade six players, including Mitch Williams, to the Cubs for 24-year-old hitter Rafael Palmeiro and two pitchers.  The following day (and a day before signing Nolan Ryan), Grieve sent Pete O’Brien, Oddibe McDowell, and Jerry Browne to Cleveland for star hitter Julio Franco, who was thought at the time to be 27 years old (but in truth was apparently 30).

In six Indians seasons (after breaking into the big leagues with Philadelphia), Franco had been a .295 hitter, a burner with almost as many career triples (31) as home runs (45).  A shortstop who had slid over to second base in his final year with Cleveland, Franco had hit .300 in each of the three seasons leading up to the trade.  He had become an elite hitter but had never been to an All-Star Game.

That would change.  Right away.

In each of Franco’s first three seasons with Texas, he made the All-Star team as a second baseman.  In that span he hit .318 (the second-best career mark as a Ranger at the time, next to Al Oliver’s .319), culminating with a batting title in 1991, when he hit .341, a mark that remains the best in franchise history.  

A knee injury limited Franco to 35 games in his fourth Rangers season, but he came back with a solid season in 1993, hitting .289/.360/.438 as the club’s designated hitter.  Texas had to move Jose Canseco in from right field to DH for the 1994 season, however, and the club let Franco, who by then was actually 35 years old, move on.  

Stunningly, of course, he wouldn’t retire for another 14 years, finishing a 23-year career with a lifetime .298 batting average.  The 173rd and final home run he would hit came at age 48, off of Randy Johnson.

Franco hit good pitching, used all fields, was difficult to strike out, and squared up and hit the ball harder and with more consistency than any hitter that this or too many other franchises have ever had.  There’s never been a tougher out to wear the Rangers uniform.

One of the toughest outs in the Rangers system in recent years has been catcher Max Ramirez, who like Franco was picked up by the Indians from a National League East team before Texas stole him from Cleveland.

On July 27, 2007, Jon Daniels shipped Kenny Lofton to Cleveland for his third tour with the Indians, getting Ramirez in return.  (A year earlier, Atlanta traded Ramirez to Cleveland for closer Bob Wickman just before the trade deadline.)  Four days after the Lofton deal, Texas sent Eric Gagné to Boston for Kason Gabbard, David Murphy, and Engel Beltre, and Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay to Atlanta for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, and Beau Jones.

The trades with the Red Sox and Braves made more headlines, then and now, but the deal that brought Ramirez to Texas could end up having just as much impact.  

The 23-year-old hit .307/.420/.500 for High A Bakersfield upon his arrival in the Rangers system last summer, lifting his career line over five seasons to .304/.400/.489.  That’s impressive production for any hitter, let alone a catcher.  The Venezuelan has obliterated those numbers in 2008.

Ramirez is hitting .360/.451/.650 for AA Frisco, leading the Texas League in reaching base and slugging and sitting at second in hitting.  His 15 home runs (one short of his 2007 total) lead the league.  There’s not a key offensive category that doesn’t find him in the league’s top 10.  

While Gerald Laird, Saltalamacchia, and Taylor Teagarden are ahead of Ramirez on the catching depth chart, at some point Ramirez is going to force his way into the picture with his bat.  In recent weeks he has seen some time at first base for the RoughRiders.  It’s not out of the question that the organization made that move with the thought in mind that Ramirez, with just two months of AA experience, might be ready to help offensively at the big league level in 2008.

A move from behind the plate, while seemingly inevitable if Ramirez is going to remain a Ranger, doesn’t mean he’ll be any less valuable an asset.  Dale Murphy, Craig Biggio, Carlos Delgado, Justin Morneau, Mike Sweeney, and B.J. Surhoff did all right for themselves after ditching the shin guards.

The thought that Ramirez, who stands at under six feet in height, could give Texas a long-term answer at first base is similarly questionable since Chris Davis is crushing at AAA and the franchise just spent its first-round pick in this year’s draft on University of South Carolina first baseman Justin Smoak, whose advanced glovework and left-handedness make his path pretty clear.

There was once a stigma associated with putting a young player at designated hitter, but there shouldn’t be.  If Ramirez can settle in as a player who produces in the middle of the lineup, playing first base or catcher once or twice a week and serving as the DH every other day, he could do a lot of damage in a Rangers uniform.  

I’m not about to suggest that Ramirez is about to kick off a 23-year career in the Major Leagues.  But I don’t think it’s out of the question that, like Franco, he could give Texas a multi-year run as a .300 hitter with an .800 OPS — and end up as one of the great trade acquisitions in Rangers history.  

 

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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