For the past couple of seasons, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has been reluctant to make the big addition that could push his team back into World Series contention. No Zack Greinke, no Cole Hamels, no Justin Upton. Apparently, he and the rest of the Texas front office learned that lesson. The Rangers were one of the boldest and most aggressive clubs this offseason, adding two key pieces that should make significant contributions.
While it once appeared that the A's had pulled away from the Rangers in the AL West hierarchy, Texas has closed that gap with its offseason acquisitions. That comes just in time for manager Ron Washington, who's in the final year of his contract and looking for an extension. But his team has some big expectations to fulfill, and might have to show it's capable of doing so for a new deal to be offered.
Depth Chart (as of 2/20)
C: Geovany Soto
1B: Prince Fielder
2B: Jurickson Profar
3B: Adrian Beltre
SS: Elvis Andrus
LF: Shin-Soo Choo
CF: Leonys Martin
RF: Alex Rios
DH: Mitch Moreland
SP: Yu Darvish
SP: Matt Harrison
SP: Martin Perez
SP: Alexi Ogando
SP: Tommy Hanson
CL: Neftali Feliz
Daniels made the one deal that could arguably be termed a blockbuster this winter. He basically kicked off the offseason by acquiring Prince Fielder from the Tigers in exchange for Ian Kinsler. Taking on the remaining seven years and $168 million on Fielder's contract seems like a risk, but $30 million of that will be paid by Detroit. Additionally, signing a hitter of Fielder's caliber would arguably cost more now.
The belief is that Fielder will be revitalized by the change of scenery, getting away from the disappointment and frustration that had developed in his two years with the Tigers. Playing his home games in Globe Life Park and the Texas heat could help boost his power numbers too. Could Fielder become a 40-homer slugger again, supplying the left-handed power missing since Josh Hamilton departed? That's the hope. Getting in better shape adds to that promise.
The Rangers' other big offseason addition was the leadoff hitter and on-base machine last year's lineup never had. With Shin-Soo Choo, manager Ron Washington doesn't have to worry about who will bat at the top of the order anymore. (Who plays left field is no longer a question either.) Washington no longer has to hope players like Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus can adapt to the role. Choo is made for it. Only three batters in MLB had a higher on-base percentage last season than Choo's .423. He should also be good for 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases, and should easily score more than 100 runs in the Rangers' lineup.
Nelson Cruz's future with the Rangers looked uncertain after he drew a 50-game suspension from MLB for his involvement with the Biogenesis clinic in Miami. Accepting the suspension, rather than appealing and continuing to play as Texas was fighting for a postseason bid, seemed to have rankled the team as well.
There remains a small possibility that Cruz could still return to the Rangers, however. He still remains available as a free agent, as MLB teams have shown no interest in meeting his contract terms nor surrendering a first-round draft pick because of his qualifying offer status. The team could arguably still use Cruz's right-handed power, but is there really a spot for him in this lineup? Where would he play?
A.J. Pierzynski replaced some of Hamilton's missing left-handed power, slugging 17 homers with 70 RBI. But he was a defensive liability at catcher and the Rangers wanted to improve in that area. Lance Berkman was also supposed to provide some left-handed power, but knee, hip and back injuries prevented him from making any meaningful contributions.
Kinsler and David Murphy were regular parts of the everyday Rangers lineup for at least the past six seasons. It will surely be strange for Texas fans to no longer see them in a Rangers uniform. But Choo's addition made Murphy obsolete. And Kinsler's departure frees up a position for prized prospect Jurickson Profar, whom the Rangers didn't want to trade.
Profar no longer qualifies for rookie status, though he's the young talent that will most likely make the biggest impact for the Rangers this season. The same applies to pitcher Nick Tepesch, who could be Texas' fifth starter coming out of spring training.
So which other first-year players might make a contribution? The leading candidate appears to be outfielder Michael Choice, acquired from Oakland for Craig Gentry. With Choo's difficulty hitting left-handed pitching (.215 average last year), Choice should see some playing time when the Rangers face a lefty starter.
If shoulder tendinitis continues to plague Profar throughout the season, perhaps top prospect Rougned Odor could get a shot at second base after playing a couple of months in Triple-A. The 20-year old finished last season in Double-A, hitting .306 with an .884 OPS. Can he make the jump from that level to the majors this year?
