Following two consecutive late-season collapses, the Texas Rangers decided to take a lot of chances this offseason by investing a lot of money into free agency and trading a cornerstone player for a big middle-of-the-order bat.
General manager Jon Daniels has done an outstanding job building this farm system up to be able to make deals at the deadline. He's also hit on a lot of free-agent deals in recent years, most notably Adrian Beltre.
It's hard to find a more consistent franchise, top to bottom, over the last five years than the Rangers. They made the playoffs three consecutive years from 2010 to 2012 and won back-to-back AL pennants (2010, 2011).
On top of that, they are always bringing up new, impact prospects. Players like Elvis Andrus, Jurickson Profar, Martin Perez, Leonys Martin, Neftali Feliz and Tanner Scheppers are just a few of the young stars to come through the pipeline in recent years.
The Rangers have grand designs on getting back to the postseason and World Series in 2014, though it won't be an easy climb with Oakland loading up for another run at the division title.
Let's take a look at what the Rangers have done this offseason and what this spring will look like for the franchise in 2014.
OF Shin-Soo Choo (Free Agent), 1B Prince Fielder (Traded from Detroit), C J.P. Arencibia (Free Agent), SS Adam Rosales (Free Agent), OF Michael Choice (Traded from Oakland), 2B Chris Bostick (Traded from Oakland)
2B Ian Kinsler (Traded to Detroit), DH Lance Berkman (Retired), OF Nelson Cruz (Free Agent), SP Matt Garza (Free Agent), OF David Murphy (Free Agent), RP Joe Nathan (Free Agent), C A.J. Pierzynski (Free Agent), OF Craig Gentry (Traded to Oakland), RHP Josh Lindblom (Traded to Oakland)
The Rangers entered the offseason with one major goal: finding a middle-of-the-order hitter. That was taken care of when they traded Ian Kinsler to Detroit for Prince Fielder, though it did open another hole at the top of the lineup.
Opting to dip into the free-agent pool, the Rangers signed Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year, $130 million contract to solve their problems in the leadoff spot. He also served another purpose, taking the place of free agent Nelson Cruz in right field.
Jon Daniels said at Choo's introductory press conference, via T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com, that the addition of the All-Star outfielder and Fielder were very calculated decisions.
We talked early on about remaking our offense in personality and style, both in the short-term and the long-term, with the goal of winning the World Series and being there every year. We feel we've added two impact players to our lineup. We feel good about what we've been able to accomplish.
Accustomed to having one of the best offenses in baseball, the Rangers finished 2013 just eighth in runs scored and home runs. It was their worst home run rank since 2010.
Fielder and Choo bring with them a combined 46 home runs, 160 RBI and 187 walks last season.
A lot of teams would feel the sting of losing a player like Ian Kinsler, but the Rangers can plug 21-year-old Jurickson Profar into his slot and let him get the consistent at-bats needed to become the star he was projected to be last year.
Derek Holland, LHP
The biggest offseason injury news involved Derek Holland injuring his knee while playing with his dog. He needed microfracture surgery to fix the damage, keeping the left-hander on the shelf at least until midseason.
That's a huge blow to Texas' rotation heading into the season. Holland had a breakout campaign in 2013, posting career-best totals in innings pitched (213), strikeouts (189), strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.95), ERA (3.42) and FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (4.8).
As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs noted after Holland's injury, the internal options for the Rangers aren't anything to get excited about.
Now, figure Holland’s out for half the year. That’s something in the neighborhood of 90-100 innings, innings that could now go to guys like Nick Tepesch, Colby Lewis, and Michael Kirkman. That’s not a disaster, but it is a downgrade, because it basically has to be. Those arms aren’t thought to be replacement-level, but it’s easy to envision a loss of about a win or so.
Going from a solid No. 2 starter to a No. 5/replacement-level arm is a drastic drop in talent, even for just three months. The Rangers will have to tread water in the rotation for a few months, but the good news is they've upgraded the offense enough to potentially offset some lag in pitching.
Colby Lewis, RHP
Colby Lewis was a huge part of Texas' rotation when the team made consecutive World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011. He hasn't been healthy since halfway through the 2012 season but took a minor league offer from the Rangers with an invite to spring training in the offseason.
It’s one of those things that’s really unfortunate for the ball club. It kind of opens the door for me to kind of squeeze in and help out and get back in the swing of things. I think for me, I’m doing great. I’ve been running. Everything is great. The hip feels great. It’s the best I’ve felt in four or five years.
