The last place the Texas Rangers expected to find themselves in 2014 was last place. But that’s where they finished after injuries conspired to knock them from favorites in the American League West to a 95-loss season and sole occupancy of the AL basement. It wasn’t all injuries, as the Rangers’ lack of depth after a series of past July deadline trades finally bit them. In June, management was convinced to turn the season into a tryout camp. Some players emerged, and they have a chance to make the roster this year after the Rangers did little in the offseason. But their No. 1 offseason goal was to get injured players healthy. The belief is that they are, for the most part, and the Rangers expect to contend in 2015. They gave themselves a better chance after acquiring Yovani Gallardo to bolster the rotation, but offensively they need several hitters to either rebound from down seasons or perform at the next level.
The good news is that each of the five starters expected to be in the rotation went through a normal, healthy offseason, most notably staff ace Yu Darvish. He finished the season on the 60-day disabled list with an elbow strain, but the Rangers’ cautious approach allowed Darvish to start throwing in December. When Darvish is on, he’s a strikeout machine and could be the next pitcher to throw a no-hitter. Lefthander Derek Holland’s strong September (2–0, 1.46 ERA, 37 innings), after missing the first five months following knee surgery, left some talking about him getting the Opening Day start over Darvish. The two new faces are former Brewer Gallardo and former National Ross Detwiler. Milwaukee’s one-time ace, Gallardo was shipped to the Rangers for three players in January. The Brewers also are paying $4 million towards Gallardo’s $14 million salary. Detwiler meanwhile hasn’t started a game since 2013, as he was pushed out of the crowded Washington rotation. Both Gallardo and Detwiler are slated to be free agents after this season. Righty Colby Lewis is probably the front-runner for the final spot, although Nick Tepesch and lefty Matt Harrison, who is on the rebound from another back surgery, could end up factoring into the mix at some point. Another lefty, Martin Perez, should be back on the mound by the All-Star break. He was one of the league’s best pitchers in April but had Tommy John surgery in May.
Neftali Feliz finished 2014 as the closer after a long recovery from Tommy John surgery. He flashed the velocity and effective slider that made him an All-Star in 2010. The biggest questions about Feliz have been his desire and work ethic. Those questions haven’t gone away. If Feliz falters, Tanner Scheppers will be the first option to replace him. Scheppers, derailed by an elbow injury last spring, will open in the eighth-inning role in which he blossomed into a top-flight reliever in 2013. The Rangers added another righty, Kyuji Fujikawa, to give the bullpen a shot of experience. Also coming off Tommy John, the 34-year-old returned last season with the Cubs. The Rangers believe they are getting a pitcher they coveted two years ago at the right time following his surgery. Shawn Tolleson, who had the best 2014 season among Rangers relievers, will bridge the sixth and seventh innings, and hard-throwing Roman Mendez was the best of the rookies who were showcased last season. The Rangers might have room for only one lefty, which could be rookie Alex Claudio. Tepesch or whomever doesn’t make the starting rotation figures to be the long man, with Nick Martinez and Anthony Bass other candidates.
The Rangers believe that shortstop Elvis Andrus is primed for a big year after one of the worst of his career. He started fast but then became a double-play machine and, at times, a liability on the bases. Andrus took it upon himself to train harder in the offseason after doing very little before last season. Andrus’ double-play partner will be Rougned Odor, who is firmly entrenched at second base thanks to Jurickson Profar’s persistent shoulder issues. Odor was one of the best rookies in the American League in 2014, though his aggressiveness worked against him more than it worked in his favor. More patience at the plate will serve him and the Rangers well.
On paper, only a handful of teams should be as stout offensively on the corners as the Rangers’ duo of first baseman Prince Fielder and third baseman Adrian Beltre. But there are questions about how effective Fielder will be after cervical fusion surgery in May. Fielder, one of the game’s top power hitters, swatted only three homers and repeatedly bounced into infield shifts as weakness in his left arm, caused by a herniated disc, slowed his bat and kept him from getting the same lift on balls. Beltre again was the Rangers’ best player and led them in the Triple Crown categories. But he had only 19 homers, in large part because he didn’t have any protection, and teams pitched around him. But when he did get pitches to hit, he did so at a .324 clip. Beltre also had a rebound year defensively.
