Five questions: Texas Rangers

Going into 2012, the Rangers were back-to-back AL pennant-winners and among the World Series favorites once again. Fast-forward one year, and the team followed up being bounced from the playoffs by Baltimore in a one-game Wild Card showdown with an offseason void of any big moves. Texas will have to hope its excellent farm system can fill some of the gaps left by departing veterans.

How will they replace Josh Hamilton?

The team went into the winter considered a major player for the top two free agents. Josh Hamilton was considered somewhat likely to re-sign, but he eventually opted for a five-year, $125 million pact with the division-rival Angels. Zack Greinke was also on the team’s radar, but the best pitcher on the free agent market, like its best hitter, opted for Los Angeles. Greinke signed a deal with the newly minted financial juggernaut, the Dodgers, that at the time was the largest commitment to any right-handed pitcher in history.

Although they had a shot at a number of center fielders who changed hands this offseason, the Rangers currently appear content to replace Hamilton with a combination of Cuban defector Leonys Martin, who has 60 major league plate appearances over the past two seasons, and Craig Gentry, a capable defender who was excellent in a backup role to Hamilton last season but scarcely mustered a league-average batting line despite the help of a .364 BABIP he is unlikely to repeat.

Martin was highly regarded as an international signee, picking up a five-year, $20.5 million deal in 2011, but he certainly won’t replace Hamilton’s potent bat. The Rangers will have to hope that a combination of prospect call-ups, free agent signings, and improvement from players already on the roster will soften the blow of losing their best hitter and allow them to compete with Hamilton’s new club.

How do they sort out their three middle infielders for two positions?

The Rangers currently face a problem that is likely the envy of every other front office in baseball. Both shortstop Elvis Andrus and second baseman Ian Kinsler have made multiple All-Star appearances in their time with the Rangers, including selections for both last season. However, the team has Jurickson Profar waiting in the wings. Profar is a consensus top-three prospect in baseball and was named by Keith Law and several other sources as the top prospect in the game.

The 19-year-old Curacao native has put up a .367 on-base percentage in his three years in the minors, showing everything you’d want from a potential future franchise cornerstone. With hitting ability far beyond his years, developing power, and a discerning eye, Profar may provide a superior alternative to the bat of the consistent but powerless Andrus.

Profar’s also a strong defensive shortstop, with the speed, arm, and instincts to hold down the position effectively, although Andrus is an excellent glove man in his own right. Kinsler, a two-time 30/30 hitter, offers more in the way of power, but Profar’s superior on-base skills and defense make him a better long-term option in the middle infield.

Complicating matters further, Andrus will hit the free agent market after 2014, if he isn’t extended first. The way I see it, the incumbent shortstop is likely to stay at his position, at least for this year, and either Kinsler or Profar will play second. If the team decides to keep its All-Star double-play partnership intact, Profar could act as a utility infielder, play in the outfield or begin the season in the minors.

There was some talk that Kinsler might be given a look in the outfield, but he’s said he’s not comfortable with that idea, and general manager Jon Daniels has voiced his support for his second baseman, who last year was extended through the 2017 season and given assurances that he wouldn’t be asked to relocate in the first season of his deal.

Kinsler also would have been an option at DH, where the Rangers sorely needed an upgrade after Michael Young posted the lowest wRC+ of any designated hitter in the league last season, but the team jettisoned Young and signed Lance Berkman. If Berkman, 37, can’t hit effectively or stay healthy, then Kinsler is one possible solution.

At this point, it seems pretty clear that the team will go with Andrus and Kinsler coming out of spring training barring an injury or a huge surprise, but the talented prospect could force them to reconsider that decision shortly after the beginning of the season, once service time is no longer an issue. With the Angels looking like one of the best teams in baseball and the defending division champion A’s unlikely to roll over, the Rangers will need all the talent they can get, and it’s pretty clear Profar has the skills to help.

Does Lance Berkman still have it in him?

While the Rangers clearly will take a step back offensively in center field, and to a lesser extent at catcher, where free agent signing A.J. Pierzynski will replace the departed Mike Napoli, there is room for improvement in the DH slot. Young was penciled in as the DH in all 156 regular-season games the Rangers played in AL parks last year, putting up a .277/.312/.370 slash-line. When your only job is to hit the baseball, you have to do better than that.

Enter Berkman, who is one year removed from a spectacular 2011 campaign but encountered knee and calf troubles last season that limited him to just 32 games. In the last two years combined, Berkman’s put up a sensational .295/.408/.533 line, good for a 157 wRC+ that would tie him with Prince Fielder as the seventh-most productive offensive player per plate appearance if he had the at-bats to qualify.

The Rangers clearly hope taking him out of the field will help keep Berkman healthy and his bat in the lineup. His contract reflects this, as he’ll earn $10 million in 2013 with a $13 million option vesting at 550 plate appearances. If Berkman can step into the box 550 times, he could go a long way toward replacing the offense the team will lose with the departure of Hamilton.

Is Yu Darvish an ace?

The Rangers were rumored to be heavily in the mix for Greinke, but in the end, they missed out on him. From last year’s rotation, they’re minus Ryan Dempster and Scott Feldman. The injury bug has bit the staff, too, and Colby Lewis is unlikely to return from surgery for a torn right flexor tendon until at least May, while Neftali Feliz’s Tommy John surgery will keep him out until midseason or later.

Highly rated prospect Martin Perez, who had a rough go of it in his first major league action last season, will be counted on to fill one of those vacancies, while Alexi Ogando will be stretched out again and hopes to repeat the success he had moving from the bullpen to the starting staff in 2011.

The key to this rotation is right at the top, where Yu Darvish will be counted on as the team’s de facto ace and likely Opening Day starter. Darvish showed flashes of brilliance last season, making it clear why the team believed he was worth the largest commitment ever made to a Japanese pitcher, including a $51.7 million posting fee and six-year, $60 million major league deal. His 27.1 percent strikeout rate was second only to Max Scherzer among starters last season, so he clearly has the stuff to dominate.

His 10.9 percent walk rate was also near the top of the leaderboard for starters, so while his stuff wasn’t an issue, his command clearly was. Darvish had a strong season last year, but if the Rangers are to compete with the reloaded Angels and reigning division champion A’s, they’ll need him to be more than strong. If he can bring his walk rate down while punching out batters at a similar clip, Darvish could establish himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. A third trip to the World Series in four years for this team might require exactly that.

Will Matt Harrison make Jon Daniels look like a genius?

Matt Harrison went into this offseason as a second-time arbitration-eligible starter, but he’ll begin 2013 firmly entrenched as the team’s third starter behind Darvish and Derek Holland through the 2017 season. A five-year extension gave the Rangers an additional three years of team control past Harrison’s arbitration seasons, plus an option for 2018, at the reasonable cost of $13 million per free agent year.

Unlike Darvish, Harrison’s not the kind of pitcher who blows batters away, but he avoids the free pass while inducing ground balls at a nearly 50 percent clip, a key component of success in hitter-friendly Arlington. His swinging strike rate has increased in each of the past four years, largely because he’s inducing more swings from opposing hitters at pitches outside the zone. If Harrison can continue that trend, he may be able to strike batters out at a slightly higher rate, and while he’ll never have Darvish’s pure stuff, his control means he doesn’t have to in order to be a strong member of the Rangers’ rotation.

Harrison set a career high with 133 strikeouts in 213.1 innings last season. If he can nudge that up slightly, striking out something like 150 batters per year, those $13 million free agent seasons will be an absolute steal, and Darvish, Holland and Harrison will form an imposing trio atop the Rangers’ rotation for years to come.

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