2011 Record: 96-66, 1st AL West
2011 Prediction: 85-77, 2nd AL West
Impact Player: 2B Ian Kinsler
Impact Pitcher: RHP Yu Darvish
Best Reliever: RHP Mike Adams
Top Prospect: SS Jurickson Profar
The Texas Rangers became the first team since the 2001 Yankees to win back-to-back AL pennants, coming within one strike of a World Championship not once, but twice in game six of the World Series against the Cardinals. In each of the last two years, the team the Rangers were facing was the far inferior ballclub.
One could make the argument that the way Jon Daniels has built the Rangers over the past half-decade or so is the new template for a winning franchise. As Dustin has pointed out several times on this site, not once during this latest run have they put the cart before the horse. They have allowed their farm system to slowly gain traction by excellent drafting and development and by executing savvy trade after savvy trade. Only when the Rangers were in a position to compete with a strong core of homegrown talent did they take the plunge and acquire elite talent from outside the organization. In 2010, they traded for ace Cliff Lee in early July. Last offseason they added star third baseman Adrian Beltre with a five-year, free agent contract. This offseason, they added the best pitcher ever to come out of Japan, spending a total of $107.7-million ($51.7-million on the posting fee and $56-million on the contract) on Yu Darvish.
This is truly the golden age for the Texas Rangers who still boast a deep farm system and have the money to spend with just about anyone. They should continue to contend for an awfully long time.
The Rangers don’t get a lot of credit for just how good their pitching staff has been over the last couple seasons. Last year, they finished fifth in the AL in runs allowed and their starters were second in the AL in fWAR. They were, of course, led by C.J. Wilson who signed with the division-rival Angels in the offseason after putting up two brilliant years in the rotation. With Wilson out of the picture, the Rangers still have plenty of depth in the rotation with as many as seven potential starters expected to make the team.
It’s hard to tell what the Rangers will get from Darvish whose price tag carries a ton of risk. He appears to have the potential of a number one starter, but the hype machine has made mistakes in the past. Either way, the Rangers are paying for an ace and given their track record of scouting over the last few years, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Given his ability to strike out all of Japan, he should at least be a lot of fun to watch.
Lefties Derek Holland and Matt Harrison should both be in the rotation after posting solid seasons in 2011. Harrison accumulated a 4.2 fWAR in 185.2 innings, while Holland had a 3.6 fWAR in 198. Holland is a year younger and has the higher ceiling; he could be a legitimate number two starter.
32-year-old Colby Lewis will likely get the nod on Opening Day and has thrown two consecutive 200-inning seasons. He lost some velocity on his fastball last year but appeared to underpitch (no, you’re not a word) his peripherals. He still posts solid walk-rates and is good enough to be a dependable number three or four starter.
The Rangers will attempt, once again, to move Neftali Feliz to the starting rotation. He has now had three seasons in the bullpen ranging from excellent to good, although his decrease in strike outs and increase in walks last year is a bit worrying. If Texas decides he’s better suited for the bullpen, they have Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman who both have had success as starters. Ogando was very good in that role last year, but he lacks a decent third pitch, leading many to believe the league will eventually catch up with him as a starter.
Top pitching prospect Martin Perez (who has yet to turn 21) could make his long-awaited Major League debut at some point this year, but unless injuries clear a spot in the rotation, it’ll be in the bullpen.
Speaking of that bullpen, the Rangers should once again have one of the best in the league. Last year, they were fourth in the AL in xFIP, and that was without Mike Adams and Koji Uehara for most of the year as both were acquired at the deadline. This year, the Rangers have added august veteran closer Joe Nathan who came back from Tommy John’s surgery last year in Minnesota and struggled at times, but he still posted a 3.07 K/BB ratio.
If Nathan’s age starts to show and he can’t hold down the ninth inning job, Adams could easily step in. He has been one of the very best relievers in baseball over the last three seasons, accumulating the eighth-best fWAR and the sixth-best xFIP among relievers during that span.
Uehara struggled in Texas after his trade from Baltimore last year; so much so that the Rangers tried their best to trade him this winter, but he still posts ridiculous strike out and walk rates. If he can keep his homerun rate to something just a little worse than respectable, he’ll have value. His splits suggest he could turn into a ROOGY with continued decline.
Ogando and Feldman will pitch out the bullpen if they aren’t starting and they should be joined by two of Mark Lowe, Yoshinori Tateyama, Tanner Scheppers, or lefties Michael Kirkman and Joe Beimel among others.
Only the Yankees and Red Sox scored more runs in the AL than the Rangers in 2011 and they’ll be no worse in 2012. Kinsler at second base, Beltre at third and Mike Napoli at catcher and first base all posted fWARs of 5.5 or higher and had wOBAs of .370 or higher in 2011. Kinsler, when factoring in defense, was one of the most valuable players in baseball. Napoli led all of baseball in wOBA at .444 for players with more than 400 plate appearances. His .320/.414/.631 was as ridiculous as it is unsustainable, but he should still put up solid numbers in 2012. Beltre, meanwhile, doesn’t get on base as much as some others, but his power, contact ability and defense make him one of the best two or three third basemen in baseball.
Josh Hamilton can’t stay on the field, but when he does he’s still one of the best hitters around. His injury history combined with a middling walk rate is not a skill set that tends to age well. At 31, it might be optimistic for him to continue what he’s done over the past few years for much longer.
Michael Young begrudgingly accepted his new role as DH and it paid off. He’s worth much more to the team when he’s not playing in the field than when he is. He had a tremendous offensive year in 2011, finishing with a .369 wOBA, but his batted-ball average was much higher than his career norm, suggesting a regression (along with some age-induced decline) in the coming year.
Despite the great players included within it, the Rangers lineup is not without its holes. Rightfielder Nelson Cruz hit 29 home runs last year, but did so with a troubling .312 on-base percentage and a declining defensive skill set. At 31, his best years are behind him. In the other corner spot will probably be David Murphy who doesn’t hit enough to be an everyday leftfielder and is probably best suited in a fourth outfielder role. At first base, Mitch Moreland is one of the worst regulars in the AL at the position. He’ll be spelled by Napoli and Young from time to time, but it’s clear the Rangers could use an upgrade there. Their refusal to be big players in the Prince Fielder sweepstakes this offseason was puzzling, but given the money he received from Detroit, it could end up being smart.
Yorvit Torrealba will be the backup catcher and he should get considerable playing time since it’s unlikely that Napoli will play every day behind the plate. Outfielders Conor Jackson, Julio Borbon, Craig Gentry, Leonys Martin and Kyle Hudson will battle for the final bench spots with infielders Alberto Gonzalez and Luis Hernandez.
The Rangers are positioned to be one of the best teams in baseball for a long time thanks to smart roster construction and excellent drafting. They’ve been the better team in the World Series each of the last two years but have come up just short. The Angels are a much improved team in 2011, but they still don’t have the talent to overtake them. The one potential problem for Texas is their lack of depth; if injuries hit, they don’t have a lot of legitimate replacements, but if healthy, they might be the best all-around team in the AL.
2012 Prediction: 97-65, 1st AL West