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Texas still has enough talent to win AL West
Consider this about how far the Rangers franchise has come: Their 93 wins in 2012 were viewed as a major disappointment for a team that has disappointed often since coming to Texas in 1972. Fans in the Metroplex had reason to be upset after the Rangers blew a five-game division lead with nine to play. Texas bowed out of the playoffs with a 5–1 loss to Baltimore in the inaugural AL Wild Card Game. The offseason didn’t start out any better, as five-time All-Star Josh Hamilton bolted to the division-rival Angels, and free agent Zack Greinke turned down the Rangers’ pile of money for a bigger one with the Dodgers. But the Rangers’ lineup, despite losing Hamilton, is still productive. The rotation should be a strength, assuming it can avoid the injuries that led to the club’s downfall last year. There’s too much talent to count this team out.
Failed bids to land Greinke and James Shields were met with dismay by Rangers fans, but the team’s rotation likely will feature three All-Stars and a 16-game winner. Yu Darvish finally lived up to the hype as he thrived down the stretch in 2012. The Rangers saw an ace-in-the-making who went 3–0 with a 2.21 ERA over his final five starts. Darvish made the AL All-Star team via the Final Vote contest on MLB.com. Matt Harrison could be considered the ace after winning a career-high 18 games. He dominated in June, when he was the AL Pitcher of the Month, and was a first-time All-Star in July. The third All-Star is Alexi Ogando, who made the AL team as a starter in 2011. The Rangers have settled on using Ogando as a starter after he spent the 2012 season in the bullpen. Ogando uses three pitches, though a mid- to upper-90s fastball is his best one. Derek Holland, who went 16–5 in 2011, and prospect Robbie Ross will round out the rotation, but the Rangers are expecting a significant contribution later in the year from Colby Lewis as he returns from surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon last summer.
There is little doubt that the Texas bullpen will be much stronger in the second half. That’s when the crew will be at full strength after the return of injured pitchers Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria and Martin Perez. And with the return of Lewis to the rotation by then, Ross will have returned to his valuable role in the bullpen. Soria, the former Royals closer will be an impact arm, but not until late May as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Jose Lindblom, who was acquired from Philadelphia in a trade for Michael Young, takes another spot. He’s a power pitcher who relies on a mid-90s fastball and a slider, but he gave up too many homers (13 in 71 innings) in 2012. Closer Joe Nathan, who saved 37 games, headlines the group of returning relievers. Feliz should return from Tommy John surgery around midseason. Perez may miss a couple of months.
There were multiple offseason discussions about where All-Stars Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus would play in 2013. The reason is top prospect Jurickson Profar. Club brass would like to see the switch-hitting Profar in the lineup every day. To do so, though, either Kinsler would have to be moved from second base or Andrus would have to be moved to another team. With free agency looming for Andrus after 2014 and with Scott Boras as his agent, the shortstop’s willingness to stay in Arlington is in question. Profar, who turned 20 early in spring training, is considered the top prospect in baseball. The Rangers believe his bat would upgrade a lineup that was inconsistent for much of 2012, and he’s athletic enough to play second base regularly even though he has been developed as a shortstop. He still could very well force his way into the Opening Day lineup, but the more likely scenario is that he will begin the season in the minors getting regular at-bats.
Adrian Beltre stands as the Rangers’ undisputed best player after Hamilton left for the Angels’ $125 million offer. Beltre, though, was moving toward that title last season as he swatted 36 homers with 102 RBIs and a .321 batting average. He also played spectacular defense, committing only eight errors, and earned his second straight Gold Glove — as well as the Platinum Glove, given to the best defensive player in the American League. The other side of the diamond, though, could be in flux. Mitch Moreland entered spring training as the starting first baseman, but wasn’t oozing with job security. The Rangers had flirted with the idea of playing Kinsler at first base in an attempt to make room for Profar. Moreland is the only true first baseman on the roster, but the left-handed hitter hasn’t shown much success against lefty pitchers. He also hasn’t had many chances the past two seasons, with the right-handed-hitting Young, Napoli and Mike Olt playing against lefties.
The loss of Hamilton obviously hurts, but there were a couple winners in the fallout of his departure. David Murphy will take over left field on a permanent basis. Murphy, who bats left-handed, hit a career-high .304 last season in 457 at bats and proved that he could hit left-handed pitchers (.347 in 75 at bats). The other winner was Leonys Martin, who defected from Cuba in 2010. He has power in his bat, though he will find more gaps than outfield seats, and his speed allows him to be a threat on the bases and a weapon in the outfield. Martin will open the season in a platoon with another strong-armed speedster, Craig Gentry, but the Rangers want to see Martin seize everyday duties. Nelson Cruz has manned right field since late in 2008, but leg injuries have made him less effective despite having the strongest arm in the outfield.
Along with the bullpen, catcher was the other area that the Rangers needed to address during the offseason. Free agent A.J. Pierzynski signed a one-year deal to be the Rangers’ primary catcher, with Geovany Soto re-signing to be the backup. Pierzynski had his most productive season in 2012, with a career-high 27 homers and a career-high-tying 77 RBIs for the White Sox. Numbers like that ordinarily warrant a multi-year deal, but at 36 years old, Pierzynski’s most attractive offer was the Rangers’ one-year pact. Soto disappointed after being acquired from the Cubs on July 31. He batted only .196 after the trade, but many pitchers preferred to have him as their catcher rather than the departed Napoli.
The Rangers like to use the DH spot as a chance to rest regulars without taking their bat out of the lineup, but the addition of Lance Berkman will limit that practice. Berkman might not be able to play 150 games, but it isn’t outrageous to think he will get 400 at-bats. Some of those could come at first base. Gentry will most likely serve as the fourth outfield, assuming Martin seizes center field. Veteran Jeff Baker appears to have won a reserve spot as a non-roster player. The most interesting decision remains what to do with Profar. Keeping him would most likely send Moreland to the bench. Sending him to the minors would open a spot for utility infielder Leury Garcia, a switch-hitter who has never played above Double-A.
Ron Washington is back for his seventh season as manager. His primary strength is that he consistently gets the most out of his players and allows them to play an exciting brand of baseball. But he also stresses the fundamentals, and the Rangers had their best season defensively since he took over, but their worst on the bases. Hitting coach Dave Magadan left the same post in Boston and takes over an offense that led the majors in runs (808) and finished third in batting average (.273). Dave Anderson and Gary Pettis are swapping coaching boxes, with Pettis heading to third as the Rangers try to maximize the base-running knowledge he had as a player.
The Rangers won’t be favored to win the West this year after losing Hamilton and failing to make an offseason splash. But this team still has multiple All-Stars, including three in the infield and three in the rotation, and they have the prospects and financial flexibility to alter the roster before the July 31 trade deadline. In short, the Rangers know how to win and still have the talent to compete for the AL West title.
2B Ian Kinsler (R)
Kinsler is looking for a rebound season after a subpar 2012. Don’t be surprised to see him play some first base, too.
SS Elvis Andrus (R)
He set career-highs in average, on-base percentage and RBIs in 2012, and was terrific defensively.
DH Lance Berkman (S)
Nolan Ryan helped woo the veteran to Arlington. If Berkman is healthy, he can be a threat in the middle of the lineup.
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
The Rangers’ best player put up huge numbers for a second straight year. No one in the clubhouse is respected more.
RF Nelson Cruz (R)
A more slender Cruz produced career-highs in doubles and RBIs, but was streaky. He’s in his walk year, so look for a big 2013.
LF David Murphy (L)
The longtime fourth outfielder seized his chance to play every day over the final two months of 2012.
C A.J. Pierzynski (L)
Signed in late December, the veteran upgrades the catching situation and provides a needed left-handed bat.
1B Mitch Moreland (L)
He must show that he can stay healthy and handle left-handed pitchers. He had only 46 at-bats against them in 2012.
CF Leonys Martin (L)
A .323 average in 533 minor league at-bats has the Rangers believing he’s ready to succeed in the major leagues.
C Geovany Soto (R)
A .196 hitter after the July trade from the Cubs, this former Rookie of the Year expects more from himself in 2013.
OF Craig Gentry (R)
The defensive-minded outfielder showed something at the plate in 2012, but he is not viewed as an everyday player.
UT Jeff Baker (R)
Hit just .248 for three different teams last season.
UT Leury Garcia (S)
The Rangers are likely to keep Garcia as a bench player and allow Jurickson Profar the opportunity for regular at-bats in the minors.
RH Yu Darvish
The Japanese import was one of the league’s top pitchers over the final two months, giving the Rangers high hopes for 2013.
LH Derek Holland
His 2012 was a disappointment after a 16-win 2011 season. Holland’s main problem was the long ball (32 HRs allowed).
LH Matt Harrison
He has won 32 games the past two seasons, tied for eighth-best in the majors. Won a career-high 18 in 2012.
RH Alexi Ogando
An All-Star in 2011, Ogando was back in the bullpen last year. He’s a starter once again, and it’s the job he wants most.
LH Robbie Ross
A longshot to make the 2012 roster, he posted All-Star numbers before fatigue caught up to him. He’s a key piece in 2013, and injuries to others have opened a door to the rotation.
RH Joe Nathan (Closer)
The veteran was a workhorse and an All-Star in 2012, and must be again while some key relievers try to overcome injuries.
RH Joakim Soria
The former Kansas City closer won’t be ready until late May (Tommy John surgery); will give the bullpen a boost on return.
RH Josh Lindblom
Acquired in the Michael Young trade, Lindblom gave up 13 homers in 71 innings in 2012. He knows that must improve.
RH Tanner Scheppers
Made big-league debut in ’12, two years later than anticipated. Fastball can hit 98 mph but straightens out too frequently.
LH Michael Kirkman
The former starting pitcher has found a home in the bullpen, and his slider is a key pitch against tough left-handed batters.
RH Jason Frasor
Says he’s healthy after hitting the DL (forearm strain) for the first time in his nine-year career in 2012.