T.R.’s Memoirs: Aside from starting pitching, this position has frequently flummoxed the Texas Rangers
One of the most touted prospects in Rangers history was Ruben Mateo, who was supposed to fix their woes in center field in 2000 (The Associated Press/Pat Sullivan).
There have been plenty of names and lots of hope, but no one who has emerged a a long-term solution.
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T.R. Sullivan covered the Texas Rangers over 32 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.com and is sharing his “memoirs” with this newsletter.
In this installment, Sullivan reviews 50 years of trials and tribulations surrounding the Rangers and their search for a center fielder. It may have been the toughest position for the Rangers to field during their club history.
The Rangers optioned outfielder Leody Taveras, once their No. 1 prospect, to the minor leagues last week after he went 0-for-8 in four Cactus League games.
Taveras was the Opening Day center fielder last season, but didn’t even last the first month. He was demoted after playing in 15 games and going 4-for-46 at the plate.
Taveras is considered a potentially elite center fielder at a premium defensive position. He was recalled Aug. 24 and given another shot in center. This time he hit .188 in 34 games.
Bubba Thompson, the Rangers’ No. 1 pick in 2017, was also sent down last week even though he was 4-for-9 with two home runs in seven games. Thompson is also coming off a strong season in Double A Frisco — .274/.325/.483 in 104 games — but struck out 121 times in 429 at-bats.
The Rangers feel he could use more offensive development at Triple A Round Rock along with Taveras. That leaves Adolis Garcia, a surprising All-Star last year, in center even though he is considered more of an elite right fielder.
Unless Eli White can force his way into center.
White is an excellent athlete with terrific speed and the ability to play elite defense in center. He seemed on the verge of establishing himself in the big leagues in the spring of 2020 until the pandemic shutdown knocked him off kilter. He is a .179 hitter in 83 big-league games over the past two years.
So, there you have it.
The Rangers have three terrific young athletes to play center, but they aren’t going to play there regularly until they show they can at least contribute something offensively.
Which brings up the obvious question …
Haven’t the Rangers been through this before?
The answer is a resounding yes. Many, many times.
Too many times over and over again going back to the beginning of the franchise.
The Rangers’ pitching issues are certainly well documented. Beyond that, no other position has flummoxed and bedeviled the Rangers so much as center field through the years.
No doubt there have been times they have done it right. You don’t win seven division titles and two American League pennants without a strong option in center field. But even in those situations, it didn’t last a long time.
Sooner rather than later, the Rangers ended up scratching their heads and trying to figure out what to do in center field.
It’s been a long 50 years at the position, and it began right from the first day when the Rangers arrived in Arlington.
First great Rangers prospect
The Rangers’ first center fielder was Joe Lovitto. He made his major-league debut on Opening Day in 1972. He was 21 and had been the second overall pick in the 1969 January phase of the MLB Draft. Lovitto signed with the Rangers rather than taking a four-year scholarship to Notre Dame.
It is fair to say he was the first top prospect in Texas Rangers history.
Yeah, he was a great athlete, the first of many the Rangers ran out there in center field. He could run, throw, go get the ball … he just couldn’t hit it or stay healthy. He was with the Rangers for four years and hit .216 with a .271 slugging percentage.
“Joe Lovitto was an outfielder with great potential, he could have been a great player, but he was also hurt all the time,” Rangers manager Billy Martin said in his autobiography No. 1. “Injuries plagued him, and it was a shame.”
Lovitto started in center on Opening Day in 1974, the year the Rangers had their first winning season and Martin was Manager of the Year. But he played in only 73 games because of injuries and the Rangers had to use Cesar Tovar, 33, a terrific utility player but hardly a front-line center fielder.
That winter, the Rangers traded for Willie Davis from the Expos. Davis could play center. He was an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner, and had helped the Dodgers to two World Series titles in 1963 and ’65. But in 1975 he was 35 years old and headed to toward the end of his career.
