Five Questions: Texas Rangers

“Man, there sure is a lot to be excited about this season.”

“Come on, stop kidding yourself. We don’t have a chance.”

“You’re crazy. This could be the year.”

“Yes, in the sense that random chance dictates that any season any team could win the World Series. But I’d rather look at what’s probable than what could happen.”

“Fine. Maybe it’s not probable that they’ll make the playoffs or even have a winning record, but they’re set up well enough that they could be really good if a few things break the right way.”

“Okay, sure, they could turn out well, but it sure doesn’t seem probable. I’m not sure what things are, you know, on the precipice of breaking the right way.”

“You know, just some questions they have to answer.”

“Like…”

“Well, for one, will they get decent production from their outfield and designated hitter?

“”Sure, that’s a question. It’s a question with a two-letter answer.”

“I mean, maybe things won’t pan out, but I think it could break right. I think this is Laynce Nix’s year.”

“Frankly, I think 2002 was Laynce Nix’s year. Sure, he hits for decent power for a centerfielder and all, but he just has no command of the strike zone. You’d think a player who strikes out as much as him would work in more than an occasional walk. His low batting average wasn’t bad luck – he was fine on balls in play. He just strikes out a ton, and I don’t see why that’s going to suddenly improve.”

“His plate discipline was a lot better in the minor leagues. He had a good amount of walks and his strikeouts weren’t so bad. He’s had fewer than 600 plate appearances at the major league level, so I’d say it’s probably too soon to rule him out. He’s still young.”

“Yeah, he’s still young now, but he wasn’t a spring chicken relative to any of the leagues he’s played in before the bigs, and he didn’t dominate at any level. He’s still got time to be a decent player, but it’s hard to imagine that that will be this year.”

“Well, this could be the year for Kevin Mench, too.”

“That just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I mean, aside from ripping up A-ball at age 22, he’s never put up a very impressive season at any league. I don’t see why you could expect him to do much better than he did last season. In fact, he’ll probably do worse since he got nursed so much and didn’t have to face to many right handed pitchers.”

“I don’t know, he’s still got plenty of potential. And besides, he was pretty good last season anyway. .279/.335/.539 is good, even for Arlington.”

“Yeah, but it’s not above average for a corner outfielder. And he’s got the same problem all these jokers have got. He doesn’t reach base. This is a team full of guys who hit the ball hard but can’t be troubled to take a walk here or there.”

“I don’t see your point. Sure, they’d be better if all their hitters added another twenty, thirty points in OBP, but just because they don’t doesn’t mean the hitters or the offense in general is bad. Besides, maybe it’s a good thing. I mean, the Angels won the World Series because they had a bunch of batting average guys who all got hot at the same time. Maybe a team that walks a whole lot can be depended on to be good because they minimize risk, but their upside isn’t as big.”

“I don’t know about that, but I’d really prefer that they pick up some guys who can reliably get on base. Instead we re-signed Delluci, the only guy on the team who draws a lot of walks but who strikes out often enough that his OBP is below average, and picked up Hidalgo, one of the most inconsistent hitters in baseball. He’s had two excellent seasons and a ton of mediocre seasons. His skill set as a batter is basically below average across the board, except that he’s a pretty good power hitter every year and was a phenomenal power hitter in 2000 and 2003. I mean, there really isn’t any reason to expect him repeat those seasons, and there’s not even much reason to expect him to even split the difference. Plus, his strikeout and walk rates both got a lot worse last year.”

“Okay, sure, but Hidalgo’s only making $5 million, and he’s one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. He’s a good gamble, and if he finds his power stroke again we’re in nice shape.”

“Yeah, sure, he’s a nice bargain. But part of the problem is that we’re told that the Rangers need bargains. They overspent for A-Rod and obviously for Chan Ho Park, and now they’re using those signings as an excuse to have a low payroll, as if the problem was that they spent money rather than how they spent their money. For chrissakes, we’ve got a Barajas/Alomar platoon at catcher.”

