ARLINGTON, Texas — If you talk to those who have watched and played with Leury Garcia over the course of his career, what he’s doing this season — going from fringe major leaguer to legitimate major league contributor — isn’t anywhere close to a surprise.
Just ask his former teammate, Elvis Andrus.
“I love that kid,” the Rangers shortstop said. “I don’t think he realizes how talented he is.”
Andrus says this without much prodding. An easy question lofted at him like a hanging breaking ball — “What do you remember from Leury Garcia’s time with the Rangers?” — sends the nine-year veteran into a flurry of compliments for the White Sox utility player.
“He can do it all. He’s a small guy, but he’s got some power and he can run. He’s a smart player. I know he’s doing good over there and I have so much respect for him. I’m really happy to see him get comfortable here in the big leagues.”
A similar question posed slightly differently to Garcia’s current teammate, Jose Abreu — “What have you noticed from Leury Garcia this year compared to previous seasons?” — elicits a similar response.
“He’s a very real talent,” Abreu said through the White Sox team interpreter. “When you’re that talented and you work as hard as he does, the outcomes are going to be good. I think we’re watching the results right now of everything he’s done in terms of his preparation on a daily basis.”
If you talk to those around Garcia, he was always supposed to be here.
But his path to regular playing time was not without its travails.
He signed with the Rangers as an international free agent in December 2007, just five months after Texas acquired Andrus in a famous prospect haul from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Mark Teixeira. Unlike Andrus, who two years later finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting, has two All-Star appearances to his credit, and has already pocketed $59 million in major league earnings, Garcia was always considered more of a fringe major leaguer — a utility type with advanced speed and defense but whose bat may never come around enough to stick long term.
In fact, the first mention of Garcia in BP’s annual system rankings during his time in the Rangers’ system (granted, this was back when it was regularly among the top farm systems in baseball) was when Kevin Goldstein ranked him as the No. 19 prospect in their organization prior to the 2012 season with a one sentence write-up: “Pure shortstop with plenty of speed, but will he ever hit?”
A year later he was mentioned again, this time by Jason Parks, as a player outside of the Top 10 who would be likely to see time with that year’s major league team.
“In a system full of toolsy shortstop prospects, Garcia might have the loudest tools of the bunch. With a plus-plus arm, smooth actions, and 8 run, the diminutive yet catalytic player has positioned himself as a future super-utility option at the highest level. At the plate, he can make contact and get his legs involved, and on defense, he can play on the left side of the infield and has even logged time in the outfield.”
Garcia did see time with the Rangers that season, and six months after that report was sent to the White Sox in exchange for Alex Rios. But four years later he entered the 2017 season with just 331 plate appearances to his credit and a .188/.225/.237 line to show for it.
He’s going to more than double his amount of plate appearances this season, and has been a completely different hitter in doing so, hitting .293/.342/.452 with a 112 OPS+ entering play Sunday. So, what changed?
“Just getting regular at-bats,” Garcia said. “Having the opportunity to see more pitches, to play day in, day out, that’s the only way you can learn and grow as a player, because you’re doing things every day and getting into a routine.”
Garcia has become more or less that super-utility player Parks saw four years ago, but it took several years of struggles and trekking back and forth between Chicago and Triple-A Charlotte for him to get to this point, something he admitted weighed on him during the past several seasons.
“It was a little bit frustrating,” he said. “Every player wants to be here and wants to stay here once you reach this level. I just tried to keep a positive mindset.”
Garcia attributes consistent playing time with his increased production at the plate, and the numbers do hint toward someone who feels more comfortable handling major league pitching than in previous seasons.
Quite simply: He’s making more contact. His strikeout rate has dropped nearly seven percent from his career average of 25.2 percent, and while his walk rate is right in line with his career average, he’s making contact on pitches he swings at about two percent more often than his career average, a small but not insignificant addition.
“(More playing time) has allowed him an opportunity to find himself a little bit,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s maturing quite a bit, actually. Every year that guy get to the big leagues, every time that they’re able to chip away opportunities, I think they get better.”
That opportunity may not have been afforded to Garcia if it weren’t for the direction the White Sox took entering 2017. The competition for starting center fielder was wide open at the start of Spring Training, and even during a rebuilding season, the odds were stacked against him. With Peter Bourjos, Charlie Tilson, and Jacob May all in the mix, there was a question as to whether or not he would even make the Opening Day roster.
A natural shortstop, Garcia knew that versatility and the ability to play the outfield would play a factor in his sticking around in Chicago.
“I’ve been working on (playing the outfield) for the past two or three years because I knew the opportunities would come based on my ability to play multiple positions,” Garcia said. “But this offseason I was playing in the Dominican Republic and I worked on just playing the outfield. That helped me get a little better idea of how to play out there, and really helped me become a better player.”
Five months later, Bourjos is in Tampa, Tilson remains injured, and May’s hot spring cooled to the point where he was in Triple-A after a brief and futile stay in Chicago. Garcia, on the other hand, thrived in center field and has been worth 5.5 FRAA overall, recently shifting to left field after the trade of Melky Cabrera to get defensive specialist Adam Engel in the lineup in center field.
The White Sox are a team in transition right now, and with a host of young talent in the pipelines, whether or not he sticks around as the Eloy Jimenez’s and Blake Rutherford’s and Luis Roberts of the world make their way to Chicago will be determined by a good number of factors.
But his improved contact skills and defensive versatility have, if nothing else, given the White Sox another option to consider as they work toward building their next contender.
Lead Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports