There's competition for center field

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Don't mix up the Texas Rangers' competition for center field with the idea that they aren't sure who the best center fielder is on their roster.

That title clearly belongs to Josh Hamilton. Just check out the postseason lineup card the last two years. When manager Ron Washington went with the outfield that he felt gave him the best chance to win the most important games, Hamilton was in center.

But the 30-year-old slugger hasn't played a full season since 2008, back when he the headline attraction on a club that still wasn't quite ready for contention. Now, he's a stalwart in the middle of the lineup and a player the Rangers need to keep healthy.

One way they feel they can do that is by playing Hamilton in left more than center. Part of the thinking is he's not having to cover as much ground, and if he does try to catch balls near the wall in left, maybe he doesn't reach it with quite the same force as he would on a long run in center.

Hamilton managed to play more in left than center in 2011. The Rangers would like to see a repeat of that in 2012.

"I hope we can keep him in left," Washington said. "That's our hope."

Turning hope into reality is up to the handful of center-field candidates in camp right now. It's the biggest competition on a club with few position battles left. The questions dwindle when you're the two-time AL champions and have become an annual contender.

But center field is a big one. If Washington has someone penciled into that spot when Hamilton isn't there, he's not saying. That's a departure from previous years, when Julio Borbon was handed the position only to disappear in the desert.

"It's open," Washington said of center field. "Somebody's got to take it. We got some talent there. We don't give away things in Texas any more. You got to earn it. We'll see what happens."

Borbon is back again in 2012 but wouldn't be considered the favorite to win the job. In a way, that could help him. He comes in without the same pressure as last year and appears relaxed and ready.

"My goal is to come here, play hard and compete," Borbon said. "I'm not going to try to change anything. It's a matter of competing and leaving it on the field and being more consistent."

Borbon struggled last spring. He made some errors, forgot to go to the on-deck circle at one point and seemed out of sorts at times. It carried over to the season, where he had an error in the first game.

He was 7-for-39 (.179) in the first 15 games. And just as he started to hit the ball a little better, he strained his left hamstring on May 13 and went on the disabled list. He struggled to get going in the minors when he returned, but then found his stroke before he slid into second base and strained ligaments in his left ankle in early July. He didn't play the rest of the season.

Borbon wanted to make sure he got some at-bats and played before spring training, so he played in 29 regular-season games for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. He hit just .193 in the regular season, but .357 in the playoffs as his team won the Caribbean Series title.

"Winter ball helped me to get my feet under me again," Borbon said. "The first month of winter ball was rough because I had been out of baseball for a little bit. It takes a little bit to get back in baseball shape. That was good for me. I was glad to cover that ground I had lost. I went all the way and I can smooth it into spring training now."

While Borbon spent most of 2011 injured, Craig Gentry spent most of it in the big leagues. That experience may give him an edge as the competition gets fully underway.

Gentry wasn't sure he'd stay in the big leagues past the beginning of June. He was called up May 7 and less than a month later was called to the manager's office in Cleveland. Gentry thought he was packing his bags for Triple-A Round Rock.

"I thought I was leaving," Gentry said. "He told me to keep doing what I was doing. I was playing pretty good baseball at that point. That was huge for me."

Gentry, 28, ended up with a .271 average in 133 at-bats (64 games) with 13 RBIs and one inside-the-park homer. He was 18-for-18 on stolen bases and became a reliable defensive replacement down the stretch and in the playoffs. He also started four playoffs games, including two in the World Series.

"I feel like I finished up on a good note and played well through the playoffs, and I got a chance to play on the biggest stage there is out there," Gentry said. "That's nothing but a confidence boost going into this year."

Gentry impressed his skipper by taking advantage of his opportunity. Once he got called up, he stayed on the active roster except for a two-week stint on the concussion disabled list.

"He did well for the way he played and the way he had to play," Washington said. "He used his tools, which we told him he had to do to say here, and used them well."

Still, Gentry knows he must stay healthy. He's had some injuries in past spring trainings and dealt with a sprained left knee and broken right wrist in 2010.

"I need to be out there," Gentry said. "I'm taking the attitude that this is my position and good luck taking it from me. That's the mentality you have to have, and I'm sure the other guys have it, too."

Of the three leading candidates, Leonys Martin is perhaps the most unknown. And realistically, he's a big longshot.

The 23-year-old made his way through part of the Rangers' minor-league system in 2011, starting in Arizona and then playing 29 games in Double-A Frisco (112 at-bats) with a .348 average. The Rangers moved him up to Triple-A to challenge him, and he hit .263 with 17 RBIs and nine stolen bases there.

He got a chance to play in eight games in September with Texas (one start) and was 3-for-8. He's raw and still has a steep learning curve, but he's talented and in the mix.

"It's the first time we'll get a chance to take a full look at him," Washington said. "We'll do the very best we can to use whatever tools each and every one of them have to make us a better ballclub."

Kyle Hudson and Engel Beltre will be out there, too, but this figures to be a three-man race.

"We're going to let it play out," Washington said. "I want someone who can run the ball down, make good decisions and if they hit, I'll take it."

Let the competition begin.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.