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Rangers intent on taking back AL West title
Short on their normal offensive production and long on injuries to their rotation in 2013, the Texas Rangers have their fingers crossed that a revamped lineup will hit again and that their starting pitchers will remain healthy this year, although the good health part is not off to a rousing start. Prince Fielder, acquired in a blockbuster trade for Ian Kinsler, is expected to put pop into a lineup that managed a relatively low 176 homers in 2013. Shin-Soo Choo was added a month later as the everyday left fielder and leadoff man. Matt Harrison, a former 18-game winner, is expected to return to the rotation after missing all but two starts, and the Rangers are hoping that Alexi Ogando can stay healthy, too. Harrison’s back is balky and that could prevent him from making his first start until mid-April. Lefthander Derek Holland may miss half the season after knee surgery. The only major piece missing from this team entering spring training was a closer, but Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz are still competing for the job. Manager Ron Washington has indicated he may use both depending on situations, at least until one proves worthy of the job full-time. Even with health issues in the rotation and a question of closing, this team has enough talent to contend in the American League West for a sixth straight season.
Yu Darvish led major league baseball in strikeouts (277) and finished second in American League Cy Young voting. Darvish also held opponents to an AL-best .194 average and posted the fourth-best ERA (2.83). His critics point to multiple starts in which he surrendered late leads, as well as an over-reliance on his slider. The Rangers have urged him to work on his fastball command. Holland, one of three lefthanders in the rotation, logged a team-high 213 innings but was only 10–9 after another roller-coaster ride. Included were two complete-game shutouts, but also wins in only two of his final 14 starts and a 1–3 mark in September. He will be a welcome addition for the second half. Lefty Martin Perez is facing his first full season after holding onto a rotation spot after a June 22 call-up. He won 10 games and was the Rangers’ starter in their tie-breaking game against Tampa Bay. The biggest questions marks are Harrison and Ogando. Harrison was the Opening Day starter in 2013 but made only two starts before having back operations in April and May for a herniated disc. He later had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder. Ogando, meanwhile, hit the disabled list three times with arm issues. He returned as a starter in September and pitched well enough to again convince management that he belongs in the rotation. Ogando has thrived as a starter in his career (19–12, 3.40 ERA in 48 starts). But many believe he is better suited as a reliever. The Rangers signed veterans Tommy Hanson and Joe Saunders to fill in gaps until all health issues are resolved.
The Rangers aren’t sure about their closer after Joe Nathan, who saved 80 games the past two seasons, wasn’t re-signed. Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz, former All-Star closers, should be near the form they showed before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. Tanner Scheppers, who emerged as a top-flight setup man in 2013, could grab the job. The team’s primary lefty relievers will be Neal Cotts, coming off a terrific comeback season, and Robbie Ross, a starter in the minors who will be given a chance in the spring to return to that role. Jason Frasor, who finished with a flurry last year, re-signed early in the offseason and is the bullpen’s veteran presence along with Soria. A third veteran could be Jose Contreras if he makes the team as the long man. A pair of lefties, Joe Ortiz and Michael Kirkman, will be among the competitors for that spot.
After a season of biding his time, 21-year-old Jurickson Profar will be an everyday player in 2014. Profar, a shortstop in the minors, played well defensively in flashes at second base when Kinsler was out of the lineup, but his bat lagged. Profar, baseball’s top prospect entering 2013, hit only .234 in 286 at-bats, and the switch-hitter batted only .188 from the right side. He’ll have Elvis Andrus as a double-play partner. Andrus, one of the longest-tenured Rangers (six years with the team) at just 25, is the face of the franchise. He opened the second half in 2013 with a 16-game hitting streak and ended up hitting .313 in his in final 64 games. Andrus finished with a .271 average, down 15 points from 2012, but he drove in a career-high 67 runs and stole a career-best 42 bases. The Rangers would like to see him drive the ball more.
The combination of Fielder at first base and Adrian Beltre at third gives the Rangers a top pair of corner infielders. Fielder fell out of favor in Detroit after a lousy postseason and a sub-par regular season, but he still hit .279 with 25 homers and 106 RBIs. The Rangers will take that at first, where Mitch Moreland has struggled. Most believe that Fielder, a left-handed slugger, will flourish at Rangers Ballpark. Beltre was the Rangers’ MVP after leading them with 30 homers, 92 RBIs, a .315 batting average and a .509 slugging percentage. Defensively, though, Beltre was off his game, possibly because of persistent leg injuries, and missed out on a third consecutive Gold Glove. He still is considered one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. The Rangers, though, will take a hit defensively with Fielder at first.