“Yeah, but we didn’t need to spend for a catcher. We’ve got Gerald Laird.”

“You’re nuts. Laird’s not a terrible guy to have, but there’s no way he’s worth planning around. He’s had two averagish years, but his numbers look inflated because they came in the Texas League and the PCL. And he’s already 25, so he’s not some high upside guy who just needs a shot.”

“Yeah, but there’s nothing wrong with building around developing average players if they’re cheap.”

“Of course not, but the flip side is that cheap and average doesn’t do much for you unless you also spend for a few legitimate stars. That’s something the Rangers haven’t done recently.”

“Well, they kind of have. He plays second base.”

“You mean Alfonso Soriano is a legitimate star?”

“I think he has been, and can be. He sure didn’t play like one last season, but that’s just one year. I mean, he was a terrific hitter for two seasons with the Yankees, and coming from a second baseman that’s pretty valuable.”

“Yeah, but his defense doesn’t exactly say “second base” to me, and everyone’s saying it’s even worse this year with his injury. He’s had two very good seasons as a major league hitter and two pretty average seasons. That’s good, sure, but he’s not really a star. I mean, he’s a real one dimensional hitter; he hits a ton of fly balls and tries to hit them hard. There’s not any real growth potential, given that he’s already 29.”

“Yeah, but that one dimension he does have is one that the ballpark aids greatly, and I think it’s more likely that his relatively low homer total last season was a fluke than that his high homer totals with the Yankees were flukes.”

“Nobody’s denying that he’s valuable. But it’s ridiculous that the three highest-paid players on this team are Park, Soriano, and Hidalgo, although I guess A-Rod’s still getting more from the Rangers than Hidalgo.”

“Well, of course it’s ridiculous. That’s why it’s so impressive that they’re as good as they are.”

“I don’t know, it just seems like Soriano represents everything that’s wrong with the Rangers. Not only is he obviously linked to the A-Rod fiasco, but he doesn’t get on base and he’s a terrible defensive player. This team has figured out that they’ll benefit from fly ball hitters and groundball pitchers, which is smart. But then they’ve got the worst pair of defensive middle infielders in the league. Before, of course, they had a player who fit both strategies, hitting a ton of home runs and playing very good defense at shortstop. Sure A-Rod was overpaid, but his value to the Rangers was probably higher than it was to any other franchise, and what they got in return is pretty lousy, given the circumstances. As soon as they’d assembled enough talent around him that he would have mattered, they junked him.”

“Yeah, but it does make sense for them to want financial flexibility. It’s better to wait until your young players are ready before you go out and spend for help.”

“Well, even if the youth infusion is a year or two away, you still need to make money and maintain fan interest in the interim. If the team doesn’t win in the next two years, there simply won’t be much money to spend in those seasons with payroll flexibility. And on top of that, your argument would imply that the young players aren’t ready now, since they didn’t do any offseason spending. Given that there’s only a handful of impact prospects in the Rangers system, and none of them are even really slam dunks, it seems like this should be the time to pay a premium for quality, especially since the A’s and Angels are completely loaded in the minor leagues.”

“I don’t buy that. This group – Blalock, Teixeira, Young – they’re not close to their peaks.”

“Is the Rangers’ young offensive nucleus really set for a lot more improvement?”

“I think they are. I can’t think of any team with a better set of three young infielders.”

“Well, I really don’t see how Mike Young is going to improve on what he did last season. He never showed that sort of power before in his career, and while he might continue to improve his plate discipline, he’s also already 28 so some of his other skills should be fading.”

“Well, at least his defense should improve now that he’s used to shortstop again.”

“I don’t know, it should probably improve some, but he was really bad last season.”

“But Teixeira’s only scratched the surface so far. He’s only had two seasons in the bigs, and he made a huge improvement in the second one.”

