It’s hard to argue that any team has experienced the success that the Texas Rangers have had over the last three seasons. Two consecutive American League championships heading into last year—including being one strike away from a World Series title…twice.
Then last season the Rangers led the AL West practically from wire-to-wire, taking over first place after their fourth game of the year and holding on to it until the very last day when the upstart A’s snatched the division title from their grasp. Finally, in the first ever AL wild card play-in game, the Rangers were knocked out by another annoying upstart team in the Orioles and what looked to be another great season evaporated in a matter of 72 hours.
Rather than throw money at their problems, the Rangers decided to take a measured approach (perhaps not by choice) this offseason. They tried for Zack Greinke and were outbid by the Dodgers. They tried to trade for Justin Upton but couldn’t put together a suitable package for the Diamondbacks. They even tried meagrely to bring back free agent outfielder Josh Hamilton who stymied them for their entrenched rivals.
Pressure mounting, the Rangers remained calm and made subtle changes to their roster. Unable (or more accurately, unwilling) to throw a ton of money at Hamilton or Mike Napoli, Texas brought in A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman to replace them. They also made cheap, subtle additions to their bullpen by bringing in Jason Frasor and acquiring Josh Lindblom in the Michael Young trade with Philadelphia in order to replace the departing Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. Overall, the Rangers probably aren’t as good on paper heading into 2013, but they aren’t a whole lot worse either.
Although the Rangers finished ninth in the AL in runs allowed, they managed, through solid peripherals, to finish fourth in the junior circuit in fielding-independent pitching behind the Rays, Tigers and A’s. This would seem to suggest that there could be some positive regression in store for 2013. Yu Darvish flashed brilliance at times and looked erratic at others, but drastically improved in the second half, cutting one walk from his per-nine rate after the All-Star Break. His second half peripherals suggest that he could be a legitimate ace going forward as he gains experience facing North American hitters.
The Rangers will support Darvish with two talented lefties in Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. Harrison, fresh off signing an extension this winter, threw over 200 innings for the first time and outpitched his peripherals with solid groundball numbers and an aversion to walks. Holland’s numbers were inflated due to one of the highest home run rates in baseball, which should normalize slightly and help his otherwise stalwart peripherals.
Alexi Ogando should finally get the chance at a full season of starting after pitching almost exclusively out of the bullpen last season. Despite only recently being converted from the outfield, Ogando continues to impress on the mound with a 3.04 K/BB ratio in his career. Joining Ogando at the back of the rotation could be once-elite prospect Martin Perez. If Perez can’t hold down the spot, minor-league signing Randy Wells or prospects Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez could step in.
The bullpen stands to be a little worse in 2013 with the departure of Adams and Uehara via free agency, but the acquisition of Frasor and Lindblom will soften the blow at least a little. Frasor is by no means great, but has been a ridiculously consistent and durable reliever for almost a decade now. He set a career high by striking out almost 28% of the batters he faced last year. Lindblom, meanwhile, gave up way too many home runs and walked a few too many as well. If he doesn’t correct those problems, there is some regression in his future.
Closing out games again will be Joe Nathan who went right back to being his usual dominant self in 2012 after a year off recovering from Tommy John surgery. At 38, he’s showing no signs of slowing down any time soon. His 6.00 K/BB ratio was third-best among AL relievers last season, trailing only Casey Janssen (!!) and Jake McGee.
Left-handers Robbie Ross and Michael Kirkman return after solid campaigns in relief in 2012. There’s a chance Ross could end up starting after posting the second-highest groundball percentage in the AL among relievers last season. Young fireballers Tanner Scheppers and Coty Woods should round out the ‘pen with Cory Burns, Yoshinori Tateyama and Wilmer Font (who went about striking out the whole world in the minors last season) on the outside looking in.
Nobody scored more runs than the Rangers last season, but that stands to change in 2013 with the loss of Hamilton and Napoli. Berkman and Pierzynski, should they remain in good health, will provide solid production at DH and catcher respectively but expecting them to replace the 5.9 offensive wins above replacement (according to Baseball Prospectus) of Hamilton and Napoli is probably foolish.
Of the returning cast, third baseman Adrian Beltre, second baseman Ian Kinsler and rightfielder Nelson Cruz should all be solid offensive contributors. Beltre is making a late-career push for Hall of Fame candidacy after his third straight season with a wOBA of .380 or higher to go along with unparalleled defense.
Kinsler struggled a bit in 2012 posting a merely average offensive season after his walk-rate dropped significantly along with his power. Most projections systems predict a bit of a bounce-back for him, but it’s likely that his best seasons are behind him as he enters his 30s. Cruz, meanwhile, is wrapped up in the Biogenesis scandal and is declining rapidly. Last season, his wRC+ slumped to 105 or barely above average.
Elvis Andrus is back at shortstop and is still (somehow) just 24-years-old. He could still get better offensively, but even if he doesn’t is already one of the most valuable shortstops in baseball. He could end up being trade bait if top-prospect Jurickson Profar plays his way on to the team. Profar could also play second base and push Kinsler to first where Mitch Moreland and Brandon Snyder are currently projected to be an underwhelming platoon.
Alongside Cruz in the outfield will be David Murphy in leftfield. Murphy had a breakout season in 2012 posting a 127 wRC+ in 521 plate appearances. If he can repeat that performance in 2013, it will go a long way to sustaining the Rangers offense. In centerfield, Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry are expected to platoon with the very slight possibility that Profar could see time out there at some point.
Texas was middle-of-the-pack defensively in 2012, but possesses a couple elite defenders in Andrus and Beltre on the left side of the infield. If Profar ends up coming up, he could be elite at second base or short, while Martin and Gentry are both considered at least adequate defenders in center. On the other side of that coin, Cruz, Kinsler and Pierzynski are all below-average with the glove. Overall, Texas shouldn’t be a bad defensive club, but don’t expect them to be in the rarefied air occupied by the likes of the Rays and Angels.
Heading into the All-Star Break last season, the Rangers were a half-game behind the Yankees for the best record in baseball. From that point on, they went a mediocre 41-35 and ended up losing the division on the final day of the regular season. The losses of Hamilton, Napoli, Adams and Uehara combined with an underwhelming offseason could reveal many issues with the Rangers overall complexion. They still have a solid lineup and an underrated starting rotation, but if it turns out their true talent is more second-half Rangers than first-half, a small step back could be coming.
Texas is still talented enough to compete in the AL West and there’s a substantial amount of prospect depth on the horizon, but players like Kinsler and Cruz need to stave off the effects of age and decline in order for the Rangers to approach the mid-90-mark in wins again.
2013 Outlook: 88-74, 2nd AL West