The Rangers gave up two young players for him, infielder Pete Mackanin and pitcher Don Stanhouse. But Martin didn’t want him, having been told Davis was over the hill, didn’t want to work and was a bad influence in the clubhouse.
He lasted until June 4, when he was traded to the Cardinals. Davis had clashed with Martin and staged a one-batter sit-down in center field on May 26. He was upset that Rangers pitcher Steve Hargan failed to retaliate after Davis had been knocked down by Red Sox pitcher Rick Wise.
The final straw was when Davis refused to join the Rangers on an eight-game road trip because the club refused to give him another advance on his salary.
Trading Jenkins for a Gold Glove
The Rangers made a blockbuster trade after the 1975 season for a center fielder, and more. They traded Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins to the Red Sox for outfielder Juan Beniquez and pitchers Steve Farr and Craig Skok.
Jenkins won 25 games for the Rangers in 1974 — the greatest season ever by a Rangers pitcher — but slipped to 17-18 with a 3.93 ERA in 1975. The Red Sox wanted him bad. Back in the 1970’s, the Red Sox had a similar reputation as to what the Rangers have now … a lot of hitting but suspect pitching. The Red Sox had won the pennant in 1975 but lost to the Reds in a classic World Series.
Jenkins was supposed to be the difference, a seven-time 20-game winner who could head up their rotation. In turn, the Red Sox gave up two pitching prospects and Beniquez.
The Rangers wanted the two young pitchers. They were also ready to flip Beniquez to the Giants for veteran pitcher Jim Barr, but the trade fell through. Beniquez stayed with the Rangers for three years as their center fielder.
Beniquez was adequate. During those three years, he hit .261/.314/.362 and stole 53 bases. He was caught 36 times. In 1977, he won a Gold Glove, the first ever by a Rangers outfielder and only one of three in club history.
After the 1978 season, the Rangers traded Beniquez to the Yankees and went with Al Oliver as their 1979 Opening Day center fielder. Oliver was one of the best pure hitters in Rangers history but was a below-average center fielder.
The Rangers addressed the issue by trading for Mickey Rivers from the Yankees. Rivers had been a dynamic leadoff hitter and center fielder when the Yankees won three pennants and two World Series in 1976-78. Rivers held down the position for a few years before transitioning into a part-time role.
The Rangers’ center fielder should have been Billy Simpson, but it was not. Simpson was the taken by the Rangers with the 12th overall pick in the 1976 MLB Draft out of Lakewood High in California. He was 6-foot-2, could run and throw. But in 189 games over three-plus seasons, Simpson hit .177 and never got out of A ball. After his short career was over, Simpson got involved in a Southern California drug ring and received a 10-year sentence for selling cocaine.
Five Hall of Famers — Alan Trammell, Rickey Henderson, Jack Morris, Ozzie Smith and Wade Boggs — were all taken after Simpson. Right-hander Steve Finch, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 1976, also never made it to the big leagues.
Two extremely painful misses
George Wright made it. He was the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 1977 out of Oklahoma City Capitol Hill High and made his major-league debut in center on Opening Day in 1982 after Rivers was injured in spring training. The Rangers thought they had something special, and for a few years they did.
Wright was a switch-hitter with power and speed that allowed him to play shallow in center field. After a strong rookie season in 1982, Wright played 162 games for the Rangers the next season and hit .276 with 18 home runs, 80 RBIs and a .424 slugging percentage.
The following year, Wright injured his left shoulder in a collision with an outfield wall. He suffered a left knee injury that season and also wasn’t happy when manager Doug Rader moved him to right field to take advantage of his powerful throwing arm. Wright was never the same player again, hitting .195 over the next two seasons before his big-league career came to an end.
After Wright was traded to the Expos in 1986, manager Bobby Valentine called him, “My biggest disappointment since I’ve been a manager or coach.”
Valentine said that well before Oddibe McDowell would join that conversation.
McDowell was the 12th overall pick by the Rangers in the 1984 MLB Draft, and he showed up with quite the amateur resume. McDowell was a center fielder at Arizona State and winner of the 1984 Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur player. He had also played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team.