The Rangers filled a significant lineup hole just before Christmas. They reached a seven-year, $130 million agreement with Choo, who will be the left fielder and leadoff man. He should score more than 100 runs if he gets on base as frequently as he did last season (.423 OBP). Leonys Martin and Alex Rios will join Choo. Martin, the center fielder, has one of the top arms in the game. He needs more patience at the plate, but he is a serious threat to steal bases. So is Rios, who stole 16 of his 42 bases with the Rangers after an August trade from the White Sox. The right fielder swatted 18 homers with 81 RBIs, and he figures to bat fifth in the lineup.
Geovany Soto will be the regular catcher after playing behind A.J. Pierzynski in 2013. Soto thrived in September and became the catcher pitchers preferred behind the plate. In particular, Darvish favored Soto, who is considered a better receiver than Pierzynski. Soto batted .440 in September, another reason for his promotion. That’s 246 points higher than his backup, J.P. Arencibia, batted in 2013 with Toronto. Once a franchise cornerstone, Arencibia fell out of favor in Toronto after hitting .194 with 148 strikeouts and only 18 walks in 2013. Still, he hit 21 home runs and is viewing his stint with the Rangers as a fresh start.
The Rangers turned away several teams that were interested in Moreland, who lost his job at first base to Fielder but will be the top choice at designated hitter against right-handed pitching. Moreland has power (23 homers), but he hasn’t been able to find a consistent stroke at the plate. He batted only .232 — .194 over his final 98 games — in 2013. Arencibia is the primary backup catcher, but Robinson Chirinos can catch as well as play first and third. Adam Rosales is a valuable utility infielder. Engel Beltre is a speedy defensive ace who can play all three outfield spots.
Washington enters his eighth season as manager. Fans continue to belly-ache about his love for the bunt and question his bullpen management, but no other manager in franchise history has won more games or achieved more in the postseason. Tim Bogar replaces Jackie Moore as bench coach. Jon Daniels has control over all baseball moves, and his recent track record suggests he has been among the game’s best general managers.
Any worries among the fan base, and possibly inside the organization, about the 2014 season were quieted in December with the addition of Choo. He fills a big hole in the lineup and puts the Rangers in a position to score a bunch of runs — as usual. Now, the worry turns to the pitching staff, where the rotation needs to stay healthy.
LF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
The Rangers love his knack for getting on base, and his power and speed fit well atop the lineup, too.
SS Elvis Andrus (R)
Batted .313 in 64 games after the All-Star break to prevent the worst offensive season of his career.
1B Prince Fielder (L)
Four homers, 15 RBIs and a .592 slugging percentage in 13 career games at Rangers Ballpark.
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
Collected 14 homers, 40 RBIs in July and August 2013, but only two homers, 10 RBIs in September.
RF Alex Rios (R)
Fit in seamlessly after August trade, hitting .280 with 19 extra-base hits and 16 steals in 47 games.
DH Mitch Moreland (L)
Woeful stretch in final 98 games (.194) has sent him from regular first baseman to part-time DH.
C Geovany Soto (R)
Fewer tweaks in his swing produced a .440 September average and faith that he can return to All-Star form.
CF Leonys Martin (L)
Hit .281 in 2013 in 108 games as the No. 8 or No. 9 hitter in 2013, but only .238 in 31 games atop lineup.
2B Jurickson Profar (S)
The former top prospect struggled in his first year, but the belief is he will flourish with regular playing time.
C J.P. Arencibia (R)
A lousy 2012 (.194, 148 Ks) led to his breakup with Toronto. The Rangers like his power and durability.
OF Engel Beltre (L)
Out of options, the speedy defensive ace could take on the same role as Craig Gentry the past few years.
INF Adam Rosales (R)
Rangers liked this high-energy player who can play all four infield spots enough to claim him twice in ’13.
UT Robinson Chirinos (R)
He can catch and play the infield corners, and his presence could allow Soto and Arencibia to DH some.
RH Yu Darvish
The Cy Young runner-up led baseball in strikeouts and is on the verge of becoming a true ace.
LH Matt Harrison
Coming off of three surgeries, the former 18-game winner is the key to this rotation’s success in 2014.
LH Martin Perez
He finally showed the promise the Rangers had seen in the minors, and now he’s a rotation fixture.
RH Al exi Ogando
Despite three stints on the disabled list, Ogando is in the rotation plans, though some see him as a reliever.
