On the heels of the most successful season in Texas Rangers franchise history, excitement amongst baseball fans in Arlington has reached a fever pitch.
Since being dispatched mercilessly from the World Series in five games by the pitching-rich San Francisco Giants, expectations for the Rangers have grown and the hunger for victory has never been greater.
Additionally, the sudden influx of cash from the reported $3 billion, 20-year television contract with Fox Sports Southwest has ensured that the Rangers will likely be players in the free agent market for at least the foreseeable future. Since the conclusion of the 2010 season, the Rangers have been linked with numerous players throughout baseball's off-season, some realistic and others not even remotely so.
While making them a potential force in free agency, a suddenly reinforced financial standing will also allow them to avoid the fate that so often befalls many small and mid-market franchises. Far too often, many clubs must sit idly and watch their homegrown stars leave via free agency, or reluctantly trade them toward the end of their arbitration years before they grow too expensive.
This should come as welcome news to Ranger fans, as much of the core of the team is comprised of several stars in the midst of their arbitration years and headed toward free agency in the coming seasons.
With a more stable financial foundation, the franchise should be able to retain the players that they believe fit into their long-term vision, while potentially becoming an active presence in the free agent market. As players like Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz and C.J. Wilson, among others, near the end of their contracts over the next few seasons, the Rangers will possess the ability to entertain long-term commitments as they see fit.
During this off-season, the Rangers have been a busy club, as several significant players have departed, creating opportunities for youth to advance through the ranks, as well as prompting a few well-placed free agent deals to be made.
As pitchers and catchers prepare to report to Spring Training facilities in Florida and Arizona over the next few weeks, let's take a look at a few of the most significant departures from last year, as well as the new faces brought in to help defend the Rangers' American League pennant.
Following a lackluster, injury-plagued 2009 with the Angels, a rejuvenated Vladimir Guerrero provided thunder in the heart of the Texas lineup and offered valuable protection that aided Josh Hamilton in his AL MVP quest.
Thought by many to be on his last legs as he hobbled through the previous season in Anaheim, Vlad defied the odds and returned with a highly productive season as the Rangers' regular DH.
Vlad rewarded the faith of the Rangers with a season in which he played 152 games, his most since 2006, led the team in RBI with 115, won a Silver Slugger award, and was named to the All-Star squad.
The quiet slugger let his bat do the talking, as he hit .300, finished second on the team to Hamilton with 29 home runs and provided a potent right-handed counterpart to Hamilton's sweet left-handed swing. Though Vlad's .841 OPS was significantly lower than his career mark of .946, he trailed only Jim Thome and David Ortiz among designated hitters with as many as 300 plate appearances in the critical category.
His .320 batting average with runners in scoring position, as well as a .380 average and .999 OPS in situations deemed "high leverage" proved that he is still a capable run producer and valuable presence in a lineup in need of a productive veteran bat.
While many of the Rangers regulars, including Hamilton, Kinsler and Nelson Cruz, all missed significant portions of the season on the disabled list, Vlad remained healthy and more than justified the faith that the team had in him.
Rumors had circulated about Vlad returning to the Rangers to once again serve as the DH, but the acquisition of Adrian Beltre, and the subsequent shift of Michael Young into the role has apparently made Vlad's talents obsolete in Arlington. More stories have surfaced regarding a potential trade of Young, which would seem to create an opportunity for Vlad, but those are merely rumors and unlikely to materialize.
The size of Michael Young's contract makes him difficult to trade, and Vlad's lack of positional flexibility makes him a less desirable option to occupy a roster spot. Young, the long-time Ranger and consummate professional, appears destined to become the team's primary DH and part-time first baseman.
Though his time in Arlington may have been short, Vladimir Guerrero's production was highly valuable, and his contributions to the Rangers' AL Championship run won't soon be forgotten.
When traded away from the only franchise he had ever known, from Anaheim to Toronto, Mike Napoli probably never expected that he would be flipped back to the Angels' chief divisional rival in Texas.
Along with outfielder Juan Rivera, slugging catcher Napoli was traded by the Angels to the Blue Jays, in exchange for outfielder Vernon Wells and his bloated contract. Napoli was then quickly moved once again, being sent to the Rangers in exchange for right-handed reliever, Frank Francisco.
Often under-valued due to his defensive inadequacies behind the plate, Napoli has grown into one of the more feared offensive catchers in the AL over the last few years. Though his average dipped to .238 last season, Napoli led the Angels with 26 home runs.
Over the last three seasons, Napoli has 20 or more home runs in each year, and has never had an OPS lower than .784 in his five years as a big leaguer.