McDowell was drafted at a time when future Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines were at the height of their careers. Henderson was with the Athletics, Raines was in Montreal, and both were electrifying, dynamic leadoff hitters.
McDowell was viewed as the same, and, like Wright, got off to a good start. The Rangers called him up May 19, 1985, less than a year after being drafted, and the Rangers liked what they saw. On July 23, he became the first Rangers player to hit for the cycle. The Rangers lost 99 games that season, but McDowell was the first of several outstanding young players who would arrive in Arlington over the next few years.
In 1986, with Valentine leading the way, the Rangers went 87-75 and McDowell was a big part of it. Hitting in the leadoff spot, McDowell hit .266 with a .341 on-base percentage, 105 runs scored, 18 home runs and 33 stolen bases.
McDowell started the 1987 by hitting the third pitch he saw for a home run off Orioles pitcher Mike Boddicker in Baltimore. But the Rangers lost that game and 10 of their first 11.
Even more bizarre was the Welcome Home luncheon held April 22.
McDowell sliced the middle finger on his right hand with a knife while buttering his role. He needed eight stitches to close the wound and was limited to pinch-running for a couple of weeks. That was followed by more injuries and two disappointing seasons. After 1988, McDowell was one of three players traded to the Indians for Julio Franco.
Veterans in the ‘90s
The Rangers went 83-79 with Cecil Espy in center in 1989. Espy was fast — he stole 45 bases — but walked just 38 times and had a .313 on-base percentage. That was too low for a leadoff hitter.
The Rangers went big and signed Gary Pettis to a three-year, $2.7 million deal. Pettis had been a standout defensive center fielder for the Angels and Tigers, winning four Gold Gloves, so there was no doubting that part of his game.
The mistake the Rangers made was they thought Pettis could be their leadoff hitter as well. Pettis regularly stole 40-50 bases a year, and was coming off a career high .375 on-base percentage for the Tigers in 1989. But he just wasn’t a leadoff hitter for the Rangers and he never really was happy in Texas.
Pettis and Valentine also didn’t hit it off either. After two lackluster years, Pettis was released at the end of spring training in 1992.
The time had come for Juan Gonzalez to be the Rangers center fielder.
Why not? Gonzalez had played center field in the minors, and the Rangers had visions of another Dale Murphy roaming out there. Murphy had won five Gold Gloves as a power-hitting center fielder for the Braves.
Turns out, Gonzalez was as good or better than Murphy offensively, but not in center. After the 1992 season, Gonzalez moved to the corners and stayed there the rest of his career.
He was replaced by David Hulse, a slap-hitting speed burner who could run like the wind and played with almost naive reckless abandon. Unfortunately, his speed did not translate into great defense.
It was rookie outfielder Rusty Greer who contributed one of the iconic defensive moments in club history while playing center field in 1994. Greer saved Kenny Rogers’ perfect game July 28 with a ninth-inning diving catch against the Angels.
That was in the first year of the Ballpark in Arlington. Then, Doug Melvin took over as general manager, took one look at the Ballpark and decided a premium defensive center fielder was a must.
One of his first moves as the new GM was acquiring Otis Nixon from the Red Sox in exchange for designated hitter Jose Canseco. Nixon, 36, was in Texas just one year, but his 50 stolen bases are the third most in club history.
After Nixon left as a free agent, Melvin signed Daryl Hamilton for 1996. Hamilton didn’t have great speed or power, and he never won a Gold Glove for his defense. But he hit .293 in the leadoff spot, did not commit an error in the field and provided veteran leadership for the first division championship team in club history.
The Rangers went with defensive whiz Damon Buford in ’97, but he hit just .224. That prompted Melvin to make an aggressive trade, swapping power-hitting third baseman Dean Palmer for center fielder Tom Goodwin on July 25. Goodwin could flat out run. He might have been the fastest Rangers player in club history, and he helped the Rangers win two division titles in 1998-99 with speed that played well both offensively and defensively.
