The Texas Rangers received some unexpected performances in the outfield this past season. Sure, newly-imported Josh Hamilton was supposed to provide thump in the middle of the lineup and did just that, but the folks in Arlington also got the benefit of a career year from thirty-something Marlon Byrd, some late-season feats of strength from minor league bopper Nelson Cruz and a decent rookie debut from David Murphy. Heading into 2009, Hamilton (duh) and Cruz appear to have starting spots locked up. Murphy, Byrd, Brandon Boggs, minor league free agent Andruw Jones and Frank Catalanotto will battle for the remaining at-bats. For now, let’s focus on Byrd and Cruz.
Byrd did his finest big league work in 2008, batting .298/.380/.462 with a .370 wOBA. He walked a career- high 10.2% of the time, while also cutting his K rate to 15.4% (21.3% in ’07). The former Philadelphia farm hand was scrounging for a job as recently as 2006, having posted a feeble .294 wOBA with the Nationals in 228 PA. The 31 year-old has found Texas to be to his liking: he batted .356/.406/.510 at Rangers Ballpark in 2007 (.259/.304/.410 on the road) and continued to enjoy the home cooking in ’08, hitting .299/.398/.512 at home and a mild-but-still-useful .297/.362/.411 in the away grays.
The 6-0, 245 pounder has done an admirable job in picking up the pieces of his shattered Philly prospect days, and has at bare minimum turned himself into a very useful fourth outfielder. CHONE projects Byrd to post a .281/.352/.434 line in 2009, while PECOTA calls for a .271/.335/.426 showing. It’s probably best to view Byrd’s ’08 work as his high-water mark, but you could do worse if you’re in need of a short-term fix in the outfield.
Cruz, meanwhile, has previously been discussed at length on this site. The 28 year-old has long creamed minor league pitching (he’s a career .298/.367/.539 hitter), and he took the Triple-A terrorizing to new levels in 2008. Cruz pummeled to PCL to the tune of .342/.429/.695 in 448 PA. While the batting average was the product of a .363 BABIP, Cruz did show a better eye at the plate (12.8 BB%) and carried that over to the big leagues in a late-season trial (12.9 BB%). In 133 PA for the Rangers, the erstwhile Oakland and Milwaukee prospect batted .330/.421/.609 with 7 HR.
Back in November, I cautioned against getting too excited at the prospect of Cruz receiving everyday playing time:
“Cruz’s AAA line was legitimately impressive, but we’re talking about a 28 year-old whose skill set remains the same as it was entering the year: impressive power, but just decent plate patience and lofty strikeout rates. His small-sample mashing might engender lofty expectations, but it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. Cruz had a .388 average on balls in play, a very high number that will regress. Also, the chances of a guy striking out so often hitting .330 are essentially zero. “
That assessment might sound overly pessimistic, but I think it is important to keep in mind that Cruz is a AAA veteran in his late 20’s, not some youthful hot-shot who precociously dominated the upper levels of the minor leagues. The 6-3, 230 pounder could be useful to the Rangers-he has plenty of raw power-but his control of the zone has generally been just fair and he has whiffed nearly a quarter of the time in AAA. He’s interesting, surely, but his small-sample work with the Rangers might lead to unreasonably high expectations. PECOTA calls for a .260/.335/.484 line, which seems reasonable for a righty power hitter in Arlington.
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