2008 MLB Preview: Texas Rangers
Manager: Ron Washington
Arrivals: OF Milton Bradley, 1B Ben Broussard, RP Jason Davis, OF Jason Ellison, RP Kazou Fukumori, RP Eddie Guardado, OF Josh Hamilton, SP Jason Jennings, C Adam Melhuse, OF Kevin Mench, RP Dustin Nippert, SP John Patterson
Departures: RP Willie Eyre*, OF Jerry Hairston, RP Akinori Otsuka, OF Sammy Sosa, SP Edison Volquez, OF Brad Wilkerson
Offseason grade: D
Three years ago, it looked like the Rangers had a potentially great trio of minor leaguers–the "DVD" trio of John Danks, Edison Volquez, and Thomas Diamond.
Danks is now with the White Sox, traded there along with Nick Masset another minor leaguer for Brandon McCarthy, who will be on the disabled list until at least mid-may with a forearm injury in his throwing arm. He went 5-10 with a 4.87 ERA and nearly a 1:1 K/BB ratio last year (48 walks to 59 strikeouts).
The problem with McCarthy is that he only has three pitches—a low 90's fastball, a mediocre changeup, and an above-average curveball. However, if he can't locate his changeup, hitters can tee off on him knowing that he can only throw two pitches. If he can't locate both his curveball and changeup, you might as well replace him with a pitching machine. While he'll return to the Texas rotation when he comes back, his future certainly isn't nearly as bright as that of Danks.
Volquez is now with the Reds, traded there for Josh Hamilton. Hamilton isn't a pitcher.
And Diamond is still in the Rangers organization, but has struggled ever since being promoted to AA Frisco.
The Rangers have yet to have a competitive pitching staff since the turn of the millenium, and, unless they can start trading for pitching prospects instead of dealing them away, they won't for a long, long time.
The excuse of "well, Ameriquest Field is a hitter-friendly ballpark" is a total cop-out. The Rockies' amazing run to the World Series last year was triggered by excellent pitching. The White Sox won the 2005 World Series behind one of the best pitching staffs in recent memory (call me a homer, but look at the stats) while pitching in one of baseball's most hitter-friendly ballparks. Even the Phillies managed to make the playoffs last year while playing in the bandbox that is Citizens Bank Ballpark.
So maybe, just maybe, there's some hope for this Texas organization.
Hope for now, though? Save it. This pitching staff isn't going anywhere.
Kevin Millwood is starting to look like almost as big of a waste of $60 million as Chan Ho Park was after going 10-14 with a 5.14 ERA last year. He'll come in as the Rangers' "ace", but I use that term loosely. Millwood is 33 and has given no reason why he'll return to the sub-3.00 ERA he had with Cleveland in 2005.
Add Vicente Padilla's $33.75 million contract in there and the Rangers are paying two pitchers nearly $100 million to pitch like marginal fourth or fifth starters.
Unless they can find a team stupid enough to take on those two bloated contracts, the Rangers are stuck with Millwood and Padilla until 2010.
A side note: I can't wait for the first White Sox/Rangers game that Padilla pitches in. Padilla has a history with AJ Pierzynski and Nick Swisher, who had a good mind to beat the living snot out of Padilla last year after it became apparent that Padilla was trying to hit him. There certainly could be some fireworks between these three this year, so stay tuned.
Jason Jennings will slot in as Texas' No. 3 starter after going a robust 2-9 with a 6.45 ERA for Houston last year. While Jennings was very good for Colorado in 2006, his 3.78 ERA that year was by far the lowest of his career. Outside of two years ago, Jennings' ERA has never been below 4.50 and it was above 5.00 from 2003-05. In short, he's not that good of a pitcher and will struggle as the Rangers third starter.
The back end of Houston's rotation finally brings us to the youth in this group.
Kason Gabbard will turn 26 in early April and was brought over from Boston in the Eric Gagne trade last summer. Outside of a couple of horrendous starts in the final month of the year, Gabbard was pretty good, going 6-1 with a 4.65 ERA over 15 starts.
Although he's struggled in spring training, I think Gabbard will put together a fine season with Texas this year. He hasn't thrown a full season in the majors yet, so Texas shouldn't be expecting really big things out of him in 2008, but if he can use this year as a building block, he really could blossom in 2009.