Goodwin left as a free agent after the 1999 season, and the Rangers made no effort to sign him. There was no need. A new era was about to begin in Arlington.
Best prospect of them all
Ruben Mateo was going to be the Rangers’ center fielder in 2000 and many years after that.
The Rangers have had many highly touted prospects through the years. Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Jurickson Profar, Joey Gallo, but Mateo was right up there with all of them. In 1999, he was voted the best all-around player in Triple A after hitting .336 at Oklahoma City. At one point there was talk of a Ruben Mateo for Curt Schilling trade.
Mateo was 22 and got off to a strong start for the Rangers. Through the end of May, he was hitting .296 with seven home runs and 19 RBIs in 51 games.
Then on June 2, in a game against Arizona, Mateo tried to beat out a seventh-inning ground ball, lunged for the bag and hit it wrong. He crumpled to the ground with a broken femur in his right leg and underwent surgery that night.
“There are sounds and sounds and other sounds,” manager Johnny Oates said after the game. “I’ve said a couple of prayers since that inning. He was in quite a bit of pain. You could hear it loud and it wasn’t the foot hitting the bag or the ball hitting the glove. At first, I thought it was a broken ankle. I just know I heard a pop.”
He was out for the season and was never the same player again. His big-league career ended before he was 27.
After that, center field became a revolving door for the Rangers over a seven-year period. They had no less than 26 players start in center field from 2001-07, none of them named Ruben Mateo. He moved to right field in 2001 and then was traded to the Reds.
Who did the Rangers use over those seven years?
Well-known veterans like Chad Curtis, Gabe Kapler, Carl Everett, Doug Glanville, Todd Hollandsworth, Kenny Lofton, Eric Young Sr.
Guys discarded by others: Ricky Ledee, Calvin Murray, Ruben Rivera, Bo Porter.
Corner outfielders out of position in center: Kevin Mench, David Dellucci, Ryan Ludwick, David Murphy, Richard Hidalgo.
Promising prospects: Laynce Nix, Ramon Nivar.
Guys I don’t even remember: Freddy Guzman, Adrian Brown, Jason Conti.
The best was Gary Matthews Jr.
The Rangers were his seventh organization, and he was signed to a minor-league contract at the end of the spring training in 2004 after being released by the Braves.
Matthews had a couple of decent years for the Rangers, then suddenly became an All-Star in 2006, almost out of the blue. Matthews hit .313 that year with 19 home runs and 79 RBIs while making that famous catch in deep center July 1 off the bat of Houston’s Mike Lamb. Then he left as a free agent and signed with the Angels for five years and $50 million.
Before he played one game with the Angels, Matthews was identified as a player who had purchased performance-enhancing drugs. He denied the accusations but was never the same player again as he was in 2006.
The Rangers finally solved their center-field issues by acquiring Josh Hamilton from the Reds on Dec. 21, 2007. Hamilton is the best center fielder in Rangers history except …
The Rangers thought it would be better for everybody if Hamilton be used in the corners, either left or right field. Save wear-and-tear on the body, and all that.
What they were looking for was what they were hoping to get from so many others: a guy who could hit leadoff, give them a dynamic presence at the top of the lineup and play sparkling Gold Glove defense.
Someone like Julio Borbon. Leonys Martin. Delino DeShields.
They were the Rangers’ starting center fielder in a combined nine of their past 12 Opening Days. All had the prerequisite speed and athleticism. They all had everything you look for in a center fielder. Martin’s throwing arm may be the best ever by a Rangers outfielder for both the combination of strength and accuracy.
But they weren’t quite good enough, and in the cases of Borbon, Martin and DeShields, they just weren’t good enough to earn a long-term commitment from the Rangers.
Sometimes you think the Rangers were asking too much from Borbon, Martin or DeShields, or were just too impatient. It didn’t come as quick as the Rangers hoped. Injuries played a part of it, but so, too, it seemed like a lack of faith. They didn’t hit with enough power, or didn’t walk enough.
So at some point the Rangers decided to try something new. It was on to the next guy.
Center field continues to flummox the Rangers.