2014 MLB Season Preview: Texas Rangers
Overlooked news: Profar’s turn. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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Projected AL West Finish: 2nd out of 5
Coming into this season, here at That Ball’s Outta Here we want to preview each team in the majors, with a different writer covering each division in the order of projected end of year standings. In this installment, I preview the Texas Rangers.
Major Additions: 1B Prince Fielder, OF Shin-Soo Choo, OF Michael Choice
For the Texas Rangers, finishing the 2013 season 7th in runs scored in the AL wasn’t anywhere near the heights of leading the league in the previous season. Scoring 78 runs fewer than in 2012, this drop-off in production can be tied to the departures of OF Josh Hamilton and C Mike Napoli, and significant offensive regression from SS Elvis Andrus and OF David Murphy. This off-season, GM Jon Daniels prioritized improving the offense.
Having no clear solution at 1B, and a logjam in the middle of the infield (2B Ian Kinsler, SS Andrus, 2B/SS Jurickson Profar), it made sense to trade from one area of surplus to fill that need. After losing 2B Omar Infante to the Royals, the Detroit Tigers made a logical fit.
Wanting to move Miguel Cabrera back to his natural home of 1B, the Tigers made Prince Fielder and his massive contract available. Eventually, both sides agreed to a deal sending Fielder and cash to Texas, in exchange for Kinsler.
Fielder will provide some much needed left-handed pop in a lineup which, again between 2012-2013, lost 24 HR and 44 points off of their slugging percentage. He’ll need to return to pre-2013 form as well, as he is coming off an uncharacteristic, “only” above-average offensive season. His .279/.362/.457 line, with 25 HR and a (still-good) 125 wRC+, was significantly lower than his .286/.389/.527, 35 HR, 140 wRC+ career average. However, his left-handed power should play well in favorable Arlington.
After taking on his large salary, there was speculation as to whether the team was largely finished with off-season spending.
They made the interesting move of trading Craig Gentry, the kind of player whose name you could picture Brad Pitt-As-Billy Beane writing on a white board while screaming “HE. GETS. ON. BASE.”, to Oakland for OF prospect Michael Choice.
Primarily interesting about this move is that both teams are contending this season, and it’s odd to see Texas trade a currently valuable piece to their big division rival in exchange for a future prospect. However, that’s not to say it’s a bad trade. Choice, a 24-year old outfield prospect, received a small major league stint at the end of 2013, and many reports say he’s ready to compete for a major league spot.
He’s a potential impact bat at the major league level, and has adjusted his swing throughout his time in the minors to cut down in his past high strike out rate. This has come at the cost of some power (after hitting 30 in A+ in 2011, he has hit a combined 24 over the last two years), but resulted in a .302 BA in AAA this past year. His good arm strength, but average defense makes it look like RF is his future position, as opposed to CF.
Texas’ final big move surprised much of the baseball world, when they swooped in to sign OF Shin-Soo Choo for $130 million over seven seasons.
Choo’s high-OBP calling card made him one of the most productive bats on the free agent market this past off-season, especially coming off of a contract-year in Cincinnati where he batted .285/.423/.462 with 21 HR, 20/31 SB, producing runs at an elite 151 wRC+. He figures to fit into LF, where he’s been a roughly average defender during his career (5.7 UZR), a much better fit than CF, where he spent most of 2013 (career -17.3 UZR).
Noticeably absent were any pitching upgrades, particularly in the face of several significant injuries to starters Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, and the loss of closer Joe Nathan to the Tigers. This is the largest area of concern for the team entering 2014.
Impact Bats: 1B Prince Fielder, 2B Jurickson Profar, 3B Adrian Beltre, LF Shin-Soo Choo
Where’s my Andrus/Beltre buddy cop comedy? Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
When I went into researching for this piece, I pictured a Texas Rangers lineup as being fearsome, with every name being one I could list immediately above this paragraph as an “Impact Bat.”
However, when looking at the team’s depth chart, what one realizes is that while there aren’t any holes, there are only a few All-Star quality bats. What does exist is across-the-board competency at every position.