Luis Mendoza, another former Red Sox farmhand, will round out the Rangers rotation. Mendoza, 24, jumped from AA Frisco to the majors last year, where he started three games in six appearances.
His minor-league track record is unimpressive over stops in rookie ball, low-A, high-A, and AA, posting a career 4.55 ERA in six seasons. He did go 15-4 with a 3.93 ERA for Frisco last year, but he may end up being overwhelmed by a full major-league season.
Eric Hurley, 21, is one of the few good pitching prospects left in this organization. He should settle in to Oklahoma City's rotation this year and, for the sake of the future of this ballclub, he better pitch well.
The late addition of John Patterson, who was cut by the Nationals, could mean a guy like Mendoza could get some seasoning with AAA Oklahoma City if he struggles out of the gate.
Patterson hasn't been able to stay off the disabled list since pitching very well with Washington in 2005. He's scuffled when he's been healthy, though, and the Nationals didn't have room for him in their rotation.
It would be extremely pitiful, though, if the Rangers resorted to using a Washington Nationals castoff in their rotation.
Starting rotation grade: D-
The Rangers will open the year with eight relief pitchers, but that should be cut down to seven once Luis Mendoza comes off the disabled list and makes his season debut April 12.
(A note: Mendoza was scheduled to make his season debut on that date anyways, but he has a minor injury so the Rangers decided to put him on the DL and carry an extra reliever for the first two weeks of the season)
CJ Wilson will be the closer for this Rangers ballclub despite the signing of Eddie Guardado in the offseason. It's a smart move to let Wilson, 27, close, as he could develop into a very dependable ninth-inning option for the Rangers. He saved 12/14 with a 3.03 ERA last year, striking out 63 in 68.1 innings.
Guardado came back from Tommy John surgery last year and struggled with Cincinnati, throwing just 13.2 innings with a 7.24 ERA. Before the surgery, Guardado had four consecutive years of sub-3.00 ERAs, but it's unlikely he'll regain that.
If he can keep his ERA below 4.00, though, he'll be a dependable middle reliever and left-handed setup man for the Rangers this year.
Joaquin Benoit should be the primary right-handed setup man for Wilson this year. Benoit finally came into his own last year, throwing 82 innings with a 2.85 ERA. He could also double as a long reliever, but he as much more value in later innings.
Kazuo Fukumori struggled last year with Tohoku of the Japenese Pacific League, but before that, he was a fairly dependable pitcher in Japan.
He had offseason elbow surgery but has progressed nicely this spring and could be a dependable middle relief option for Texas in 2008.
Jamey Wright was surprisngly solid last year for Texas, throwing 77 innings with a 3.62 ERA. He'll likely pitch mostly in the early or middle innings.
Franklyn German also won a spot in the Rangers bullpen after keeping his spring ERA hovering around 1.00. However, he hasn't pitched in the majors since he threw 12 innings with Florida in 2006 and has walked 106 batters to just 99 strikeouts in his five-year major-league career.
Don't expect a whole lot out of German this year. He'll probably end up on the shuttle from Oklahoma City to Arlington pretty frequently.
Josh Rupe hasn't pitched in the majors since he threw 29 innigs with a 3.41 ERA for Texas in 2006, but he beat out Kam Loe and Frank Francisco for a spot in this bullpen. He started last year in AAA but ran into elbow troubles, costing him the last two-thirds of the year.
If healthy, he could be a decent option in the middle innings, but it also wouldn't surprise me if he and Loe saw multiple stints at AAA and the majors.
Rounding out the Texas bullpen is Dustin Nippert, who was picked up from Arizona March 28. Nippert has good stuff and was expcted to win the final spot in the Diamondbacks' bullpen, but struggled enough in spring training that Arizona decided to give up on him.
He'll probably be another guy who will frequently be shuffled between AAA and the majors this year.
If the Rangers want their bullpen to be any good behind Wilson/Guardado/Benoit/Fukumori, they're going to need guys like Loe, Francisco, Rupe, and Nippert to pitch like they're capable of. Wright and German made the team because Loe and Francisco struggled in spring training and are not long-term options like Loe and Francisco could be.