As long as he doesn't suffer any setbacks in camp, Lewis is going to be the favorite for the final spot in the starting rotation. If he doesn't get that job, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Rangers try using him as a long reliever out of the bullpen.
Matt Harrison, LHP
After two years of stellar performance in 2011 and 2012, including an All-Star appearance and a top-10 Cy Young finish, Matt Harrison's 2013 can only be described as a disaster.
The left-hander only threw 10.2 innings in 2013 before going on the disabled list with a herniated disk in his back, which Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said likely led Harrison to change some things in his mechanics to compensate, leading to elbow problems, via USA Today Sports.
With Holland out for at least three months, the Rangers need all the starting pitching depth they can get. Harrison's return will be a much-needed boost.
Texas Rangers 2014 Coaching Staff (Seasons with Team)
|Manager: Ron Washington (8th season)|
|Hitting Coach: Dave Magadan (2nd season)|
|Pitching Coach: Mike Maddux (6th season)|
|First Base Coach: Bengie Molina (1st season)|
|Third Base Coach: Gary Pettis (8th season)|
|Bench Coach: Tim Bogar (1st season)|
|Bullpen Coach: Andy Hawkins (6th season)|
Despite some sentiment that a second consecutive collapse in September would cost him his job, Ron Washington returns to the Rangers for his eighth season as manager.
Considering all the talent added to the team this offseason, not to mention the strong core that was already in place, Washington will have to win big in 2014 to keep his job beyond this season. He's entering the final year of his contract, which is always a dangerous spot to be in.
As Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News wrote in January, Washington will be under more scrutiny than ever in 2014.
A slow start brings out the vultures. The first three-game losing streak triggers clubhouse speculation about a managerial change, diverting the team’s focus from the task at hand. Lame-duck managers have not prospered since the long-ago days of Walter Alston and 18 consecutive one-year contracts with the Dodgers.
The other important pieces of the coaching staff, pitching coach Mike Maddux and hitting coach Dave Magadan, return this season.
As long as Washington doesn't waste Elvis Andrus' bat by having him sacrifice runners over in the first inning, he should be fine and win enough games to warrant a contract extension.
Texas Rangers' Projected 2014 Lineup
|1. Shin-Soo Choo, RF|
|2. Elvis Andrus, SS|
|3. Adrian Beltre, 3B|
|4. Prince Fielder, 1B|
|5. Alex Rios, LF|
|6. Mitch Moreland, DH|
|7. Jurickson Profar, 2B|
|8. Geovany Soto, C|
|9. Leonys Martin, CF|
|J.P. Arencibia, C|
|Adam Rosales, IF|
|Engel Beltre, OF|
|Michael Choice, OF|
Last year, Rangers leadoff hitters, mostly Ian Kinsler, posted a .266/.336/.386 slash line with 14 home runs. Shin-Soo Choo, by comparison, hit .285/.423/.462 with 21 home runs in 154 games.
If Choo comes anywhere close to replicating that performance in 2014, or even reverts back to his career average of a .389 on-base percentage, the Rangers are going to be a more potent offense than they were in 2013.
As long as Ron Washington remembers it's legal for the No. 2 hitter to swing away instead of sacrificing in the first inning, Elvis Andrus should hit closer to the .313/.369/.405 line he put up in the second half, opening even more opportunities for Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder to drive in runs.
Fielder, in particular, seems poised for a bounce-back season following a lackluster 2013. He's going from a bigger park in Detroit to a park known for being a hitter's paradise in Texas.
There is also the trade-off the Rangers get from going with the combination of Fielder and Jurickson Profar instead of Mitch Moreland/Ian Kinsler by making the deal with Detroit, which Dave Cameron of FanGraphs broke down.
Whereas Steamer saw Kinsler as a +3.3 WAR player, it only projects +1.6 WAR from Profar. If you take these projections at face value, a Kinsler/Moreland combo is expected to produce nearly the same value as Profar/Fielder.
That doesn't sound like a glowing endorsement, until you realize that Oliver Projections has Profar (3.2) being worth nearly as much value by fWAR in 2014 as Kinsler (3.4) while making a fraction of the salary.
The lineup is deep but flawed. Choo (.612 OPS), Mitch Moreland (.701 OPS) and Geovany Soto (.656 OPS) had wide platoon splits in 2013. Left-handed pitching will give this group problems, but they should have no problems teeing off against right-handers.
