Rangers brace for AL West lefties

Rangers brace for AL West lefties

ARLINGTON -- The Rangers hit .257 against left-handed pitchers in 2009, the fourth lowest batting average in the American League. They had a .318 on-base percentage against left-handers, the third lowest in the league.

The Rangers might need to improve those numbers if they want to compete in the American League West this year. It is why they are still looking for a right-handed bat and why free agent outfielder Rocco Baldelli is high on their list.

American League West rotations could be well-stocked with left-handers this season and the Rangers know that.

The Angels have two proven left-handed starters in Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders, plus left-handed closer Brian Fuentes. The Athletics have four talented young left-handed rotation candidates in Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Josh Outman and Gio Gonzales.

The Mariners acquired Cliff Lee in the offseason, have re-signed Erik Bedard and return Ryan Rowland-Smith, Jason Vargas, Luke French and Garrett Olson. Those four young left-handers made a combined 47 starts for them last year.

Left-handers could easily end up taking more than half the 15 combined spots in the rotations of the Rangers' three division opponents. The Rangers were 29-27 when the opposition started a left-hander last year, including 8-17 on the road.

Baldelli could help combat that. While a variety of physical ailments have reduced him to a part-time player, he still hit .290 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in 93 at-bats against left-handers while playing for the Red Sox.

Baldelli has been an outfielder during his entire Major League career, mostly in center field. He has never played first base but the Red Sox were working him out at the position last season in anticipation of a need that never came up.

If he can play both first base and center field on a part-time basis, he helps two players who could be most vulnerable to left-handed pitchers: Chris Davis and Julio Borbon.

Both are left-handed hitters. Davis hit .189 with a .311 slugging percentage against lefties last year while Borbon was used sparingly against them at the Major League level. He was just 2-for-16 against them.

"Obviously we need production not just from them but from a few of our left-handed hitters," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said.

In his Minor League career, Borbon has a .268 batting average with a .675 OPS against left-handers while batting .340 with a .826 OPS against right-handers. Davis' Minor League splits were more even. He hit .306 with a .914 OPS against lefties and .306 with a .962 OPS against right-handers.

"Chris did hit left-handers fairly well in the Minor Leagues," Daniels said. "We don't want to label him as a platoon player."

The Rangers would like both to emerge as everyday players but also would like options for both against a tough left-hander like Lee or Kazmir. Baldelli is 3-for-9 in his career against Lee.

"A lot of it depends on what we do with that last spot on the bench, whether we take a fifth outfielder or an extra infielder," Daniels said. "We have options on which way we want to go."

Matt Brown, signed this season as a free agent to a Minor League contract, is an infielder who can play multiple positions, including first base. He only has 24 Major League at-bats but over the past five years in the Angels' farm system, he has 554 at-bats against lefties and hit .309 with a .936 OPS and 31 home runs.

The Rangers investigated the possibility of signing right-handed hitting first baseman Ryan Garko but he has signed with the Mariners. Robb Quinlan is another right-handed hitting free agent who has .290 batting average with a .796 OPS against left-handed pitching. Marcus Thames, a free agent who has played first base and the outfield, has hit .256 with an .845 OPS against left-handers in his career.

The Rangers have already addressed their need for right-handed hitting by signing Vladimir Guerrero to be their designated hitter and Khalil Greene to be their utility infielder. But three of their four outfielders -- Borbon, Josh Hamilton and David Murphy -- are left-handed hitters.

Right now, if the Rangers did want to give Borbon a day off against a tough left-handed pitcher, they would still likely have two left-handed hitters in their outfield in Hamilton and Murphy unless they ask Guerrero to go out there.

Craig Gentry, a right-handed hitter who could play center field, could win a spot on the team as a fifth outfielder because he also gives the Rangers rare speed off the bench. He has hit .281 with a .735 OPS against lefties in his Minor League career.

He might be the guy, especially if Greene can fill in for Davis at first base. Greene has never played there before but is going to get some action at first base in Spring Training.

The fourth spot on the bench -- behind Greene, Murphy and backup catcher Taylor Teagarden -- is the last unsolved riddle among Rangers offensive players. Given the Rangers performance against left-handed pitching last year and the composition of the opposing West rotations, it may be significant riddle to solve.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.