With one of baseball's best young players to build around, the Rangers simply need to put together a supporting cast similar to what the Cardinals have put around Albert Pujols. Add in some nearly league average pitching and an adequate bullpen, and you have yourself a playoff contender.
The problem with this formula, however, is that the Rangers have not been able to even come close to being a league average starting rotation. In fact, over the past 9 seasons, the Rangers rotation has not once been higher then 25th in the league in ERA. During this time, the rotation's ERA has been as low as 5.04 and as high as 6.24, averaging .98 higher then the league median.
In other words, we are talking about a team that is desperate for run prevention. The sad part about this, is that the Rangers have spent money trying to prevent runs, it simply has not worked out for them. Another disturbing trend are pitchers having success outside of Arlington. Between Armando Gallaraga, Edinson Volquez, and Robinson Tejada, the Rangers have moved three quality pitchers whom they could build around.
Alas, the news has not been entirely negative. From having league hero Josh Hamilton, to an immensely deep and talented farm system, from being relatively set offensively, to a 'useful' bullpen. The Rangers 2007 trades paid major dividends in 2008 and are certainly players to watch towards the end of 2009 and certainly for 2010.
The Rangers may also have some trade 'candidates'. Both Vincente Padilla and Kevin Millwood have what should be expiring contracts. Padilla's contract has a club option with a reasonable buy-out, and for Millwood's contract to expire he needs to be held under 180 innings pitched this season. While neither pitcher looks necessarily attractive as I write this, Millwood could be a decent 'buy-low' candidate for a team with money that isn't looking for a long-term commitment. Unfortunately, even I can't come up with a legitimate home for Millwood this season, and will instead write him in as the de-facto team 'ace'-how does that feel Rangers fans?
What the Rangers don't need
Offensive players. Certainly the Rangers could afford to go after another Milton Bradley, the Rangers are set offensively for the forseeable future. Thus, the idea here should be some cheap, high-ceiling veterans. I'm thinking a Nomar Garciaparra for a similar one year, $5.25M contract. Nomar could (when healthy) play third base, as well as handle some short stop in place of the dreadful Michael Young.
Starting pitching. For a team that has finished no better then 25th in the majors in starters ERA, it is certainly a surprise that I am not advocating going hard after starting pitching. However, I already 'completed' a trade in a previous edition of WWOD that netted Luke Hochevar for catching surplus Maximilano Ramirez.
In addition to this move, I would test the waters in Boston with Jarrod Saltalamacchia. There was a rumor reported which would send one of the Sox top young pitchers (presumably Clay Buchholz or Justin Masterson). I can see why both sides would take this trade as well as understanding why both sides would balk at this deal. If I were running either club, this is a trade I would look hard and long at and a trade I will make 'official'.
I suppose that is quite the rotation overhaul afterall...
Despite having what turned out to be a dreadful bullpen, the Rangers have some nice pieces. While an upgrade would be optimal, that I figure the Rangers to struggle in 2009, there isn't a lot of reason to add expensive bullpen arms. Sadly, I do figure the Rangers to be a player for Francisco Rodriguez.
What the Rangers need
First and foremost, this club needs to get rid of Michael Young. Young currently has one of the worst contracts in all of Major League Baseball and is quickly becoming one of the worst regulars in the league. With 5 years at $16M a year remaining, there is NO way the Rangers can move Young without eating the majority of his contract. Even then, the prospects the Rangers would receive would have such little value, the club would be just as well letting him walk altogether.
At this point, sitting on Young until Elvis Andrus is ready is what they are forced to do. However, there isn't a need to send Young out there everyday simply because he is being paid to do so.
Second, the Rangers need to figure out exactly what they've got in the system. On paper, the system looks very strong, however, we have all seen the difference between 'paper' good, and 'on-the-field' good. That said, it would be ideal for the Rangers to have Derek Holland, Neil Ramirez, and Neftali Perez all in at least triple A at some point during the 2009 season. Holland and Perez, in my opinion, are both ready for the majors, and if they manage to win a job out of Spring, I would be hard pressed to keep them down.
In addition to this trio, the Rangers have a sack full of other very highly regarded pitching prospects, as well as players with incredibly high ceilings. My favorite, Omar Poveda, keep an eye on this kid in 2009.