Texas Rangers' Projected 2014 Rotation
|No. 1 Yu Darvish, RHP|
|No. 2 Matt Harrison, LHP|
|No. 3 Martin Perez, LHP|
|No. 4 Alexi Ogando, RHP|
|No. 5 Colby Lewis, RHP|
One good thing about the Rangers having quality pitching depth is they can withstand the loss of a pitcher like Derek Holland without falling off a cliff. It won't be easy sledding while the left-hander is out, but they should be among the better units in baseball.
Everything starts with Yu Darvish, who continues to evolve before our very eyes. He got better in every way last season compared to his rookie campaign, throwing more innings, allowing fewer hits, missing more bats and walking fewer hitters.
Newly elected Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who has been doing work with the Rangers pitchers, had nothing but glowing reviews for Darvish's performance, per Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas.
The sky is the limit for him. He's got four quality pitches. He's pitched now over here for two years. Hopefully, he's a lot more relaxed and Americanized, or however you want to say it. I think if he continues to be better and wants to be better, there's no telling how well he can do.
As great as Darvish is, there are two wild cards who could decide how good or bad the rotation is as a whole: Matt Harrison and Martin Perez.
Harrison was an All-Star in 2012, throwing 213.1 innings with a 3.39 ERA and outstanding 133 ERA+. He made just two starts in 2013 before experiencing back problems and wound up having three different surgical procedures (two back, one right shoulder) in five months.
Perez has been talked about since he was an 18-year-old in Double-A five years ago. He was finally able to stick in the big leagues last season, posting a respectable 3.62 ERA and 84-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 124.1 innings.
A left-hander, Perez has power stuff (averaged 93 mph with the fastball in 2013) and the ability to miss bats. His control is still erratic, as evidenced by the 129 hits allowed, but he will be just 23 in April and proved to be a capable starter last season.
Alexi Ogando is best used as a multiple-inning reliever, but his flexibility gives the Rangers options if/when injuries occur.
Plus, as long as the Rangers don't experience a catastrophe that keeps them from contending in July, the return of Derek Holland will be like adding an impact arm to the rotation without having to trade anything away.
Texas Rangers' Projected 2014 Bullpen
|Closer: Neftali Feliz, RHP|
|Setup: Joakim Soria, RHP|
|Setup: Tanner Scheppers, RHP|
|Reliever: Neal Cotts, LHP|
|Reliever: Jason Frasor, RHP|
|Reliever: Robbie Ross, LHP|
|Reliever: Michael Kirkman, LHP|
The loss of Joe Nathan opens up the closer's job for someone to take control of. Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria have experience at the end of games, so Ron Washington has two choices he can feel confident about.
Feliz returned late last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. He wasn't asked to do much in the games he pitched, giving up five hits and no runs with four strikeouts and two walks in 4.2 innings.
Tanner Scheppers could also get some consideration, though he doesn't have the flare you want from a closer. His ERA, a minuscule 1.88 last season, is likely to balloon in 2014 because, despite averaging more than 96 mph with the fastball, the 27-year-old doesn't miss a lot of bats. His strikeout rate went from 8.35 in 2012 to 6.93 last season, while his batting average on balls in play cratered from the .390 mark in 2012 to .252 last year.
The Rangers boast a strong collection of left-handed relievers, starting with the resurgent Neal Cotts. He was out of baseball for three years but came back in a big way by striking out 65 in 57 innings last year. Even more impressive, his average fastball velocity (92.2 mph) was the highest of his career.
Don't expect Cotts to post a 1.11 ERA again, but given the stuff he showed last year, another strong season doesn't seem out of line.
Robbie Ross is a unique lefty in that he struggles to get out left-handed hitters. He was murder against right-handed hitters last season (.519 OPS), but lefties teed off on him in 2013 (.960 OPS).
Rougned Odor, 2B
It's going to be rough sledding for Rougned Odor, the top prospect in Texas' system right now, at least on his quest to the big leagues. Last year, he was no better than third on the depth chart behind Ian Kinsler and Jurickson Profar.
This year, even though Kinsler's gone, Profar will look to carve out his legacy in Texas. Odor still isn't ready for the big leagues, having played just 30 games at Double-A, but he's on his way to forcing Texas' hand, one way or the other.
Odor is small in stature (5'11", 170 pounds) but makes up for it with an explosive hit tool with bat speed and has more power than you think. He could headline a package in July, if the Rangers decide they don't have a future opening for him.
