MLB Preview: Texas Rangers

With baseball season fast approaching, it is time for TheWaiverWire’s inaugural Baseball Preview package. We will look at every division in baseball, starting in the American League and moving from East to West by division. Also, we each team by who will finish last to first. So, the first team you read about from each division is in the basement, and the last is who we determine to win the division.

American League West – 

Second Place – Texas Rangers 

Third Place – Oakland Athletics (read season preview here)

Fourth Place – Seattle Mariners (read season preview here)

Starting Line-Up – 

Catcher: Mike Napoli (30) – 113 games, .320/.414/.631 30HR 75RBI

First Base: Mitch Moreland (26) – 134 games, .259/.320/.414 16HR 51RBI

Second Base: Ian Kinsler (29) – 155 games, .255/.355/.477 32HR 77RBI  – 11th in American League MVP Voting

Shortstop: Elvis Andrus (23) – 150 games, .279/.347/.361 5HR 60RBI

Third Base: Adrian Beltre (32) – 124 games, .296/.331/.561 32HR 105RBI  – 2011 All-Star, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger Award Winner, 15th in American League MVP Voting

Left Field: Josh Hamilton (30) – 121 games, .298/.346/.536 25HR 94RBI – 2011 All-Star, 22nd in American League MVP Voting

Center Field: Craig Gentry (28) – 64 games, .271/.347/.346 1HR 13RBI

Right Field: Nelson Cruz (31) – 124 games, .263/.312/.509 29HR 87RBI

Designated Hitter: Michael Young (35) – 159 games, .338/.380/.474 11HR 106RBI – 2011 All-Star, 8th in American League MVP Voting

The Good News…

From top to bottom, the Texas Rangers may have the deepest line-up in the entire Major Leagues. Five separate players have the potential to hit 30+ home runs (Napoli, Kinsler, Beltre, Hamilton and Cruz). There is no inning when a pitcher takes the mound, glances at the three batters he’ll have to face that inning and whispers to himself “piece of cake”. That’ll never happen.

Beltre played at an MVP level in 2011. The team will hope he can do the same this year.

A lot of people were surprised when the Rangers added Adrian Beltre last off-season as a free agent. In fact, Michael Young was so disappointed that Beltre would replace him as the everyday third baseman that Young requested a trade, and there were serious discussions about moving the veteran. At the end of the day, Young came to terms with becoming the primary designated hitter, along with occasionally filling in all across the diamond. It was the greatest outcome for the Rangers. Beltre built off a strong 2010 season in Boston to have arguably the most complete season in his career. He was the best all-around third baseman in the American League, better than Kevin Youkilis and Evan Longoria. Young, meanwhile, continued to hit for an incredibly high average while also being the team’s best hitter with runners in scoring position.

Everybody is familiar with the story of how Josh Hamilton got to this point in his career. There is no need to recant it here. Instead, its time to acknowledge that Hamilton is in the discussion with Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols as the best pure hitters in baseball. He hits for an average around .300, will hit 25+ home runs, drive in close to 100 runs and play a strong left field. He’s the perfect left-handed bat any team in baseball would love to have in the middle of their line-up. Also, he’s in the prime of his career. These are the best seasons Hamilton will ever have. Hamilton has been one of the main reasons the Rangers have played in back-to-back World Series. In fact, the Rangers probably would’ve won the 2011 title had Hamilton not been battling injury that completely sapped his power at the plate.

Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler are an incredibly intriguing 1-2 combination at the top of the line-up. Both stole 30+ bases last season, while Kinsler became the first Ranger to have post a 30 homer-30 stolen base season. Both players get on base plenty, having a patient approach at the plate, and both play a strong defense up the middle, forming one of the smoothest double play combinations in the league. Andrus is probably the best defensive shortstop in baseball, but a lot of people don’t realize it. Some say he may make a few errors too many, but those errors are a direct result of Andrus getting to balls other shortstops simply couldn’t. Its a shame he hasn’t won a Gold Glove yet in his career.

