Even after an extravagant offseason that revitalized their lineup and added some back end depth to their rotation and bullpen, the Texas Rangers still have many questions to answer this spring training.
Will Neftali Feliz be ready to take over the closer role once again? Who can adequately spell Alexi Ogando in the bullpen if he starts the year in the rotation? Will the newest Ranger Tommy Hanson return to anything close to his 2009-10 form? Those are just a few of many.
Make no mistake, this team might be among the five or six best in baseball right now—even without clear answers to some of these questions.
But if Texas can fill in some of these blanks, it could find itself truly competing for a World Series title this season.
The additions of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo by themselves are not enough. The Rangers will need need to lean on their strong minor league system and rely on at least a few guys to impress in spring training.
With that said, here are some of the Rangers' potential breakout candidates to keep an eye on over the next few weeks. In this context, my definition of "breakout" isn't limited to just the organization's premier talent down in A and AA. This list includes both young stars and some journeymen.
I selected them based off of their potential ability, combined with the possibility of them actually filling a need on the Rangers' Opening Day roster.
By that definition, guys like Jorge Alfaro, Luke Jackson, Rougned Odor and some others of the Rangers' most talented youngsters, are not included on this list. It's very difficult to see any of those players on the Rangers' 25-man roster to start the year. Maybe we'll see them in September when rosters expand.
These players are arranged in order of likelihood that I think they'll make the 25-man roster to start the season. No. 5 is the least likely, while No. 1 is the most likely.
All stats courtesy of texas.rangers.mlb.com.
Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B
He might be an option to back up Adrian Beltre at third. Kouzmanoff has some pop, a good deal of major league experience at the plate and would provide a steady voice in the clubhouse. Among the backup hot corner candidates, he has the most major league ready bat. But he falls shorter than others in the defensive category.
Still, it'd be somewhat of a surprise to see him on the Rangers' Opening Day roster. Keep an eye on him in the spring, though. He's been around for a while and can easily heat up.
Brent Lillibridge, 3B
Lillibridge is a speedier, better defensive option to possibly back up Beltre. He's mainly a slap hitter who only carries a .205 average in 708 career major league at-bats. He plays and runs hard though, and can make things happen with his legs.
Either he or Kouzmanoff could adequately handle third base for the four to five off days Beltre might get this season.
Brett Nicholas, C
Nicholas posted some impressive numbers last season in AA Frisco. He finished the year hitting .289 with 21 homers and 91 RBI. He takes a healthy amount of walks, but needs to cut down on his strikeout rate, which was nearly 25 percent last season.
Grant thinks he might start the 2014 season in AAA. It's reasonable to see him competing with Robinson Chirinos for the spot as the third catcher at some point. If the Rangers want to carry three catchers on their roster, maybe Nicholas has a shot. But it's probably somewhat of a Hail Mary at this point.
Shawn Tolleson, RHP
If healthy, he could be one of the candidates to fill Ogando's potential void in the bullpen. Tolleson is a flamethrower from the right side who has quality stuff. In limited major league action, the Baylor product has been pretty solid and that could earn him some consideration later in the year.
The Rangers claimed Castellanos off waivers from the Boston Red Sox in December. This was a very underrated acquisition for Texas, and the 27-year-old could be a long shot to fill the right-handed portion of the DH platoon, according to Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News.
Castellanos has a career .288 average in the minor leagues with 85 homers and 327 RBI. But he's fared far worse in the show. In 41 career major league at-bats with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he holds a .170 batting average with two homers and four runs driven in.
He's demonstrated solid power and decent contact ability in the minors. He finished last season in AAA Albuquerque with 19 homers and 61 RBI, while hitting .257. But as Grant says, he is a long shot to play any meaningful role with Texas during the season.
Still, keep an eye on him this spring in Surprise. He could be a backup outfield option if the Rangers would rather not slow Michael Choice's development by having him on the bench. His relative success in AAA should keep him around this spring.
