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Position Battles: Rangers’ OF, Pt. 2: Jones and Murphy

Earlier today, we reflected upon the impressive performances turned in by Marlon Byrd and Nelson Cruz in 2008. While both could provide some value in 2009, it probably wouldn’t be wise to expect repeat performances. Now, let’s turn our attention to a guy who has nowhere to go but up (Andruw Jones) and a sophomore fighting to stay in the lineup (David Murphy).

It’s difficult to avert one’s eyes away from Jones’ abrupt, dramatic fall from grace; his 2008 season was the baseball equivalent of a car wreck. Andruw seemed well-positioned to rebound from a down 2007 season:

2006: .375 wOBA, 12.7 BB%, 22.5 K%, .269 ISO, .270 BABIP
2007: .314 wOBA, 10.9 BB%, 24.1 K%, .191 ISO, .248 BABIP

After a monster 2006 campaign, Jones saw his wOBA fall over 60 points. However, there were some reasons to remain sanguine about the long-time Brave. While his power was down in 2007, a .190+ ISO is still nothing to sneeze at, and his control of the strike zone remained largely unchanged. With an uptick in his BABIP, Jones figured to rebound from his .222/.311/.413 showing.

Suffice it to say, that didn’t occur. Signed to a two-year, $36.2 million by the Dodgers, Jones showed up to spring training looking a good 20 to 30 pounds overweight. Perhaps not coincidentally, he battled knee problems and posted a line that made Chin-Lung Hu feel better about himself: in 238 PA, Jones “hit” .158/.256/.249, striking out 36.4% of the time. Despite that minimal playing time, Jones manged to compile -17.9 batting runs.

Jones’ career cliff dive is flabbergasting. 32 in April, the Netherlands Antilles native appeared to possess the sort of broad skill set that would age well: he had patience and power at the plate, but he supplemented that with athleticism that allowed him to cover large swaths of territory in center field- check out his UZR/150 totals on his player page. Projecting where Jones goes from here is a fool’s errand, but it would be prudent not to completely write him off just yet.

As unbelievably macabre as his ’08 work was (the Dodgers gave him a unique severance package to go far, far away, and Jones is in Rangers camp on a $500K minor league deal), Jones is not that far removed from being a valuable commodity. His defense in center was still above-average even with all the extra girth, and Josh Hamilton (-16.4 UZR/150 in CF) is best off in an outfield corner. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities than Andruw works his way onto the 25-man roster.

While Jones is looking to pick up the charred remains of his career, Murphy is still in the early stages of his big league stint. The 27 year-old lefty was acquired from the Red Sox (along with toolsy outfield prospect Engel Beltre and low-upside southpaw Kason Gabbard) for Eric Gagne (speaking of charred careers..) in a July 2007 swap. Blocked in Boston, Murphy saw a good deal of work for the Rangers last season, batting .275/.321/.465 in 454 PA.

The former first-rounder from Baylor was often disappointing in the power department in the Sox farm system (the 6-4, 205 pounder slugged just .407 during his minor league career), so the .190 ISO with Texas was surprising. Still, there does not appear to be a whole lot of upside here: Murphy is in that age range where what you see is generally what you get. The overall package of mild plate discipline (career 7.2 BB%), solid contact (17.3 K%) and average power make Murphy appear as more of a good fourth outfielder than a guy you want patrolling an outfield corner on a day-in, day-out basis.

Brandon Boggs and Frank Catalanotto bear passing mention, though neither projects to soak up many AB’s in 2009. Boggs, a switch-hitting 26 year-old, has a history of working the count and striking out in excess of 30% of his trips to the plate in the minors. Both of those trends continued with the Rangers last season (13.5 BB%, 32.9 K%, .324 wOBA in 334 PA). A good athlete who can draw a walk, Boggs could be a decent extra outfielder, but the contact issues preclude hopes for more than that. Catalanotto will make $4 million in 2009, though his role and utility to the club are not readily apparent. The soon-to-be 35 year-old is the 5th outfielder and backup first baseman. If Jones makes the club, Catalanotto might get the boot.