When we last saw the Texas Rangers, they were on the brink of an unlikely ALCS berth. Then Jose Bautista broke everyone’s brain:
The Bat Flip left a sour taste in the mouths of the Rangers and their fans, but it should be considered a victory that they were even in position to have Joey Bats go all Mad Max 2 on them. On July 20 last season the Texas Rangers’ playoff odds, according to Baseball Prospectus, cratered to a season-low 4.1%. When the club completed the blockbuster trade for Cole Hamels just a few days later, everyone, including Jon Daniels if he was subjected to Veritaserum, assumed it was a deal for 2016 when the Rangers could start the season fresh with a brand new ace.
Then the Rangers closed the season on a 38–21 run that coincided with lengthy slumps from the Angels and Astros, propelling Texas to a division crown that seemed impossible at the trade deadline. The Baseball Prospectus playoff odds chart for the Rangers and Angels nicely sums up the 2015 playoff race. Angels go down, Rangers go up.
The Rangers stayed quiet this winter, hoping to finally elude the injury misfortune that sunk them to last place in 2014 and nearly derailed their 2015 before late-season magic carried them to the postseason.
Yovani Gallardo (SP), Leonys Martin (CF), Mike Napoli (1B), Ross Ohlendorf (RP)
Ian Desmond (LF), Tom Wilhelmsen (RP), Justin Ruggiano (OF), A.J. Griffin (SP)
The Angels might want to think about lining up their bevy of left-handed starters for a series against Texas. Most of the Rangers’ best hitters swing from the left side, yet it didn’t impact them as much as you might expect in 2015. Against left-handers they posted a 95 wRC+, and against right-handers they posted a 98 wRC+. Still, the Angels should exploit any slight advantage they can in the tight AL West, and the use of left-handers could be more stark in Arlington, where left-handed pitching won’t be as susceptible to the jet streams that carry balls over the fence in right field.
The 2015 Rangers weren’t the fearsome offensive juggernaut of recent history, though their middling 95 wRC+ was dragged down by a brutal first half. Texas was happy to get bounce-back seasons from Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, while Adrian Beltre added another four-win season to his Hall of Fame career. Elvis Andrus still can’t find his bat, but he at least chipped in with good base running and above average defense from a premium position. That expensive core was supplemented by breakout contributions from Rougned Odor, Rule 5 draftee Delino DeShields, and Robinson Chirinos’ above average offense from the catcher position.
Meanwhile, Texas has some of the more interesting depth options in all of baseball. Jurickson Profar is still around and not that far removed from his days as the best prospect in baseball. He’s not going to take playing time away from Odor or the overpaid Andrus, but every club needs depth and trade chips. If Texas needs to fill a hole, some team will be willing to take a chance on Profar’s pedigree, particularly since it wasn’t poor play that has afflicted Profar’s career. If and when Beltre goes down with his annual injury—or if the Ian Desmond gamble in left field doesn’t pay off—Joey Gallo’s 90-grade power will be there to fill the void, and when he does he might stay up for good provided he figures out how to make contact with a baseball on a more consistent basis. He blasted six homers in his first cup of coffee last season, undoubtedly putting the fear of God in AL West rivals. And oh, hey, Josh Hamilton is still hanging around, cashing checks from Arte Moreno while trying to beat him. Hamilton is no longer good at baseball but he can still be a useful as a role player as a left-handed power bat off the bench. You know, the precise thing the Angels don’t have.
The Rangers have good players on paper but it feels like the lineup could sink this season. There’s good hitters here, but no mega superstar to keep things afloat. The core is old. Beltre turns 37 next week and he finally appeared to show signs of age last year with his worst offensive season since 2008. Choo is 33, an awful defensive player that is blocked by Fielder from moving to DH, and just a season removed from a poor, injury-plagued 2014. Fielder is 31, a season removed from a scary neck injury, and has the same physique that scared many teams away when he hit free agency in 2011. It’s not inconceivable one or two of those three fall off a cliff, and if all three do the Rangers are doomed. 2015 was probably the best case scenario for those three players in that they were all (relatively) healthy and productive in spite of their ages and recent history. And the Rangers STILL had the fourth-worst wRC+ in the American League. The Rangers deserved some fortune after a the ridiculous stream of injuries in 2014, but if they fall victim to more injuries or age-induced regression this year they’ll need their promising young players to take on a larger burden than they might be ready for.
The potential is here for Texas to have a lights-out rotation. Cole Hamels is great. Last season aside, Derek Holland is effective when he can actually stay healthy. Ditto Martin Perez. That’s everyone, right? I don’t think I’m forgetting anyone…
Right, Yu Darvish. He’s pretty good. Arguably the best starting pitcher in the AL two years ago, a healthy Darvish could be a trump card in the division race for Texas. Problem is, by the time Darvish returns, IF he returns, it’ll be nearly two calendar years since he pitched in a meaningful baseball game. And just because he’s healthy doesn’t mean he’ll be the strikeout beast he used to be. That’s the thing with this rotation. The Ghost of Matt Harrison looms over everything, as injuries have plagued the Texas staff since their back-to-back AL pennants. It’s a miracle Hamels hasn’t already torn his labrum while scratching his back. But the idea of Hamels/Darvish/Holland/Perez fronting a rotation is tantalizing, and if all of them are healthy and resemble their former, better selves…
Shawn Tolleson solidified himself as the closer last season, posting career best strikeout and walk rates. DeShields’ ascendance allowed Texas to deal Leonys Martin to Seattle for reliable set-up man Tom Wilhelmsen. Sam Dyson is a good reliever and I also highly recommend his line of vacuums.
Keone Kela seems primed to be the breakout star. In his first taste of Big League action, the 22-year-old struck out 28% of batters in 60-1/3 innings and limited his walks to 7.4% after posting alarming walk rates in the minors. Other than the Yankees or Royals it’s tough to predict how effective a bullpen will be, but if Kela builds upon 2015 the Rangers look like a solid bet to have one of the more underrated units in baseball.
Texas will contend all summer but they’ll ultimately be undone by an old lineup that will be plagued by injury and regression. The pitching will be good, but won’t quite reach the ceiling the Rangers need for them to be a serious playoff threat. The upside is here for a division title, but a third place finish is the most likely outcome.
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Player Previews: Yunel Escobar; Kole Calhoun; Mike Trout; Albert Pujols; C.J. Cron; Daniel Nava; Carlos Pérez; Johnny Giavotella; Geovany Soto; Andrelton Simmons; Cliff Pennington; Jered Weaver; Andrew Heaney; Garrett Richards; Hector Santiago; Matt Shoemaker; Huston Street; Nick Tropeano; Joe Smith; Mike Morin; José Álvarez; Fernando Salas; Craig Gentry; Cory Rasmus; Roster Depth