Do you think the Angels are kicking themselves for not only trading catcher Mike Napoli, but to a division rival? Napoli had always shown above-average power, but was never able to put everything together at the plate and hit for average. Then, he arrived in Texas, and everything seemed to click. It also didn’t hurt that Napoli moved to the best hitters ballpark in the American League, spiking his slugging percentage over .600. While I doubt Napoli will hit .320 again next year, with the power he has and continuously hitting with runners on base, if he can even match his career mark of .264, the Rangers will be set.

The Bad News…

Health. And its a major issue. 

Only three players on the Rangers last year appeared in 150+ games (Young, Andrus and Kinsler). In the case of Kinsler, it was the first time in his career that he eclipsed the 150 game mark, and only the second time in his career he went over 140. While I do have faith in Andrus and Young to stay healthy, the rest of the team is a humongous question mark.

Health issues is the only thing keeping Hamilton from superstardome

Its really only a matter of time until Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz get hurt. Hamilton has spent time on the disabled list each of the last three seasons, with his stint in 2010 almost costing him the American League MVP. As for Cruz, he has never appeared in more than 130 games in one season. Should either player be able to stay healthy, their numbers would be ridiculous. However, I think any fan is asking too much for both players to remain perfectly healthy. The best case scenario instead is hoping that when these two guys are hurt, their injuries don’t overlap and at least one of them is always in the starting line-up.

Don’t get me wrong, every team hopes that their players will stay healthy and productive. However, very few teams have obvious health issues like the Rangers. Its something to watch over the course of a 162-game season. 

Starting Rotation – 

Ace: Colby Lewis, RHP (32) – 32 starts, 14-10, 4.40ERA, 200.1 IP, 169 Ks, 56 walks, 1.21 WHIP

#2: Yu Darvish, RHP (25) – Pitched in Japan in 2011

#3: Derek Holland, LHP (25) – 32 starts, 16-5, 3.95ERA, 198.0 IP, 162 Ks, 67 walks, 1.35 WHIP

#4: Neftali Feliz, RHP (23) – Pitched exclusively out of the bullpen in 2011

Battle for #5 –

Matt Harrison, RHP (26) – 30 starts, 14-9, 3.39ERA, 185.2 IP, 126 Ks, 57 walks, 1.28 WHIP

Alexi Ogando, RHP (28) – 29 starts, 13-8, 3.51ERA, 169.0 IP, 126 Ks, 43 walks, 1.14 WHIP

The Good News…

The Rangers are hoping for big things from this phenom Japanese import

The Rangers paid a very high price to bring in the Japanese import Yu Darvish. Darvish absolutely owned the Japanese League, dominating like any other pitcher before him and at such a young age. However, there are high expectations on him for this season, with a lot of the Rangers success depending on how quickly Darvish can adjust to the rigors of the Major League schedule. He’ll be pitching every fifth day for the first time in a couple of years, and the American baseball season lasts longer than the rival Japanese season. While the fanfare for Darvish to make the transition to the Majors rivals that of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu, there seems to be something different about Yu. But, its a wait and see situation.

I, for one, am a huge fan of Derek Holland. He’s a true character. He’s also developing into quite the left-handed starter. He really came into his own in the second half of last year, and proved to be the best starter the Rangers had in the post-season. However, with new found success comes new found expectations, especially with C.J. Wilson moving on in free agency. The Rangers are hoping Holland can make the final step from solid middle-of-the-rotation arm to front-line, ace material. From what Holland did in the pressure of the post-season and the playoff push, there is no reason to think Holland doesn’t have it in him to be an ace of this rotation one day. There is reason to be excited about a Darvish-Holland, left-right combo at the top of the rotation for years to come.

