Five Questions: Texas Rangers

Five questions. That’s either way too few or way too many. Too few because there is so much uncertainty here … this is a team with a high beta, a team that could win 90+ games if the players in place reach the high end of their reasonable expectations, or that could win fewer than 70 games if they reach the low end.

And too many because …who cares, right? The Rangers have torn it down, are rebuilding, and have a lot of guys in the lower minors who are exciting and inspired Baseball America to rate the minor league system the No. 4 system in baseball. Local writers and columnists are cranking out the inevitable “don’t expect this team to win” stories after reportedly being beaten over the head about the organization’s youth and promise by the team.

Unfortunately, they don’t have much in the way of rookies starting the season that are going to get you fired up. That is, unless BoSox castoffs David Murphy, Kason Gabbard and Luis Mendoza get your blood pumping, as those three are the only rookies with a realistic shot of breaking camp with the team.

That said…

1. Is there anyone in the rotation who can stay healthy?

The rotation is the biggest issue for the Rangers right now. And more specifically, the health of the rotation. 2007 was awful for the Rangers’ current top four: Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla both struggled for Texas last year, in terms of both health and effectiveness. Jason Jennings was a disaster for the Astros, who gave up a ton to get him, only to see him implode due to injuries. Only Brandon McCarthy posted a sub-5 ERA, and even he did it with shaky peripherals while pitching most of the season with a fractured shoulder blade.

And yet, just in 2006, every one of those guys posted an ERA+ of 100 or better. Every one of those guys was an effective pitcher just two years ago. And it isn’t as if they are an archaic crew—only Millwood is over 30. A glass-half-full type would point out that if that front four can bounce back to the previous year’s form, well, the Rangers would have a pretty decent rotation in 2008.

Alas, things aren’t looking good for that full bounce back right now. McCarthy has a strained forearm that will cause him to start the season on the DL. Millwood’s hamstring has limited him to simulated and minor league games, and Padilla came out of a game early due to a tweaked butt muscle, although both are expected to be ready to go to start the season. Jason Jennings has put up good numbers this spring, but is also struggling to hit 85 mph on the radar gun, which doesn’t bode well. Meanwhile, Gabbard, the No. 5 starter (and a guy who has also struggled to stay healthy throughout his career), is supposedly fit, but is also getting hammered, posting an ERA of over 12 so far this spring while talking about how he feels good and is throwing strikes.

So there’s reason for hope and cause for concern, all at once, with the Ranger rotation. The good news is that, while Aruba’s own Sidney Ponson seems the most likely candidate to fill in for McCarthy until Brandon is ready to return, the team does have a nice collection of arms who will probably be ready for a look by June. If the rotation stays healthy, you have to think they should be able to post decent numbers. And if they don’t, well, the Rangers can get a look at Eric Hurley or Matt Harrison or A.J. Murray or Luis Mendoza.

2. Is Josh Hamilton from Krypton?

II’ve been a Rangers fan for as long as I can remember, and unlike a lot of these whippersnapping, bloggy Internet types, I can remember Jimmy Carter being elected president.

And I’m hard pressed to think of a Rangers player who has shown up and generated the shock and awe that Josh Hamilton has this spring.

Nolan Ryan’s first spring was momentous. And when Ivan Rodriguez first appeared on the scene, his performance behind the plate, his arm and agility had folks gaping.

But Josh Hamilton appears to have them all beat.

From the time he arrived in camp and starting swinging a bat, people have been marveling. Players and coaches rave about the show he puts on in batting practice, rocketing balls out to every field. The media have been impressed with the candid way he’s addressed his fight against addiction and his recovery. And we fans stuck at home have to make do with gawking at his .600/.647/1.100 line after 30 spring at-bats. Calling him “Roy Hobbs” doesn’t seem to do him justice.

Of course, as a long-suffering Rangers fan, I’m thinking, there has to be something up here, something below the surface—this, after all, is a guy we got for Edinson Volquez plus a 5-foot-5, 135-pound lefty reliever who tops out at 83 mph who was a 47th round pick a couple of years ago.

There’s talk about how he was unpopular with his teammates in Cincy last year, but by all accounts, that hasn’t been a problem in Texas. He’s apparently bonded with Milton Bradley, of all people, and a contingent of prominent Rangers players showed up when he was relating the story of his past to a group of reporters, in a show of support and solidarity.

There’s concern that he won’t be able to stay healthy, that several years of abuse have harmed his body to the point that he won’t be able to stand up to the rigors of playing major league baseball regularly. And to be sure, he didn’t carry a full load in 2007, and has had some aches and pains this spring; even if he stays off the DL, the plan seems to be to limit him to 130 games or so, and let him DH occasionally to keep him fresh.

And of course, there’s the constant fear of the possibility of a relapse. When the rumors first surfaced that the Rangers had an interest in Hamilton, I thought of Steve Howe, the repeat recidivist who was a great story in Texas, a guy who turned his life around and was stellar in the pen until he slipped and was banned from baseball once again.

But it is spring, when hope springs eternal, and right now, the Rangers look like they have a stellar center fielder, a former No. 1 overall pick who is playing like every team hopes its No. 1 overall picks will play, a guy who has been to hell and back and is comfortable doing what he can to make sure everyone knows how bad that trip is.

Josh Hamilton might be the No. 1 reason to be a Ranger fan right now.

3. Who gets moved at the deadline?

Yeah, that’s how far the Rangers have sunk” the No. 3 question is who will be this year’s Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne, and Kenny Lofton, the guys moved to a contender at the trade deadline to help fortify the farm system and make room for younger players.

