When your best position player, who also happens to be making $35 million this season, is lost for at least a month with a hamstring injury, you can only hope his teammates do their best to fill the void. The Rangers have gotten that and much more since Corey Seager came up lame on an extra-base hit on April 11 against the Royals.
After Seager suffered the injury, manager Bruce Bochy opted for Josh Smith at shortstop. He didn’t hold on to the job long. Enter Ezequiel Duran. Since Seager injured his hamstring, the 23-year-old has put up a slash line of (.357/.390/.589) with a bloated wRC+ of 174. (wRC+ measures runs created by a player, taking into account different league factors. It’s scaled so the league average is 100 every year, meaning Duran is performing 74 percent better than the average hitter.) That includes a 431-foot, go-ahead two-run homer in a 6-4 comeback win against Zac Gallen and the Diamondbacks on Tuesday night. Yes, it’s early. No, he won’t continue at quite this pace. But this is a massive step forward from his rookie season, in which he hit .236/.277/.365 in 220 plate appearances. He’s forcing his way into Texas’ plans.
That’s quite the shift, considering Duran was a bit of a question mark entering the 2023 season. Nobody debated his ability to drive the baseball; it’s what made him a prized part of the Joey Gallo trade in 2021 (along with Smith), a deal we can safely say Texas won, as Gallo was later moved to the Dodgers and is now trying to get his career back on track in Minnesota. But the infield was set for this season, with Seager, Marcus Semien, Nathaniel Lowe, and Josh Jung. The Rangers were in the market for a left fielder, but Texas opted to bring in Robbie Grossman during spring training to fill the role initially.
Duran still found his way into six starts in left field to begin the year, and now he has made five consecutive starts at shortstop. When Seager does return, Duran has given Bochy and general manager Chris Young reason to keep his bat in the lineup as long as he’s running hot. Maybe it’s in left field. Or perhaps he gets the occasional start at shortstop on nights Seager is used at DH. Or he can spell Semien and Jung at second and third base, respectively.
But to stay in the lineup, Duran has to show he can produce on a consistent basis. There already are warning signs he will show some regression at the plate. Duran has a walk rate of 1.4 percent, meaning he is almost never getting on base if he isn’t putting the ball in play. He does make a lot of hard contact (in the 86th percentile), but his groundball rate is 52 percent, which is way too high for most hitters. Because his exit velocity is well above average, several of those grounders are getting through for hits, which is a cool party trick. It’s fair to question whether that’s sustainable, though, and it definitely isn’t conducive to home-run power.
Meanwhile, opposing scouts will most certainly notice that Duran is swinging at nearly 44 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That chase rate is in the fifth percentile of major league hitters, so he should expect to see more sliders, sweepers, and curveballs in the coming weeks.
Add it up, and Zeke has adjustments to make if he’s going to remain an impact hitter. The question is whether pitchers will adjust to him even better.
The best-case scenario is Duran adapts, which would present something of a good problem for Texas. Regular playing time for Duran means uncertainty for others inside the organization. That includes Smith, who also came over in the Gallo trade. He has a level of usefulness as a versatile defender and had the first shot filling in at shortstop, but he has hit a meager .121 since Seager’s injury. Then there’s center fielder Leody Taveras, who before a three-hit game that included a home run in Wednesday’s loss to Arizona, had just one base hit in his previous 19 plate appearances. Taveras was already running out of time to seize an everyday job, and if Duran gets regular playing time in left, he might take a backseat to Travis Jankowski in center. Jankowski, who is with his sixth major league team and in his first season with the Rangers, has been another pleasant surprise, batting .300 with a sparkling .382 on-base percentage. His at-bats have come at the expense of Brad Miller, who has appeared in just three of the past 11 games. It’s hard to envision Miller having a significant role this season.
Add in stalwart Adolis Garcia, and before long, the outfield might be as settled as its infield. That creates a bottleneck down on the farm, but also an opportunity on the trade market. The bad news in the Rangers’ surprising climb to the top of the A.L. West has been the performance of the bullpen, which was exposed over the past few weeks when it failed to protect a couple of large, late leads against the Reds and melted down in the seventh inning of Wednesday’s home loss to the Diamondbacks, highlighted by Jose Leclerc issuing three walks. Heading into the season, many believed a bullpen that lacked velocity and swing-and-miss stuff was a weakness, and now we are seeing that to be true. Luckily a bullpen can be overhauled on the fly. Young will most certainly be on the phone in the coming weeks.
Duran evolving into an everyday player could shake loose several names in Texas’ minor-league system. With the infield shift having been banned, there is greater importance on having competent defenders in your organization. Opposing GMs would probably have interest in Luisangel Acuna (Ronald’s younger brother) and Jonathan Ornelas, both of whom have shown plus defensive skills at the lower levels. Second baseman Justin Foscue, a 2020 first-round pick, is more known for his bat. After a slow start to his season with Triple-A Round Rock, Foscue has been in a good way at the plate recently, lifting his OPS to .905. He just might hit his way out of the organization. Fellow prospects Dustin Harris and Thomas Saggese also appear to be positionally blocked, especially given the long-term contracts Seager and Semien signed in 2022.
For more than a decade the Rangers have been criticized for not developing enough talent. Ezequiel Duran, who started his meteoric rise with the organization’s Class A affiliate in Hickory, is helping change that narrative. He has made a believer of Bruce Bochy and has endeared himself to the fan base over the past month by producing at the plate. We wait to see if Bochy continues to “feed” Zeke regular playing time when Seager is ready. This is called a first-place problem.