The Sunday Read: Looking at Rangers’ options at third base if Josh Jung’s injury needs significant time to heal
(AP photo/Tony Gutierrez)
The Friday afternoon news dump from the Texas Rangers arrived in two parts.
First up, contact the City of Surprise to exchange any Cactus League tickets affected by the MLB decision to push all spring games back to at least March 5 because of the MLB lockout.
Visit surprisestadium.com or call 623-222-2222.
And, in a separate email, the Rangers announced that third baseman Josh Jung has been shut down.
Oh … .
One of the team’s top prospects and one of the best in baseball has a labral strain in his left/non-throwing shoulder. Jung will be evaluated again this week and a treatment plan will be finalized, but Opening Day appears to be in doubt.
Unless Opening Day becomes May 1 instead of March 31 because of labor unrest. But even then.
There were no guarantees before the injury that Jung would make the roster out of spring training, but there was little doubt he would be making his MLB debut at some point in 2022.
He was also expected to make his MLB debut last season, but a stress fracture in his left foot and the ensuing surgery knocked that off course.
For now, the picture at third base for the 2022 Rangers is … clearer?
Yes and no.
Plan A: Kiner-Falefa
The main reason Jung wasn’t a shoo-in to be the Opening Day third baseman is that Isiah Kiner-Falefa is still on the roster and needs a place to play after being unseated at shortstop by the signing of Corey Seager.
Kiner-Falefa was moved to shortstop before the 2021 season after winning the American League Gold Glove for 2020 at third base.
It would appear the Rangers have an easy solution if Jung were to miss a significant chunk of time. And it could be a significant amount of time, possibly the entire season if surgery is required.
The labrum stabilizes the shoulder joint. Jurickson Profar’s shoulder problems in 2014 and 2015 turned out to be caused by an old labrum injury that was never identified until he underwent surgery in 2015. The instability in the shoulder led to strains of the teres major in consecutive seasons.
The good news is that Jung’s throwing shoulder is fine. The bad news is that the left shoulder generates a good deal of a right-handed hitter’s power. Playing with it is painful, and it doesn’t get better.
Plan B: Free agent
The Seager signing was announced about seven hours before MLB owners locked out the players. The Rangers have not addressed Kiner-Falefa’s future because they are unable to discuss players on the 40-man roster as a condition of the lockout.
Kiner-Falefa’s name has swirled in trade rumors as a low-cost option for teams needing a shortstop. Those plans could be shot, unless the Rangers are knocked over by a trade offer and decide to fill third base externally.
More than 150 free agents will be seeking employment once the lockout ends.
One of them is Kris Bryant, who can also play left field in future seasons. Japanese star Seiya Suzuki also played third base earlier in his career.
Another is Kyle Seager, who announced his retirement in December. Maybe little brother Corey could talk him out of retirement for a year.
Plan C: Trade
The first name that comes to mind when thinking about a potential Oakland A’s fire sale is first baseman Matt Olson, and with good reason. Third baseman Matt Chapman, the best defensive third baseman in the AL, is another A’s player who could be traded.
Chapman should make around $10 million this season in his second year of salary arbitration. Like Olson, Chapman would come with another year of control.
He didn’t have a good offensive season in 2021, batting only .210 with 202 strikeouts and 27 homers. The power total was down nine from his last full season in 2019.
The glove is excellent, but Kiner-Falefa isn’t a slouch defensively. Chapman, as is the case with Jung, has the advantage over Kiner-Falefa with the bat.
Plan D: Other internal options
If the Rangers traded Kiner-Falefa, they could leave third base to be filled by players already in the system. The Rangers have one clear candidate.
It’s Andy Ibanez, who had a nice rookie season but whose glove was considered below average at third after spring training. He showed well enough there defensively in 2021 and was one of the Rangers’ best hitters over the final two months.
There are several other infielders who could play third, though not every day. Nick Solak and Yonny Hernandez are atop that list.
The minor-leaguers behind Jung aren’t quite ready for the majors.
The closest would be Davis Wendzel, who is ranked as the No. 13 prospect in the system by Rangers Today. He dealt with a broken hamate bone in 2021 and didn’t reach 250 at-bats, but he finished the season at Triple A Round Rock.
Another is Sherten Apostel, who is on the 40-man roster but underwent knee surgery last season while with Round Rock. He made his MLB debut in 2020, but the Rangers had no plans of playing him in the majors last season.
Ezequiel Duran, part of the Joey Gallo trade, is also on the 40-man roster and played well at third in the Arizona Fall League, but has never played above High A.
Second baseman Justin Foscue said on the most recent episode of the Texas Rangers Baseball Podcast (link below) he will play some third base this season, but clearly needs time there before he is considered an option.
There’s no telling, based on the yet-to-be-determine medical plan for Jung, but it’s important to remember that the Rangers are still in the midst of a rebuild.
Yes, they spent $561.2 million Dec. 1 on Seager, Marcus Semien, Jon Gray and Kole Calhoun. Yes, they want to add a few more players from outside the organization once the lockout ends.
However, this team lost 102 games in 2021 and isn’t going to make that up. The Rangers need to see young starting pitchers continue to develop, and that can be hard to watch at times.
The guess here is that Kiner-Falefa will be the Opening Day third baseman. He will be budget-friendly in his second season of salary arbitration, and he’s a steady infielder and a player the Rangers like.
They could do better, sure, and maybe they will still try to do so. The Kiner-Falefa solution just makes the most sense if Jung is forced to miss months rather than weeks.
Jeff Wilson, firstname.lastname@example.org