As we've established during our initial team season previews here at The Outside Corner, a club's "four horsemen" does not necessarily mean its four best players. The intention is to present the four guys who might have the greatest influence on their team's fortunes with their success or failure during a season. Players like Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo and Neftali Feliz will certainly have an impact on the Rangers if they play well (or don't play well). But the following foursome could have more to say as to whether or not the Rangers are a World Series contender this year.
M-V-P? M-V-P? Maybe that's aiming a bit high. But if the Rangers win the AL West, finish with the league's best record, look like a leading World Series contender by the end of the season, and Beltre puts up the same numbers he did last year, it's hardly an outlandish possibility. The Rangers third baseman hit .315 with an .880 OPS, 30 home runs and 92 RBI last season. He finished 12th among AL batters with a 5.2 WAR. Those numbers are down from 2012, when WAR ranked Beltre as the fourth-best hitter in the AL.
As long as Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout are playing at an elite level, Beltre might not be able to claw his way to the top of the MVP ballot. He may end up as a Lance Berkman-type player who put up big numbers, but did so in the wrong era. Manager Ron Washington is batting Beltre behind Prince Fielder, likely believing that he'll protect the Rangers' new slugger in the lineup and perhaps give him a needed boost.
For the Rangers to succeed, Beltre will have to continue hitting above .300 with an OPS near .900, 30 homers and 100 RBI, while also playing exceptional defense at third base. That's been typical production for him in his previous three years with Texas, and the team will need that again.
It's generally understood among baseball analysts that lineup protection is a myth. A player won't necessarily produce more because he also has an excellent hitter behind him in the batting order. It's actually likely more true that he'll perform better by having better hitters in front of him and getting on base.
Taking that view, Alex Rios should have a fine season. The right fielder is currently slated as the Rangers' No. 5 hitter, which means he'll have Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Fielder and Beltre batting in front of him. He should see plenty of meaty fastballs to hit as a result and enjoy plenty of RBI opportunities. Yet it's also important that Rios poses a threat behind Beltre to prevent opposing pitchers from giving him little to hit.
He's not the imposing slugger that Nelson Cruz has been, but can be a better overall hitter. At 33, Rios may never again be what he was in 2012, hitting .304 with an .850 OPS, 25 homers, 91 RBI and 23 stolen bases. But he can still be an all-around threat with his bat, speed and defense. To do so would be in his best interests. Rios will likely be a free agent after the season, unless Texas picks up his $13.5 million option. (A $1 million buyout is the alternative.) He'll probably get one more MLB contract in his career. With a good year, he could make it into a good one.
For the past two years, general manager Jon Daniels has tried to bring in an ace-level, No. 1 starting pitcher. Either he did so because he didn't believe Darvish wasn't ready to be that sort of starter, or the belief was that a staff ace would take some pressure off the prized Japanese right-hander as he transitioned to MLB.
However, Darvish has shown he can be the Rangers' ace in his first two seasons. Last year, he led the AL in total strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings and hits allowed per nine innings. Darvish's 277 strikeouts (in 209.2 innings) were the most by a MLB starting pitcher since Randy Johnson punched out 290 batters in 2004. Breaking the 200-inning threshold was also important for Darvish. An ace provides 200 innings or more for his pitching staff. He sets the tone. He gives the bullpen some relief (no pun intended) by pitching deep into ballgames.
Darvish has embraced his acedom just in time for the Rangers, because there's no one else on the staff capable of seizing such a role. If some of the other starters stay healthy, they can fill the No. 2 and No. 3 spots in the rotation. Darvish's dominance allows those pieces to fall into place. None of the other Rangers starters is a must-see pitcher, a guy who can shut down the opposition every time he takes the mound.
Harrison was penciled in as the Rangers' No. 2 starter going into spring training. Perhaps that was too ambitious for a pitcher coming off three back surgeries last year. If fully healthy, however, Harrison did indeed look like one of the rotation's best starting pitchers. In 2012, he made 32 starts, posted a 3.29 ERA and threw 213.1 innings. With him, Darvish and Derek Holland, the Rangers potentially had three starters at the top of the rotation capable of providing 200 innings.
But Harrison has been plagued by a sore neck early in spring training. That neck issue developed into yet another back problem. As of this writing, Harrison is being shut down from all baseball activities. He'll undergo an MRI exam back in Dallas on Thursday (Feb. 21). If he ends up sidelined for a significant period of time, that could send the Rangers' rotation into disarray. Who lines up as the No. 2 behind Darvish?
Does Martin Perez get pushed up to that role? Nick Tepesch might be able to handle a 200-inning workload, coming off 180 innings pitched between the majors and minors last year. But that's likely asking too much of Alexi Ogando. Derek Holland might eventually be capable of filling the second spot in the rotation, but he won't return until at least the All-Star break after having microfracture surgery on his left knee. All of this makes Harrison pretty important for the Rangers this season.