Outfield layout hinges on Bradley

Outfield layout hinges on Bradley

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- At some point later this week or early next week, Rangers outfielder Milton Bradley will start getting some at-bats in Minor League games.

He will do so as a designated hitter under controlled conditions. Bradley underwent surgery on Sept. 27 to repair a torn ligament in his right knee and is not ready to play the outfield. He is getting closer to that point each day, but Opening Day also draws closer.

Bradley is still expected to be the starting right fielder this season, but the Rangers are not 100 percent sure that he'll be ready on Opening Day. It could be David Murphy or Marlon Byrd. It could be Kevin Mench.

The Rangers' outfield situation still simmers with the unknown, as Bradley diligently tries to get ready to play the field.

"I can play as soon as tomorrow, but I know from previous experience, like last year with the A's, when you feel good doesn't necessarily mean you're ready," Bradley said Wednesday before the Rangers' game with the Cubs. "It's Spring Training, and I don't want to get too crazy. I'm already way ahead of schedule, so I just want to keep progressing and make sure I know I'm ready.

"I know in my heart I'm ready, but I got a ton of people from the outside telling me to take it easy and relax. I feel like Superman, but I'm going to play it like Handyman from 'In Living Color.'"

The Rangers monitor Bradley's progress carefully because they have Opening Day lineups and roster decisions pending. They still have to figure out who will take the final spot on the bench, and it could come down to outfielder Mench vs. infielder Edgardo Alfonzo.

Right now everything points to Mench, especially if Bradley is limited to designated hitter duty at the start of the season and the Rangers need the extra outfielder. If Bradley is ready to play the outfield, Mench could be the right-handed platoon designated hitter to go with Frank Catalanotto. To increase his versatility, the Rangers want Mench to start taking ground balls at first base as well.

"I'll use him there starting next week," manager Ron Washington said. "We'll get him going taking balls and get him over there -- introductory thing -- and probably in a game by the following week. [We'll] put him over there for a few innings and get him comfortable."

Jason Botts, who can play both first base and the outfield, and Nelson Cruz are also in the mix, but it's clear that Mench is the favorite right now. He could even be the Rangers' Opening Day right fielder against Mariners left-hander Erik Bedard if Bradley isn't ready.

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Botts went into Wednesday's game hitting .389 (7-for-18) with one home run and seven RBIs, while Cruz, who hit a walk-off home run in Tuesday's victory over the White Sox, was hitting .200. Both are out of options, meaning the Rangers would have to expose them to outright waivers before they could be sent to the Minor Leagues.

Botts has great Minor League numbers, but there's still concern about his bat speed. Cruz has terrific athleticism, but scouts suggest he often seems lost at the plate. Mench, on the other hand, at least has a proven track record that includes a .305 career batting average with 40 home runs in 704 at-bats against left-handers. Being able to play first base would be a bonus.

Alfonzo, 34, offers a different look than a fifth outfielder. A former All-Star infielder for the Mets, Alfonzo is a player who might give the Rangers a legitimate right-handed bat at first base, third base and designated hitter.

The question is if he has anything left. He last played in the Major Leagues in 2006, when he hit .126 in 30 games with the Angels and the Blue Jays before spending last season playing for the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League.

"He's a player," Washington said. "He still knows how to swing the bat, and he has good hands. He can play everywhere. We'll see where we're going to go with it."

The assumption about the Rangers outfield coming into camp was that Bradley would be in right, Josh Hamilton in center, Marlon Byrd in left and David Murphy as the fourth outfielder. That may not be the case.

Washington wants Byrd to be able to play all three outfield positions. If Bradley is not playing, Byrd could be in right field and Murphy in left. Washington also said he wants Byrd in center field on days when Hamilton is not in the lineup. Byrd started there on Wednesday against the Cubs.

"I want both [Murphy and Byrd] to be able to get comfortable on the corners," Washington said. "I like to see Byrd in center field if it's open out there. I will get Murphy some games there, but Byrd would be the guy I'd go with.

"Without Milton in there: Byrd in right, Murphy in left and sometimes Murphy in right and Byrd in left. I want to make sure both can do it. If Milton is not ready by March 31, we got Murphy and Byrd. I think the decision-making will come easier once we start to get Milton going and see where he is and see if he's ready to go on Opening Day."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.