Welcome to 2014!
The year is new, but not much has changed with the Texas Rangers' offseason plans and wish list.
After spending a combined $268 million on Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder this winter, the club seems to be a long shot to land Masahiro Tanaka, according to this snippet from DFW SportsDay on Air by Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News.
Grant says that the only real way Texas could seriously feel comfortable jumping into the Tanaka bidding is by selling the naming rights to Rangers Ballpark. This move could bring in several million dollars per year, depending on who the rights are sold to.
Tanaka or not, the Rangers need another starting pitcher. If they get one, it will also seal up any personnel question marks in the bullpen. But at this point in time, the offense looks 98 percent set. As I've said in previous articles, I think the Rangers signing Jeff Baker on a cheap one-year deal is entirely realistic. But the starting nine should be absolutely ready to roll into 2014.
Forty-three days out from the start of spring training, I'm taking a look at that starting lineup for the Rangers as it stands right now. I'll give my best, most honest projections for each player, as well as provide some thoughts for each projection.
I'll start with the leadoff man—the "Choo Choo Train" himself, Shin-Soo Choo—and progress through the expected order.
*All 2013 stats courtesy of ESPN.com
Choo is the new and improved leadoff man for the Rangers.
Position: Left Field
154 games, .290 avg., 22 HR, 70 RBI, .414 OBP, .460 SLG, .874 OPS, 104 BB, 12 HBP, 18 SB
You'll have to forgive me for using a picture of Choo in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. For this slide, I wanted to capture who will be the American League's best leadoff hitter in action.
You read that correctly. I said Choo will the be the AL's best leadoff hitter in 2014. He's the total package at the plate. He does everything above average, except hit lefties consistently. But even last year, when he really struggled against lefties, he still posted a .347 OBP against them.
Choo won't quite reach his 2013 OBP mark of .423, but he'll still be an on-base machine as he recalibrates to the AL after a one-year hiatus in Cincinnati. He'll do what he's paid to do: get on base in any way. His patience will pay off very often, regardless of what league he's in. He won't be plunked 26 times like he was in 2013, and that's due to the higher overall quality of pitching in the AL, compared to the National League.
Choo's power numbers should be close to the same. The Reds' Great American Ballpark has very similar dimensions to Rangers' Ballpark. He'll feast on AL West starting pitching, which is righty-dominant. Overall, Choo's first year in Texas will live up to the hype.
He's the perfect table setter for the Rangers.
Andrus has some of the better bunting skills in the league.
156 games, .275 avg., 5 HR, 65 RBI, .342 OBP, .356 SLG, .698 OPS, 54 BB, 47 SB
I think Elvis' 2014 numbers at the plate will resemble those of his 2011 campaign. This year, he'll raise his average, OBP, walk total and stolen base count from last season. He'll continue to show increased gap power, and with an expected higher average and OBP, I believe he'll also slightly cut down on his strikeouts.
Andrus is a critical piece of this lineup as the bridge hitter between Choo and Prince Fielder. While he could always resort to Ron Washington's small-ball tactics and just sac bunt Choo to second—or actually beat out the bunt—Choo's effectiveness can be optimized if Andrus is swinging the bat well and driving the ball like he did in early 2013.
If he gets on base with Choo, this team will be up in the second inning.
Could Fielder hit 50 homers in Arlington?
161 games, .306 avg., 44 HR, 109 RBI, .407 OBP, .522 SLG, .929 OPS, 98 BB
Fielder is the new monster in the Rangers lineup. This year, I expect him to prove that he is not declining at the plate at all. Being protected by Adrian Beltre and Alex Rios, Fielder will return to the .300 club in 2014.
Get the homer counter ready. With his tendency to pull the ball with authority, forty-plus home runs is completely possible in Rangers Ballpark.
The RBI total would be a little higher if he was hitting cleanup. That is Beltre's spot for now, but I'm sure there will be times when Fielder will hit cleanup this season. I believe both he and Beltre can handle hitting either third or fourth. Rios is a good enough hitter to back up Fielder if he hits cleanup.
Fielder's excellent batter's eye will earn him nearly 100 free passes this year. But he will likely also get at least a few intentional walks this year. In the past, we've seen opposing pitchers pitch around to get to Adrian Beltre, especially if he's having hamstring problems.
Overall, Fielder, like Choo, will prove to be a fantastic grab for Texas. He could be among the AL's top three in homers this year.
Beltre is still the rock of the Rangers' lineup.
150 games, .308 avg., 31 HR, 96 RBI, .375 OBP, .517 SLG, .892 OPS, 57 BB
Even at 34 years old, Beltre, the face of the Texas franchise, will record his fourth consecutive season with a .296 or better average as well as 30 or more home runs. Considering his age and defensive skills, that would be a remarkable achievement.
He will turn 35 in the first week of the 2014 season, however. As such, he will soon have to become a wiser hitter and begin to get on base in other ways. This might be the last full season where the power and average are both league-class. But Beltre of all people knows his body is aging, and he'll counter that by cutting down on his strikeout rate by a couple percentage points and taking more walks this season.
