Commentary

Rangers' Borbon taking on challenge

Second-year player working hard to learn nuances of center field, leadoff positions

Updated: March 17, 2010, 9:55 AM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Texas Rangers center fielder Julio Borbon was a little high on a throw to a cutoff man in a recent spring training game and jogged back into the dugout clearly frustrated with himself.

The reaction pleased outfield coach Gary Pettis.

"Now he knows he can make the throws he wants to," Pettis said. "And when he doesn't do it, it bothers him. That's a guy that knows he can be better."

And it's a 24-year-old guy who has made steady improvement as a defender. He has worked tirelessly in winter ball and with Pettis this offseason to be fully prepared to begin 2010 as the Rangers' starting center fielder.

[+] EnlargeJulio Borbon
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallJulio Borbon has proved he can be an offensive threat, batting .312 with 20 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in just 157 at-bats last season. But that's not enough. "I want to be able to go out there and take control of the defensive side of it," he said.
Borbon's drive and determination have caught the eye of some of his teammates. David Murphy, a staunch supporter, sounded like a scout as he talked about Borbon's upside because of his speed and ability as a leadoff hitter. Those qualities are a big reason Borbon was drafted 35th, out of the University of Tennessee, and was given a spot on the Rangers' 40-man roster as part of his four-year contract.

"The knock everybody has on him is his defense and arm strength," Murphy said. "I don't think that's fair. I see the guy every day, and I throw with him every day. He definitely needs to work on his throwing, but he's a good defensive player. And he has the arm strength, it's just a matter of getting the consistency and he's working very hard at it and has definitely improved."

Borbon is confident he belongs in the major leagues, but he's grounded enough to acknowledge his weaknesses and work hard to improve them.

"I want to get everything together defensively," Borbon said. "I know I'm going to be able to hit, but I want to be able to go out there and take control of the defensive side of it because that's going to be a big thing for us a team. I'm feeling good about things in terms of seeing my work pay off."

Borbon, who hit .312 in 46 games with the Rangers in 2009, spent the offseason focusing on areas he and the club felt could see solid improvement with plenty of practice. In addition to his throwing mechanics, he worked on taking better routes to the ball, stealing more bases off left-handed pitchers and finding the ball off the bat quicker to aid his reaction time.

"He's had poor throwing mechanics for such a long time that it takes awhile to work them out," Pettis said. "I told him before that some days it's going to be excellent and other days it might not be up to par. He has to feel the rhythm and not hurry up and throw the ball."

Murphy says that Borbon will have days when the ball comes out with all four seams and he shows excellent range.

"But sometimes he sinks the ball or cuts it, and that hurts his ability to make good throws from the outfield," Murphy said. "He's working hard on it, and I've seen it get better this spring."

Borbon has shown his range, racing to balls all over the field. He took extra time in batting practice in winter ball to shag fly balls so he could see how the ball jumped off the bat. He was quick to track down a long fly ball in Monday's spring training game, diving toward the wall to make a catch and take away two runs. He received a huge ovation from the crowd and plenty of high fives from his teammates.

"As long as he watches the ball from the pitcher's hands to the hitting zone, I have no doubt he's going to see it," Pettis said. "If you look directly into the hitting zone, you might see it, but you'll break late. I don't think it's a problem unless he stands behind the pitcher."

[+] EnlargeJulio Borbon
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesBorbon has been working hard at making opposing pitchers work for everything as he assumes the role of leadoff hitter. "I have to stick with that plan. Once I'm on the basepaths, I don't have any doubt I can get around the bases and score runs," he said.

As the center fielder, Borbon has to help get the rest of the outfielders positioned for each hitter. He has learned the value of scouting reports and tendencies, but also factors in field and wind conditions and how a certain pitcher is throwing that day.

"I'm getting to learn that now. So during the season, I'll already have that advantage and know what they're trying to do," Borbon said. "You have to have good eyes out there and make sure guys are positioned right. A small mistake on that can lead to a double or triple, so it's important for guys to be where they need to be."

Borbon takes pride in his responsibility as the leadoff hitter. He gets to set the tone for the offense in the first inning. He has shown plenty of patience this spring, plus a penchant for getting on base by whatever means necessary.

"He's got a short stroke and knows how to make it work for him," hitting coach Clint Hurdle said. "He can hit to all fields and flies out of the box. He produces a lot of bat speed."

Borbon had a drag bunt for a hit on the first pitch of Saturday's game. On Sunday, he forced the starter to throw six pitches before he grounded out.

"I'm trying to make that pitcher work as much as he has to," Borbon said. "I have to stick with that plan. Once I'm on the basepaths, I don't have any doubt I can get around the bases and score runs."

Borbon, a left-handed hitter, knows he must be able to hit right-handed and left-handed pitchers. Borbon was just 2-for-16 against lefties last season, when Ian Kinsler hit leadoff versus the majority of left-handed pitchers.

Rangers manager Ron Washington has said that Borbon will get the chance to be the full-time leadoff hitter, so he is getting more opportunities to hit against left-handers this spring. Hurdle said that Borbon, who had a sharp single off a lefty Sunday, has done a good job of staying inside off lefties and not getting ahead of himself.

"The more at-bats I have against lefties, the better," Borbon said. "You learn with every at-bat, and I feel like I've got a good plan up there and am doing a better job of execution."

Borbon is excited about the opportunity and talks repeatedly about taking advantage of it. The only way he knows to do that is to keep working.

"I'm going to come out every day trying to improve," Borbon said. "That is my goal for the whole season."

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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