Prince merely one piece of Texas' lineup puzzle
Free-agent targets remain, but GM Daniels won't rule out offseason trade
ARLINGTON -- Prince Fielder has almost always batted cleanup in his eight full seasons in the Major Leagues. He batted No. 4 for the Brewers in 2011 while providing protection for Ryan Braun and again in 2012 and '13 while doing the same for Miguel Cabrera as a member of the Tigers.
Both Braun and Cabrera ended up winning Most Valuable Player Awards, but Rangers manager Ron Washington said he plans on hitting Fielder in the No. 3 spot, ahead of third baseman Adrian Beltre.
"He has never been protected," Washington said of Fielder. "I'm going to protect him and bat him third."
Fielder cheered the news and offered a one-word response: "Outstanding."
The Rangers went into the offseason looking for a No. 3 hitter, and they found it with Fielder. But they gave up their leadoff hitter in return when they sent second baseman Ian Kinsler to the Tigers in a trade that was completed last Wednesday.
Washington said the Rangers are going to give center fielder Leonys Martin a chance to win the leadoff spot in Spring Training. Martin was given a temporary audition as a leadoff hitter last season, but after posting a .301 on-base percentage in 32 games, he was moved back to the bottom of the lineup and Kinsler went back to the No. 1 spot.
"Right now, we're going to do the best we can to see if we can train Martin within a few months to see if he can take that and run with it and make him understand what's the purpose of the leadoff hitter," Washington said. "I put him there a little bit last year, but he was in survival mode. It was his rookie year, and he was just trying to survive at the Major League level. Now that he's survived, it's time for him to think and play at the same time. I want to keep him away from thinking too much, but think and play at the same time."
Washington prefaced his comments with "right now" because the Rangers' offseason is far from finished. Acquiring Fielder from the Tigers was only the first major step in improving a ballclub that won 90 games but was knocked out when it lost a tiebreaker game to the Rays.
The Rangers still want to add at least one more big bat to their lineup before the offseason is over. That could be either a dynamic leadoff hitter or another power bat in the middle of the order. The free-agent market offers both, especially among outfielders. Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo are proven leadoff hitters, while Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran and Curtis Granderson would fit more into the middle of a lineup.
"There are a variety of ways we can go forward from here," general manager Jon Daniels said. "We may be interested in some of the free-agent hitters out there, it may be a trade or it may be just adding depth to the club."
The Rangers aren't expected to pursue free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano. The Rangers traded Kinsler so that Jurickson Profar could step in and play second base. The Rangers are also done trading middle infielders. They still want Profar to earn the second-base job, but they plan to go into next season with an infield that includes Profar, Beltre, shortstop Elvis Andrus and Fielder at first.
"You never rule out anything, but we're expecting those guys to be our infield going forward," Daniels said.
The Rangers did have interest in free-agent catcher Brian McCann, but he agreed to a five-year, $85 million contract with the Yankees. The Rangers were looking at McCann in a combination role of backup catcher and designated hitter, and he was likely the only free agent who could have served in such a dual role.
So that leaves the Rangers with openings in left field, designated hitter and backup catcher behind Geovany Soto. Mitch Moreland is currently the Rangers' leading candidate to be the DH, but he could also be traded after being pushed aside at first base by Fielder.
David Murphy was the Rangers' primary left fielder in 2013, but he left as a free agent, signing a two-year deal with the Indians that was made official on Monday. The Rangers did not make an attempt to re-sign Murphy after he hit .220 with 13 home runs and 45 RBIs in 142 games this past season.
"First of all, we never got very far along with any types of contract talks before last season," Murphy said on Monday. "The possibility was discussed, but it never got detailed. There was never years offered, never any amount of money offered, so we both agreed to let the season play out.
"After the season ended, I had a phone call with Jon Daniels, and we didn't dismiss the possibility of me coming back, but after that phone call, it was definitely obvious my best opportunity going elsewhere."
The Rangers still have interest in re-signing Cruz and have had ongoing discussions with his agent, Adam Katz. Cruz would not cost the Rangers a Draft pick as compensation, but they would forfeit their first-round pick next June if they were to sign Ellsbury, Choo, Granderson or Beltran because each of those free agents was extended a qualifying offer by his former club.
"That plays into it," Daniels said. "It has to be the right fit. It's all about the individual, the player, the fit for the team, age, the dollars. It all factors into it. There are a lot of ways to improve the club, now and in the future. We've got to keep an open mind."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.