Regardless, Beltre is still the one hitter who the Rangers can't afford to lose for any extended period of time. He needs to continue to be cautious running the bases this year. He should get a day off a few more times in 2014, even if he doesn't want it. It will prolong his career and hitting ability as he begins his transition to DH by mid 2015.
For now, though, expect the same old Beltre at the plate.
Folks, this is the best one through four lineups in baseball.
A healthy Rios will be critical to protect Beltre as much as possible.
155 games, .283 avg., 19 HR, 84 RBI, .332 OBP, .508 SLG, .834 OBP, 49 BB, 36 SB
Rios will do his best to return to his 2012 form with the Chicago White Sox. His 2014 power numbers and run production will be close, but his average won't be near .304. He will raise his OBP, however, as pitchers, especially lefties, will sometimes want to put him on base to get to Mitch Moreland.
Rios has a good eye at the plate, but rather than drawing a ton of walks to show for it, he has an ability to hit a pitch almost anywhere in the zone. His RBI total could be higher if Fielder and Beltre were faster runners.
Occasionally, he'll be driving in Choo from second or third. With a full year in this loaded Texas offense, he will have one of his better run-producing years. Fielder and Beltre may be slow, but when they aren't rounding the bases, they'll be on base for Rios.
Rios will be playing in an option year. You can bet he wants to play with the Rangers in 2015, so perhaps that adds a little extra motivation to perform well in 2014.
Moreland is the third lefty power source in the lineup.
152 games, .248 avg, 22 HR, 64 RBI, .319 OBP, .443 SLG, .762 OPS, 38 BB
Assuming he isn't traded, Moreland will have somewhat of a bounce back year for Texas in 2014. His average and OBP really couldn't have been any worse last season.
Moreland is arbitration eligible this season. He made a shade over $500,000 last season. In his first year of arbitration, let's say he makes a little less than J.P. Arencibia's $1.8 million guaranteed, maybe $1.6 million?
You would absolutely take the above production for that price over a full season, before you paid at least $10 million per year and a first-round pick to the Seattle Mariners for Kendrys Morlales, a weaker and older defensive player.
Yes, Moreland is the key to this team because of his great attitude and solid production for a bucket-of-baseballs price. Since he's going to be the DH most of the time, he'll be able to focus on on his approach and improve his numbers at the plate. He has always had a knack for connecting on timely home runs, and that should continue this year with his above average power.
As a DH, he doesn't need to be an elite on-base or average guy. He has the power and home run potential to make up for those shortcomings. In his position, with Fielder, Beltre and/or Rios on base, all he needs is a single or double. But a homer always works, too.
Soto is another bargain for Texas.
92 games (as starting C), .251 avg, 15 HR, 53 RBI, .326 OBP, .357 SLG, .683 OPS, 41 BB
Soto will be the frontline catcher, and for his $3.05 million price tag, he's a bargain. You'd like your starting catcher's average and power numbers to be a little better, but he'll be platooning with J.P. Arencibia who will provide closer to 60 percent of the long balls from Rangers catchers this season.
Also, factor in Soto's comfort level with ace Yu Darvish into his price, and Texas is getting a really great deal here.
Soto is a streaky hitter. He'll have stretches like he had in the second half last season, where every 12th at bat was a homer. He'll also have cold streaks. He has a keen eye at the plate for a relatively low-average hitter. But if he can put up anything close to those projected numbers, the Rangers have nothing to complain about.
Arencibia will handle the rest.
Martin's speed in the eight hole, will help to begin turning the lineup over.
Position: Center Field
153 games, .264 avg, 13 HR, 46 RBI, .320 OBP, .394 SLG, .714 OPS, 32 BB, 45 SB
Martin is the ideal eight- or nine-hole hitter for the Rangers. He doesn't have the average or OBP to hit too much higher up—he could at most switch spots with Soto. He has a power stroke and with his aggressiveness, he can make things happen once he's on base.
From there, it's stolen base and hit-and-run city for manger Ron Washington. When Martin is on base, Wash has options with Jurickson Profar at the plate.
Martin's everyday exposure turned him into a up-and-coming base stealer last year. It's his single greatest offensive weapon as a player. It was last year, and it will be his strong point this again year. With a higher OBP, somewhere around .330 plus, he could even touch 50 stolen bases.
Nonetheless, expect constant motion on the base paths when Martin is on in 2014. He's one of the Rangers' most exciting players to watch.
The Rangers will need Profar to step up in 2014.
Position: Second Base
154 games, .258 avg, 14 HR, 57 RBI, .328 OBP, .364 SLG, .692 OPS, 49 BB, 15 SB
As I've referred to him before, Profar is the baby of the Rangers offense. But I'm expecting him to take much more than baby steps of improvement in 2014. He's a patient hitter, mature beyond his years, who will significantly develop in other areas at the plate. It will take him another two to four years to reach his potential as a .280, 20 and 75 hitter, but he's well on his way.
Remember, Profar will be just 21 years old on Opening Day.
These numbers, combined with the great defense he'll play at second, are perfect for Texas. Profar is a work in progress, but the best thing about him is that he'll dramatically speed up his development by playing every day, and he's locked up long term.
Just give him some time. Meanwhile, you will see the improvement firsthand this season.