Perez was a very nice sign for Jon Daniels and the Rangers' front office. He's a crafty southpaw who's had success in the majors.
The Dominican has been a pretty reliable reliever during his time in the majors. In 329 career innings, he's carrying a 3.64 ERA and a .256 opponents' batting average. He's averaging just under one hit per inning, and has struck out 268 batters while walking just 117.
Perez has done a remarkable job of keeping the ball in the yard, having surrendered just 26 in those 329 innings. He has above average stuff that can be wicked at times. Ron Washington and company should definitely be monitoring him in Surprise. His ability to limit long balls—especially from the left side—is a very attractive quality to have pitching in Arlington.
It's logical to believe that Perez's fate might be linked to that of Robbie Ross. If Ross is able to crack the Rangers' rotation this season, it's conceivable that Perez could be added to the pen as a second lefty, joining Neal Cotts.
This was a low-risk, at least medium, reward signing for Texas. I believe there is a decent chance—albeit on the lower side—that Perez makes the Rangers' Opening Day roster.
Wilmer Font has been excellent over his career in the minor leagues. After several years on the back burner, it could be time for him to take his first serious shot at making the Rangers' Opening Day roster.
In 387.1 minor league innings, Font has given up just 297 hits and 28 homers. He's a strikeout machine, registering 466 in those innings. His 2.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio is respectable and opponents are hitting a paltry .212 off him in the minors.
Font has the plus plus velocity that can get him into the Rangers' bullpen immediately. He needs to develop his offspeed arsenal a bit more, but his fastball, which can touch 98 mph, is a quality major league pitch. Right now, I see him as one of the major candidates to take Alexi Ogando's spot in the bullpen if Ogando joins the rotation.
He's dominated both AA and AAA, and has performed decently at the major league level. He doesn't have much left to prove to the organization. Expect Font to turn a few heads this spring. Seeing him in a chair out in the pen on March 31 is completely realistic.
Tepesch is a candidate to start the season in the Rangers' rotation. He has a quality sinker, curveball and cutter, but Grant says he needs to start throwing his changeup more often to be successful as a starter.
Last season, Tepesch was excellent in his first handful of starts. But he began to struggle when he became overly reliant on his sinker-curve combo. He was extremely tough on hitters the first time through the order. But opponents' averages skyrocketed the second and third time they faced him.
He needs to learn to be more deceptive in his pitch selection to keep hitters honest through the middle innings.
Tepesch figures to be in a battle with Colby Lewis and Alexi Ogando for the fifth spot in the rotation. Both Lewis and Ogando have question marks surrounding their abilities as starters, so this is every bit a three-horse race.
Tepesch got a nice 93-inning dosage of major league action last season. With a full spring under the guidance of pitching coach Mike Maddux, Tepesch should be on his way to taking the next big step of his young career.
We'll see if that lands him in the rotation. But could he be the long man in the pen if he doesn't win a starting spot?
According to Grant, Choice has a "real" shot at being the right-handed DH, or even being a part time outfielder for the Rangers in 2014. So it makes sense that he is No. 1 on this list.
While it would probably serve Choice's development more if he at least started the year in AAA, the Rangers haven't signed a free agent righty batter and don't have many viable options to fill the need. Choice is one of the best ones.
Of course, the option exists to use J.P. Arencibia as a righty DH. But it's unclear how warm Ron Washington is to that idea. A possible Nelson Cruz return to Texas looms. If that happens, it's likely Choice heads back down to AAA, but no harm no foul there. Choice's 2013 AAA slash line of .302/.390/.445 has at least earned him every opportunity to win a job this spring.
Choice only has 18 major league plate appearances under his belt. So don't place enormous expectations on the guy just yet. At best, I think he starts the year on the Rangers' bench. But I have absolutely no problem with him continuing to tear it up in AAA and getting every ounce of playing time he can.
If he impresses enough this spring, give him a shot. If not, have no fear in being patient with the guy who could be the next star outfielder for the Rangers.