The 29-year-old Napoli owns a career OPS of .831 overall, and much to the delight of the Rangers, is a career .292 hitter with a .967 OPS in Arlington.
Though he won't be counted on to be an everyday catcher, Napoli does offer the Rangers significant versatility. With Matt Treanor and now Yorvit Torrealba likely to split the catching duties, Napoli can catch occasionally, while slotting into the DH role, and sharing first base with Michael Young and possibly Mitch Moreland.
In 2010, the burly right-handed hitting slugger hit .305 against left-handed pitchers, with a .966 OPS. For his career, he's a .289 hitter against lefties, with a .931 OPS.
Clearly, he can offer the Rangers a powerful platoon option at a few different positions
If deployed judiciously, and not expected to catch regularly, Mike Napoli should play a critical role in 2011, and help make the Rangers' lineup one of the most feared in baseball.
Heading into the off-season, Cliff Lee was atop the wish list of every team fortunate enough to be in a position to dole out a contract in excess of $100 million. Every big spender in both leagues and a few surprising clubs were interested in meeting with the 32-year-old left-hander in an effort to lure him to their city.
While the general consensus dictated that Lee would either stay in Arlington or sign with the pitching-hungry Yankees, Cliff shocked nearly everyone by signing a 5-year, $120 million deal plus a sixth year vesting option with the Philadelphia Phillies. Not many had predicted his return to the franchise that had traded him away to Seattle nearly a year prior.
Bolstered by their new TV deal, the Rangers felt they had a legitimate opportunity to retain the ace and keep him from donning pinstripes in the Bronx. After a couple visits to Lee's Arkansas home, Texas brass liked their odds of landing the highly coveted hurler, but alas, their desires were never fulfilled.
However, as talented as Cliff Lee is, from a long-term perspective, it may not be as devastating a loss as it has been perceived by some. Texas still possesses a talented crop of hurlers that had a successful 2010, with several arms that give them reason to be excited for their future.
For all the hype surrounding Cliff Lee's arrival in Arlington, his regular season impact on the Texas Rangers was fairly minimal. At the time of his acquisition, the Rangers were already leading the AL West by 4.5 games, and the lead never dropped to less than that.
Following his July 9 trade to Texas, Lee went 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA, a WHIP of 1.06 and an ERA+ of 109. He certainly didn't pitch badly, but he was nowhere near as dominant as he had been over the first three months of the season as a Mariner. Of course, the 15 starts he made as a Ranger is a small sample size and not truly indicative of much, other than a slightly sub-par three month stint.
Of course, I'm not suggesting that Lee wouldn't have been a great presence at the top of the Texas rotation in 2011, but considering his age and the amount of money the Rangers were going to have to commit to him over six or seven seasons, the Rangers may appreciate the financial flexibility that his departure allowed.
Where Cliff Lee has really forged his reputation is under the glare of October baseball with amazing runs to the World Series in each of his last two seasons. By going 7-0 in his first eight career playoff starts, the lefty made himself a modern postseason legend, earning comparisons to baseball luminaries like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson.
Ultimately, he would lose his two World Series starts as a Ranger, being out-pitched by Tim Lincecum twice, leading some to believe that his magic had run its course. It's likely that he may have been fatigued after two consecutive seasons extended all the way to the Fall Classic.
Now that Cliff Lee is merely a footnote in Rangers' history, the team must look forward in regards to their starting rotation. They will hope that C.J. Wilson continues his progression and fulfills the massive potential that he hinted at with his fantastic 2010 season. The team will also need Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter to follow up their great years with similar performances in 2011.
With the addition of Brandon Webb, a former NL Cy Young winner, Texas retains enough talented arms to expect to be in the thick of things once again in the AL West. If Derek Holland forces his way into the rotation, or eventually Neftali Feliz, the Rangers will have very solid starting staff to complement their formidable lineup, improved defense, and stingy bullpen.
Following nearly two full years of absence from the baseball diamond due to shoulder surgery, 2006 NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb is reportedly healthy and ready to get to work resuming his once-stellar pitching career.
As the Diamondbacks' Opening Day starter in 2009, Webb only completed four innings in that game, before being pulled and diagnosed with shoulder bursitis. The now 31-year-old right-hander hasn't pitched on a Major League mound since.
Once a model of consistency and durability, exceeding 200 innings pitched for five consecutive seasons, Brandon Webb likely paid the price for the heavy workload with two missed seasons in the prime of his career. In hindsight, maybe the 1,135 innings pitched from 2004-2008 weren't such a great idea.
What's done is done however, and Webb must now move beyond his injury and proceed with his long-delayed comeback to the pitching mound.
