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Friday, February 12, 2010
Surprise positional outlook: Left field

By Richard Durrett

We now shift our position breakdowns to the outfield. Don't worry, we'll get back to the battery a little later and discuss the starters and relievers as well. As a refresher, here are the first base (Chris Davis and Justin Smoak), second base (Ian Kinsler), third base (Michael Young) and shortstop (Elvis Andrus) outlooks.

Left field this season will belong mainly to Josh Hamilton (we will discuss David Murphy next week, by the way). He moves over to left from center field, which will be handled mainly by Julio Borbon. That's not to say Hamilton won't get a chance to play some in center. But the club wants to watch the wear and tear on his body, so they are moving him to a corner spot. Nelson Cruz is suited for right field, so Hamilton goes to left. He's worked this offseason with outfield coach Gary Pettis to learn some of the nuances of the position and it's something he'll focus on even more when spring training begins.

Josh Hamilton
After driving in 130 runs in 2008, Josh Hamilton suffered a setback last season. The oft-injured outfielder hit .268 with 10 home runs and 54 RBIs in only 89 games. As a result, the Rangers suffered offensively.
Hamilton's 2009 was a struggle before it even began. He and hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo decided to revamp his swing to make it more consistent through the hitting zone. And, as many fans forget, Hamilton showed really good signs with that swing in spring training. But once the season began, Hamilton seemed out of rhythm. He just wasn't the same guy that mashed all those homers at Yankee Stadium during the Home Run Derby at the 2008 All-Star Game. Hamilton hit .242 in April and it just got worse from there. He hit .237 in May. On May 17, Hamilton crashed into the wall as he robbed the Angels' Howie Kendrick of a possible home run and was put on the disabled list. He eventually had surgery to repair a tear in the muscle and did not return until July. Still, the fans voted Hamilton into the All-Star Game.

Once back from the injury, Hamilton still struggled, batting .205 in 78 at-bats in July. He was even dropped the seventh in the batting order late in the month. Hamilton finally started to find his stroke, though he didn't show much power, in August. He hit .342 for the month (114 at-bats) with one homer and 17 RBIs. Then, a pinched nerve in his back gave him problems. He missed most of September with the injury. Factor in an off-the-field incident in Arizona involving drinking that didn't surface until August and it was a tough year all around for Hamilton.

So who's the real Hamilton? Is it the one that took the major leagues by storm in 2008 or the one that couldn't stay healthy or comfortable at the plate in 2009? I think it's someone in between. And 2010 is the year to show that. Hamilton said last month that he's feeling better about his swing and outlook for 2010.

A few numbers as they relate to Hamilton, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information (these guys sure can dig up some good stats):

* Hamilton hit .310 with 21 homers and 95 RBIs in the first half of 2008 (92 games). Since that point, he's hit .282 with 23 homers and 110 RBIs in 175 games.

* As for defense, there are five other players that will likely make the conversion from center to left, so we'll see how they all do. That list includes Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury, Altanta's Melky Cabrera, Chicago's Juan Pierre, Oakland's Rajai Davis and New York's Brett Garnder (if he starts). BTW, Pierre played left field mostly during the suspension of Manny Ramirez last season and he did not make an error in 129 chances out in left.

* A quick glance at the players the last few years that have made the transition show, as you might expect, that they made fewer errors and had better UZRs in left field. Center field is a tough position, so moving to left should help most player's defensive numbers.

We'll predict more what Hamilton might do later this spring. And we'll be paying close attention to see how he does in Surprise in the next few weeks.