For Rangers, diversity soaring to new heights
With Choo, Opening Day lineup projects to have players from eight countries
ARLINGTON -- A movement that was really started by former general manager Tom Grieve and scouting director Sandy Johnson in the mid-1980s and lost steam at the turn of the millennium could reach a new level for the Rangers on Opening Day 2014 after the free-agent signing of outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.
Assuming that Yu Darvish -- second in American League Cy Young Award voting last season -- is the starting pitcher, the Rangers' Opening Day lineup could have players representing eight World Baseball Classic countries.
In addition, the Rangers' lineup could have just three players born in the United States. That includes right fielder Alex Rios, who was born in Alabama but grew up in Puerto Rico and plays for them in the Classic. The other two USA-born players are first baseman Prince Fielder and designated hitter Mitch Moreland.
The 2014 Opening Day lineup projects to include catcher Geovany Soto (Puerto Rico), second baseman Jurickson Profar (Curacao), shortstop Elvis Andrus (Venezuela), third baseman Adrian Beltre (Dominican Republic), center fielder Leonys Martin (Cuba), Darvish (Japan) and Choo (South Korea) in left.
That would represent a massive change from Jon Daniels' first year as general manager in 2006. The Rangers' lineup on Opening Day that year consisted of 10 players born in the United States, none of whom were African-American.
The transformation in diversity reinforces the Rangers' goal of acquiring players from every possible venue through both amateur and professional scouting. Besides being willing to compete at the top of the free-agent market for players like Beltre and Choo, the Rangers over the past eight years have greatly increased their time, effort and expenditures in Latin America and the Far East.
In addition to the projected Opening Day lineup, 10 of the Rangers' top 20 prospects as ranked by MLB.com are from Latin America.
The Rangers' 1993 Opening Day lineup is the only one that comes close in terms of diversity, according to research on baseball-reference.com. That lineup had just three USA-born players, with six countries represented. That included pitcher Craig Lefferts, who was born in West Germany but played high school baseball in Florida and pitched for the United States in international amateur competition.
The addition of Fielder is also significant. He will be the first African-American player born and raised in the United States to be in the Rangers' Opening Day lineup since outfielder Marlon Byrd in 2009.
There is also a possibility that Michael Choice could supplant Moreland as the designated hitter, with the Phillies likely to start either left-hander Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee on Opening Day. If so, it would be only the third time in 15 years the Rangers have had two African-American players in their Opening Day lineup.
The Rangers have reflected an overall trend in baseball. While foreign-born players have been on the rise for the past two-plus decades, the decreasing number of African-American players has been a concern for the Commissioner's Office.
In 2013, African-American players made up just 8.5 percent of the Opening Day rosters in Major League Baseball, down from 19 percent in 1986. Last year, Commissioner Bud Selig formed a 17-member committee to study the issue and MLB continues to put significant resources into inner-city academies in Compton, Calif., Houston and New Orleans.
Four of the Rangers top 20 prospects are African-American: Choice, outfielders Lewis Brinson and Nick Williams, and infielder Travis Demeritte.
Going back to 1986 is significant. The Rangers had three African-American players in their Opening Day lineup that season -- shortstop Curtis Wilkerson and outfielders Oddibe McDowell and Gary Ward -- and that was a normal occurrence.
In their first 15 years in Texas, the Rangers had three or more African-American players in 11 of their Opening Day lineups. Three Opening Day lineups included two African-American players and just one in 1976.
Since 1986, only twice in 27 years have the Rangers had more than two African-American players in their Opening Day lineup. They had four each in 1996-97, when Ken Hill was their Opening Day pitcher.
Prior to 1986, the Rangers also had few foreign-born players. In a four-year stretch from 1982-85, the Rangers did not have one foreign-born player in their Opening Day lineup. But that started to change when Grieve took over as general manager in 1984 and hired Johnson to oversee scouting and player development.
Johnson believed strongly in Latin American players and was determined not to get beat down there. His biggest signings were outfielder Juan Gonzalez and catcher Ivan Rodriguez, two of the best players in club history and a big part of division championship teams in 1996 and 1998-99.
But when Grieve was fired in 1994 and both Johnson and top Latin scout Omar Minaya left a few years later, the Rangers lost their edge in Latin America. By 2004, second baseman Alfonso Soriano, who was acquired in a trade from the Yankees, was the only foreign born player in the Opening Day lineup. There were none in 2006, when Daniels took over.
The Rangers have made incredible strides in diversity over the past eight years. But there is always room for improvement.
The Rangers are in the market for another right-handed bat off the bench to go with Moreland at designated hitter. Jason Bay, who is from Canada, is still available, despite a rumor he is headed for Japan.
Nine players from nine World Baseball Classic countries in one Opening Day lineup might be the one record that will never be broken.