Jorge Alfaro, C
If you want to know why the Rangers keep signing catchers to one-year deals, Jorge Alfaro is the answer. He's still a little raw with the bat, lacking an approach and hacking at pitches well off the plate, but the raw power is special for a catcher.
Alfaro continues to grow into a special defender behind the plate. His arm strength is easily plus, and combined with athleticism and improved game-calling ability, the 20-year-old has star potential.
Having played just a handful of games at High-A, Alfaro won't be ready for the big leagues until some time in 2015. But expect to see a showcase of his abilities during spring training.
Wilmer Font, RHP
The Rangers already have a solid, deep bullpen in place, but we know from years of experience that pitchers will fail to duplicate their past performance or get hurt, leaving a team in a lurch.
Wilmer Font could be one of the first players Texas brings up from the minors. He split last season between Double-A and Triple-A, racking up 71 strikeouts in 52 innings with a 1.04 ERA.
The 22-year-old has huge stuff, or at least a huge fastball that will reach triple digits. He's still in need of a consistent breaking ball, but the upside is a high-leverage reliever/closer who isn't far off.
Martin Perez, LHP
I touched on Perez a bit looking at Texas' rotation but wanted to give him a little more attention because I have high hopes for him in 2014.
The most encouraging sign during Perez's rookie season in 2013 was how much stronger he got late in the year. His ERA spiked to 4.81 in the month of July, but he came back with a 3.06 mark in August and 3.72 in September.
Perez's strikeout rate stayed steady (around 6.5 per nine innings) over the last three months and increased his strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.18 in July, 2.36 in August/September).
Now assured of a job in the rotation, which he probably would have won last spring were it not for a forearm fracture suffered in spring training, Perez is poised to take the next step in his development.
Jurickson Profar, 2B
Last year was supposed to be a breakout year for Profar, but the Rangers never found a spot for him to play, leading to sporadic at-bats that prevented him from ever getting comfortable in the big leagues.
With Kinsler in Detroit, Profar has been handed the second base job on a silver platter. He's just 20 years old, so there is plenty of time for the young man to develop into the star that his skills and maturity suggest.
But even if he's not a monster in 2014, Profar's Oliver Projection of .286/.336/.385 with incredible defense and 3.2 fWAR should be more than enough to put him on the radar.
Michael Choice, OF
Choice is still a prospect, so he could have fit in on the previous page, but since the Rangers seem better suited to give him playing time than Oakland, he fits better on a list of potential breakout candidates.
There wasn't a spot for Choice in Oakland, where he was drafted with the 10th pick in 2010, allowing the Rangers to swoop in and get him for spare outfielder Craig Gentry.
Choice has big raw power but struggles to have it play in games because of a hitch in his swing that prevents him from catching premium velocity and pitches on the inside part of the plate.
He was drafted as a center fielder, though a lack of speed and arm strength will limit him to left field. If he can get the power to show up in games, the Rangers will have an above-average starter on hand.
Closer: Joakim Soria vs. Neftali Feliz vs. Tanner Scheppers
Considering how many years of control the Rangers still have over Feliz, at least compared to Soria, you have to assume the team wants him to take control of the closer's job in spring training.
T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com noted that Feliz's return after a year-long absence does put him in position to be Texas' closer.
All three pitchers come with concerns. Feliz and Soria have had Tommy John surgery in the past; Soria has undergone elbow reconstruction surgery twice. Scheppers saw a dramatic decrease in strikeouts from 2012 to 2013, which isn't what you want to see from a potential closer.
Assuming he has no setbacks in spring training, Feliz has the best raw stuff in the group and should have no problems winning this job.
No. 5 Starter: Nick Tepesch vs. Colby Lewis
I've penciled Colby Lewis into the No. 5 spot in the rotation heading into spring training. He's had MLB success in the past and offers a little more present upside than Nick Tepesch at this point in their respective careers.
Both players have significant injury concerns. Lewis hasn't pitched in the big leagues since July 18, 2012 due to elbow and hip problems. He re-signed with the Rangers during the winter, taking a minor league deal with an invite to spring training.
Tepesch missed nearly two months last season with elbow problems and returned to make three appearances in September of fewer than four innings.
Lewis is the proven commodity when healthy, having thrown at least 200 innings in 2010 and 2011 with 365 total strikeouts. If he makes it through spring healthy and doesn't embarrass himself, the Rangers will give him the nod.
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