Last year, writing the season preview for the Texas Rangers, I was feeling a little, well, limp. So I had to rely on the little-blue-pill of the writing world: the exclamation point! And indeed, in retrospect, the exclamation point was the aptest possible punctuation mark for the 2008 Rangers. Pitching: terrible!!!! Offense: unstoppable!!!!!!
But ultimately, as amazing as Texas’s offense was last year – scoring 901 runs for far and away the best mark in the AL — the Rangers still finished 21 games out of first in the AL West. As fantastic as their offense was, their pitching was even more fantastically bad, allowing 967 runs — also far and away the league’s worst mark. Their team also finished dead last in MLB in defensive efficiency.
But if the 2008 season demanded exclamation points, the appropriate mark of punctuation for the 2009 season is: ?
The question mark.
So will this year be different?
In an October article for Baseball Prospectus, Kevin Goldstein listed the Rangers as a candidate to be “the next Rays.” Is that crazy? Well, Goldstein recently ranked their farm system second in MLB. Keith Law ranked them first.
Both agree that their system is deep and talented, and flush with young pitching.
When will those young arms contribute? For the two most advanced prospects, Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland, it could be later this season. However, they won’t really be ready to assume regular, major league roles until next year.
What about the defense? Will their focus on improving their glove work in spring training pay off? Will the infield defense improve with a corps of regulars – instead of a rotisserie of different fielders? Will Michael Young be any better at third than he was at short? And will I ever understand why they gave him a Gold Glove last year? Will anticipated rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus be able to make the most out of his good arm, speed, and range, while avoiding the errors that plagued him at the lower levels? And will Omar Vizquel excel as Crash Davis to Andrus’ Nuke LaLoosh?
Can the offense repeat last year’s stunning performance? While they lost free agent Milton Bradley — the team’s OBP leader, at .436 over 126 games – Marlon Byrd is a not-too-shabby replacement (OBP’ed .380 over 122 games) and comes without the ominous emotional forecast (partly crazy, 20% chance of rage). A full season of Chris Davis, and a good year from breakout candidate Jarrod Saltalamacchia, could also soften the blow.
Was it a mistake for GM Jon Daniels to focus only on minor-league deals, and give up on Ben Sheets? I don’t think so – the Rangers will have enough pitching by 2010 to support their offense. And if they continue to work on their team defense, they might actually start to make their pitchers look good. Or, you know, as good as they can look in Arlington. One thing that confused me, though, was why Daniels was interested in Sheets (of all pitchers) when the Rangers had trouble last year with injured starters. Last year, the “workhorse” of the team was Vincente Padilla, with 171 innings pitched. Otherwise, only Kevin Millwood and Scott Feldman crossed the 150 innings mark — and indeed, the trio of Padilla, Millwood, and Feldman were the only Ranger pitchers to cross the 100 innings mark. What these Rangers need is not a fragile genius, but a steady guy who can take the hill every fifth day and give ‘em seven decent innings. If they were targeting anyone, you would have expected them to go for someone like Derek Lowe, whose groundballs might occasionally give their spotty defense trouble, but who at least (theoretically) wouldn’t let too many balls leave the park. Wouldn’t you?
But all in all, this was a fine offseason by the Rangers – don’t you think? They clearly know their young pitchers won’t really be ready until next year, so this winter wasn’t the time to panic or do anything ca-rayzay. They made some solid moves to develop their positional prospects. They signed two former Gold Glovers to minor league deals. The Rangers have a realistic view of their future – and how many teams can you say that about?
Added (all on minor league deals): Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones, Kris Benson, Brendan Donnelly, Eddie Guardado, Jason Jennings
Lost: Milton Bradley, Ramon Vazquez, Jamie Wright
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
1B Chris Davis
2B Ian Kinsler
SS Elvis Andrus
3B Michael Young
LF David Murphy/Marlon Byrd
CF Josh Hamilton
RF Nelson Cruz
DH Hank Blalock
CL: Frank Fancisco/CJ Wilson