The guys added this offseason on one year deals are the obvious choices: Milton Bradley and Eddie Guardado, if they are healthy, will have value to a contender. Ben Broussard is identified by Ron Washington as someone he wanted, a guy who has had some spurts of productivity between bouts of ineffectiveness and injury. With Chris Davis hot on his heels and thought to be ready for the big leagues as soon as August, if the Rangers are out of the race, Broussard could be shopped. And before you scoff at the notion of a platoon first baseman bringing back anything of substance, remember that the Indians got Asdrubal Cabrera for Eddie Perez just a couple of years ago. And if Jason Jennings pitches like he did in 2006, he could bring back a significant package.

Then there are guys whose deals aren’t quite up yet, but who Daniels will likely be shopping if the Rangers aren’t contending come July. Hank Blalock’s bat returned last season, as he posted an impressive .293/.358/.543 line, but he missed the majority of the year due to thoracic outlet syndrome (a Rangers specialty). With a reasonable 2009 club option and Scott Boras as his agent, a healthy Blalock could be on the move this summer.

And of course, there is Millwood and Padilla, two starters who disappointed last year, but whose contracts aren’t out of line with the current market and expire after 2009 (although there’s a 2010 option for each of them). Like Jennings, they could be attractive to a contender.

But of course, when one looks at the motley AL West, when one sees that Kelvim Escobar and John Lackey will be missing time for the Angels, when one looks at the overall underwhelmingness of the Seattle Mariners, one can dream, can imagine that maybe, just maybe, this collection of question marks can get it together. Bradley, Hamilton and Blalock will stay healthy and hit, the rotation will have a few guys pan out, the bullpen will repeat last year’s stellar performance, and the Rangers could sneak into the playoff race (hell, they had the same Pythagorean win/loss as the Mariners did last year, and everyone considers the M’s a contender).

If that’s the case, and the Rangers are buyers rather than sellers, Jarrod Saltalamacchia could be the guy used as the anchor for a deal. Salty was the prize in the Mark Teixeira trade last summer, but his bat disappointed, and his defense is considered a work in progress. He appears primed to start the season in Triple-A, and with Gerald Laird in front of him and Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez behind him, if the Rangers are in the playoff race come July, Saltalamacchia could end up being the linchpin for a big trade deadline deal for the second year in a row.

4. Who is the closer?

In 2006, Francisco Cordero coughed up the closer role, with Akinori Otsuka taking over the job (despite Buck Showalter insisting earlier in the season that there was a reason Otsuka wasn’t the closer). Cordero was shipped off, and the first half of 2007 saw Eric Gagne close when he was healthy, Otsuka close when Gagne wasn’t. Gagne got dealt, Otsuka got hurt, and C.J. Wilson and Joaquin Benoit shared the closer duties.

While Benoit signed a two-year deal this offseason, he appears to be slotted for the setup role. And while veteran closer Guardado was signed this offseason, he, too, looks like to be a setup man. The guy the Rangers hope is their closer now and going forward is the blogging, gyroballing, Guitar-Hero-playing lefty from Loyola Marymount, C.J. Wilson.

Wilson is a fascinating story, a student of the game who was one of only two players signed by the Rangers in the first five rounds of the 2001 draft (along with a guy now manning first base for the Atlanta Braves), who came back from Tommy John surgery and a terrible rookie year to become a key contributor to the Rangers bullpen the past two years.

Wilson’s stuff is impressive and his attitude refreshing, and personally, I think he’s about one big season away from becoming a significant figure on the national baseball scene.

5. Does 2008 even matter for the Rangers?

Well, I guess so. I mentioned in question three the possibility of the Rangers being a playoff contender, and that’s within the realm of the possible, but just barely. This is a rebuilding year, and unfortunately, the guys who get you the most excited for the future: guys like Elvis Andrus and Engel Beltre and Wilmer Font and Michael Main aren’t going to sniff The Ballpark at Arlington this season.

Still, there are things to look forward to this season. Ian Kinsler, establishing himself as an upper-echelon second baseman. Hamilton, raking and (hopefully) staying healthy. McCarthy, a favorite of scouts and statheads alike not too long ago, justifying the faith (and the price the Rangers paid to get him). And over the course of the season, some guys like Hurley and Harrison and Brandon Boggs and Chris Davis, guys who should start the season in the minors and end in the majors, making their debuts and establishing themselves as major leaguers.

And there are some of the smaller stories out there, the ones that aren’t earth-shattering, but are still neat to follow, for a fan.

Stories like Luis Mendoza, the Boston cast-off mentioned earlier. A guy picked up in 2006 for Bryan Corey (yes, the Bryan Corey), a right-handed pitcher who appeared to be an organizational depth guy, who halfway through the 2007 season appeared destined to head out as a six-year free agent.

But Mendoza, who had switched from a four-seam fastball to a two-seam fastball, suddenly had a switch go off, started mastering the two-seamer and generating ground ball after ground ball. His ERA plummeted in the second half, and he ended up getting added to the 40-man roster, being called up in September, getting his first major league win, starting three games and making three appearances in relief, and impressing the coaching staff with his willingness to pound the zone and ability to generate ground balls.

Now, in the spring of 2008, a year after he wouldn’t have cracked anyone’s list of the top 1,000 prospects in baseball, Mendoza has a chance to break camp as the Rangers’ No. 5 starter. Even if he doesn’t, he seems likely to get a call-up at some point this season…and while he profiles as a back of the rotation starter or a bullpen guy, he looks like someone who could well be a contributing member of a quality pitching staff down the road.

And that’s the sort of neat little journey that makes following baseball, and watching all these guys come through, fun. Even in a season like 2008, with no stud rookies coming in and little hope for the playoffs, watching to see if a guy like Luis Mendoza can go from completely off the radar to being a decent major league starter in less than 12 months is one of the things that makes a season worthwhile.

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