Electric utility.

When Toronto paid Mark DeRosa to fill out its bench a couple days ago, it reminded me of the 2008 series of features I wrote for TexasRangers.com in which I put together a 25-man roster of my favorite players from the franchise’s history, pegging DeRosa that May as my utility infielder.

On a contract paying a mere $675,000 in 2006, the 31-year-old had backed up rookie Ian Kinsler at second base, backed up flagging veteran Hank Blalock at third base, was the club’s fourth outfielder behind Gary Matthews Jr., Brad Wilkerson, and Kevin Mench, and occasionally spelled shortstop Michael Young and first baseman Mark Teixeira.  Along the way he put up the club’s fourth-highest OPS at .812 (.296/.357/.456) in a career-high number of at-bats and redefined the way he was thought of in the game, parlaying that breakout season into a three-year, $13 million deal with the Cubs.

Thinking about that article made me think about a similar series I ran in 2011, building a hypothetical future 25-man roster made up solely of Rangers prospects.  In it I chose Class A shortstop Leury Garcia as the utility infielder.

If you want to go back and read the feature from 18 months ago, you can, but I can give you the highlights (with a few updates added in):

  • Chone Figgins was a key character in the story.  Before he was a terrible, overpaid veteran, but after he was a virtually anonymous prospect, he was one heck of a weapon for the Angels.
  • Rangers Assistant GM Thad Levine, who was in baseball operations with the Rockies when Figgins was being developed in the Colorado farm system, remembers the undersized infielder as a plus runner with questions about both the bat and the glove who ultimately proved lots of folks wrong.  His value was so minimal that he was shipped in July 2001, at age 23 and in his first AA season, to the Angels for journeyman outfielder Kimera Bartee, who went on to compile 19 hitless plate appearances for the Rockies and never see the big leagues again.

Garcia generated similar questions early on, getting the bat knocked out of his hands and playing reckless defense at the lower levels of the minor leagues.

  • Originally a shortstop, in his fourth season in the minor leagues (2000) the 5’8” Figgins added second base to his repertoire, then third base in 2001, and, after a trade to the Angels, started to see time in the outfield in 2003.

The 5’7” Garcia was strictly a shortstop his first four seasons, adding second base, third base, and the outfield to the mix in 2012 – a move prompted in part by the fact that he was RoughRider teammates with Jurickson Profar, but also because the organization always believed the time would come when Garcia would develop into an extremely versatile defender.

  • It wasn’t until his sixth pro season that the switch-hitting Figgins (then 24) began to hit, and by then his versatility and speed made him a key asset for Los Angeles, after having never appeared on so much as a Top 30 Rockies Prospects list in five seasons with Colorado.

The switch-hitting Garcia (only 21) had his breakout season at the plate in 2012, his fifth season, setting career highs in hitting, reaching base, and slugging for Frisco, and following it up with a solid Dominican Winter League regular season (.285/.335/.375 in 144 at-bats) and a tremendous playoff run (.354/.425/.431 in 65 at-bats) in which he was the leadoff hitter and everyday right fielder for Aguilas down the stretch, leading the league in hitting for much of the playoffs before slumping late.

Ranked by Baseball America as the Rangers’ number 15 prospect after both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and number 11 after the 2011 season, Garcia will probably be in the same range when the publication’s full Texas rankings are released shortly.  (I had him at number 17 in December.)

  • Figgins, who would eventually receive American League MVP votes in four different seasons for the Angels, didn’t earn a fulltime spot at one position until his sixth big league season.  But even before that, he was more than a supersub, stretching the Los Angeles bench with his ability to start games all over the field.
  • As long as he remains a Ranger, that versatility tool is going to be the calling card for Garcia, who was added to the club’s 40-man roster in November.

And if you take a look at that 40-man roster, you might see something interesting.

It includes eight infielders, a fairly standard number.

Five are starters: Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Kinsler, Mitch Moreland, and Lance Berkman.

The sixth and seventh are, barring injury to one of the first five, likely headed to AAA in April: Profar and Mike Olt.

The eighth is Leury Garcia.

There’s not a veteran utility infielder in the group.

Nor is there one among the 17 non-roster players who have been invited to big league camp to date.  The three infielders in that group are Brandon Snyder and Brandon Allen, who play on the corners, and Yangervis Solarte, a second baseman-outfielder with no big league experience and only 10 games at shortstop in six minor league seasons.

Now, chances are that Texas will add at least one journeyman middle infielder on a non-roster deal before camp opens in a little under three weeks.  And it wouldn’t be surprising to see a late March trade for an infielder who’s out of options and not in his team’s plans and whom the Rangers feel would be an upgrade over what’s in camp.  Sort of like when Texas picked up out-of-options righthander Dustin Nippert in March 2008 (from Arizona for minor league reliever Jose Marte) and out-of-options catcher Matt Treanor in March 2010 (from Milwaukee for non-roster infielder Rey Olmedo).  When Texas added Andres Blanco as its utility infielder in 2010, it was on March 27 in a straight purchase from the Cubs.