RH Tommy Hanson
Was a consistent starter for the Braves from 2009-12, but struggled with the Angels last season with a 5.42 ERA and 1.548 WHIP.
LH Derek Holland
After knee surgery, the Rangers don’t expect him back until around the All-Star break.
RH Neftali Feliz (Closer)
Worked in winter ball to help regain his pre-Tommy John velocity. Could get first chance to close.
RH Joakim Soria
The former All-Star has the experience and work ethic the Rangers want at the back end of pen.
RH Tanner Scheppers
A candidate to be the closer, Scheppers excelled as a setup man in 2013 and is likely to start 2014 there.
LH Neal Cotts
Returned to the majors for the first time in four seasons and won a league-high eight games in relief.
LH Robbie Ross
Don’t be surprised to see this lefty start games, but early in the season his value will be as a reliever.
RH Jason Frasor
The veteran re-signed early in the offseason, hoping the Rangers can put him in the postseason again.
LH Joseph Ortiz
Lefty opened 2013 on the roster but bounced between Triple-A after hitting some rookie road bumps.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Alex Gonzalez, RHP
The Rangers ended four straight years of using their first pick on a high school player by taking Gonzalez, a righthander from Oral Roberts, and he advanced enough after his professional debut to be considered among the organization’s top prospects. Gonzalez had a few early hiccups in July, a result of missing up in the strike zone, but was pitching in the High-A playoffs two months later. He could very well open 2014 at Double-A. Gonzalez’s best pitch is a cut fastball that was hailed by some experts as the best in the draft. He throws a slider that has more tilt and depth than the cutter, and continues to work on a changeup that could become a plus pitch. Gonzalez is part of the next wave of pitchers in the Rangers’ system. The problem, though, is that they are all at or on the cusp of Double-A. That could play into the favor of Gonzalez, who has more polish.
OF Lewis Brinson (19)
The 29th overall pick in 2012 impresses with his athleticism, arm and power, but he is a strikeout machine who needs to make more contact.
2B Rougned Odor (20)
Loaded with talent and desire, the Venezuelan could eventually push Jurickson Profar for a big-league job.
C Jorge Alfaro (20)
He will likely open 2014 at High-A Myrtle Beach after a big 2013 at Low-A Hickory and a strong Arizona Fall League.
RHP Luke Jackson (22)
After finishing 2013 with a flourish at Double-A, Jackson rates as the minor-league pitcher closest to joining the Rangers.
3B Joey Gallo (20)
The top power hitter in the minors, Gallo crushed 40 homers in 2013.
SS Luis Sardinas (20)
Injury-plagued early in his career, Sardinas is finally showcasing his talents.
Beyond the Box Score
No more Nolan Nolan Ryan resigned as the Rangers’ CEO in October and sold his small ownership stake, ending a tumultuous year in which his role was put into question after general manager Jon Daniels added president of baseball operations to his title. The Rangers went 536–437 during Ryan’s six seasons with the organization.
Strange pick The Rangers made the biggest splash of the annual Rule 5 Draft at the winter meetings when they selected second baseman Russell Wilson — the same Russell Wilson who stars at quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Wilson was drafted in the fourth round by Colorado in 2010 and played parts of two minor-league seasons. He was on the Rockies’ inactive list when drafted by the Rangers, who admire his character and hope to show him off at spring training to their minor leaguers as an example of the kind of makeup it takes to be successful.
New career? Lefthander Derek Holland, known as much for his baseball accomplishments as his off-the-field quirkiness, landed a small role in the opening scene of the movie “Dumb & Dumber To”. Holland was captured with former teammate Justin Grimm re-enacting the tuxedo scene from the original move starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, and the producers invited him after seeing clips of his performance. The movie is scheduled to be released later this year.
Boot camp In the second inning of the Rangers’ Sept. 26 game against the Angels, three players combined for four errors, all with two outs, to help turn a 3–1 lead into a 4–3 deficit. Mitch Moreland started it by bobbling a grounder at first base, and former second baseman Ian Kinsler booted a grounder and threw a ball away two batters later. An Adrian Beltre throwing error on the next play capped the sloppiness.
Walk-off Wonders The four-error inning didn’t cost the Rangers as they beat the Angels on a walk-off homer for the fourth straight game at Rangers Ballpark. The streak started July 29, as Geovany Soto won it with a solo homer in the ninth, and Leonys Martin hit a three-run game-winner in the 10th the next night. Adrian Beltre took his turn July 31 with a leadoff homer in the ninth, and Jurickson Profar started the ninth on Sept. 26 with a pinch-hit shot to right field.