Wednesday was a big day for the Texas Rangers, who not only got their first look at Yu Darvish in 2014 but also saw what their new-look lineup will be when the regular season starts next month.
The two biggest additions this offseason, Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, took their place in the first and third spots of the lineup.
Despite staying in playoff contention the last two years, the Rangers were in a decline after appearing in back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011. They have been surpassed in the American League West by the Oakland Athletics and didn't pack the same punch we are accustomed to seeing.
They scored 730 runs in 2013, seventh in the American League. It's a respectable total but their fewest since the strike-shortened 1995 season (691).
Choo and Fielder make the Rangers more formidable right away, so getting a chance to look at them in spring training is one of the key storylines we are following.
Richard Justice of MLB.com wrote that Choo's signing, combined with the Fielder trade, makes the Rangers the team to beat in the AL this year.
In terms of speed and power, there aren't many teams better. Again, though, the strength of the Rangers is a rotation that begins with Yu Darvish and Derek Holland* and a bullpen loaded with hard throwers (Neftali Feliz, Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers) even after the departure of free-agent closer Joe Nathan.
When Daniels announces the Choo signing, he'll caution people that expectations mean little. There were various points the last two seasons when Texas appeared to be the AL's best team. Around midseason last summer, he didn't even want to hear it.
*Note: The article was written before Derek Holland's knee injury and subsequent surgery.
With so much focus on Choo and Fielder, here is a look at what the two superstars did in their first game as Texas Rangers and what to take away from it.
Shin-Soo Choo First At-Bat (Top 1st, No Out), Result: Strikeout
Kansas City Royals (@Royals) February 27, 2014
One of the things Choo does so well, working deep counts, also works against him because it's easier to rack up strikeouts. He's never struck out less than 118 times in a season with at least 144 games played.
It's a good trade to make, as Choo's patience also allows him to rack up high walk totals. He's got a career .389 on-base percentage and makes pitchers work.
Even though his first at-bat ended in a strikeout, Choo did make Kansas City starter Bruce Chen throw five pitches. He also worked the count even after falling into an 0-2 hole.
Not a glamorous debut, but Choo was exactly what you wanted him to be: hitting leadoff, seeing pitches and making the starter work.
Prince Fielder First At-Bat (Top 1st, Two Outs), Result: 4-3 Groundout
The last time we saw Fielder was Game 6 of the American League Championship Series with Detroit. While that game was not his finest hour, it did provide the world with one of the greatest GIFs ever.
You have to be a man about it. I have kids. If I'm sitting around pouting about it, how am I going to tell them to keep their chins or keep their heads up when something doesn't go their way? It's over.
It isn't really tough, man, for me [to move on]. It's over. I have kids I have to take care of, so, for me it's over, bro.
The point being that Fielder probably needed to get out of Detroit. His numbers last year, while still better than the typical first baseman (.279/.362/.457), weren't close to what he has done throughout his career (.286/.389/.527).
Fielder is still 29 years old, so it's not like a rapid decline should be setting in yet. He's going to a very favorable hitting environment and could get back to being the hitter he was in Milwaukee.
I've avoided saying much about his first at-bat against Chen because there wasn't anything to it. He swung at the first pitch, an 84 mph sinker, and grounded out to the second baseman.
Even though it wasn't a fruitful appearance, Fielder would make his presence known in his final at-bat of the day.
Shin-Soo Choo Second At-Bat (Top 2nd, Two Outs), Result: 4-3 Groundout
Choo would play through the top half of the third inning, but his last at-bat came in the second inning when he swung at Chen's first pitch and grounded out to Omar Infante.
Even though Choo didn't make an impact with the bat on Wednesday, it was good for the Rangers to see what their new leadoff man will look like in the lineup.
Lefties have always given Choo problems (.680 career OPS), so seeing him do nothing against soft-tossing Bruce Chen was hardly unexpected. A simple day ended with little drama.
Prince Fielder Second At-Bat (Top 3rd, One Out), Result: Solo Home Run
If you wanted fireworks from the Rangers, Fielder provided some with a line-drive homer in his second at-bat. He was acquired to be the big bat at the top of the order, like a new version of Josh Hamilton.
Making the homer even more impressive is that it came against left-handed pitcher Danny Duffy on a 95 mph fastball.
One of Fielder's greatest strengths as a hitter is bat speed. He also has excellent hip rotation and balance, but his ability to whip the bat through the zone like a fly swatter creates that power.
With his numbers declining last year, you wouldn't have been wrong to suspect Fielder's bat speed was starting to go. It's just one spring at-bat, but being able to take a mid-90s heater out of the park on a rope against a lefty, which wasn't an area he excelled in last year, is an excellent sign for the Rangers and Fielder.
That Prince Fielder HR was off a lefty. He hit 9 of his 25 homers off lefties last year. Get ready fans in RF in Arlington.— Richard Durrett (@espn_durrett) February 27, 2014
I just got lucky. I threw my bat at it and just happened to be where the ball was going. I know they don’t count, but it’s good for you mentally.
When you combine that quote with what he said after the ALCS loss, it's clear people overreacted to Fielder's comments last October. He's just a laid-back person who doesn't get too high or low with anything that happens.
Sometimes people will read that as lack of interest, but that isn't right or fair to the player.
Fielder has never had a bad platoon split (.803 career OPS vs. lefties; .971 vs. righties), so there shouldn't be concerns about his ability to hit southpaws. But being able to drive the ball with authority is what the Rangers need to see.
When you watch a game for the sole purpose of seeing what one player can do, it's always easier/nicer when that player comes through to give you something to talk about.
Choo didn't do anything special, but there was hardly anything wrong with his day. It was the first day of spring games for him, so we should probably give him time before sounding the alarm bells.
Fielder, on the other hand, provided a lot of room for discussion and excitement with his performance. You always want to caution about looking at spring stats, but there are certain things to take away from what happens.
After losing his way with the Tigers in 2013, Fielder has a lot of skeptics and questions to answer. Is he going to be the player he was last year? Is there another 40-plus-homer season in him?
We won't have a definitive answer to anything until the season starts, but as a first test, Fielder certainly looked like his old self.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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