The new baseball season is back. And whilst it is only a few days old, and impossible to predict how a team’s year will go just from their first few games, one team who are predicted to have a long and ultimately fruitless campaign are the Texas Rangers.
Much fun has been poked at new Padres General Manager, AJ Preller, who has begun his reign in San Diego much like a trigger happy fantasy baseball player. However, in this era of seemingly unusual parity across the league, can one criticise any GM for going for it now, rather than doing the orthodox thing and building gradually? Just a season ago the Rangers were seen as a powerhouse franchise with one of the strongest farm systems in baseball, a team destined to be at the top for years. And yet here we are with most experts writing them off as also-ran in one of MLB’s toughest divisions.
So what has gone wrong in Arlington and what do Rangers fans have to look forward to in 2015?
After five consecutive winning seasons, including back-to-back trips to the World Series in 2010 and 2011, the Rangers run of success came to a screeching halt last season as injuries decimated the roster. Texas players combined to spend 2116 days on the disabled list, which is the highest total by any team since DL data started being tracked in 2002. And just one other team during that time, the Diamondbacks in 2004, was above 2000 days lost.
It was a horror show and not surprisingly the Rangers fell from 91-72 in 2013 to an AL worst 67-95. Ron Washington stepped down after eight seasons as manager and the Rangers fired interim manager Tim Bogar despite his success down the stretch, giving the job to Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister. When a consistent contender suffers a ridiculous number of injuries and loses 95 games the easy assumption is that they’ll bounce back in a huge way the next season. Sadly, that doesn’t seem likely for the Rangers.
They couldn’t even get out of Spring Training unscathed by the injury bug, as ace Yu Darvish was lost for the season before it began with Tommy John bow surgery and former stud prospect Jurickson Profar was ruled out for a second straight season with shoulder problems. Left-hander Martin Perez isn’t expected back from his own Tommy John surgery until midseason and fellow left-hander Matt Harrison is a question mark after spinal fusion surgery. It’s safe to assume the Rangers won’t have another 2000 plus days of DL time, because its safe to assume that about any team, but this is hardly a healthy bunch and losing Darvish is a massive blow.
The good news on the health front is that Prince Fielder looks recovered from the neck injury that ended his season in May and Shin-Soo Choo is one season removed from being good enough that the team gave him $130m, so if they can get back on track and should-be Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre can continue to hold off father time at age 36 the middle of the lineup can definitely do some damage. Their supporting cast (Ryan Rua, Robinson Chirinos, Elvis Andrus and Mitch Moreland) looks iffy though, especially without the promise of Profar emerging as a building block player.
As for the Darvish-less pitching staff…..well, Fangraphs projects the Rangers to allow more runs than every MLB team bar the Rockies this season. This seems reasonable when you consider that the staff provided MLB’s fewest Quality Starts in 2014, and that was with Darvish on board. Derek Holland was injured for most of last season and offseason trade pickup Yovani Gallardo has seen his strikeout rate plummet – and they’re the two best bets in a rotation that’s also home to Colby Lewis, Ross Detwiler and Nick Martinez. And the bullpen is relying an awful lot on a post-surgery Neftali Feliz returning to form.
Allow me to go back on the “should-be Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre” thing. Some may not think of him as bound for Cooperstown, but Beltre is a four-time Gold Glove winning third baseman with a .285 career batting average, 395 homers and 2604 hits. And he’s still an elite player, batting .324 with an .879 OPS last season to put 450 homers and 300 hits within reach. Among all third basemen in MLB history Beltre ranks seventh in Wins Above Replacement, behind only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Chipper Jones and Brooks Robinson. All of those guys are in the Hall or will be very soon. As is the third baseman one spot behind Beltre in eighth place, Ron Santo. Adrian Beltre should be a Hall of Famer.
