Five Questions: Texas Rangers

1. Who will replace Alfonso Soriano?

The Rangers attempted to pretend that there was some sort of competition for the job opening at second base after dealing Alfonso Soriano to the Nationals, but that was subterfuge. It was Ian Kinsler’s job from the moment that deal went down and he’s done nothing but run away with it this spring.

A 17th round selection in the 2003 draft who put together a respectable but ultimately pedestrian .277/.352/.410 line at short season Spokane that summer, Kinsler broke out of the gate in 2004 by going .402/.465/.692 through two and a half months at Single-A Clinton and arrived in Double-A where he executed a seamless transition, hitting .365/.470/.764 in his first month of Texas League action. However, he leveled off a bit as the league’s more advanced pitchers learned how to exploit his weaknesses.

Ultimately, Kinsler finished up .300/.400/.480 in Frisco in 2004. To put those numbers in perspective, Kinsler would have finished eighth in the league’s batting race, fourth in OBP and and seventh in slugging percentage had he gotten enough plate appearances to qualify (he was short by about 60). Then, to top it all off, they threw the kid to the wolves in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .306/.369/.500 before rolling into spring training 2005, where he saw regular action on the big league fields, acquitting himself incredibly well, hitting .327 while slugging .612.

Since turning pro, Kinsler has dramatically increased his strength and developed freakish bat speed. He has used that attribute to his advantage by boldly crowding the plate, daring pitchers to come inside while giving himself the leverage to pull anything on the outside corner. He has been a profound dead-pull hitter and his approach has earned him no shortage of HBP’s (a team-leading nine last year and 15 in just 277 at-bats at Frisco in 2004).

In 2005, Kinsler moved up to Triple-A Oklahoma where switched over to second base, a position he’d never really played. He was very steady for three months, hitting .267 with four homers in April, .269 with five homers in May and .267 with five homers in June. But when July rolled around, he slumped, hitting just .229/.328/.376 for the month.

It appears that Kinsler, who had fanned 52 times while drawing just 22 walks through the first three months, was making major a major adjustment to his approach during July. He still fanned 17 times but he also drew 15 walks, and it appeared that he was taking the ball back up the middle and to the opposite field quite a bit more than he had in the past.

His results in August suggest that July was less of a slump than an adjustment period, or a lull before the storm. Kinsler caught fire in August, hitting .336/.421/.555 for the month. He also seemed to have ironed out his defense at second base, making just one error during August (after making five a month through June and three in July).

An unscientific review of game logs showed that in the season’s final month, Kinsler was in fact getting far more hits to center and right than he had at any point during his pro career. This is something that he will have to continue to improve upon if he is to be an above-average big league second baseman and luckily, he’ll have the benefit of being the protégée of one of the game’s greatest opposite field hitters in Michael Young.

For what it’s worth, Kinsler is a dirty uniform player who has earned enormous respect throughout the organization from the lowest-level minor leaguer to general manager Jon Daniels, owner Tom Hicks and manager Buck Showalter … and everyone in between—most importantly team leaders Young, Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock. This is going to be his job for a long time, and he’s going to deliver top-tier numbers at his position, especially in the power department. He’s also potentially good for 15-20 stolen bases a year if allowed to run.

2. What’s the rotation going to look like and will it include Roger Clemens?

Well, I can tell you one thing: if Roger Clemens wants to play again and if for some reason he wants to do it in Arlington, the owner—a former Regent at the University of Texas with a Longhorn Jones you can’t believe—will do whatever is required to give himself the biggest Longhorn trophy of them all. Remember, this is the same owner who once demanded that his general manager take Ricky Williams from Philly in the Rule 5 draft even though there was literally no chance of Williams ever playing baseball.