“Okay, but he’s not very young either. He’s 25 in April, which is obviously young but is also right in the peak, so it’s not like he’s got unlimited growth potential. But while he was obviously much better in 2004 than 2003, the difference is partially due to chance. His talent in those seasons was probably somewhere in between the numbers he actually put up, and so while I think he’ll keep improving for another year or two, he’s already close to his ceiling.”

“Maybe, but it’s a pretty darn good ceiling. And I think Blalock is set to break out. He drew a lot more walks last season and he’s only 24.”

“Okay, but he also struck out a lot more last season, which means he was more patient at the plate but not any more effective. His ratio of unintentional walks to strikeouts stayed the same. I’m pretty concerned that his strikeout total increased by so much while his power numbers didn’t see any improvement.”

“Yeah, but sample size, man. Just because the power didn’t show up last year doesn’t mean it won’t show up soon. It’s good that he’s becoming more patient, and more walks and fewer strikeouts will be on the way. He’s still learning. In another couple of years, he should be awesome.”

“True, but I don’t really think that waiting for Blalock to go from good to excellent really justifies the Rangers dwelling on the threshold.”

“Yeah, but the fourth and fifth piece of that nucleus aren’t even around yet.”

“Oh, man. Are Kinsler and Gonzalez really that special?”

“I think they are. I mean, look at what Kinsler did last year. He dominated two levels in just his first full pro season.”

“Well, we’re definitely not going to see what he did at Clinton again. That .441 BABIP isn’t coming back, and he’s not gonna hit a home run every 20 at bats again either. Those are major Texas League numbers.”

“Okay, but I think it’s fair to expect what he did at Frisco. Great plate discipline, low strikeouts, above average power, a lot of line drive singles. He wasn’t old for Double-A, so he could really be special.”

“Fair enough, although we should be careful about getting so excited about that OBP – he had 15 HBP in 320 plate appearances.”

“Sure, but I don’t think there’s any question that he’s really good, considering he’s a middle infielder. I definitely wouldn’t mind if he’s brought up soon, maybe to let Soriano slip over to DH.”

“I don’t know about that. As distasteful as Dellucci is, Kinsler probably won’t hit much better than him this year. And given that Kinsler’s just now learning second base and that I’ve heard his defense wasn’t all that good at short, he might not be a very big upgrade over Soriano’s D. If he really is that good, I don’t think it makes sense to start his service clock so early.”

“I see your point, but I really think he’s special, special enough that he’ll succeed at any level at this point. But anyway, we might have a better DH candidate anyway, with Gonzalez.”

“This argument really bothers me. He’s just not all that good. The only aspects of his performance that were above average last season were his strikeout rate and his batting average on balls on play. This is a guy who’s put up an isolated power above league average in only two seasons of the five he’s played.”

“Yeah, but he’s been young at every level. And he’s been league average or slightly better at every stop, except for his first PCL trip. I think after another half-season at Oklahoma he’ll be ready to take over as the DH.”

“Well, he’s been young at every level because he’s probably been promoted too aggressively. I just have a hard time getting high on any first baseman who hasn’t shown solid power since 2002.”

“He’s still young though, and even if the power never grows in fully, he’s still going to be a solid player with some power and a very nice batting average.”

“But isn’t it, I don’t know, there’s something about this organization. They’ve got a hitter’s ballpark, and all their guys are coming up through the Texas League and the PCL. I think there’s definitely an issue with – well, at least with fans, if not with management – with thinking that Rangers’ hitters are better than they are.”

“Well, sure, that might be the case, although Frisco and Oklahoma are both better parks for pitchers relative to their leagues. But I’d like to see some evidence that that’s really a problem before I assume it to be. And besides, it’s probably better that our pitchers get used to good hitting environments. You know, we haven’t even talked about the pitching yet –

Will the pitching be able to match what it did in 2004?”

“Only if Illusion Warehouse has another special on smoke and mirrors.”

