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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #25: The Texas Rangers

In 2009 the Rangers had their best finish of the decade, despite the fact that they scored fewer runs than they had in any season since 1995.  The key, of course, was that they also allowed fewer runs than they had in any season since '95, thanks to dramatic improvements in pitching and defense.  While Theo Epstein, Billy Beane, and Jack Zduriencik have been given, appropriately, a great deal of credit for spearheading the recent movement away from evaluation based primarily on offense, equal billing should go to the Rangers administration led by Nolan Ryan, Jon Daniels, and Ron Washington.  Under their leadership, Texas has shifted the focus away from the homer-happy atmosphere that dominated most of the decade in Arlington, and the results thusfar have been very encouraging.

Texas's team ERA in 2009 was 4.38, good for 8th in the American League, which doesn't seem that great until you consider that Texas finished dead last the previous season and has not finished with an ERA below 4.50 since 1993, which was, coincidently, Ryan's last season as a player, and the season before the opening of The Smallpark at Arlington.  The Rangers pitchers were actually at their best during the midsummer months which usually coincide with a spike in long balls, as the staff went 17-8 with a 3.59 ERA in July.

There are many reasons to be excited about the Rangers prospects in 2010, as nobody on the staff is over thirty except for Frank Francisco (30) and Darren Oliver (39).  The Rangers were admirably cautious with their youngsters in '09, not allowing any of them to throw much over 150 innings.  Nevertheless, I would urge Rangers fans to temper their expectations.  It's a team I'll be watching with extraordinary interest and anticipation next season, but teams build on young players are notoriously inconsistent.  The 2010 Rangers are in some ways reminiscent of the 2008 Rays, who rode their young core all the way to the World Series.  Unfortunately, they are equally reminiscent of the 2008 D-Backs, a young team that backtracked considerably after a surprisingly strong showing in '07.

Free Agents:

Joaquin Benoit (32) RHRP
Hank Blalock (29) 1B/3B/DH
Marlon Byrd (32) OF [Signed w/ Cubs]
Jason Grilli (33) RHRP [Signed w/ Indians]
Eddie Guardado (39) LHRP [Signed w/ Nationals]
Andruw Jones (33) OF/DH [Signed w/ White Sox]
Ivan Rodriguez (38) C [Signed w/ Nationals]
Omar Vizquel (43) SS [Signed w/ White Sox]

Arbitration Eligible:

Scott Feldman (27) RHSP
Frank Francisco (30) RHCL

ETA 2010?:

Eric Hurley (25) RHSP
Guillermo Moscoso (26) RHRP
Max Ramirez (25) C/DH
Justin Smoak (23) 1B
Ben Snyder (24) LHRP

This offseason Jon Daniels and his front office colleagues have been very active, but unlike some teams (Cubs, for instance) they have not been spending wildly and without foresight.  They have employed what might appear a high-risk/high-reward strategy, signing players like Rich Harden, Vladimir Guerrero, and Khalil Greene, who are coming off injury-plagued campaigns, but have proven abilities.  The risk is minimal, however, because none have been signed for more than a year plus an option, with the maximum annual payout of $8.5 Million.  Even if things go poorly for the Rangers in 2010, they will not be saddled with contracts that prevent them being aggressive next year and beyond.

First and foremost, for the Rangers to challenge the Angels and Mariners for the AL West, they will need a number of their young pitchers to excel.  The odds are in their favor, seeing as Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, Eric Hurley, Matt Harrison, and Bradon McCarthy are all high upside guys.  If two or three of them can pitch solidly behind a healthy Harden and a consistent Scott Feldman, the Rangers rotation will be fairly dangerous.  And the bullpen promises to be a strength.  Francisco is a solid closer, when healthy, and the Rangers added to an already solid corps of relievers by acquiring Chris Ray and Oliver.

Though Texas did quite well in 2009 without producing runs as they have in the past, I wouldn't recommend sticking to that strategy.  The health of Guerrero and Josh Hamilton will be critical.  Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz need to be more consistent.  Hopefully, Elvis Adrus will take a small step forward at the plate as well.  Most importantly, however, the Rangers will need stability in the two positions that were in constant flux throughout last season.

They were expecting big things out of Chris Davis after he hit 17 HR in half a season in '08.  Davis didn't disappoint in terms of power, as he homered about once every four games.  Unfortunately, he also struck out 35.7% of the time and showed absolutely no discipline, with only two dozen walks all year.  Patience was not his strength in the minors either, but he will need to develop it if he hopes to hold down a first base job in the bigs.  The days of free-swinging 200 K sluggers are gone.  Nobody is going to stomach a below-average OBP at the premium offensive position in the post-Moneyball era.

Davis will definitely get another shot, but Justin Smoak will be nipping at his heels.  Smoak climbed through three minor-league levels in '09, though he slowed a bit upon reaching AAA.  He is in some ways the inverse of Davis.  He has yet to show the power expected from a first baseman (he hit a dozen homers in '09), but his K/BB rate is spectacular and his OBP at AA was an insane .449.  If the switch-hitting 2008 first-rounder picks up that pace at AAA to begin 2009, he'll be in the bigs by mid-season.

At catcher, the Rangers have some options.  Prior to the return of I-Rod, the chores were split by Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden.  Both are decent defensively, but neither has proved capable of hitting a lick in the majors.  They combined for an OPS in the 650s in '09.  Salty posted some impressive hitting seasons in the minors, so Texas can still hold out hope that the 25-year-old can step up his production.  If it doesn't happen, however, they may be happy that the Mike Lowell deal didn't work out, because they still have Max Ramirez.  Many believe that Ramirez will wind up as a DH, both because his work behind the plate has been suspect, and, more importantly, because he has bat that you want in your lineup everyday.  Max struggled with injuries in '09, but in '08 he hit .347, with 19 HR and a 1067 OPS in only 81 minor-league games.

The other major competition in Spring Training will be between David Murphy and Julio Borbon.  The two young outfielders were both among the Rangers best hitters in the second half of '09, but with Hamilton returning and Guerrero taking over at DH, there isn't room for both of them in the lineup everyday.  Injuries could make the point mute, but I personally like Borbon.  At just 23, Borbon hit .312 in his 46-game audition, swiping 19 bags in 23 attempts.  He also displayed excellent on-base skills in the minors, making him a great candidate to leadoff, a development which might allow the Rangers to turn Ian Kinsler into an RBI man.

The Rangers will be among the teams I watch most frequently throughout the 2010 season, because they are loaded with young, high-energy talent, as well as soulful veterans like Vlad, Hamilton, and Oliver.  As such, it's hard for me not to voice some optimism, but their road to the playoffs isn't an easy one, and they will need potential to turn into actual production in order to eclipse their admirable 87 win total from 2009.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

2B Ian Kinsler (R)
3B Michael Young (R)
LF Josh Hamilton (L)
DH Vladimir Guerrero (R)
RF Nelson Cruz (R)
CF Julio Borbon (L)
1B Chris Davis (L)
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)
SS Elvis Andrus (R)

SP Rich Harden (R)
SP Scott Feldman (R)
SP Tommy Hunter (R)
SP Matt Harrison (L)
SP Brandon McCarthy (R)

CL Frank Francisco (R)
SU Neftali Feliz (R)
SU C. J. Wilson (L)
LOOGY Darren Oliver (L)
MR Chris Ray (R)
MR Darren O'Day (R)
SWING Dustin Nippert (R)

C Taylor Teagarden (R)
C Max Ramirez (R)
IF Khalil Greene (R)
OF David Murphy (L)

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