Last offseason, the Texas Rangers were among the seven finalists for Japanese two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani. But despite having the most money to offer, Ohtani chose to sign with their division rival Los Angeles Angels.
One year later, the Rangers are trying again to add another two-way player, although this one comes with much less upside: former Chicago White Sox third baseman Matt Davidson, who they reportedly signed to a minor league deal Friday.
Davidson may not be a household name since being a first-round pick in 2009, but he’s shown flashes of potential. Although he crossed the 20-homer mark each of the last two seasons, his lack of defense and high strikeout rate have led to him producing -0.1 WAR.
However, Davidson has also tried his hand at pitching several times. The right-hander threw three scoreless outings last season with a pair of strikeouts, one walk and one hit allowed. With the games out of hand, the hitters were presumably not as locked in as they could be, but Davidson still put on a show.
How good is Davidson’s stuff?
In his final outing, which came against the Yankees, Davidson displayed a nasty curveball and a fastball up to 91.6 mph. He got Giancarlo Stanton to foul off three pitches before eventually punching him out on a breaking ball in the dirt.
Davidson’s curveball on the Stanton strikeout came in at 2,434 rpm, which is right around league average. His curve averaged 2,373 rpm, which is 13 points ahead of … you guessed it, Shohei Ohtani. Meanwhile, his average fastball velocity (89.8 mph) was 3 mph below league average and 3.6 mph below average for relievers.
Of course, Davidson didn’t have time to focus on pitching throughout the regular season. The 27-year-old has been working on pitching over the offseason, so his stuff could tick up somewhat with formal training and extra attention.
How hard is the transition?
Davidson isn’t the first position player to try his hand at pitching, although success is extremely limited. This is not a similar situation to Ohtani, who both hit and pitched throughout his time in the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization.
In 2017, the San Diego Padres tried to convert catcher Christian Bethancourt into a Swiss Army Knife catcher/reliever/outfielder. That experiment lasted less than a month, when he was outrighted to the minor leagues, and he hasn’t been back to the majors since.
At the same time, the Detroit Tigers allowed outfielder and former top prospect Anthony Gose to pitch after failing to make it as an outfielder, but he only managed a 7.59 ERA in High-A. The Houston Astros took a chance on him in the Rule 5 Draft the following winter, but he didn’t stick and never made it above Double-A.
More recently, Angels third baseman Kaleb Cowart decided he would try his hand at being a two-way player. However, he’s already been put on waivers twice this season, and the Tigers aren’t as keen on the experiment as the Angels and Seattle Mariners were.
There are plenty of examples of position players who converted to relief — just look at Kenley Jansen and Mychal Givens — but the most successful ones almost always do it at a young age before they reach the majors.
What could Davidson’s fit be on the Rangers?
The appeal of a late-career converted reliever is that they can feed two birds with one scone by using a single roster spot on a backup corner infielder and a relief pitcher. Positional flexibility is at a premium, and the Los Angeles Dodgers made back-to-back World Series with lots of depth and moving pieces defensively.
The Rangers are fairly thin in terms of infield depth despite signing Asdrubal Cabrera late in the offseason to shore up third base. Otherwise, the Rangers’ only backup infielders are little-known prospect Patrick Wisdom and backup catcher Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Davidson could add some pop off the bench and fill in at the hot corner and first.
Given that Davidson is on a minor league deal, he will have to prove his worth to make it onto the active roster and 40-man roster. He won’t be a star by any means, but Davidson could be one of the more intriguing parts of an otherwise boring season for the Rangers.
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