The Rangers have a deck full of wild cards on the table as they open spring training. The top third of their lineup is as definite as attrition allows, but beyond that are seven questions that will define the 2009 season and their immediate future.
Spring training performances may shake out some fuzz but right now a pleasant ambiguity surrounds the balance of the batting order, thanks to a mix of kids coming up with veterans in that early thirties zone where a sabermetrician’s appreciation for the pronounced tendency of decline should not obscure the individual’s ability to beat the odds.
Ian Kinsler (2b), Michael Young (3b) and Josh Hamilton (CF) will bat in the bottom of the first on April 6th against the Tribe, barring injuries, illnesses or a conversion to some sort of bizarre religion in which baseball is forbidden. Each of the three had around 120 games in his respective slot last year (Kinsler, 120; Young, 118; Hamilton, 124).
Meanwhile, the middle third has its players set but not necessarily in the order we may see regularly by the All-Star break. The success of this core group will be half the equation if the Rangers surprise with a run at first this year. (The other half: a top flight rookie season from one of their several young pitching prospects and solid thirty-start seasons from any two of Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Scott Feldman, or a mound hero to be named later).
The top third faces two questions.
First, will Michael Young defy current predictions of a decline in production? My bet: yes. He’s not old enough for this to be about atrophy and gravity. At this point, it’s about character, and Michael Young exemplifies discipline, toughness and mental acuity on the diamond. He’s mastered two positions on the infield and has agreed to tackle the third so Texas can promote Elvis Andrus from double-A to starting shortstop.
His downtick in numbers last year notwithstanding, Young is a complete pro and easily smart enough to compensate for a lost step or slower swing on through his middle thirties. I’d count on it.
And apart from that, his leadership on the field and in the locker room will be invaluable for a team full of guys who are either trying to prove what they can do, or achieve again what they once proved capable of doing.
Question two: will Josh Hamilton have a sophomore slump? He wasn’t really a rookie last year, but he might as well have been. His story is well known and the guy at the plate in 2008 was really an untested quality. He has now proven himself with a natural grace and easy swing that launches the dingers whose high arc makes proud men weep.
My bet: no slump. Hamilton is in his prime and has confronted demons much worse than a league full of pitchers with a few more clues on how to pitch him. He may lose a few ticks off his average, but he’ll pick up a few more walks and keep pumping out home runs.
The No. 4 job has been reserved for right fielder Nelson Cruz, a likeable guy with a lot of skill who’s been ready to break out for several years now. Hence, question number three: Is this (at long last) the year that Cruz produces well and produces consistently?
He’s had his chances and shown some baseball brilliance from time to time but never really jelled. The Cruz Question was foreseen by the prophets decades ago and well summarized by Jim Morrison: Will he make the scene week to week, day to day, hour to hour? With his name in the four slot, the gate is straight, deep and wide—so will he break on through to the other side?
If he does, it tips the Rangers’ season forward in more ways than one. Not least is it could give a “yes” to the question of whether Elvis Andrus will pan out as the rookie at shortstop. The kid’s got snap in his bat, and despite his error rate in the minors, he has the tools to develop competent defensive skills.
But he’s also just barely out of his teen years, will now be unfairly blamed for what many see as rude treatment of a trooper (Young being sent to third to make way), and faces the hurdles identified in Yogi Berra’s famous remark, “Baseball is ninety percent mental.
The other half is physical.” If Cruz takes the role of “new Texas whiz kid” and makes it famous, the relief Andrus will get from fan and press scrutiny just might provide enough shade for him to develop. Otherwise, he wilts.
Andrus is a 7-8-9 hitter, in any event, and the 5/6 slots are likely to fall to first baseman Chris Davis and Hank Blalock, getting relief for a badly banged up body by pulling DH duty. Blalock and Davis should each hit in the ranges of .260 to .280 BA / .325 - .340 OBP with 15 to 25 homers apiece.
Either could displace Cruz from the cleanup position if needed, with Davis having the slight edge for the job and otherwise likely to bat in the fifth position, looking to bring home what Hamilton or Cruz left on base. (Historically, Blalock is roughly twice as likely as Davis to ground into double plays.)
The principal question here is whether Hank Blalock can stay healthy enough to play at all. And that’s a pure unknown. I’ve been a fan since his days in Oklahoma, and the guy’s got the heart of a bull, but he can only do what his body will let him.
So Texas picked up Andruw Jones for a small package of colorful beads and cab fare just in case Hank, or other middle power hitters on the forty-man roster, should fade. Jones comes in looking to kick-start his career after a disaster with the Dodgers.
If he doesn’t make it back, the Rangers will have a nice fan draw at triple-A Oklahoma in the faded star; if he does, the Rangers will have either a ready replacement for a fallen vet or unaccustomed wealth in the outfield.
Similarly, while David Murphy has left field in hand, Marlon Byrd made a strong case last year for plenty of time on the field this year. He and Murphy should each round out at around .270 with ten to twelve homers over the year.
Expect to see Taylor Teagarden catching on opening day as a front office statement about the future. However, unless Teagarden tames major league pitching, he is likely to take fewer at bats than Jarod Saltalamacchia this year.
Teagarden’s a throwback (which we purists find thrilling), a smart, tough catcher who uses the plate as a command post from which to direct the defense, target his pitchers missiles and shoot down base thieves.
But he has not excelled as a batter over his career, despite the .319 he hit in limited appearances late last year. Give major league pitchers a second and third shot at decoding him, and on that level field he’ll need to improve.
While Saltalamacchia has been considered a disappointment, that’s not because he’s unproductive, but simply because he was touted as a future superstar when brought to town. He’ll give the club around .330 to .340 OBP this year while sending 12 to 15 out of the yard in the at-bats he gets platooning with Teagarden.
He’s decent behind the plate and his nickname is “Salty,” which in and of itself has to mean something. Baseball Prospectus has noted that the switch-hitting Saltamachia is particularly strong against right handed pitchers, so it’s reasonable to expect Salty to start against them and the right-handed Teagarden to face southpaws. The amount of playing time would balance out about right with that guideline for the platoon.
This, then, is likely to be the template for the Rangers lineup in 2009
1. Kinsler (2b)
2. Young (3b)
3. Hamilton (CF)
4. Cruz (RF)
5. Davis (1b)
6. Blalock (DH)
7. Saltalamacchia (CA)
8. Murphy (LF)
9. Andrus (SS)