Commentary

Reality bites Julio Borbon, Neftali Feliz

Rangers have to figure out what to do with outfielder, pitcher in an imperfect world

Updated: March 22, 2011, 1:09 AM ET
By Jim Reeves | ESPNDallas.com

In Ron Washington's perfect world, Julio Borbon would be a Gold Glove center fielder, Neftali Feliz would be the best closer baseball has ever seen (sorry, Mariano), and Tommy Hunter, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland would be lights out as the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 starters in his rotation.

Come to think of it, that might be the perfect world for all Texas Rangers fans.

[+] EnlargeJulio Borbon
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireJulio Borbon may be losing his grip on the Rangers' center field job.

At the moment, however, that picture is at least slightly skewed by something we often hate: reality.

Borbon is still figuring out the nuances of playing major league center field. Hunter, Harrison and Holland might be just fine ... or maybe they won't be.

Feliz? Right now the Rangers are still trying to decide whether they want him to be the new Rivera or the next Nolan Ryan.

There are worse problems in the world, right?

Nevertheless, the center-field problem and, even more importantly, what to do with Feliz (because it affects both the rotation and the bullpen) are the two major decisions the Rangers face as they near the end of spring training. And both need to be made sooner, rather than later.

Washington, among the decision-makers, is clearly the man with the most at stake. Because of that, his agenda might be slightly different than that of general manager Jon Daniels.

Wash's mandate, both general and personal, is to win every game possible, today, tomorrow and next week -- but not necessarily next year, at least not until it gets here. Daniels' aim, with Ryan's supervision, is not only to win now, but also to oversee the long-term health and development of the organization. In other words, they're on the same page, but perhaps not the same paragraph at all times.

Keeping that in mind, let's take a look at the center-field "problem" first. The Rangers want Borbon to be their center fielder. That's what he was drafted for as a supplemental first-round pick out of Tennessee in 2007. This was supposed to be his destiny.

With his speed, Borbon should be able to cover the vast reaches of any center field in baseball. Offensively, the Rangers hope that same speed can provide a spark, put pressure on defenses and give them a second "leadoff" hitter in the No. 9 spot in the batting order. Ideally, Borbon eventually would become a prototypical leadoff hitter at the top of the order.

That's the vision. The reality is that it's not working out that way, at least not yet.

Borbon hasn't just struggled defensively this spring; he has been brutal. Arizona can be a tough sky to play, but even that doesn't explain all of Borbon's troubles away. Offensively, he has been mostly a slap hitter and hasn't been able to use his speed as effectively as the Rangers had hoped, stealing just 15 bases in 22 attempts last year despite getting 438 at-bats.

Borbon at least being able to play solid defense in center is critical to the Rangers' hopeful plan of being able to move Josh Hamilton to left field, to save wear and tear on his body and legs. The only other option, to hear Washington tell it, is to move Hamilton back to center and take the increased injury risk.

I have another suggestion: Put David Murphy in center and live with him there. Send Borbon to Triple-A Round Rock to play center every day and figure out whether he can learn it or not.

Yes, I can feel Wash recoiling almost before I get the words out. Like a lot of baseball men, Washington is quick to form an opinion, based on his many years in the game, and slow to change it. Some time ago, Wash decided, after watching Murphy in center for a few games, that he can't play the position.

I can't figure out why not. He is an above-average corner outfielder and, despite not having great speed, should be at least an average center fielder. And with what he brings to the table offensively … with 550 at-bats, I would predict 20 to 25 homers, 80 RBIs and 20-plus stolen bases.

Murphy played center throughout his minor league career and was known for his defense but admits "when I have gotten an opportunity to play there in the big leagues, I haven't played well. ... I just haven't gotten great breaks on balls. When you're in center field, you have to cover ground. For me, it's all about instincts and getting a good jump."

This sounds like a need for repetition. Murphy is an intelligent player. Given time and work, he can relearn center field. And having his bat in the lineup on a daily basis would make up for the occasional fly ball he doesn't run down.

[+] EnlargeNeftali Feliz
Norm Hall/Getty ImagesNeftali Feliz started the 2010 season as a set-up man but wound up saving 40 games.

Yes, he makes a great insurance policy as a fourth outfielder. And if Borbon were playing better defense, it would make the Rangers a better overall team. But that's not the case right now.

As for Feliz, the Rangers have a scenario in front of them that gives them a chance to test run him as a starter and, perhaps more importantly, see whether Alexi Ogando can handle the job of closer.

I have no doubt that Washington would prefer to have Feliz as his ninth-inning option, a shutdown closer, and take his chances with the others in the rotation. Can't blame him in the least for feeling that way.

But with Brandon Webb on track to join the rotation in early May, if not before, why not try Feliz as a starter and Ogando as the closer in April? If it's not working after a month, the Rangers always can bump Feliz back to the closer role when Webb returns. They'll also have one of the two left-handers, Harrison or Holland, ready to step in as well.

The irony is that what we envision as a "perfect world" right now can change so quickly. Last spring, when the idea of trying Feliz as a starter was broached, Washington made it clear that he much preferred keeping him as his eighth-inning setup man, behind then-closer Frank Francisco.

I have a feeling that after watching Feliz dominate major league lineups as a starter for a game or three, and Ogando closing out those victories, Wash might have an entirely different "perfect world" in mind.

All of us might.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.