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It’s Now or Never For Leody Taveras in Center Field

Not long ago, the 24-year-old was the future of Texas' outfield. But underwhelming performance plus a top prospect lurking behind him means time could be running out.
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Leody Taveras' glove won't enough to keep him in Texas' lineup if the bat doesn't come along, too. Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

“He sort of glides out there,” Ryan Rouillard, then the play-by-play announcer for the Frisco Roughriders, told me with a wry smile during a commercial break on a Saturday night in the summer of 2019. “Completely fluid.”

The guy we were marveling at was then 20-year-old Rangers prospect Leody Taveras, who was patrolling center field that night for the RoughRiders. Seconds earlier Taveras had cruised into the right-center field gap with relative ease and hauled in the final out of the inning on a ball that would’ve been extra bases against most outfielders. Back then it wasn’t hard to imagine Taveras holding down the center field job with the big club for the better part of a decade. But because of inconsistencies at the plate to go along with occasional injuries, Taveras is fighting for his future with Texas. How did we get here?

Taveras made the Opening Day roster and his big-league debut during the weird and abbreviated 2020 COVID season. He was 21. In 33 games he hit .227 with an on-base percentage of .308. He was often overmatched at the plate with a strikeout rate of more than 32 percent. He struggled mightily out of the gate in 2021, batting .087 in 15 games before being demoted to Triple-A Round Rock. Then he was called back up in August when the Rangers were playing out the string and hit a not-so-impressive .188.

Taveras again split time between Arlington and Round Rock in 2022, and he showed marked improvement with the big club, hitting .261 in 99 games. He had stretches where he seemed relaxed in the box—he hit .341 in 85 July at-bats—and seemed to have discovered his swing. (It was a swing Chris Woodward said kids in the Dominican Republic would one day try to emulate. That might be one of the most ridiculous things a Rangers manager has ever said—and quite possibly the moment I decided Woody wasn’t right for the job.) The problem was that a switch hitter who is noted for his speed struggled to get on base, as evidenced by his .309 OBP. 

Like most big-leaguers, Taveras can do damage to fastballs in the zone. You might remember his two-run double in a win over the Astros on Sunday night. There just hasn’t been enough of that.

Here’s a bigger problem: for a guy the organization has wanted so desperately to be a leadoff hitter or a table-setter, he doesn’t draw enough walks. A 6.5 percent career walk rate is simply not good enough for a guy who is a base-stealing threat. He was activated last week after starting the season on the injured list with an oblique strain, but he didn’t draw a walk until his fifth game, on Monday night against the Royals. Swinging at nearly 30 percent of pitches outside the strike zone hasn’t helped. He is hitting .111, albeit on a small sample size of 18 at-bats. 

Defense has never been the problem. Taveras hasn’t lost that glide that impressed Rouillard so much. In 186 major league games, he has a 5.0 defensive WAR, per FanGraphs. His speed and range will probably keep him playing professional baseball into his 30s, but that could be with another team if he doesn’t pick it up offensively. 

Because a couple of other things are working against Taveras besides his own offense. Namely, Bruce Bochy and Evan Carter.

Don’t misread that. Bochy would love nothing more than to see Taveras earn the everyday job in center field. However, he was brought in on a three-year contract—after the Rangers spent plenty of money on Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, and before they added Jacob deGrom— because Texas is ready to win now. The days of letting young players try to figure it out in the majors are over. There’s no more time for Taveras’ growing pains. 

Especially not when Carter, the top prospect in the Rangers’ system, keeps impressing. Only 20, he projects as the center fielder of the future in Arlington. While maybe not as natural of a defender as Taveras, Carter is a much better hitter in every regard. If he continues his trajectory, he will become an on-base monster at the top of the big-league lineup in 2024, if not sooner. A second-round draft pick in 2020 out of Elizabethton, Tennessee, Carter has dominated when healthy (a stress fracture in his back cut his 2021 season in A-ball to just 32 games). He’s done so with an approach and plate discipline that are light years ahead of most guys in Double-A and Triple-A.

In his 72 plate appearances since getting called up to Double-A Frisco late last season, Carter has a video game-like slash line of .404/.514/.684. Last week against San Antonio, he hit .435 with three homers and seven walks in six games. While those numbers aren’t sustainable, it shows how special Carter can be.

That’s not to mention the maturity he has shown when speaking to the media dorks like yours truly. At RoughRiders media day a few weeks ago, Carter was asked about his status as the top prospect in the system and the possibility of reaching Triple-A or the majors this season. In a relaxed manner, he shrugged, smiled, and said, “I just want to be where my feet are. I can’t think that far ahead. I just want to help the team win wherever I’m playing.” A generic quote, for sure, but I can’t stress how comfortable Carter seems to be in his own skin. The dude screams leadership and just might be a unicorn. And promise like that gets hard to ignore when Taveras isn’t fulfilling his at the big-league level.

Of course, Taveras already has competition in Arlington. Travis Jankowski is a 31-year-old  outfielder who is slashing .333/.419/.519 so far this season. Former first-round pick Bubba Thompson has also been key to a few wins, thanks to his speed and some timely hits with runners aboard. 

Factor in all of that, and it’s safe to say that Taveras is running out of time. If he doesn’t stick this season, chances are he’ll be moving on and his name will be added to the pile of promising Rangers prospects who failed to live up to expectations. 

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Sean Bass

Sean Bass

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Sean Bass covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He's lived his entire life in North Texas and has worked for Sports…
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