And while its nice to think about how solid a Darvish-Holland combo could be, Rangers executives and fans alike are equally eager to see if that duo and become a dynamic trio with the addition of Neftali Feliz to the rotation. Feliz racked up 72 saves over the last two seasons, appeared in the 2010 All-Star game and won the Rookie of the Year award the same season. However, the team had always envisioned Feliz as a starter, and feel this is his time to make the jump. His fastball is electric, and his secondary pitches have really come around since he made his debut. He has three pitches with the potential to be dominant options. The only question that remains is how his arm will hold up through the season, along the same lines of concern involving Yu Darvish. And, with the Nolan Ryan philosophy of rubber arms, it’ll be all the more interesting to watch his development into a starter.

Few teams in the Major Leagues have the ability to let two starters who started 29+ games a season ago and experienced success at the Major League level battle it out for the fifth starter spot. Yet, that’s exactly the situation the Rangers find themselves in with Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando dueling it out in Spring Training for the final spot. The team has made it quite clear both pitchers will be on the roster for the duration of the season, and Ogando has experience coming out of the bullpen before. And, with there being some hesitations about the innings Darvish and Feliz may rack up in 2012, it certainly helps to have a fifth option with either Harrison’s or Ogando’s ability. This is a great problem to have if you’re a team like the Rangers playing in such a hitter-friendly ballpark. 

The Bad News…

Unlike the line-up, health is not a major concern with the starting rotation. Instead, its purely inexperience. The worries are there regarding Darvish and Feliz, we’ve been over that. But, the issue goes a little deeper.

Not only will the Rangers miss Wilson, they'll constantly have to see him when they play the Angels

The problem for the Rangers isn’t as much what they have. What they have is perfectly fine. However, it is what they lost. C.J. Wilson didn’t just leave the Rangers for greener pastures. He signed with the team’s chief division rival. He will now become apart of arguably one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. If you were to rank the best rotations from top to bottom in the Majors, the Angels would have to be in your top five, along with the Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees. 

The argument can be made that the Rangers are better prepared for their future by letting Wilson walk and reinvesting in their starting rotation with youth. However, they aren’t better prepared for the 2012 season. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to rule out the two-time American League champions before a single game is played. All I am saying is, this team is less proven than in years past. However, all it takes is a strong performance from an additional player or two. And, when you have an offense like the Rangers, all you need from your starters is to keep you in the game.

Bench – 

C Yorvit Torrealba (33) – 113 games, .273/.306/.399 7HR 37RBI

OF David Murphy (30) – 120 games, .275/.328/.401 11HR 46RBI

OF Julio Borbon (26) – 32 games, .270/.305/.348 0HR 11RBI

IF Brandon Snyder (25) – 6 games, .231/.412/.308 0HR 1RBI (with Baltimore Orioles)

The Skinny…

While the majority of the Rangers bench is undetermined, the three certain pieces to be apart of this team are very strong. Torrealba, Murphy and Borbon could be starting for a lot of teams in the Major Leauges. In fact, with a strong Spring Training, Borbon could wrestle the starting center field job away from Craig Gentry. Borbon has blazing speed, maybe the best speed on the team. Given extended playing time, Borbon has the potential to steal 30+ bases, as long as he can improve his plate discipline even the slightest.

As for Murphy, he’s bound to get 400+ at bats this season playing a myriad of positions. With injuries a common theme in the Rangers starting line-up, Murphy’s ability to play anywhere in the outfield and ability to produce at the plate gives manager Ron Washington options. Murphy is in the mold of Seth Smith when he was with the Colorado Rockies. He’s the guy a lot of teams pinpoint as a potential starter and constantly ask the Rangers about his availability. Instead, the Rangers appreciate Murphy’s team first attitude and value his versatility. He’s a managers dream bench player.

While Napoli provides the pop from behind the plate, Torrealba supplies the defense. Personally, I have a bone to pick with Yorvit, going back to my freshman year in college when it seemed the Mets were prepared to make Torrealba their everyday catcher. In fact, my buddy Ted and I even came up with the catchy nickname “Tag, Yorvit” to show our appreciation for his under-the-radar skills. Then, his contract was nullified, and Torrealba has blamed the Mets for smearing his name, even suing them. I don’t like that. Besides that, he’s a nice back-up catcher. That’s all you’re getting out of me.

