With a shaky starting rotation and a rookie manager leading the way, few MLB analysts picked the 2015 Texas Rangers to make noise in the American League West…especially following a disastrous 67-95 record. Their perceived postseason chances only sunk lower once Yu Darvish was lost for the year due to Tommy John surgery.
That’s why they play the game, though.
Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo bounced back from injuries, the starting rotation held together long enough before trading for Cole Hamels, and before we realized it, this team was crowned division champs with an 88-74 record.
Despite this unlikely turnaround and most of the same guys coming back for another year, both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project them to finish with a record below .500 in 2016. These projections were released before Ian Desmond signed to be their left fielder, but it’s doubtful there’d be a significant change.
What’s up with the general lack of respect for the Rangers ahead of Opening Day? Well, a bunch of things had to go right for Texas to be successful last year: certain guys needed to stay healthy and others had to perform well with little or no big-league experience under their belts.
As we can see from how 2015 played out, enough of those things happened, allowing them to play October baseball for the first time since 2012. Outside of Desmond, there were no significant changes (or upgrades) to the roster that was eliminated by the Toronto Blue Jays last fall in the ALDS. While some may view that as a mistake given their current opportunity to compete, it may not be that big of a deal.
It shouldn’t be shocking to see most projection systems not giving the Rangers much love. Fielder and Choo are one year closer to their mid-30s. Adrian Beltre is entering his age-37 season and has been declining in recent years (although he’s still been solid). Hamels at the front of the rotation is great, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty behind him, as well.
However, general manager Jon Daniels could definitely make a case that action via trades or free agency this winter wasn’t necessary because the roster already has potential upgrades and roster depth available. There are a number of young players they’ll be getting a full season of production from, along with some impact players returning from injury.
After a horrendous start to 2015, Rougned Odor was sent down to the minors and returned a different hitter. In 52 games before the All-Star game, he posted a .241/.321/.382 triple slash (including some time on the interstate through the end of May). Following the midsummer classic, he did an about-face and hit .273/.313/.520. Having a full season of him at the tender age of 22 should be an upgrade at second base, as many are picking him to have a breakout campaign.
Delino DeShields, Jr. gives Texas manager Jeff Banister speed at the top of the order, and the expectation will be that the former Rule 5 draft pick takes another step forward in his age-23 season. There’s also former top prospect Jurickson Profar, who’s healthy for the first time in a couple years. He’s a potentially elite talent who can easily step in for either Odor or Elvis Andrus up the middle if necessary.
With their perceived depth and upside at various spots around the diamond, why sign Desmond to a one-year, $8 million deal to play the outfield when he’s only played 7.1 career innings there? The former shortstop brings one thing to the table Josh Hamilton can’t in left field: durability.
Yes, Desmond’s downward trend since an All-Star campaign in 2012 is alarming, but he plays just about every day and has 20-homer, 20-steal potential. He’s appeared in at least 154 games five times since 2010, and the one year he didn’t, he played in 130 ballgames. Plus, Desmond provides even more depth in the middle infield if something happened to those currently at the top of the depth chart.
Last, but certainly not least, the pitching staff will soon have both Hamels and Darvish leading the way. That should be the greatest difference for this club once he does return.
When the right-hander went down around this time last spring, the best starting pitcher Texas had on its active roster was Yovani Gallardo. So, when purely comparing Gallardo and Hamels – whether it’s by the eye test or looking at numbers – a pretty decent upgrade already exists.
At the moment, Darvish’s target return date is around late May or early June. If he can come back and be the kind of pitcher who posted fWARs of 4.6, 4.5 and 3.8 in his first three big-league seasons before missing 2015, that would be a tremendous (and extra) boost the staff didn’t get last year.
In order to be successful, every single team – even those considered heavy favorites on paper – must have certain things go right in order to meet or exceed expectations. The Rangers were fortunate to have a lot of things fall in their favor last year, and while they may need history to repeat itself in 2016, they’re not different than any other team, especially in the AL West.
The Houston Astros are getting most of the attention in this division, and there’s good reason for that. They’re young, talented and a team very much on the rise who made a huge upgrade to their biggest weakness this winter (the bullpen). While the projections don’t think so, the Rangers are still in a solid position to win their fourth division title since 2010.
Signing Desmond this close to Opening Day tells us they’ll do what’s necessary to take this team to the next level. If we learned anything from 2015, it’s that if Texas has any kind of chance at making noise in the AL West, that’s all they need to actually accomplish it.
With a similar roster returning and other in-house reinforcements in place, they’ve got a great chance of exceeding outside expectations once again.
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