The only chance the Rangers would seem to have of landing Clemens is if: (1) he waits until mid-June or so to make his return; (2) the Rangers are in the thick of things in the AL West; (3) the Astros are nowhere to be found in the NL Central; (4) he wants to go play for a ring; and (5) his wife Debbie tells him that he is not allowed to sign with the Yankees or Red Sox.
In other words, the answer to “will Clemens pitch for the Rangers?” is N-O no.

As for the rest of the rotation, the Rangers are justifiably proud of what Jon Daniels put together this winter, but this bunch still leaves a lot to be desired. For a club that has put together its rotations with scotch tape and baling wire for the past, oh, thousand years or so, the fact that there appears to be some veteran stability in place is comforting.

Kevin Millwood is an old looking 31, and comes to the second worst place on Earth to pitch with some baggage vis-a-vis his health, but the big ole southern country boy is much happier in Texas than he was in Philly, and he’ll be a horse at the top of the rotation, delivering 30-32 starts and 13-15 wins. He seems to have really taken to his role as staff leader, and that should benefit both himself, as well as the other pitchers in the organization, especially the wave of youngsters who figure to play important roles in this organization in the coming years. His stuff should be playable in Arlington (unlike, say, Eric Milton’s), and he’s got a veteran pitching coach with whom he is comfortable in Goose Conner. As much as the signs can point to success for any pitcher in Arlington, they do so in this case.

Unless Adam Eaton somehow recreates himself all of a sudden, he does not figure to do well in Texas. He’s generally a fly-ball pitcher. The one time in his career that he approached 200 innings, he surrendered 28 jacks … in Qualcomm Stadium. He’s not an efficient pitcher. He never stays healthy. He’s in his final arbitration year, bucking for a big contract next winter, and he’s been sentenced to pitching in hell. Before being traded to Texas, he said some very unflattering things (true, but unflattering) about Arlington which he has since retracted, but at some point, those notions are likely to reemerge and history has proven that pitchers who are intimidated by this ballpark spend lots and lots of time on the DL (ahem). This, in my opinion, is a disaster waiting to happen.

The enigmatic Vicente Padilla, on the other hand, is just weird enough to either not notice that he’s pitching in hell or, if he does notice, not care. When he’s on his game, which for the most part he hasn’t been over the past two seasons, Padilla—who lives off of his heavy, sinking two-seamer—is a good fit for Arlington, and the good news is that in spite of his generally poor core numbers in 2005 (9-12, 4.71 ERA, 147 innings), he finished very strong, going 5-4 with a 3.63 ERA after the All-Star break, and he averaged nearly seven innings per start in August. I kind of like this guy to have a good year.

Over the past couple of years, the Rangers have used somewhere in the area of 14-17 starting pitchers each year, running out guys who have no business being there on far too many occasions. This year, things should be different. Kameron Loe, who began his rookie year as a reliever, begged his way into the rotation and made the most of the opportunity, going 4-2 with a 2.70 ERA in eight starts. Great numbers, of course, but they may be a bit deceiving: Loe had the good fortune of catching Minnesota twice and Seattle twice. He did beat the White Sox, but that was during their late August swoon, and Oakland got to him for five runs in 6.2 innings. Loe’s never had any health issues, has always been a strike thrower, and gets loads of ground balls, so at the very least, he figures to be a reliable innings eater.

The final rotation slot should be filled by the enigmatic Juan Dominguez, the quintessential million-dollar arm/five-cent head guy. He’s been in Buck Showalter’s dog house for so long now that he’s earned squatter’s rights, and as soon as a better alternative is ready, he’ll be replaced at the first sign of trouble. That time might have already arrived: Dominguez is getting an unexpected challenge from 22-year-old Edinson Volquez (more on him in a minute), who the club didn’t want to have to use this year, but who has clearly been the better pitcher this spring.

