2011 pre-season preview: AL West – Texas Rangers
Rangers LF Josh Hamilton
Texas Rangers (2010 record: 90-72)
The Texas Rangers won their first American League pennant, but eventually lost the World Series to the San Francisco Giants. Their drive to the Fall Classic was spurred by an MVP season from LF Josh Hamilton, a Rookie-of-the-Year campaign from closer Neftali Feliz and all-star efforts from five players.
The defending American League champions lost southpaw Cliff Lee through free agency this winter. It seems to me that Lee’s loss, in combination with the loss of several quality prospects they traded to Seattle in exchange for him, will be difficult to overcome in the short term.
The Rangers needed another starting pitcher after Lee’s departure, and while Brandon Webb may prove to be a nice addition, he’s more likely to be this year’s version of Rich Harden. I expected the front office to jump on Carl Pavano once Lee bid them adieu, and I suspect they may regret not jumping in on him.
Catcher: Mike Napoli
Designated Hitter: Michael Young
The offense will be formidable, if it can remain healthy. Nearly all of the key contributors have had trouble remaining on the playing field throughout an entire season.
The attack will again be led by a pair of oft-injured corner outfielders – Josh Hamilton, the reigning AL MVP, and Nelson Cruz, who most certainly would be an MVP candidate if he remains healthy for an entire season. Hamilton has alternated healthy and injury-plagued seasons, but when healthy, has produced outstanding numbers – as evidenced by last year’s OPS+ of 175. Cruz has yet to accumulate 500 ABs in any single season. Last year, he was limited to 108 games by a hamstring injury. His .318 batting average was driven by a 35% hit rate – that should correct down to about 30% with a corresponding dip in his average (to the .260-.270 range).
3B Adrian Beltre produced an outstanding effort during his lone season in Boston, earning him a six-year, $96 million deal with the Rangers. He has hit .265 or better, with 25+ HR and 75+ RBI, in four of his last five seasons. He has outstanding career numbers at Rangers Ballpark – posting a .306 BA and .521 slugging percentage in 51 career games.
DH Michael Young has been pin-balled from second base to shortstop to third base during his Rangers career, and with the acquisition of Adrian Beltre he has now been removed from the field all together. He made it known he is not happy with this latest development and the team has attempted to trade him (and his $16 million per year salary). Whether he spends the year in Arlington or elsewhere, he is a consistent contributor on offense, having amassed a .300 career average, 158 HR and 811 RBI.
Elvis Andrus will not provide much in the way of power or production atop the Rangers lineup (his 6 HR in 2009 were most likely an outlier), but the young shortstop has exhibited excellent plate discipline during his first two seasons in the big leagues. He will likely hit somewhere around league-average (.270), but his walk rate (10%) should enable him to post consistently-solid OBPs. He has excellent speed and base-stealing instincts (65 SB in 2009-10), and should score somewhere in the vicinity of 100 runs with Young, Hamilton, Cruz and Beltre hitting behind him.
2B Ian Kinsler made two trips to the disabled list last year. He struggled to hit home runs at the pace his team had become accustomed, but otherwise compiled strong statistics … he posted a .286/.378/.412 line on the season.
Mike Napoli comes to town from division rival Los Angeles, by way of Toronto. The front office hopes he will stabilize a catching situation that has been in flux for the last couple of years. He has 20+ home run power, but has had trouble making contact (just a 71% contact rate over the last four seasons) and struck out a career-high 137 times last year. He has hit less than .250 in three of his five seasons in the big leagues.
When Justin Smoak was shipped off to Seattle in the Lee deal, the Rangers turned to rookie Mitch Moreland at first base. They liked what they saw of him in the regular season, when he hit .255, with nine HR, in just 145 AB. They subsequently included him on the post-season roster … he rose to the challenge, hitting .348 with 7 RBI in 15 games.
Julio Borbon got off to a slow start last season, but improved as the year progressed. The fleet-footed centerfielder was asked to incorporate the bunt into his offensive game, and he responded with 17 bunt singles. This year, I suspect he will be asked to steal more bases, as he has the speed to steal 50+ bases.
The pitching staff:
Closer: RHP Neftali Feliz
CJ Wilson moved from the closer’s role into the rotation and had great success. The southpaw went 15-8, with a 3.35 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, last year while striking out 170 hitters in 204 IP. With the departure of Lee, he is the unquestioned ace of the staff.
Righty Colby Lewis returned to the US last year after spending two years in Japan (he went 26-17, 2.82, in two seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball). When all was said and done, he may have been the biggest surprise in the major leagues in 2010 – going 12-13, with a 3.72 ERA and 196 strikeouts in 201 IP. It was the most strikeouts recorded by a Rangers pitcher since Nolan Ryan had 203 K in 1991.
Tommy Hunter went 13-4, 3.73, as a starter last year – largely based on luck (27% hit rate and 75% strand rate) and getting more than six runs per game in offensive support. I have questions as to whether he’ll develop into a consistent winner in the big leagues. His gb-fb ratio sits at 50-50, which isn’t the formula for success in Rangers Ballpark. He issues a fair number of walks and doesn’t miss enough bats to get out of difficulty when it presents itself.
There seems to be some debate about whether Matt Harrison or Derek Holland should be in the rotation, but it seems obvious to me that Holland should be the choice here. Harrison’s numbers are pedestrian, and his walk rate is trending in the wrong direction. He had excellent peripherals early last year, and while he showed rust after returning from knee and shoulder woes, his early-season performance showed considerably more potential than Harrison has shown of late.
The last slot in the rotation should go to former Arizona ace Brandon Webb when and if he gets healthy … or maybe I should say, if he gets healthy. The big righty has tremendous stuff, but he has made just one start over the last two years due to shoulder troubles.
The Rangers toyed with the idea of moving Feliz into the starting rotation this year, and while they have moved him back to the closer’s role the front office has said he will join the rotation next season. While he initially resisted the switch to the rotation, he later embraced the idea of his new role in the rotation. For now, he will return to the bullpen as a dominant closer, with a fastball that regularly sits at 96-98 mph – with the ability to hit 100-mph. He has a good curveball that will cause knees to buckle on occasion, but it will flatten out and become hittable if he does not stay on top of it, or if he lowers his arm angle. His changeup is a work in progress. Opposing batters get the ball in the air nearly half of the time when they make contact against him … and Rangers Ballpark is not a place where you want to give up a lot of fly balls.
Prediction for 2011:1st place (92-70)
The Rangers should be good enough to repeat as division champs, but the road may be more difficult. For all of the talk about Lee, the Rangers accomplished what they did in 2010 without him, and when he arrived he was just 4-6, 3.98, in 15 starts – hardly the stuff of a Cy Young winner.
The offense, once again, will be very strong, if the lineup can stay relatively healthy. Ultimately, the team’s success in 2011 will be predicated on the pitching staff – whether Feliz makes a smooth transition into the rotation, whether Webb can get (and stay) healthy, whether Lewis can repeat last year’s surprising performance, whether Hunter and Holland can develop into consistent performers, and whether the bullpen can repeat last year’s success (when their 3.38 ERA was good enough for second in the league).
If the answer to many or most of these questions is in the negative, then it is entirely possible the Athletics will overtake the Rangers for the division crown.
Rangers top prospect, Tanner Scheppers
Top Five Prospects:
Scheppers entered the 2008 college season as a highly touted prospect at Fresno State, projected to go in the top 10 in the June draft, but a shoulder injury ended his season prematurely and he dropped down to the second round. He did not sign and eventually played in the independent American Association. He was then chosen in the supplemental phase of the first-round in 2009 and signed with the Rangers for $1.25 million.
The club kept him in the bullpen last year to protect his shoulder. While the front office says his future is as a starter, it is possible he may end up in the bullpen for the immediate future. The big league club needs a closer, and he has the stuff to be the successor to Neftali Feliz in that role. He has a four-seam fastball that sits at 95-97 mph and will tickle 100 mph when he works out of the bullpen. He has two off-speed pitches that are considered to be “plus” pitches (curve ball and slider). His fastball and slider are potentially dominant pitches. No matter which role the club eventually defines for him, he will need to work on the consistency of his mechanics and his release point. The sky is the limit, whether he is in the rotation or the bullpen.