A vacancy was created when the Rangers bought out a club option on Alex Rios, who played right field and forced Shin-Soo Choo to left field to begin his seven-year, $130 million deal. Choo was lousy defensively but will move to more familiar territory in right with Rios gone. Choo was one of the league’s best players for about six weeks, but an ankle injury and a lingering elbow injury sent him spiraling. He must be productive in the middle of the lineup. Leonys Martin also needs to have a big year and will start in the leadoff spot after batting .295 with a .340 on-base percentage over the final 21 games atop the order. He has never been a consistent hitter, but his speed can be a game-changer. Martin is blessed with perhaps the strongest arm in the game, but he can get in trouble by taking poor routes to balls. Left field is a toss up with veterans Nate Schierholtz and Ryan Ludwick, along with younger guys like Ryan Rua, Michael Choice and Jake Smolinski among the candidates. The winner also could find himself in a platoon with the left-handed-hitting Mitch Moreland, unless it’s Schierholtz. Despite a lousy 2014, Choice has more upside than Rua or Smolinski.
Robinson Chirinos established himself as the No. 1 catcher for 2015. He’s worked to improve his footwork behind the plate and has turned himself into one of the best throwers in the game. Chirinos will also hit the ball out of the park on occasion. The Rangers are weary of his concussion history, which is why they acquired switch-hitter Carlos Corporan from the Astros.
Moreland will be the primary DH but could end up in a platoon with an extra right-handed-hitting outfielder. Moreland is coming off ankle surgery, fixing a problem that has bothered him for years. He has dealt with various injuries and has never realized the potential the Rangers thought he had. Delino DeShields Jr. gives the Rangers an interesting piece. He’s a left-handed hitter who can fly but lacks experience in the majors.
Jeff Banister begins his first season as a big-league manager after four years in Pittsburgh as bench coach under Clint Hurdle, whom Rangers executives love. In Pittsburgh, all voices are welcomed, and scouts and front-office execs are routinely involved. That appeals to Rangers GM Jon Daniels, who is entering his 10th season and occasionally met resistance from Ron Washington when making suggestions. Pitching coach Mike Maddux is one of four holdovers from Washington’s staff, and former Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele joins as bench coach.
The Rangers have a fair share of questions, namely in the back end of their rotation. The bullpen and lineup aren’t perfect, either. Texas needs key contributors to stay healthy and produce either at levels that made them stars or at levels that could make them stars. That’s too many ifs for this team to be considered a serious contender for the postseason.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL West
CF Leonys Martin (L) Showed over final 22 games that he could be a capable leadoff man. Will get chance to show it over 162.
SS Elvis Andrus (R) Disappointing year all around for Andrus, whose eight-year, $120 million extension takes effect this season.
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L) A hot start was derailed by ankle and elbow injuries, and he lacked instincts on the bases and in left field.
3B Adrian Beltre (R) The best player on the team and one of the best in the game, Beltre took on more of a leadership role in 2014.
1B Prince Fielder (L) The Rangers hope Fielder still has elite power after neck surgery.
DH Mitch Moreland (L) Texas has been waiting on Moreland to produce since 2011, but injuries keep popping up.
C Robinson Chirinos (R) The Rangers found a catcher amid all their injuries. He has pop and has developed into a good thrower.
2B Rougned Odor (L) Now entrenched at a position thought to belong to Jurickson Profar.
LF Ryan Rua (R) He has hit at every level, and he will work extensively on his defense in spring training to get the starting job.
SS Adam Rosales (R) Another fringe player who took advantage of his opportunity, Rosales brings energy and versatility.
OF Delino DeShields Jr. (R) Former first-rounder needs to show improved work ethic to make the club.
C Carlos Corporan (S) Started 99 games behind the plate for the Astros the past two seasons, but hit just .230 during that span.
OF Nate Schierholtz (L) The eight-year veteran could have leg up on last bench spot because of need for a left-handed bat.
RH Yu Darvish Stuff so good that it seems like a no-hitter is possible each start, except vs. the A’s (1–8 lifetime).
LH Derek Holland 2014 was all but lost to a freakish knee injury, but his strong September should be a springboard into 2015.
RH Yovani Gallardo Had a solid campaign in 2014 statistically, although his record didn’t show it.
LH Ross Detwiler Pushed out of the Nationals’ rotation, he hasn’t started since 2013 but believes he can log 200 innings.
RH Colby Lewis A strong second half, thanks to “hip resurfacing” surgery, helped him earn a one-year contract for 2015.
RH Neftali Feliz (Closer) The closer finished strong, flashing his pre-Tommy John velocity and effectiveness; desire can be fickle.
RH Tanner Scheppers A move to the rotation resulted in a season-ending elbow injury. He’s back where he belongs.
RH Kyuji Fujikawa The Rangers scouted him extensively in Japan and liked him … before two disastrous years with the Cubs.
