There exists a firm belief among baseball fans that a player positioned in center field will put his body through greater wear and tear than if that same player were to be positioned in one of the two corner outfield spots. It’s one of the few cliches in baseball that, while maybe difficult to quantify, seems to make common sense.
Typically, the outfielder with the best range is put in center field, and he’s expected to cover more ground than his corner comrades. All that running eventually adds up, and so it seems reasonable to suggest that center is the most difficult to play of the outfield position in terms of damage to one’s body.
There’s also some circumstantial evidence that supports this theory.
Exhibit A: Carlos Beltran playing center field for the Kansas City Royals in 1999.
Exhibit B: Carlos Beltran with the New York Mets in 2009.
Exhibit C: Carlos Beltran with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012.
Given this overwhelming visual representation of the toll playing center field takes on the body, it’s surprising to me that the Texas Rangers, the very definition of a forward thinking franchise, would even consider playing the oft injured Josh Hamilton at this position, let alone entrench him in center to start the season.
From team president Nolan Ryan:
There’s where he wants to be. I think that’s where he’s happiest and where his focus is. So, he’ll be fine there.
In the short term, I suppose I understand it. Playing Hamilton in center field allows the team to platoon David Murphy and Craig Gentry in left, rather than rely on Gentry, who is probably slightly better defensively, as an every day player when he likely shouldn’t be batting against right handed pitching.
However, if the Rangers are genuinely interested in keeping Hamilton past the expiration of his current contract following this season, you’d think that . . .
. . . wait a minute. Could it be that the Rangers’ willingness to let Hamilton play center field is directly proportional to their unwillingness to sign the former American League MVP to a contract extension?
Again, according to team president Nolan Ryan:
I don’t know why people feel that way. It’s what’s best for the ballclub. When you look at our ballclub, we feel like he’s our best option for center field. That’s always subject to change, but as a whole we’re a better ball club with him in center.
It’s not outrageous to suggest that this team as a whole would also be a better ball club without being locked into a long term contract with Hamilton. That’s not to say that the Rangers can’t afford to keep Hamilton in their stable, but rather that the club might be better off setting him free after this season.
Put simply, Hamilton is fragile. Since 2007, he’s had two hernia surgeries, five trips to the 15 day Disabled List and has been listed as day to day a whopping 23 times. That’s an average of one trip to the DL and almost five times a season in which Hamilton is listed as day to day. Next month, he’ll turn 31 years old, and we should be able to quite rightly anticipate a further physical decline.
With new cable money getting set to pour in, the Rangers could afford to keep Hamilton, but it’s not as though he’s the only player on the team looking to get paid. Mike Napoli, Mike Adams, Colby Lewis, Yorvit Torrealba and Mark Lowe are all free agents after this coming season. Meanwhile, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz are the biggest names among free agent eligibles after 2013. That’s a lot of talent that will take a lot of money to retain.
I would hate to imagine a scenario under which the team’s commitment to Hamilton keeps them from locking up Kinsler or Cruz. And I think the Rangers front office is far too smart to make such an investment, just as I think they would be far too smart to allow Hamilton to risk further physical wear and tear in center field if they were serious about resigning him at season’s end.