If Webb is able to prove he's healthy and earn a spot in the Rangers rotation, this could end up being one of the signings of the off-season. Of course, shoulder injuries are notoriously difficult to predict, and it will be a while before the Rangers know for certain what they have in the right-hander.
Just last season, Texas experimented with a talented, but significantly injury-prone hurler when they signed Rich Harden. Unfortunately, that move didn't work out well, but Webb's incentive-laden contract should protect the team if they experience a reprise of that scenario. In contrast to Harden's $6.5 million deal in 2010, Webb's contract is only guaranteed to pay him $3 million, with another $1 million possible due to specific innings-related incentive clauses.
A healthy Brandon Webb could be a perfect match with homer-friendly Rangers' Ballpark in Arlington. From 2005-2008, he boasted the best ground-ball rate in baseball for all pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched. He could potentially benefit greatly from the incredible left side of the infield manned by Elvis Andrus and the newly-arrived Adrian Beltre.
After two years away from a Major League mound, no one is certain what to expect from Webb in 2011. However, if he's even remotely healthy, he could go a long way towards easing the pain of the loss of Cliff Lee.
Though he was only a Texas Ranger for 57 regular season games, and the subsequent postseason run, the man who was awarded a World Series ring despite being on the losing team, certainly made his presence felt during his short stint in Arlington.
Despite a steep decline in his offensive production in 2010, veteran catcher Bengie Molina still played a significant role for the champion of each league as he split his year between the Giants and Rangers.
Made expendable in San Francisco by the late-May call-up and sensational debut of uber-rookie Buster Posey, Molina was traded to the AL West leading Rangers in the final days of June.
Lauded by his former Giants teammates upon his departure from San Francisco, Bengie was touted for his expert game-calling skills and his excellent communication with his pitchers, as he served as a mentor to the talented, young staff that would eventually win the World Series. He brought those same attributes to Texas and his presence was immediately felt there as well.
While he was valued more for his catching skills than his bat in 2010, Molina managed to make a solid offensive contribution to the Rangers under the bright lights of playoff baseball. Over 13 games, he hit .293 with an .829 OPS and eight RBI. His home run off of A.J. Burnett in Game 4 of the ALCS turned the critical game in Texas' favor, and helped extinguish any hopes the Yankees had of a comeback in the series.
Molina is said to be retiring, and without a job as of February 1, it seems as if his distinguished career has come to a close.
It may not have ended like he wished, but at least he earned himself the second World Series Championship ring of his career, albeit as a member of the losing team.
Following the apparent retirement of Bengie Molina, the Rangers found themselves in need of a backstop to compete with Matt Treanor for time behind the plate.
Well before the recent acquisition of Mike Napoli, Texas found a highly suitable replacement for the defense-oriented Molina in Yorvit Torrealba. Spending last season in San Diego, handling the youthful staff of the Padres, Torrealba has played mostly in the NL West, aside from a 42 game stint in Seattle during 2005.
In his ten season big league career, the 32-year-old Venezuelan has toiled in San Francisco, Seattle, Colorado and San Diego.
Last year, Torrealba hit .271 with seven home runs, 37 RBI and a .721 OPS. Though valued primarily for his defensive acumen, he hits enough to garner a decent amount of playing time. He owns a .708 OPS for his career, not a significantly impressive number, but enough so that he certainly won't be an offensive black hole like so many defensive-minded catchers.
Over his career, he owns a solid 30 percent caught stealing rate, an asset that the newly acquired Mike Napoli won't be bringing to the team. While Napoli carries the offensive threat that Torrealba lacks, he certainly does not possess the defensive reputation that his new catching counterpart does. The competition for playing time not even involve Napoli as much as it does Treanor, as Napoli may be utilized in more of a first base and designated hitter role, either sharing time with Michael Young or allowing the team to attempt to move Young for pitching help.
With the departure of Cliff Lee, Texas once again has a relatively young pitching staff that should surely benefit from the veteran guidance of a player like Torrealba. Under his tutelage in 2010, the inexperienced San Diego Padres were one of the better pitching staffs in the NL, partly attributed to the handling by Torrealba.
Though he has been a valuable, if inconsistent contributor to the Texas bullpen over the last six seasons, Frank Francisco was made expendable by the emergence for Alexi Ogando as a potential set-up man or closer.
That an excess piece could be turned into a potentially significant power bat like Mike Napoli's is a credit to the depth of the Rangers' bullpen.
Francisco, the one-time closer in Texas, lost his role to Neftali Feliz early in 2010, and after the emergence of the flame-throwing rookie, Francisco had no chance of earning it back.
Injuries have plagued the 31-year-old Francisco over the last few seasons, so much so that he was unavailable to participate in the playoffs during the Rangers' brilliant run to the World Series.