The most interesting competition for the Rangers this spring appears to be for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. Tepesch looked like the leading candidate for the job. Last year, he went 4-6 with a 4.84 ERA in 19 appearances (17 of them starts). During the offseason, the 25-year-old righty worked on adding a changeup to go with his fastball and slider. (Tepesch also occasionally throws a curveball.)
But the Rangers surely signed Tommy Hanson with eyes on him winning a spot in the rotation. Hanson is coming off a terrible year with the Angels, during which he made only 13 starts, compiled a 5.42 ERA. and struck out 56 batters in 73 innings. His velocity dropped to an average of 89.6 mph on his fastball too. Hanson certainly has incentive to make the opening day roster. His contract jumps from $500,000 to $2 million if he makes the team. If he begins the season in the minors, that salary drops to a prorated $300,000.
However, Texas might have two openings in its rotation if Alexi Ogando can't lock down that fourth spot on the staff. Other candidates that could win a starting job — if not on the opening day roster, then later in the season — include Colby Lewis (coming off major hip surgery), lefty Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers and Michael Kirkman. Derek Holland will also likely get one of those spots, once he recovers from microfracture surgery on his left knee. Holland likely won't return until the All-Star break.
Replacing Joe Nathan at closer will probably be a two-reliever race between Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria. Both pitchers are two years removed from Tommy John surgery and have had major success pitching in a ninth-inning role. Feliz appears to be the favorite, but perhaps he could end up sharing the role with Soria. If both players are healthy, the Rangers will have a strong tandem for the eighth and ninth inning.
The most immediate injury concern in Rangers camp is Profar, who's dealing with tendinitis in his right shoulder and took a cortisone shot at the end of January. As of this writing, he'll be shut down from throwing for a week, which means he probably won't play any spring training games until the second or third week of March. Apparently, however, Profar can still field grounders at second base and hit, so maybe he'll be a DH early in Cactus League play.
Otherwise, it's the pitching staff that will probably carry the most health issues — especially early in the season. Matt Harrison is coming off three back surgeries last year and struggled with neck stiffness shortly after reporting to spring training. Can Texas expect him to return to 30-start form this season? Ogando went on the disabled list three times last year due to shoulder inflammation and biceps tendinitis as he tried to transition from reliever to starter. There are no such questions about his role this year, however.
Lewis is recovering from what was essentially hip replacement surgery, and Holland underwent a microfracture procedure on his left knee that has taken some athletes years to come back from. (Yet recovery is surely far different for basketball players than it would be for a pitcher.) Fortunately, the Rangers have enough starting pitching depth to work through these injury questions and give several pitchers time to get healthy.
After losing Hamilton and Mike Napoli, the Rangers' chances of returning to the postseason last year looked shaky. But an excellent August, during which Texas went 20-4, put the team in position to play a tiebreaker for the AL's second wild-card spot. With the additions of Fielder and Choo, and a full season of Alex Rios, the Rangers again have some firepower. Choo should provide plenty of runs for Fielder and Adrian Beltre to drive in. With Beltre hitting behind Fielder, in addition to the warmer Texas temperatures and a more hitter-friendly ballpark, he could approach 40 home runs.
More importantly, if two starters can capably fill in the last two holes in the rotation behind Yu Darvish, Harrison and Martin Perez, Texas should not only be able to challenge the Athletics for the AL West division crown, but also compete for the league pennant.
What if last season was an indication that Fielder is on the decline? Has he become an overpaid singles hitter who frequently grounds out to second base, rather than driving a fastball for extra bases or into the seats? Rios will presumably have a strong season in the final year of his contract. But if he falters, opposing teams could decide to pitch around Beltre, leaving Texas with little right-handed power.
On the pitching side, injuries could basically restrict the Rangers to a two-man rotation of Darvish and Perez. The team seems to be confident in Harrison's return, but his back issues have to be a concern. What if Ogando's arm just wasn't meant to handle a starter's workload? Is Hanson essentially done as a major leaguer? Texas has accumulated enough arms that it should be able to fill in the rotation, even if Washington has to shuffle through several pitchers. But if the team has to start Scheppers or Ross regularly, that affects its bullpen depth and could make the Rangers weaker late into ballgames.
Texas won 91 games last year and should surpass that total this season. Unlike last season, the Rangers aren't a clearly inferior team to the A's and will compete for a division title. The lineup should score 800 runs and demolish opposing pitching staffs on a regular basis, which could provide some relief to an uncertain pitching staff. This looks like one of the best teams in the AL, if not all of baseball, provided its pitching stays healthy and deep. A return to the World Series appears entirely plausible here.