Josh Hamilton, center fielder.

Why should we presume at this point that the plan might just be to have Josh Hamilton be this team’s everyday center fielder when the gates open a week from tomorrow?

Because the club believes (as it did in the 2010 post-season) that its best defensive alignment has Hamilton in center, regardless of what hand the opposing pitcher throws with?

Because Julio Borbon is once again letting a wide-open opportunity get by him?

Because the Rangers, according this morning to Ken Rosenthal (Fox Sports), are exploring trade possibilities for a right-handed bat who can play left field and first base?

Because the club isn’t as concerned with the Hamilton wear and tear issue since chances are at least reasonable that he’ll belong to another team in 2013?

Every one of those reasons is defensible.

Texas has three young center fielders with legitimate chances to help in 2012: Craig Gentry, Borbon, and Leonys Martin, with odds of contributing probably in that order (even if you might rank their upside in reverse).

Gentry has this Nick Johnson/Roy Tarpley aspect to his career that unfortunately has to be factored in.  He had Tommy John surgery in college.  Since joining the Rangers, there have been right knee and hamstring and left knee and right wrist and thigh and concussion and groin injuries that have cost him time.  This spring alone, he’s been slowed at various times by hamstring and wrist issues, as well as a bout of dehydration that forced him out of Sunday’s game against the Angels in the third inning.

Ron Washington expressed his frustration after that game, suggesting that Gentry needs to stay on the field to earn a meaningful role with this team, an obvious observation but one that resonates when it comes from the manager’s mouth late in camp and involves a player needing once again to prove himself.

Borbon has been healthy this spring, but he doesn’t run routes as well as Gentry, doesn’t throw as well, doesn’t run the bases as well, and perhaps most frustrating, has yet to turn the corner on the little things the team needs a player of his profile to do.  Latest example: After an opportunity to get the go-ahead run home from third in the 10th inning last night, Borbon fouled off strike one on an attempted suicide squeeze, fouled off strike two on another attempted squeeze, and then struck out.

Washington went to Borbon in the dugout to share his direct thoughts, and then did the same after the game with reporters.  “The first one, that’s OK,” the manager said.  “The second time, that’s no excuse.  You get a second shot, you’re not supposed to miss it. . . . That’s the job. And if they can’t do that . . . .”

I doubt the published trail-off at the end of the comment had anything to do with column inches or Dictaphone batteries or a pen that ran out of ink.

Borbon wouldn’t need to hit .280 or reach base at a .380 clip to be useful, but he continues to have issues executing, defensively and at the plate and on the bases, and while the job he’s trying to earn is different from Gentry’s (because of handedness), he’s had as wide open an opportunity and, for different reasons, appears to be falling short in earning the Rangers’ trust.

As for Martin, Washington had some encouraging things to say on the Ben and Skin Show this week, but he’s not ready for the big leagues.  He might be sometime in 2012, but it sounds unlikely that it would any time before the middle third of the season, at the earliest.

The local press has noted this week that Texas could move Koji Uehara or Mark Lowe as the season approaches, and this morning Rosenthal tweeted that the idea is to find a utility infielder (who can play shortstop) and that right-handed hitter who can contribute in left and at first base – in other words, what Conor Jackson was given the opportunity to be, before the club released him earlier this week.

The obvious take-away from that note is that, rather than looking for a center fielder to either hold the position down, or present a platoon upgrade over Gentry (right-handed) or Borbon (left-handed), any of which would allow Hamilton to play left field, the club is apparently looking for someone to give Washington an opportunity to rest either David Murphy or Mitch Moreland against lefthanders.

It’s perhaps an indication that the club plans to give Mike Napoli and Michael Young less work at first base, a subject for another time.  But the implication in left field is pretty interesting.  Rather than game-planning opposing lefties by shifting Hamilton from center to left and starting Gentry in center (which is what Texas did in the 2011 playoffs), this looks like an effort to find a way to simply adjust left field based on who’s pitching, and leave Hamilton alone in center field.

And though Hamilton told local reporters yesterday that he’d be open to negotiating a contract extension with the Rangers even once the season is underway, as long as talks were smooth and didn’t present a distraction, there are all kinds of reasons for us and for Hamilton’s representatives to believe that some team out there, if not more than one, will be happy to throw appropriate dollars and crazy years at him this winter, and that as a result, this might be his final season as a Ranger.

If that’s the case, protecting Hamilton physically by limiting his center field assignments isn’t as important, at least as far as long-term planning is concerned.

On the issue of a right-handed corner bat, Washington told the local media this week: “We’re looking to fill whatever weaknesses we can fill.  If we can’t fill it inside, we’ll look outside.  Clubs are always talking.”  That’s revealing.

And Hamilton said this week that he wanted to get more time in center field this week “in case he’s there on Opening Day.”  A reasonable request, perhaps.  But Texas is facing John Danks on Opening Day.  He’s left-handed.  Think Hamilton would have made the Opening Day reference without some indication from the club that he might be in center field a week from tomorrow?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

If you decide to head out to the Fan Sports Lounge across from the AAC from 2:00-3:30 this afternoon for Josh Lewin’s book signing (Ballgame!  A Decade Coving the Texas Rangers from the Best Seat in the House), ask him if the Mets, his new employer, are still enamored with Gentry, as they apparently were earlier this off-season.

Texas doesn’t need to trade Gentry.  Both he and Borbon have one option remaining, so the Rangers aren’t facing potentially irreversible decisions on either of them over the next week, but that’s not the point.

The point is that the Rangers no longer have to decide whether they’re built to win, or building toward something.  This is a winner, with no interest in experimenting any more than necessary, and with its three center field hopefuls failing to seize and lock in an opportunity this month, for different reasons, it’s looking more and more like Josh Hamilton is going to be an everyday center fielder, and that the fourth outfielder won’t be David Murphy, but instead – if trade talks work out – could be someone not yet on the roster.

If that happens, Gentry and Borbon may be fighting for a role best characterized as fifth outfielder, a job that will entail late-inning baserunning and defense and result in what might be Hamilton’s only real work in left field – in the final inning or two, with one of the young center fielders finishing out games that the club possibly went into camp hoping that they’d lay a claim to starting.

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