“Yeah, but I think Hersheiser might be their major supplier, so they should get a discount. Really, I don’t know why there’s such an impression that the Rangers pitching last season was so fluky. Drese was better than expected, obviously, but I think his command was a whole lot better last season, and that’s probably the result of a change in approach, rather than luck. He doesn’t strike anybody out anymore, but that change was accompanied by a drop in walks. He’s just keeping the ball down and getting groundball outs, not giving up the long ball. Doing all the things a pitcher should do in our ballpark.”

“While I’ll certainly grant that he was improved, it’s probably both: he took a step forward last season, but he also had a lot of luck.”

“All right, but aside from Drese there wasn’t anybody who exceeded expectations by much. Aside from his terrible 2001 season, Kenny Rogers has consistently done what he did last season every year for a long time. And what Cordero did was in line with his previous two seasons. Mahay was pretty close to what he’d done before, and Almanzar was really good in the minor leagues in 2002 and 2003.”

“I don’t know. Frankie Francisco was way too good for someone with such poor control. For a flyball pitcher, his low home run rate was fluky, too.”

“First, I don’t think it’s fair to say he has poor control. He walks a lot of guys, yeah, but it’s because he tries to strike out anything with legs. And his home run rate per inning was low, sure, but his home run rate per batted ball wasn’t too fluky. That many walks and strikeouts will make the home run per nine low.”

“All of that might be true, but it still doesn’t change the fact that any of the Rangers starters would be hard-pressed to find a job with a third of all major league teams, besides maybe as a fifth starter.”

“Come on. What about Dominguez?”

“I’m not sure he’s ready, although sure, he’s a good guy to have, though he’s probably more of a swingman than a full-time starter. Maybe him, but that’s it.”

“No way. Chris Young might not have pitched much above Double-A, but his peripherals have been solid at every level, and the only thing that did him in in Texas was a home run rate way above his established level in the minor leagues. That should come down.”

“Okay, he’s not chopped liver, but he’s a fly ball pitcher in Arlington. There’s not a lot of room for him to lower that home run rate.”

“What about Ricardo Rodriguez? He hasn’t put it all together yet, but it wasn’t long ago that he was a top prospect.”

“Except he probably shouldn’t have been thought of as a top prospect because he lied about his age. Since he’s reached Double-A he’s lost his strikeout power and he’s skidded by on luck and pitcher’s parks. He doesn’t have very good control, so his only real value is in keeping the ball on the ground.”

“Yeah, but he’s good at that. Just because these guys aren’t perfect, or maybe even average, doesn’t mean they’re valueless.”

“Of course it doesn’t, but there are an awful lot of rough spots. Not to mention Chan Ho Park.”

“Please don’t. What about Joaquin Benoit? His ERA’s been so bad that he probably gets underrated, but he’ll be just fine if he doesn’t give up so many home runs. Yeah, he’s a fly ball guy, but he gets a lot of pop-ups and his strikeout rate is nice and strong. I see him pulling it together.”

“Yeah, although that’s really one of the Hersheiser guys. I don’t know if his control can be as good as it was last season. And his success is still contingent on keeping the ball in the park, which means he’s just kind of the wrong kind of pitcher for this ballclub.”

“It’s not like they can just pick and choose whether to have fly ball guys or ground ball guys. We’re talking about pretty much freely available talent here, and they’ve done an admirable job picking over the scrap heaps.”

“Of course, but should they really need to depend on the scrap heaps?”

“No, they shouldn’t, but they’ve done a decent job operating on limited resources. Once you take out Park and A-Rod, they’ve got one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, and the fact that they’ve got at least a little shot at making the playoffs on that is impressive.”

“In a sense, sure, it means they’ve done some good things. But overall, I’m just not impressed, and this is not a winning ballclub.”

“It might not be a winning ballclub, but they’ve got enough going for them that I’m excited to see how it all pans out. And if not, we’ve still got Thomas Diamond.”

“Yeah, there’s always Thomas Diamond.”

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