Bullpen grade: C+
With Mark Teixeira long gone, the Rangers will need somebody to step up and be a power threat in this lineup.
Josh Hamilton could be that guy after making a much-documented comeback last year, hitting .292 with 19 home runs and 47 RBI in just 298 at-bats for the Reds.
If those numbers stay consistent over a full season, Hamilton will be a power threat with around 35 home runs and 100 RBI.
If Hamilton can't be that guy, it could be Jason Botts. Botts has long been an excellent hitter in the minors, hitting 112 home runs with a .293 batting average over 3,053 career minor-league at-bats. However, he only has hit three home runs with a .242 batting average in 244 at-bats in the majors.
He has the potential to hit 25-30 home runs, but there's a good chance he'll be one of those "AAAA" hitters who never is able to make it in the majors. It'll be interesting to watch if he progresses in the majors this year.
For now, though, Hank Blalock will hit cleanup for the Rangers. Injuries allowed Blalock to play in just 58 games last year, but before that, he hadn't been all that productive since 2004.
It appears that Blalock peaked early after hitting .300 with 29 home runs and 90 RBI in 2003 and .276 with 32 home runs and 110 RBI in 2004. Since then, his batting average has dipped below .270 with just 41 homers and 181 RBI combined in those two years.
Blalock likely won't regain his 2003-04 production anytime soon, but he should get all the opportunity in the world to drive in 100 runs this year while cleaning up.
Hitting ahead of Blalock will be an excellent 2B/SS combo in Ian Kinsler and Michael Young.
Kinsler will be leading off after a great spring at the plate. While he'll hit more home runs than your average leadoff hitter, he's a solid on-base guy who is starting to learn how to take walks in the majors. At just age 25, he's developing nicely into one of the top offensive second basemen in the game.
Young will hit third ahead of Kinsler and Hamilton and is a stellar No. 3 hitter. Hitting over .300 with around 100 RBI is a given from the very consistent Young.
Milton Bradley and Marlon Byrd should provide some good protection behind Young and Blalock. Both aren't power hitters, but they'll hit for a good average and should both drive anywhere between 80 and 100 runs if they can stay healthy.
Ben Broussard and Gerald Laird will round out the lineup, but one of them almost certainly will lose their job to Jarrod Saltalamacchia sometime this year, depending on where the Rangers decide Saltalamacchia is best suited. With Taylor Teagarden establishing himself as a top catching prospect, that could end up being at first base.
Keep an eye on David Murphy, who was also acquired from Boston in the Gagne trade. He's been impressive in spring training and could ultimately push Byrd out of the outfield.
Byrd's been mentioned in trade rumors–namely, to the Cubs–all offseason, and while he may not end up there with Reed Johnson on board on the North Side, he could end up being traded for much-needed pitching at some point, with Murphy taking over.
Frank Catalanotto also will see his fair share of at-bats either as a DH or outfielder. He still has a decent bat, but won't hit over .300 again in his career.
If the Rangers can find a legit power threat–be Hamilton, Botts, or even Blalock–this lineup will be very good. I think Hamilton will fit that role nicely and could drive in well over 100 runs if he gets moved to the cleanup spot sooner rather than later.
Lineup grade: B+
Ramon Vazquez can play all over the infield with a decent glove, but he doesn't bring much to the table in terms of offense.
Murphy will be a very good fourth outfielder if the Rangers hang on to Byrd, but given the injury troubles that Bradley has had over his career, they'd be better served hanging on to Byrd and waiting to use Murphy in place of Bradley.
Adam Melhuse is a decent veteran backup catcher who doesn't hit a whole lot and may get displaced if Saltalamacchia comes back up as a catcher.
Bench grade: C+
I've seen a few people pick the Rangers as a possible "surprise" team, but I just don't see that happening this year. Their pitching just isn't good enough and there's very little chance for guys like Millwood, Padilla, and Jennings to pull off a miracle season.
However, in the unlikely event of that actually happening, the Rangers have the bullpen and offensive pieces in place to maybe finish above .500. They won't unseat the Mariners or Angels, but I don't think they'll finish behind the A's, either.
That being said, this team still has a long way to go before they can think about contending. It's all about pitching, and the Rangers don't have a whole lot of it.
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