I can sit here and easily imagine hearing two months from today that minor league righthander Carlos Pimentel was being shipped somewhere for a 27-year-old shortstop without any options left.

But what I’d like to imagine is Garcia outplaying whatever competition is brought in the next couple weeks, alleviating the need for a late-in-camp trade and earning a spot on the Texas bench himself.

He has game-changing speed.  He has plus-plus arm strength.  While minor league errors aren’t indicative of a player’s defensive ability and can be dangerously misleading, the fact that he committed just 15 miscues in 2012 after seasons of 42, 32, and 37 is at least reflective of the scouting observations that he’s managed to quiet his game down in the field.

He plays with the type of energy that the club has talked about seeking out after the way the 2012 season ended.  He would earn the big league minimum.

He reached AA for the first time in 2012, and put up his best season yet despite making what many consider the toughest jump in baseball.

And then he excelled in winter ball, competing against big leaguers and more highly regarded prospects.

I temper my excitement at the idea of Garcia serving as an electric weapon off the Texas bench because we all know how Ron Washington feels about playing young players – Profar got almost no burn last summer even though he came far more heralded, and even though the club’s infield was in seemingly desperate need of some rest – but what if Jon Daniels doesn’t bring in a journeyman with shortstop chops, or perhaps adds one to the mix who doesn’t have any significant big league experience of his own?

Profar isn’t the answer, because with this infield, barring injury the opportunities will be few.  The utility infielder on this team is more likely to run for Berkman in the ninth inning than anything else, and Profar needs to be playing every day, even if that means in Round Rock.

However the shortstop/second base picture shakes out over the next several years, the idea of having a player all that time like Garcia on the bench – a different kind of player from former utility infielders who eventually developed into more (DeRosa, Mark McLemore, Placido Polanco, Mark Loretta, Jeff Keppinger) – makes me wonder if Wash can open his mind right away to the idea of having a utility man who hasn’t paid the kind of dues that Wash paid as a player himself before getting the chance to hold down a similar role.

Or if the play is to go to camp without that obvious veteran, putting Wash in a position where he has six weeks to learn to love the player.

Especially while Andrus and possibly Profar are off competing in Taiwan and Puerto Rico and various points stateside in the World Baseball Classic, which could keep one or both out of camp until as late as March 19th.  That opens up a ton of Cactus League playing time.

Recognize that there’s a reason there’s no Grade A utility infielder will choose to come to Texas.  The Rangers’ infielders simply don’t sit – they’re durable players with a manager who likes writing them into the lineup every single day.

Garcia was apparently part of the package Arizona was discussing with Texas for Justin Upton.

Garcia was reportedly involved in the Rangers’ talks with Milwaukee for Zack Greinke last summer.

If he’s eventually traded – and chances are good, given the Rangers’ present depth at shortstop that includes not only Andrus and Profar but also Luis Sardinas, Hanser Alberto, Luis Marte, and more coming up behind him – it won’t be for someone like Kimera Bartee.

I tend to think of Garcia as a valuable role player on a very good team – realistically, it falls into place a year from now rather than in 2013 – but he might also be viewed as a candidate to start at shortstop or second base by a second-division club out there.

It’s entirely possible that I’m overselling Leury Garcia.  It will be far from the first time I’ve been accused of that.

It’s also possible I’m selling him short.

Forget about the fact that more than half of the $50 million that Chone Figgins will earn as a big league ballplayer will have been paid during his wildly disappointing stint in Seattle.

Remember that he wasn’t thought of all that highly when he was developing with Colorado, a small switch-hitter with dependable speed but not all that much more to dream on.

Remember the result when things clicked for Figgins, and what a huge dimension he added to those really good Angels clubs between 2004 and 2009.

Texas tees it up with Toronto twice in June, for three here and then four there, with two daytime starts in the home series and a lot of turf baseball in the road set.  Mark DeRosa is likely to get a start or two at some point, and I’ll tip my cap.  It’s been four years since he’s faced Texas, and I miss that guy – well, the guy he used to be before wrist injuries and oblique injuries and abdominal injuries and age gummed things up, the guy who left for big money and a big role eight days after Wash arrived.

It stands to reason that even Wash will take the opportunity to get his utility infielder in the lineup in one of those two Jays series, maybe both, and as I sit here counting the sleeps until Pitchers & Catchers, begging for some baseball, I want to believe that there’s at least a chance, however remote, that Garcia, who turned pro at age 16 a year after DeRosa left and Wash arrived, gets a legitimate shot in March to be that guy in June.

I just realized that there may be one (and only one) good thing about the World Baseball Classic.

And whether it happens in 2013 or later, because of the type of player he’s capable of being, I’m pretty sure it won’t take much for Leury Garcia to plant his flag for the next time I rustle up a bunch of written words about my favorite Rangers utility infielder of all time.

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