The Rangers haven’t had a great off-season so far. After attempting (and failing) to land both Zack Greinke and Justin Upton, the team also saw Josh Hamilton defect to the division rival Angels, while Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, and Koji Uehara all went to Boston. The only free agent they’ve signed is Joakim Soria, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and might not be ready for the start of the 2013 season. The Rangers are going to have quite a different look next year.
Even the players who are sticking around are likely to experience some changes, as super prospect Jurickson Profar is expected to take a bigger role in 2013, potentially even moving into an everyday job. While Elvis Andrus is blocking his path at shortstop, Profar could play a decent amount of second base, which might force the Rangers to relocate incumbent starter Ian Kinsler to another spot on the diamond.
The question facing the Rangers is where that spot should be. Besides a two inning stint at third base — where the team is more than pleased with Adrian Beltre — Kinsler has spent his entire big league career at second base. With the departures of Hamilton and Napoli, the team has openings in the outfield and at DH, but they’ve also talked about moving Kinsler to first base, a position where they didn’t get a lot of production last year. You don’t see many second baseman shift over to first base, second baseman who are listed at 6’0, but Kinsler might actually be a better fit there than one would think just based on his height.
While first base is generally thought of as a power position, and second baseman aren’t generally known for their power, Kinsler actually hits more like a first baseman than a second baseman. For his career, he has an Isolated Slugging (Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average, which gives you a measure of how much power a player hit for) of .188. For comparison, Adrian Gonzalez has an ISO of .195 over the last three years. Kinsler isn’t known as a prodigious home run guy, but like Gonzalez, he racks up a copious amount of doubles, which are pretty effective in driving in runs themselves.
For instance, compare Kinsler’s overall offensive performance to Adam LaRoche, who the Rangers have been linked to at various times this winter. Here are their numbers since 2010:
Kinsler: .263/.350/.441, 111 wRC+
LaRoche: .255/.327/.462, 109 wRC+
No one thinks of LaRoche as an underpowered hitter for the position, and Kinsler’s offensive track record is even stronger. Any team willing to give LaRoche a first base job should also be willing to consider Kinsler a first baseman, as there’s not a lot of evidence that LaRoche is a significantly better hitter overall.
And the Rangers wouldn’t be covering totally new ground here either. There is precedent for teams moving high contact, gap power middle infielders to first base and having it pay off in a significant way. The Brewers converted high contact, middling power second baseman Paul Molitor into a first baseman at age 34, and he went on to average +4 WAR per season for the next four years. Like Kinsler, Molitor was a guy who focused more on not striking out than hitting the ball over the wall, but he was still a highly productive 1B/DH, hitting better in his thirties than he did in his twenties, partially due to the improved health from not having to play a demanding position on the field.
Molitor, of course, is not the only low-strikeout, lots-of-doubles player who has succeeded as a high quality first baseman. John Olerud slugged .465 for his career, averaging 17 home runs per full season, and still produced +60 WAR during a brilliant career. Mark Grace slugged just .442 and never hit more than 17 home runs in a season, but he was still a consistently above average player until age 37. Don Mattingly, Will Clark, John Kruk, and Sean Casey… there’s a long list of guys who were very good first baseman despite not being a prototypical slugger.
The thing most of these guys had in common, of course, was excellent defense at first base. Mattingly won nine gold gloves in a ten year span. Grace won four. Olerud won three. Often times, the first baseman who don’t hit for power make up for the lack of home runs by saving runs in the field, as their more slender frames allow them to be far more agile at the position than the big lumbering sluggers who just try to not embarrass themselves between at-bats.
While Kinsler would have to adjust to learning a new position, he has the quickness and range to develop into that kind of quality defensive first baseman. While Kinsler was a bit of a defensive problem at second base coming up (-22 UZR in his first three seasons), his hard work has helped him become an above average defender at second base in recent years (+17 UZR in his last three seasons). And, of course, the pool of players which Kinsler would be measured against at first base is not as impressive as the group at second, so he’d likely grade out as an average or better defender at first base even while learning how to make the transition. With more experience, Kinsler could easily become one of the best defenders at the position in the sport.
Kinsler might not look like a first baseman, but he hits for more power than you might think, and there’s a strong history of smaller, skinnier players being highly valuable players at first base by making a lot of contact, hitting a bunch of doubles, and playing great defense at the position. Kinsler already had the contact and doubles skillset, and his quickness should allow him to develop into a good defensive player at first as well.
With Profar forcing his way onto the roster, the Rangers need a spot for Kinsler, and they have an opening at first base. The move prolonged Paul Molitor’s career, and helped give his offense a boost as well. Don’t be surprised if Kinsler ends up as a productive first baseman before too long, even if he’s not hitting 30 home runs every year.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.