Bullpen – 

Closer: Joe Nathan, RHP (37) – 48 games, 44.2 IP, 4.84ERA, 8.7 K/9, 14 walks, 1.16 WHIP (with Minnesota Twins)

8th Inning Reliever: Mike Adams, RHP (33) – 75 games, 73.2 IP, 1.47ERA, 9.0 K/9, 14 walks, 0.79 WHIP (split with San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers)

Middle Reliever: Koji Uehara, RHP (37) – 65 games, 65.0 IP, 2.35ERA, 11.8 K/9, 9 walks, 0.72 WHIP (split with Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers)

Middle Reliever: Scott Feldman, RHP (29) – 11 games (2 starts), 32.0 IP, 3.94ERA, 6.2 K/9, 10 walks, 1.09 WHIP

Middle Reliever: Yoshinori Tateyama, RHP (36) – 39 games, 44.0 IP, 4.50ERA, 8.8 K/9, 11 walks, 1.09 WHIP

The Skinny…

Normally, I’d be a little worried about a bullpen lacking a left-hander. But, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara are dominant relievers that have the ability to get out hitters on both sides of the plate. In fact, the Rangers bullpen comes closest to the ideal I’ve been preaching since day one. Adams is the best reliever the Rangers have, and he isn’t their closer. If Ron Washington needs an out, he will turn to Adams to face any hitter at any time in any situation. He understands that the ninth inning is just an inning and a save is just a statistic. Its refreshing to see.

As for Nathan himself, he has a lot to prove this year in Texas. He returned from injury last year and was mostly ineffective. The Twins removed him from the closer role in favor of Matt Capps, but Nathan will be given another opportunity to record saves with the Rangers. As the season went on, Nathan slowly got back into shape and seemed to turn his season around. His WHIP was still encouraging, signaling that his ERA is due to drop in 2012 as long as he can continue to keep runners off base. 

Scott Feldman is another option in the bullpen that could also start for the Rangers. Depth and options is what makes the Texas pitching staff so strong. They might not have a true ace just yet, or a flashy name that pops off the page. But, they easily have seven guys that could be Major League starters and can get guys out. Its a luxury no other team really has, and it has been what’s carried the Rangers for the past two years. It’ll continue to be a determining factor of their success moving forward.

Top 10 Prospects (courtesy of MLB.com) – 

#1: SS Jurickson Profar (19) – Expected 2012 Level – A+

As an 18 year old making his full season professional debut, Profar wowed people, providing stellar defense and above average offense at such a young age. He drew more walks (65) than strikeouts (63), which is absolutely remarkable for an 18-year old prospect. He slugged .493, fueled by his 37 doubles and 8 triples, he stole 23 bases. What didn’t this kid do last year? He’ll make the jump to High-A, and after such a strong 2011, there is no sign of his development slowing down. This kid’s going to be good. Will he be able to challenge Elvis Andrus at the Major League level? That remains to be seen.

#2: LHP Martin Perez (21) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

Perez broke into AAA as 20-year old starter, a remarkable accomplishment in itself. He struggled once he got there, so he’ll need to repeat the level and show that the Minors are behind him. However, it isn’t unlike the Rangers to take top pitching prospects and debuting them in the Major Leagues out of the bullpen even if they profile as starting pitchers. The Rangers lack a lefty in the bullpen, so its a situation worth watching early in the season. For now, Perez will start in AAA and try to prove to the organization that he’s ready.

#3: 3B Mike Olt (23) – Expected 2012 Level – AA

Olt injured his collarbone last year, but still put together a solid first season in professional baseball. As a college drafted product, his movement through the Minor Leagues should be accelerated. Olt is a good, all-around hitter who plays a strong third base, so he has true All-Star potential. He will make the pivotal jump to AA this season, and a full, healthy season is important for his improvement this year.