RH Shawn Tolleson The bullpen’s bright spot in 2014, Tolleson needs to be more efficient when called upon.
RH Roman Mendez He was the best of the young crop of relievers in 2014, and can be better with better mechanics.
LH Alex Claudio The Rangers need a southpaw in the ‘pen and this rookie’s multiple arm angels and quality secondary pitchers make him deceptive against lefty hitters.
RH Nick Martinez Started much of 2014, but showed well early as a multi-inning reliever.
Beyond the Box Score
First-timer Jeff Banister is a manager for the first time in his career, and he’s with a team other than the Pirates for the first time. Banister was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1986, became a player/coach in 1993 and a full-time coach in 1994. But the fact that he had a career in baseball is remarkable after he was diagnosed with two cancerous cysts in his ankle while in high school and after he suffered temporary paralysis and a broken neck following a collision at home-plate while he was in junior college. Banister is active on Twitter (@Bannyrooster28) and ends each tweet with #nevereverquit. He knows what can happen when someone never quits.
Stating his case Adrian Beltre continues to build his résumé for the Hall of Fame. The third baseman, who has two years left on his contract, is tied for 39th all-time in doubles (528), 56th all-time in homers (395) and 79th all-time in hits (2,604). The homer total is fifth all-time among primary third basemen behind Mike Schmidt (548), Eddie Mathews (512), Chipper Jones (468) and Darrell Evans (414). Beltre, George Brett and Jones are the three third basemen in MLB history with 300 homers and 2,500 hits. Beltre also has four career Gold Gloves.
All-Star assistants The Rangers are collecting an impressive stable of special assistants to GM Jon Daniels. The club added another in November with the hiring of Michael Young, a seven-time All-Star and the club’s all-time leader in most offensive categories. Young hopes to work extensively with minor leaguers during spring training and the regular season. He joins Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, 14-time All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez and 20-year veteran reliever Darren Oliver in the Rangers’ front office.
Unhappy reunion The acquisition of outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. in the Rule 5 Draft could make for a few awkward moments in spring training. DeShields is now teammates with right-handed reliever Phil Klein, who plunked DeShields in the cheek during a Double-A game last May, producing gruesome swelling and an infamous selfie that DeShields tweeted. DeShields, then in the Astros’ system, was out only a couple weeks, and Klein would reach the majors in August as injuries riddled the Rangers’ roster.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Luis Ortiz, RHP
The stuff that comes out of Luis Ortiz’s right arm is obvious to any scout. The fastball that can touch 96 mph. A slider that darts down and is an out pitch. The ability to command his two plus pitches. But the Rangers also saw something in Ortiz that told them he was their type of player — a self-made first-round pick who had very little coaching growing up and who lost weight to become more attractive to big-league teams. Ortiz was the 30th overall pick in the June draft, signing for $1.75 million and passing on an opportunity to play collegiately at Fresno State. The Sanger, Calif., native passed his first pro test over a handful of innings at Low-A Hickory. That’s pretty impressive for an 18-year-old, and Ortiz, now 19, could be vying for a Rangers rotation spot after only a few seasons in the minors.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Joey Gallo, 3B (21) Power like this doesn’t come along often. If Gallo can stick to the right approach, he could hit 40 homers a season.
2. Nomar Mazara, OF (20) The son of an officer in the Dominican Republic navy, Mazara has discipline and maturity. He could make a rapid climb to the majors.
3. Jorge Alfaro, C (21) The Rangers are waiting for his mental side to catch up to his physical tools. If that happens, watch out.
4. Alex Gonzalez, RHP (23) The pitcher nicknamed “Chi Chi” could crack the Rangers’ rotation this spring. Some scouts believe he will.
5. Jake Thompson, RHP (21) He’s still young, and it shows occasionally on the mound and in his preparation. He needs more polish, but has talent.
6. Nick Williams, OF (21) Oh, that bat speed. If he tightens up his discipline and plate approach, the Rangers could have a Carlos Gonzalez on their hands.
7. Luis Ortiz, RHP (19) The 2014 first-rounder attacks the strike zone with a plus fastball and plus slider. He could be a quick mover.
8. Ryan Rua, INF/OF (25) He should be in the Rangers’ mix in left field, a position he is still learning. The Rangers like his athletic ability and power.
9. Luke Jackson, RHP (23) A rocky first taste at Triple-A Round Rock kept him from his big-league debut, but he says he knows what needs to be fixed.
10. Josh Morgan, SS (19) A third-round pick in 2014, Morgan is an on-base machine who hits to all fields and defends and runs capably. Power will be the question.