Re-signed catcher Geovany Soto provided strong offense (114 wRC+, 9 HR) and strong defense in a backup capacity in 2013. It’ll be important to see if he can expand that production over 100+ games behind the plate.
SS Elvis Andrus was extended before last season for $118 million over eight years. He’s undoubtedly one of the top defensive shortstops in baseball, and although his bat lags behind his defense, he makes up for it with serious speed (in 2013, he batted .271/.328/.331, with 4 HR, 78 wRC+, but a great 42/50 on SB attempts).
His combination of speed, with a high average and average on-base skills, still makes him a valuable offensive player.
DH Mitch Moreland figures to flip-flop at least some of the time with Prince Fielder at 1B. In his first season as a regular, Moreland’s BA and slugging percentage each dropped over 30 points, although he crossed the 20 HR threshold for the first time (with 23).
RF Alex Rios was received in a trade with the Chicago White Sox at this past year’s trade deadline. He quietly put together a strong 2013 – batting .278/.324/.432 with 18 HR, 42/49 SB, and a roughly neutral 103 wRC+.
Combined with a neutral defensive season (3.7 UZR), he was one of the best acquisitions of the last trade deadline.
It seems as if anyone on the Rangers with a lack of power makes up for it with incredible base-running skills. Defense-first CF Leonys Martin is no exception. In his first full season, he hit for decent average (.260) and stole a lot of bases (36/45). If he can get on-base at a higher clip, that speed will really make an impact.
In terms of the next tier bats, there are four. Already discussed are Prince Fielder, who should significantly rebound this season, and Shin-Soo Choo, bringing the 4th-highest OBP in baseball to Texas.
Additionally, future Hall Of Famer Adrian Beltre seems to be primed to be his usual, stellar self as he enters his age-35 season. He’s been worth at least 130 wRC+, has hit 30 HR or more, and averaged .312/.356/.542 over each of his three years with the Rangers.
Finally, some might take some issue with listing Jurickson Profar, projected to bat 9th with a career .231/.301/.343 slash line, as an impact bat.
Some people have been quick to dismiss the former top prospect in baseball 300 scattershot PAs into his career, but this season gets his first shot at an everyday job with Ian Kinsler’s move to Detroit.
Tons has been written about him in past seasons, and nothing has changed about his five-tool potential, other than that he has had some time to work out the kinks in the major leagues. Jon Sickel’s report on him is very readable and gives a good idea of his potential.
Impact Arms: RHP Yu Darvish, LHP Derek Holland, LHP Martin Perez, RHP Neftali Feliz, LHP Neal Cotts
A season from Darvish that doesn’t match expectations could sink the Rangers. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
When it comes to the Rangers’ pitching potential, it’s Yu Darvish, and then everyone else in a second tier. In 2013, he led the league in K/9, was hit the least of any pitcher, and he did it for over 200 IP.
While a comparatively small deal to Masahiro Tanaka‘s recent contract with the Yankees, Darvish has been everything (and more than) the Rangers paid for in the last two seasons. In his two-year American career, he’s pitched 401 innings to a 3.28 FIP, only allowing 6.8 H/9, while striking out 11.2/9 IP.
Much like fellow AL West competitors (AKA Mariners, Angels), a lack of starting pitching depth (partially due to injuries) requires top players like Darvish to match their expectations. A season like Justin Verlander had last year from Darvish could sink the Rangers due to significant question marks behind him.
Coming off of his best season, LHP Derek Holland had micro-fracture surgery in January and will be out until the All-Star break. He’s pitched at least 150 innings each of the last three seasons, and this past year he passed the 200 IP mark while producing the lowest FIP of his career (3.44).
RHP Nick Tepesch looks to be a favorite to replace Derek Holland out of the gate, after earning a spot for the majority of 2013 as well.
Another injury concern comes in the form of LHP Matt Harrison. Last season’s opening day starter, Harrison is hopefully on the tail-end of his recovery from two back surgeries.
