Rangers Review: Third Base

When Ron Washington was hired, one of the things he said he was looking forward to was working with Hank Blalock at third base.  He felt that Blalock needed help with his fielding, and Washington had helped Eric Chavez win a Gold Glove in Oakland.  Of course, Blalock’s bigger problem was his bat, as he had dropped in productivity every year he had been in the majors.  As it turned out, Blalock ended up only spending a little time at third, as he spent most of the season on the DL, with thoracic outlet syndrome.  When he returned in September, he only DH’d, and although day after day would come a new story about him being ready to field, he ended up putting off fielding until Spring Training.  While Blalock was out, the position was held down by various people, mostly Ramon Vazquez and Travis Metcalf, who was promoted from AA in the immediate aftermath of the Blalock injury.  While you couldn’t say they did a good job, being mostly just above replacement level (which Metcalf arguably was, since he came from AA), they held the position together and did just about what you would expect of them, which was not much.

Hank Blalock summary:  Hit very well this year, for the first time he did not drop his OPS, but unfortunately it was a very shortened season for him (just 58 games).  His 130 OPS+ tells you what he could be, he just needs to put it all together in a full season.  You would project a 25-30 HR season if he could stay healthy and play as expected all year.  At 26, he should be entering his prime, but he really needs to start proving it or he’s going to end up a forgotten man.  Given that he entered the majors at 21, he could have an excuse for struggling for a while, but now after six years in the majors he ought to have gotten over the hump.  If he can’t throw next year, he may end up going to first, which would fill the hole the Rangers have there, but create another one that they’ll have to plug, this time without any decent options.

Ramon Vazquez summary:  Now has seven years in the majors, but you wouldn’t have thought it if you’d seen him playing this year.  Possibly the definition of a replacement player, his only full seasons were 2002 and 2003, and even then the most games he got in was 128.  His highest OPS+ was 93, his career value is now 78.  The only reason he got the opportunity this year was the injury to Blalock.  Ended up playing every infield position, with 71 games at third being his most.  Had average range at third, well below at the other positions.  Will he be back next year?  I’m sure there will be some comments about being a good soldier for the team, filling in well, but frankly the Rangers can get a lot more from some AAA guy than Vazquez showed.

Travis Metcalf summary:  Thrown into the fire, being brought up from AA for a couple of days after Blalock went down, then sent back down, then doing a little yo-yoing back and forth.  Managed to get into 57 games in that time, proved better than Vazquez with the bat (90 OPS+), and slightly below average in the field.  At 24, he wasn’t ready for the big leagues, but acquitted himself decently.  Would probably have been considered a marginal prospect before 2007, but his stock has risen a little this year.  Will he be up in 2008?  All depends on Blalock’s health, and what the team decides to do there.

Others:  Jerry Hairston, Matt Kata and Adam Melhuse all got a little time at third.  Yes, Adam Melhuse, backup (or by this time third string) catcher, trying to play third because his buddy Ron Washington runs the team.  Yes, this is how desperate the Rangers were at times this year.

Minor Leagues:  The Rangers have some good talent at third in the minors, although it is concentrated in the middle minors, with little at the top or bottom.  Desi Relaford played most of the third in AAA.  See the review of second base to see what I think of him.  Adam Fox played third at both AA and AAA, and is probably the leading contender to be the AAA guy in 2008.  With all the shuffling at third, Chris Davis moved up from A to AA, hit 36 homers between the two stops, and proved to be the best prospect at third the Rangers have, if not the best prospect at any position.  Johnny Whittleman made the move from Low-A to High-A, and established himself as a good prospect too.  Jay Heafner spent quite a bit of time at third at Low-A, but was old for the league and didn’t hit much.  Down in Spokane there was nothing to be excited about, Ken Smith struggled there and was also older than anyone else, while Johan Yan didn’t hit anything in either Spokane or Arizona.  Emmanuel Solis had most of the time in Arizona and showed little, although was younger than most.

2008:  Will Blalock be able to throw, and if so will he be back at third?  Rumors abound that he might have to move to first or even DH.  Wherever he plays, his production should be better, as he is climbing into his prime years.  If Blalock has to move off third, then Metcalf has the inside run on the job, simply because he fielded a little better, hit a lot better (90 OPS+ vs 74), and is a lot younger than Vazquez.  Of course, the Rangers may go with the “veteran” Vazquez, or if Blalock can’t play there they may look outside the organization (hopefully for a short-term guy, because Chris Davis will be ready in a year or so).  Third is probably the most unsettled spot right now, and that’s saying a lot for a team that has unsettled spots all over the field.

2009 and beyond:  Chris Davis is the man of the future at third, but when will that future come?  He’ll start 2008 in AA, should be in AAA at some point during the season, but whether he’ll make Arlington in September or whether it will be 2009 I don’t know.  They probably don’t want to push him too fast, he’s only 21, but as anyone will tell you the stars get to the big leagues earlier rather than later.  Could he be pushing Blalock aside in another year?  Possibly, if Blalock’s arm worries continue.  Put it this way:  if Blalock has to move to first because of his arm in 2008, Davis will be pushing the other contenders out of the way by the end of the year.  If Blalock stays at third, Davis will be pushing him over to first during 2009.  Seriously, Davis is as close to a lock for a future major league job as anyone in the Rangers minors could be, except maybe for Eric Hurley.  Start dreaming of watching him in a Rangers uniform for the next decade or so.

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