Last season, Francisco posted a 3.76 ERA in his second consecutive erratic year.Though he has had trouble keeping runners from scoring recently, he still possesses scintillating stuff as evidenced by his 10.3 strikeout per 9 innings rate. In fact, he has struck out at least 10.3 per 9 innings in each of the past three seasons.
Now a Toronto Blue Jay, Francisco and his new teammates will be hoping that he can harness his formidable abilities to potentially become a force at the back of the bullpen north of the border.
Opinions differ wildly over the signing of third baseman Adrian Beltre. While many have complained vociferously regarding the 5-year, $80 million deal with a vesting option for a sixth year that Texas gave to the slightly inconsistent Beltre, I might implore them to look at his signing more objectively.
Widely regarded as a player who has excelled only when a contract is on the line, only to recede in performance once he has secured financial stability, Beltre is a better player than many are willing to concede.
While he may not be as great as his Mike Schmidt-like 2004 or his stellar 2010 in Boston, both contract years, Beltre still provides solid offensive production, while playing some of the best third base defense of his generation.
Last season in Boston, Beltre took an immediate liking to hitting in the Red Sox lineup, surrounded by hitters as he will be in Texas. Before you dismiss him as creation of Fenway Park and a beneficiary of the Green Monster, you should be aware that he hit .314 with an .881 OPS at home, while hitting .327 with a .953 OPS away from those friendly confines.
Overall, he hit .321, with 28 home runs, 102 RBI, a .919 OPS, and an OPS+ of 141. Beltre's 49 doubles led the American League.
Additionally, according to Fangraphs' defensive evaluation metric, Ultimate Zone Rating, Beltre was the second-highest rated third baseman in the AL, trailing only Oakland's Kevin Kouzmanoff. If you've ever watched the man play third, it is easy to comprehend why he's regarded as one of the absolute best in the game at manning the hot corner.
Many felt that he underachieved as a Mariner, following on the heals of his second place MVP finish in 2004. Of course, he never came close to duplicating his .334 average, 48 home run, 121 RBI, 1.017 OPS season that he posted during his last year in Los Angeles, but he was far better than he received credit for.
Much of the disappointment in his tenure as a Mariner stems, I believe, from his inability to hit at Safeco Field. During his first year in Seattle, in 2005, Beltre hit .263 at home, with only a .694 OPS. On the road, he hit only .248, but his OPS jumped to .736.
In 2006, the difference was similar, in that he hit .251 at Safeco with a .778 OPS, only to hit .283 with an .805 OPS away.
2007 saw more of the same, as he hit only .264 at home with a .745 OPS, while on the road Beltre hit .288 with an .858 OPS.
During 2008, his third consecutive season with at least 25 home runs, he hit .240 with a .703 OPS, while away from Safeco, he hit .292 with an OPS of .862.
Even during his terribly injury-plagued 2009, at home home he hit only .250 with a meager .646 OPS, while hitting .279 with a .717 OPS while traveling.
Clearly, much of the perception of his Seattle career is based in terrible production at his then home field, Safeco Field. Over the course of his career, he's only a .253 hitter at Safeco, with a .716 OPS.
The Rangers will be hoping for Beltre to come closer to his career numbers in Arlington, where he's a career .306 hitter with a .521 slugging percentage, as well as an .857 OPS. If he can replicate that type of production, while playing his customary Gold Glove-caliber defense at third, I have a feeling Rangers' fans will quickly take a liking to their new star.
I feel that despite his prior inconsistencies, and the baggage of his large contract, Adrian Beltre could end up being one of the top signings of baseball's off-season.
Though the Rangers will feel that they missed out on a potential opportunity with the departure of Cliff Lee, the team has made several significant moves to bolster their roster in several areas.
With the addition of Webb, they are gambling on his return after two years out of the game, but at the price, it's not a terribly risky move, and if he is able to stay reasonably healthy, it could be great signing.
Vlad's departure will be felt, as he led the team in RBI, but the Rangers made sure to help fill the potential power void by bringing in Napoli and Beltre, two potentially potent bats that will only add to the bevy of powerful hitters they already possess. Beltre also helps improve the defense considerably, while allowing the versatile Michael Young to possibly float in a variety of roles. His flexibility offers the Rangers options that Vlad Guerrero certainly didn't. If Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler can have healthier seasons in 2011, the Rangers very likely may have all the cover they need for the exit of Guerrero.
Overall, the Rangers feel confident that with their existing core, and the key additions they've made over the off-season, they have every reason to believe they can successfully defend their 2010 AL West title, and earn an opportunity to return to the playoffs in order to take another shot at the ultimate prize that they fell just short of last season.
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