This could be the year the Rangers finally get over the hump. Of course, prognosticators have been saying something very similar ever since 2004, when Buck Showalter led a suddenly A-Rod-less Rangers team to an 89-73 record with a lineup that featured a quartet of under-30 infielders who were all capable of driving in 100 runs and hitting 30 homers.
Rather than being the beginning of something special, though, it turned out to be more just more of the same. The Rangers never developed any pitching to go along with the offensive core, first baseman Mark Teixeira and second baseman Alfonso Soriano were eventually traded, the league figured out Hank Blalock and Showalter was shown the door.
It wasn’t until last year that the Rangers would be back over the .500 mark at the end of a season.
Once again, the Rangers are loaded with promise. Michael Young is the only significant player left over from that 2004 squad. Filling in the team around him is a group of players with seemingly endless talent, but with major questions marks.
1. Can the veterans stay healthy?
Vladimir Guerrero and Rich Harden were unquestionably the biggest names to join the team in the offseason. If this were 2006, that would have been considered a coup. Instead, the Rangers get a version of Guerrero who will probably be relegated to DHing duties and a Harden who is practically guaranteed to miss at least a handful of starts.
If the Rangers can get 500 plate appearances out of Guerrero, there’s no reason to think he won’t produce numbers any team would take from the DH spot: About 85 RBIs, maybe 20 homers and a batting average right around .300.
Harden, on the other hand, is much more volatile. At one time considered to have some of the best stuff in all of baseball, he’s missed so much time that it seems pointless to even consider that anymore. Even when he’s healthy, he’s shown precious little ability to work late into games. Although he made 51 starts the past two years, he’s averaged about 5.2 innings per outing. His move back to the American League doesn’t promise to make his life any easier. Still, he strikes out better than 10 batters per nine innings pitched… which may be part of the reason he can’t work deep into games. If the Rangers figure out how to coax 200 innings out of Harden, they may have finally found the ace they’ve been looking for.
Then there’s Josh Hamilton. Amazingly, the soon-to-be 29-year-old is barely entering his fourth major league season. A year removed from what many thought was the beginning of a special career, the questions about Hamilton now surround his ability to stay on the field for entirely different reasons than those that plagued his minor league career. For the second time in three years, he played in just over half of his team’s games. Of equal concern was the .160 drop in OPS from 2008-09. We have him projected at .808 this year, which seems conservative, but if he manages the nearly 550 plate appearances we project, his numbers should be fine.
2. Will the young guns fulfill their promise?
Even if Harden does miraculously fulfill his promise, the Rangers will need at least one of their two young flamethrowers to emerge as stalwarts of the rotation. Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz have been dazzling scouts for a couple years now and their continued development may dictate the Rangers’ long-term future more than any other players.
Holland flashed brilliance at points last season (a 10-strikeout, 8.2-inning gem on July 4 and a three-hit shutout two starts later were the standouts), but to call his rookie campaign uneven may be too kind. He finished with an ERA of 6.12 and worked more than six innings only four times in 21 starts. He allowed five or more runs on eight occasions, including a consecutive stretch of five such incidents. But, he’s still just 23, left-handed and will be given every opportunity to rebound.
Feliz also flashed brilliance. In his case, though, his shortcomings were due to lack of playing time, as opposed to uneven performances. In just 31 major league innings—all out of the bullpen—Feliz struck out 39 and allowed just 24 baserunners. He’s been a starter for most of his minor league career and will fight for a spot in the big league rotation.
3. What kind of production will they get up the middle?
Going through the middle of the diamond, there’s much to like. Ian Kinsler has established himself as probably the second best offensive second baseman in baseball. Elvis Andrus played Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop. Julio Borbon is considered one of the top rookies in baseball. Even at catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden, so far a bit disappointing, have potential.
Unfortunately, each position has issues. Kinsler, for all his brilliance, has battled injuries his entire career. He played in 144 games last year—a career best—which is certainly a positive, but that’s not exactly Cal Ripken, either. Andrus’ glove will keep him in the lineup and his speed (33 steals) should help, but the Rangers would surely like to see an improvement on his OPS+ of 82. The same could be said for Borbon, who projects an anemic OPS of .687. The Rangers would love for one of their young catchers to seize the starting job. If past performance is any indication (they both project as sub-.700 OPS players), though, that could be more pick-your-poison than real battle.
4. How will the ownership issue affect the product on the field?
A year ago, Major League Baseball had to step in and start covering paychecks. I won’t go as far as saying that it affected the players’ production, but it certainly curbed the team’s ability to acquire talent for a stretch run. At least twice this offseason, the team’s sale to a group headed by Nolan Ryan was supposedly finalized. As of this writing, the deal is once again in limbo as MLB is apparently unhappy with the cash-to-debt ratio.
Getting this all figured out may not have a huge impact on how the team starts. You can bet it will start to weigh on players if it drags on too long. Last year, the team didn’t acquire a single impact player for the stretch run. You certainly can’t lay all the blame there, but the team limped to a 29-31 record after the July 31 deadline and finished well out of a playoff spot.
If nothing else, new ownership should provide the impetus to end what has become a 10-year playoff drought.
5. Who replaces Scott Feldman‘s stats when he invariably comes back to earth?
Feldman essentially came out of nowhere last year to register 17 wins and post a 4.08 ERA, which was second only to staff ace Kevin Millwood. A solid minor league reliever, Feldman converted to starter in 2008 and put up the kind of numbers you’d expect from someone who strikes out only a few more than he walks: 6-8, 5.29 ERA. It’s hard to imagine Feldman’s sudden success of a season ago will prove permanent. Assuming some backslide, combined with the loss of Millwood, the Rangers could certainly use another arm to fill that void.
It would appear the Rangers are hoping another converted reliever will be the answer. C.J. Wilson has been starting this spring and there’s some reason for hope. Although he hasn’t started since his rookie season, Wilson did make 70 starts during his minor league career. Last year was easily his best as a major leaguer: He struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings and fared reasonably well against batters from both sides of the plate.
On the Rangers website, Wilson is still listed as a reliever and seven other pitchers are listed as starters. Other than Harden, none of them have much of a proven track record at the major league level. Brandon McCarthy would seem to have some upside, but he’s now 56 starts into his major league career and still hasn’t shown much else than middling results.