Jurickson Profar’s role may be undefined, but he won’t take his uncertain job status lying down.
SURPRISE, Ariz. — Jurickson Profar has a sixth tool in his arsenal, but it was hard to find during two lost seasons in the Texas Rangers organization. When shoulder problems kept him off the field for almost all of 2014 and 2015, the emotional strain was etched across his face.
“I think we have two of the greatest smiles in baseball between Adrian Beltre and Jurickson Profar,” said Rangers manager Jeff Banister. “They have a sheer joy for playing the game. But there was probably a point in time with Jurickson where there was no joy in it because of the injuries.”
Joey Gallo, another former Rangers uber-prospect, has endured an equally rigorous trip to the majors. He’s hard on himself as a rule, and the constant barrage of questions about his strikeout totals has made it difficult to tune out the noise and self-doubt.
Several years into their career journeys, Profar and Gallo are transitioning to Phase II: The expectations are more modest now, and they’re getting perilously close to “prove-it” time.
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At Texas’ Cactus League complex in Surprise, two young players once anointed future stars are trying to find their niches on the 25-man roster. Josh Hamilton just underwent knee surgery, enhancing the likelihood that Profar will platoon in left field with Ryan Rua. Gallo’s chances of making the Opening Day roster took a hit when the Rangers signed free agent Mike Napoli to a one-year, guaranteed $ 8.5 million deal in early February. So Gallo has remained flexible and logged time at left field, third base and first base in his quest to become a supersized super-utility player at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds.
Profar is 24 years old, and Gallo is 23, so the Rangers don’t buy the perception that the sand has almost run out of the hourglass for these two. If the baseball world wants to brand the two players as disappointments, general manager Jon Daniels is poised to take the hit for it.
“Don’t hold it against these players,” Daniels said. “That’s on us. We promoted them aggressively because they were advanced in a lot of ways, and when you get to Triple-A at age 19 or 20 years old and reach the big leagues at 20 or 21, that’s unusual. The guys that hit and perform immediately are on the fast track to the Hall of Fame discussion.
“We’ve asked these guys to play out of position and in less-than-everyday roles, and that’s a challenge. The talent and the instincts haven’t gone anywhere.”
The Rangers sported one of baseball’s deepest talent pipelines a few years ago, but it’s thinner now that Daniels has tapped into the system for two big trades. In July 2015, the Rangers sent catcher Jorge Alfaro, outfielder Nick Williams and four pitchers to the Philadelphia Phillies for Cole Hamels. Last season, Daniels traded outfielder Lewis Brinson and two other prospects to Milwaukee in a deadline deal for catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
As a byproduct of that activity, Texas’ farm system has dipped in the industry rankings. ESPN’s Keith Law rated the Rangers’ farm system as the 15th best in baseball after placing it No. 9 in 2015, and Baseball America downgraded Texas’ system to 22nd overall from seventh two years ago.
It’s pivotal for Gallo and Profar to take the next step, if only to join second baseman Rougned Odor and outfielder Nomar Mazara and balance out a lineup that’s starting to show mileage. Beltre, a future Hall of Famer, turns 38 in early April, and Shin-Soo Choo, Napoli, Carlos Gomez and Lucroy are all 30-plus.
“We’ve traded some young talent,” Daniels said. “With the guys we’ve elected to hold on to, it’s important we develop them and get the most out of them. Not just Jurickson and Joey. That’s true for a number of guys.”
Joey Gallo will take his cuts at the plate, but will he get the at-bats to unleash his power? Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Gallo’s flair for hitting moon shots made him a magnet for attention from the moment the Rangers chose him 39th overall in the 2012 draft. He’s a native of Las Vegas, the town that produced the past two National League MVPs, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant. And he wowed the scouts with a titanic home run display during batting practice before the 2014 Futures Game in Minneapolis.
Gallo has slugged .587 in the minors and drawn enough walks to log a .369 OBP, but his strikeout totals are stunning even in this era of swing-and-miss in baseball. He has whiffed 76 times in 133 MLB at-bats — prompting one scout to label him “Russell Branyan 2.0.”
Branyan slugged 194 homers over 14 big league seasons, so there are worse comparables. But Gallo is very athletic, has a hose for an arm and runs well enough for a big man that the Rangers think he’s capable of being more than just an air-generating, “three true outcomes” player.
In the offseason, the Rangers thought Gallo would benefit from a stint in winter ball, so they suggested the Dominican Republic as a destination. Gallo opted for Venezuela, and when he arrived in Magallanes, club officials immediately put his mind at ease by explaining precisely what was expected of him.
“When I got there, the manager and coaches said, ‘Go hit home runs. That’s what we want,'” Gallo said. “I was like, ‘OK, I can do that. That’s cool.’ They told me not to worry about my average or my strikeouts. I felt awesome down there, because I could just let it go and be the player I am.”
Not for long. Gallo suffered a hamstring injury a few games into his Venezuelan adventure, and his winter ball excursion proved to be a washout. His offseason took an additional hit in February, when Napoli signed and quashed any chance he had of winning the first base job in Texas.
To his credit, Gallo didn’t take the transaction personally. Shortly after Napoli’s deal became official, Gallo sent him a congratulatory text.
“He just welcomed me back to Texas,” said Napoli, who played previously with the Rangers in 2011-12. “It was a cool thing coming from a young guy in his situation. Putting the team before yourself is something they preach around here. It was a grown-up thing to do.”
The smile returns
Like Gallo, Profar has lugged around the “golden child” label for a while. He received a $ 1.55 million signing bonus out of his native Curacao and earned rave reviews after logging an .883 OPS for Hickory in the South Atlantic League at age 18.
Then shoulder problems sapped him of momentum, playing time and a route to the majors. While Profar was out of commission, shortstop Elvis Andrus agreed to an eight-year, $ 120 million contract, and Odor laid claim to the second base job in Arlington. When Profar finally became healthy enough to play, he was a man without a position.
Banister thinks Profar reached a turning point last season in a June 19 game against St. Louis, when he delivered a two-run, bases-loaded, pinch-hit single to lift Texas to a 5-4 victory and a series sweep at Busch Stadium. Profar certainly didn’t have any problems smiling that night.
“He wasn’t in the regular rotation of players, and I wasn’t real sure if he knew how to handle coming off the bench,” Banister said. “But you could see him saying, ‘This is my job today. This is what I’m going to do. This is what’s important.’ He paid attention, and he knew what he wanted to do, and accepted that challenge. I don’t know that prior to the injury and everything he went through that he would have been able to do that before.
“I think he’s learned to accept what’s in front of him, and the little small challenges within the game don’t twist him up much anymore.”
A flurry of trade rumors during and after the 2016 season amounted to nothing, and Profar was back in Surprise this spring with his old energy and sense of purpose. He left camp in late February to play for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, where he’ll renew ties with boyhood friends Jonathan Schoop and Xander Bogaerts and nod his head in assent when manager Hensley Meulens asks him if he’s up for being adventurous. With Bogaerts, Schoop, Andrelton Simmons and Didi Gregorius available for infield duty, Profar is likely to wind up in either left field or center.
Once Profar returns to Arizona following the Classic, he’ll receive the same message from Banister and the Texas coaching staff. They’ll tell him to watch Beltre and the other veterans, settle on a routine that can help him stay balanced during the hard times, and have faith that his ability and work ethic will see him through in the end.
It’s not very exciting advice, but it addresses a harsh reality for baseball prospects: The game is hard, and Mike Trouts don’t come around very often. Sometimes it takes a few dark moments to make a ballplayer appreciate the light on the other side.