#4: OF Leonys Martin (24) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

Its only finishing school for Martin, after making his Major League debut last season with the Rangers. He has the ability to play all three outfield positions, but there are some remaining questions about whether he will hit enough to play everyday. Since those questions exist, that’s why I see the Rangers giving him a couple months in the Minor Leagues to prove that his bat can be a tool. Should Gentry or Borbon struggle in the Majors, Martin should be given an opportunity in center field. The Rangers may decide to promote Martin anyway and make him a back-up outfield. Given his age, my bet is they give him a chance to play his way into a starting role.

#5: LHP Robbie Ross (22) – Expected 2012 Level – AA

Impeccable control and solid secondary offerings is the name of the game for Robbie Ross. He dominated both High-A and AA last season, posting sub-2.50 ERAs in both stops. Ross could be a fast mover this year, with a likely assignment to AAA only a couple months away with any success. Again, a lack of a lefty in the Major League bullpen keeps the option open that Ross could see Major League time this season. But, for now, his performance in AA is what to watch for.

#6: RHP Roman Mendez (21) – Expected 2012 Level – A+

Mendez has a heavy fastball and struck out a ton of batters in Low-A ball last year. He’s still very raw and needs refining as his development goes on. Best case scenario for Mendez is a top of the rotation type of arm. Worst case scenario, Mendez has a Major League-ready fastball that will succeed in the bullpen sooner rather than later.

#7: C Jorge Alfaro (18) – Expected 2012 Level – A-

Alfaro is a very young prospect about to make his full season professional debut in Low-A ball. He’s a long ways away from the Major Leagues, but he has the profile of an everyday catcher. He flashed a complete offensive game last year, but has a long ways to go on the defensive aspect of the game. Time is on his side, and he should learn the tricks as he moves up the organizational ladder.

#8: RHP Neil Ramirez (22) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

Finishing school for Ramirez to begin the 2012 season. He’s all but ready to make his Major League debut. He doesn’t have the high ceiling like some of the other arms that have made this list thus far, but he can be a strong rotational piece moving forward. He put up the numbers last season between the organization’s top two levels, and the team is intrigued with what he can accomplish at the next level.

#9: SS Leury Garcia (21) – Expected 2012 Level – A+

Its an unfortunate set of circumstances for Garcia. In just about every other organization, he’d be the team’s top shortstop prospect and be a prized possession. In the Rangers organization, however, he’s just a valuable spare part. The team already has Andrus at the Major League level, and Profar is more advanced than Garcia in the Minors. The team has two options, really. They could either shift Garcia over to second base and groom him to be Profar’s double play partner for years to come. Or, should the team need to make a move for a significant piece, they can float Garcia’s name as part of the package. Not a bad set of circumstances for Texas.

#10: RHP Tanner Scheppers (25) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

Injuries have ended any hope of Scheppers developing into the top-of-the-rotation starter the team had hoped he would be after being a supplemental first round pick in 2009. His command issues aren’t as noticeable out of the bullpen, either. Before he makes his Major League debut, however, he needs to accumulate more innings in the Minors. Should Scheppers  prove healthy this year, he’ll be in the Majors by the All-Star break, if not sooner.

Give it to me straight, Greg…

The Texas Rangers are still a play-off team, and will be the first beneficiaries in the American League of the new, additional Wild Card team. They will battle the Angels to the bone for the divisional crown, but I think the Angels have too many weapons in both the offense and the rotation that the Rangers simply can’t match.

The offense is arguably the deepest in the league with no obvious weakness slowing them down. Every position provides pop and some form of danger that will have opposing managers scared shitless every time they have to face Texas. 

As for the rotation, I think it’ll certainly get better as the year goes on, and Derek Holland should make the next step to become this team’s best starter. But, a lot of the Rangers success will be determined by how Yu Darvish handles his transition to the Majors and how Neftali Feliz transitions from the bullpen to the starting rotation. Should they prove solid, this Rangers team will be a tough out in the playoffs. If they struggle, getting to the playoffs may be in doubt.

2012 Season Projection – 94-68, Second Place in AL West, Wild Card Winner

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