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Outfield Help Shouldn’t Be Priority for Texas

Both the New York Post’s Joel Sherman and ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick tweeted yesterday that they believe the Texas Rangers are the most — or, at least, one of the most — active teams in pursuit of the excellent, and likely available, Carlos Beltran.

In a vacuum, acquiring Beltran makes total sense. Despite concerns about his knee (not something to be overlooked) and the possible limits it’s placed on his defensive range (which appears to have declined from “excellent in center” to merely “good enough for right”), Beltran remains an offensive force. In fact, so far as the numbers indicate, Beltran is having the best offensive season of his career, his line of .289/.389/.514 (.309 BABIP) good for a 151 wRC+ in this season’s deflated run environment.

In the context of the Rangers, however, the pursuit of Beltran is a bit puzzling. If we assume that the optimal use of deadline trading is to improve a team’s present talent as much as possible (something that’s accomplished most easily by addressing weaknesses) then the Rangers stand little to gain by adding Beltran — or any outfield-type, really. Last year’s MVP Josh Hamilton is healthy again and manning left field. After dealing with his own injuries, Nelson Cruz is back, too, and ensconced in right. Michael Young, meanwhile, has basically locked down the everyday DH role, hitting .333/.369/.494 (.361 BABIP) with a 135 wRC+.

This, of course, leaves center field.

At first blush, the lack of marquee names in center for Texas might give one the impression that Beltran would make quite a reasonable addition to the Texas outfield. Either Hamilton could play the eight — something he’s done 18 times this season, anyway — with Beltran taking a corner, or, alternatively, Beltran could play a below-average center, but more than adequately pick up the slack on the offensive end.

The thing is, far from being a weakness, the Ranger center field has literally been among the best in baseball this season.

Allow this picture to replace a thousand words:

That’s a list of this season’s top-10 players (minimum 97 plate appearances) by WAR/650 (i.e. WAR per 650 plate appearances). The attentive reader will note that the Rangers’ center-field tandem of Endy Chavez and Craig Gentry sandwiches Shane Victorino, the only other center fielder on the list. With the exception of a few appearances by Josh Hamilton, Chavez and Gentry have started every game in center since May 28th, since which time Texas has gone 32-19 (after going 26-25 up to that point). It goes without saying that the duo hasn’t been exclusively responsible for the Rangers’ surge — but they’ve played an integral part it in, surely.

Leaving Gentry aside for a moment, let’s consider the strong side of the platoon in Chavez. Had you asked me even yesterday about him, I would’ve told you the three main things I know about him, in no particular order:

1. Made fantastic (and momentarily game-saving) catch in the 2006 NLCS.

2. Signed with the Mariners ahead of the 2009 season, largely on the strength of his defense.

3. Tore ACL (by colliding with Yuniesky Betancourt) in June of that same year, missed rest of season.

But that characterization sells short Chavez’s on-field production. For example, regard the following: Chavez’s last four seasons in the major leagues (before his season-ending ACL tear in 2009):

For the thousand-plus plate appearances he compiled between 2006 and ’09 (and the corresponding innings afield), Chavez was worth 5.9 Wins Above Replacement — or, an All-Star-ish 3.7 WAR for every 650 plate apperances. Given that context, Chavez’s production in 2011 (1.9 WAR in 142 PA) doesn’t seem particularly strange. Is it likely that he’s the fifth-best position player in baseball? No. Is it likely that’s he’s a league-average, or better, center fielder? Yes, very much so.

The righty-batting Gentry is, of course, another matter. His major-league resume includes only 151 plate appearances, including the 97 from this year. Nor were the first 54 pleasant to look at: .180/.222/.200, 3 BB, 16 K. That said, his major-league plate-discipline numbers this season (8.2% BB, 18.6% K) really do look like an exact translation of those from his 101 Triple-A plate apperances (10.9% BB, 14.9% K). Furthermore, like Chavez, Gentry is a player who will likely derive quite a bit of his value from defense. Per TotalZone, he was was worth +26 runs in center over 455 minor-league games there through 2009 — or, roughly +8 runs per season. Even if he hits the .250/.311/.333 that ZiPS expects from him, Gentry is likely above average in a platoon, as well.

Caveats abound so far as these points regarding Chavez and Gentry are concerned. Their BABIPs are probably both unsustainably high; the defensive numbers are derived from small samples; the Ranger front office, buoyed by means, intelligence, and a vested interest, likely knows what it’s doing. But Chavez and Gentry don’t have to continue being the best center field in baseball to remain an excellent center field, the sort of center field with which a team could win a championship. Were he added to the team, Carlos Beltran would certainly be an asset, but if the Texas Rangers are looking to use their resources most efficiently, looking elsewhere (like the front-end of the rotation, ideally) would likely prepare them best for their postseason run.