Profar was the consensus number one prospect in baseball two years ago, so having to wait until 2016 to see what remains of his upside is sad, Texas still has a really good, really young middle infielder with tons of upside in Rougned Odor, who debuted last season at age 20 and held his own with a .700 OPS in 114 games as the youngest regular in the entire league. Odor’s approach at the plate is very raw and his K/BB ratios aren’t pretty, but he was one of just eight 20-year-old middle infielders in MLB history to play 100-plus games and post an adjusted OPS+ of at least 95. The last four to do so? Starlin Castro in 2010, Alex Rodriguez in 1996, Roberto Alomar in 1988 and Bill Mazeroski in 1957.
Gallardo was a really good, durable and generally underrated starter for the Brewers, but his annual strikeout rate has dipped from 9.0 to 7.2 to 6.8 and his average fastball now clocks in at 91 miles per hour. He induces enough ground balls to avoid being totally wrecked by calling the Rangers’ power-inflating ballpark home, but switching from the NL to the AL may shine a light on the impending free agent’s deteriorating skills.
Fielder is owed $24m per season through 2020, Choo $20 per season also through 2020 and Andrus $15m per season until 2022. Those are the three players around which General Manager Jon Daniels has decided to build and is they don’t start making good on those long-term investments its going to be extremely difficult to turn things around quickly.
As I mentioned, the major league team was a disappointment in 2014. However, there were a lot of positive things happening on the farm. The Rangers are now at a point where some very exciting players are poised to reach the majors in the near future, potentially as soon as 2015.
One of them is Joey Gallo, one of the game’s very top prospects. He had a breakout year in 2014, hitting 42 homers across A and AA with a massive .615 slugging percentage. The third baseman will begin the year at AA Frisco, where he will work on improving his contact rate while preserving his legendary power. A solid season would see him make it to Round Rock this summer, and potentially be in line for a cup of coffee in September.
Frisco will also feature catcher Jorge Alfaro, a 21-year-old native of Colombia. He has wowed observers with his big time arm and power, but also frustrated with his unrefined catching skills and free-swinging approach at the plate. Alfaro has some good reviews for his work this spring, however, and could end up in the majors this year, and potentially start for the team at the start of 2016.
Gallo and Alfaro will be joined in the Frisco lineup by outfielders Nomar Mazara and Nick Williams. The 19-year-old Mazara, who has drawn comparisons to Jason Heyward, started slowly at low-A Hickory last year but started mashing eventually and then never slowed down, earning a promotion to Frisco, where he was one of the youngest players in the league. Williams, meanwhile, is a pure hitter who split the 2014 season between Myrtle Beach and Frisco, and is considered to have possibly the best bat-to-ball skills in the system.
On the pitching side, Luke Jackson, a 2010 supplemental first rounder, made it to Round Rock for the end of 2014, but got roughed up in his first taste of AAA. Nevertheless, the hard-throwing right-hander is one of the Rangers’ better pitching prospects and will be back in the Round Rock rotation to start the year, with the possibility of joining Texas at some point this season.
Finally, there is Texas native Jake Thompson, a right-handed hurler acquired from the Detroit Tigers in the Joakim Soria trade last July. Thompson impressed upon his arrival and is thought to be neck and neck with Chi Chi Gonzalez for the title of top Rangers pitching prospect. Thompson is just 21 years old and will likely be in AA Frisco to start the year…..he’s a little behind Jackson and Gonzalez in terms of ETA in Arlington.However, he might have the highest ceiling of the three, and while he’s not a likely candidate to be called up this year, he’s someone to keep an eye on as the season progresses, and someone who could be in the mix for a spot in the rotation in 2016.
Unlike the past several years, this is a team that is entering the season without much in the way of expectations. The string of four straight 90+ wins came to an ugly end last year, and there were questions about how good Texas would be in 2015 even before the Darvish injury.
In such a strong division, it might be a case of sitting back, enjoying the wins, accepting the losses and watching what Gallo and Alfaro etc do in the minors and waiting. As with all, if not every, team in baseball these days, you just never know when the pieces will fall into place to make a run at things again. One thing is for sure, though, there is hope aplenty that good times will return, and soon, in Texas.