3. Speaking of which, just how good are these DVD kids and when will they be ready?

Starting pitchers John Danks, Volquez and Thomas Diamond (DVD) are the crown jewels of the Rangers farm system, and while they are nearly ready for big league action, only one of them–Volquez–will be ready this year. They’re all nice prospects, but lots of teams have packages of pitching prospects as good or better: Lirano/Baker, Billingsley/Broxton, Lester/Papelbon, Cain/Valdez, Verlander/Zumaya. Too much is made of DVD because it’s been so long since the Rangers have had any notable pitching prospects to ballyhoo.

Volquez has the best stuff of the three, as well as the makeup and intelligence to get the most out of his talent … eventually. He deals lively 94-98 mph cheese and subtracts 14-18 mph on a diving turnover change. It’s not at all uncommon for Volquez to fire off 95 mph heat in the eighth inning. To top it all off, he has the charisma that just screams staff ace. His weakness, at this point, is pitching savvy and what amounts to overconfidence in his plus stuff. He challenges hitters when he doesn’t need to and is occasionally punished for it. He sometimes tips his pitches. Ultimately, Volquez will learn how to pitch and when he does, he could be any kind. There’s an outside chance that he’ll open the 2006 season in the Rangers rotation.

The lefty Danks, who turns 21 in mid-April, is probably the most complete package of the three. He wields a plus fastball, a plus-plus curve and a fast-improving change. He’s a tough customer who battles hitters intelligently and learns from every experience. He’ll start the year at Double-A Frisco and arrive in the rotation by opening day, 2007.

Diamond projects as a mid-rotation horse with a mean streak. Optimists compare him to Roger Clemens because he looks and acts like the Rocket, but a more realistic projection is Rick Helling … and the Rangers would be thrilled to have another Rick Helling, circa 1998-2000, in their rotation.

4. How much better will Brad Wilkerson be in this lineup?

Let’s see: going from the worst hitters yard in the National League to the best hitters park in the American League. On opening day 2005, Brad Wilkerson led off for the Nats, with Cristian Guzman (.219/.260/.314) and Jose Vidro (.275/.339/.424) following in the second and third slots. This year, he’ll hit in front of front of the reigning AL batting champ, Michael Young (.331/.385/.513), in the two-hole and Mark Teixeira (.301/.379/.575) behind him.

Hmmm … You figure it out.

5. How will this club be different with 28 year old general manager Jon Daniels running the show?

The short answer: the Rangers will be different this year because they have a general manager.

The long answer: When John Hart was fired (and that’s what happened in spite of the official version), the Rangers had been operating without a general manager for more than a year. Hart was an absentee general manager with no interest in actually earning his hefty paychecks. So good riddance to the man who, while general manager, never once spoke to Mark Teixeira.

Daniels, in spite of his relative inexperience, is a guy who will be proactive, creative, aggressive, smart and (above all) knowledgeable; way more knowledgeable than Hart was, but probably not in the way you think. I’m sure that John Hart—a career baseball guy in his mid-60′s—has forgotten more about baseball than Daniels is likely to know at this point. What Daniels has over Hart is that he’ll be involved. He’ll put himself in all of the loops out there so he’ll know what is happening in the trade market. He’ll be aware of situations that can be exploited and he’ll act without emotion or fear.

For whatever reason, this organization has historically overvalued it’s own guys, seeing eminently replaceable parts as untouchable. Daniels proved that he was different this winter when he put Blalock and either Diamond or Danks (Florida’s choice) on the table to get Josh Beckett. In the end, the Rangers got used in that deal (forcing Boston to offer up Hanley Ramirez), but Daniels showed that he was willing to take a risk.

The erstwhile Hart never recovered from the humiliation his first, high-priced free agent class (Chan Ho Park, Todd Van Poppel, Jay Powell and Juan Gonzalez) and was thereafter unwilling to make any significant moves. His inertia reached a point where it caused a great deal of hostility between the players and the front office. Daniels’ immediate and decisive attempts to improve the ballclub for a 2006 run have restored good relations throughout the organization. Moreover, if and when the time comes that moves need to be made to shore things up for a pennant run, Daniels will be ready, willing and able to make things happen.

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