He’s seen limited action this Spring, and opening day availability is in doubt. However, he still looks to be back well before Holland, and is the biggest x-factor on this staff.
Depending on the health of Harrison, and certainly Holland, expect to see one of Texas’ starters-turned-relievers (Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross) or former Brave Tommy Hanson in the rotation on opening day.
Outside of them, expect both RHP Alexi Ogando and LHP Martin Perez to keep their rotation spots from last season. Ogando, owning a career 3.79 FIP over 381 IP, spent parts of last season on the DL with various injuries.
Perez, only entering his age-22 season, recently signed a 4-year extension and proceeded to pitch effectively in his first season in the rotation. He looks to extend his production from 20-starts to a full 32-33.
As far as the bullpen is concerned, former closer Neftali Feliz looks to reclaim his job after the departure of Joe Nathan. After spending 2009-2011 as an elite reliever, striking out 9.1/9 IP, with a 0.947 WHIP over 162.2 IP.
The past two seasons, injuries have derailed his still-young career, limiting him to only 14 appearances. Reports indicate his velocity has returned to the mid-high 90’s during his off-season preparation.
One additional reliever of note for the Rangers is LHP Neal Cotts, who boasted a 2.17 FIP with only 5.7 H/9 and a sub-1.000 WHIP in 2013.
Major Prospects: 2B Rougned Odor, C Jorge Alfaro, OF Nick Williams, 3B Joey Gallo, OF Michael Choice
Rangers Prospect Rougned Odor has a major league future, just maybe not with the Rangers. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Texas Rangers farm system is characterized by a large number of high-ceiling, but extremely risky skill sets. In 2014, the organization lacks the elite prospects that they’ve featured in recent years – a result of aggressively pushing Profar to the majors, without a clear immediate position.
However, there is still a lot of exciting talent in the minors. This season, Rangers prospects are headlined by yet another middle-infielder with a cloudy future, 2B Rougned Odor.
Odor faces the same problem as Profar, but is also in a less enviable position. He is blocked by two very young, talented players in Andrus and Profar, and his skill set isn’t as undeniable as Profar.
Odor features a very advanced hit-tool with good instincts and bat speed. Aside from that, he projects to end up with major league average skills across the board (power, speed, fielding, arm strength), leading Baseball America goes as far as to say he has the potential to “develop into an All-Star second baseman.”
The then 19-year old hit .303/.362/.472 with 11 HR and 31/41 SB across both A+ and AA last season. It speaks to the youth and current talent at the major league level to say that it’s unlikely that the Rangers would move either current starter (each under team control for at least 6 years) for Odor.
C Jorge Alfaro is much more athletic than the prototypical catcher. He has surprising speed, and managed to steal 18 bases in 2013. He also produces a lot of power in his swing, matching those SB with 18 HR, but isn’t going to hit for high average in his major league career.
Like many Rangers prospects, he’s also got an unwieldy swing at times, which leads to a lot of swing-and-miss (122 Ks in 113 games). Also like many of their prospects, if he reigns in his swing, he could be a scary talent.
Outside of the already discussed Michael Choice, the two other high-impact prospects are OF Nick Williams, and 3B Joey Gallo. Williams is a probable corner OF with above-average power, above-average speed, and quick bat speed.
However, he’s a free-swinger, particularly against off-speed offerings, and hardly draws any walks (110 k / 15 BB in 95 games). Hitting 17 HR with a high .293 average in 2013, he has the potential to be an impact bat if he cuts down on his swing-and-miss tendencies.
The extreme example of this skill-set is 3B Joey Gallo. He’s a prospect who made a lot of noise in 2013, being the owner of the strongest power in the minors. Through his age-19 season, Gallo has 62 HR and a .635 slugging percentage in only 170 games.
However, during those 170 games, he’s also featured a staggering 250 K’s. Additionally, his lack of range may force a move to RF or 1B, but with his immense power he has the potential to be an MVP at either position.
Not to sound like a broken record, but truly a significant amount of his prospect value comes to down to his ability to improve his patience at the plate.