Lastly, the club could use an additional high-ceiling outfielder. While Nelson Cruz and David Murphy both performed at a high level in 2008, it would be ideal for the Rangers to go into 2010 with somewhat of a competition. Engel Beltre will eventually work his way into the equation, the best route for him would be a 2011 debut. Julio Borbon is another interesting prospect, but we're again looking at 2010 as truly pushing it.
That said, if either Kasey Kiker or Richard Bleier, both very young with a solid amount of potential could go to Detroit for Wilkin Ramirez.
Here's how I see the Rangers Opening Day shaking out:
2B - I. Kinsler
RF - D. Murphy
CF - J. Hamilton
LF - N. Cruz
DH - H. Blalock
1B - C. Davis
3B - N. Garciaparra
C - T. Teagarden
SS - M. Young
David Murphy in the two hole would be on a very short leash, either Nomar or Young could easily slide into that slot. Davis, Blalock, and Cruz are also interchangeable dependent on the matchup and who provides Hamilton with the best protection. That is, keep in mind how much of an impact Bradley had on Hamilton and vice versa.
The bench for the Rangers is deep enough, although lacking a legitmate experienced bat. However, as I mentioned, this team is going to struggle to compete and subsequently are not desperate for a quality bench. The only issue may be keeping youngsters down in the case of an injury. That said, the bench will have G. Laird, M. Byrd, F. Catalanotto, and Joaquin Arias.
Aside from the hitters mentioned previously, the Rangers have a couple additional hitters to keep an eye on this season:
- 20 year old short stop Marcus Lemon;
- 21 year old corner infielder John Whittleman; and
- 23 year old catcher/designated hitter Chad Tracy
The problem for the Rangers, as I mentioned, will be their 2009 starting rotation. I did, however, outline some minor moves which could certainly improve the rotation and give them plenty of hope for the future. Here's how it looks:
Aside from having a high ceiling, Hochevar and Buchholz also have strong ground ball tendencies in common and working in their favor. Both are pitchers that any team would love to build around.
The 2009 season will also represent two other shifts in the rotation. The first, would be the final years of the Millwood and Padilla tragedy's. Both are overpaid, and the Rangers should invest that money in Kinsler and Hamilton.
The second shift, is a look at what they've got. Brandon McCarthy is still young enough to break out, although being a flyball pitching in Arlington certainly doesn't work in his favor. Replacements, however, are nearly ready and should not be held back because of the overpaid duo of Millwood and Padilla, nor should the McCarthy for John Danks mistake lead the Rangers to pressing that issue.
Lastly, the Rangers bullpen. The 'chair thrower' has finally done enough ball throwing to prove he is ready and capable to take over as the full time closer. Last year's Opening Day closer is being moved into a LOOGY role and the rest will simply be 'mud' against the wall.
Here's how it looks:
CL - F. Francisco
SU - J. Benoit
RP - CJ Wilson
RP - W. Madrigal
RP - B. Garr
RP - K. Loe
RP - Elizardo Ramirez
Garr is the club's closer of the future that really does not need any additional time in the minors. He does not project out as a top 5 closer, but has provided a fairly strong strikeout rate, coupled with an adequate walk rate in the minors to be given a look at the big leagues in 2009. Madrigal is another youngster to watch in 2009 as his 93.5mph fastball is strong enough to limit home runs in Arlington.
The bullpen is an area that we will begin to see pieced together as pitchers fail to become reliable starters in the minors. There are a lot of bodies in the minors and clearly, not each one will develop into a big league starter. Thus, the current state of this bullpen would be defined as 'liquid'-easy to move.
2009 will be an interesting season for the Rangers. While the big league club will not give fans a lot to cheer about, following the hoard of top prospects in this system will undoubtedly be an exciting and full time job. At this point, I would say the Rangers need another two years of 'building' before they can begin making aggressive free agent moves.
The club has a very strong core and should not hesitate being active in the trade market. Another Volquez for Hamilton type deal would be incredible, and with the clubs lower level, high ceiling pitching depth, it may be a reality.
Next up - Pittsburgh Pirates