As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.
The Rangers did relatively little over the winter for a second straight offseason, despite a free agent marketplace loaded with premium talent. Before last season, the Rangers didn’t commit much money as they waited for all their injured players from 2014 to get healthy. They didn’t go crazy this offseason because all those injured players came back to lead the team to an unexpected American League West title and are back for 2016. The Rangers won’t surprise anyone again. They have the cast to defend their division title and keep winning in the postseason.
The clock is ticking until Yu Darvish returns in mid-May from Tommy John surgery, an addition that will give the Rangers two premier starting pitchers. The Rangers know as well as any team that it takes time for a pitcher to find his stride after Tommy John, but Darvish isn’t just any pitcher. The righthander has a repertoire that rivals the best in the game. His challenge will be commanding those pitches while also building arm strength, and the Rangers will monitor him closely. Darvish’s spot will likely be kept warm by righty Chi Chi Gonzalez.
Darvish will join a rotation headed by lefthander Cole Hamels, acquired at the July 31 trade deadline with three full seasons left on his contract. The Rangers lost the first two games Hamels started, but they won the final 10 and one more in the division series before an error-fest spoiled his Game 5 start at Toronto. Hamels unquestionably is a No. 2 starter. Some say he’s a No. 1. He logs innings, piles up strikeouts and dominates lineups at times. Two more lefties, Derek Holland and Martin Perez, are back for a full campaign. Holland missed four months in 2015 with a shoulder injury, and Perez returned from Tommy John surgery at the All-Star break. Both experienced dominating starts and also the hiccups that come with returning from injury. Colby Lewis will be back, too. He and the Rangers reached an agreement on a one-year deal before Christmas.
This unit, following the mold of the Royals’ dominating bullpen, has a chance to shorten games and not be worn out at the end of the season. The Rangers could have six relievers who have experience closing games at some level, but they could also trade one of those arms to shore up another area of the club. Assuming no trades are made, Shawn Tolleson will enter spring training as the closer after saving 35 games last season. He started out as a middle reliever but took the closer’s job May 20 and stabilized a struggling unit.
Fellow righty Sam Dyson and lefty Jake Diekman joined at the trade deadline, and they carried the bullpen down the stretch. Hard-throwing righty Keone Kela returns for his sophomore season, and the Rangers added righties Tom Wilhelmsen and Tony Barnette. Wilhelmsen is a former Mariners closer, and Barnette saved 41 games in 2015 while pitching in Japan. Sam Freeman and Andrew Faulkner are lefties who can log multiple innings. If the Rangers opt for a true long man, it could be righty Nick Martinez.
The last time anyone saw Elvis Andrus, he was committing two costly errors in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the ALDS. He shouldered all the blame for the loss and pledged to learn from the experience. The shortstop’s offense came around in the second half, and he finished with a career-high seven homers. Second baseman Rougned Odor was a force for the final four months after struggling badly early and enduring a demotion to Triple-A. He returned in June and batted .292 the rest of the way with 15 of his 16 homers.
Adrian Beltre enters 2016 in the final year of a six-year contract that many criticized when he signed it in 2011. The deal rates as one of the best in team history, as Beltre has been an offensive force, a premium defender and a clubhouse leader while putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame résumé. His power numbers have declined the past two seasons, and he has battled through injuries. The Rangers, though, are counting on him to be their cleanup hitter, and his second half in 2015 — while playing with an injured thumb that required offseason surgery — is reason for optimism. Mitch Moreland took over at first base early in the season, as his defense was the best on the team at the position. He also finished with the best season of his career, tying for the team lead in homers (23) and batting a career-best .278. The Rangers, though, are still leery of using the lefty hitter against lefty pitchers, and he will sit against many of them. But Moreland brings pop to the lineup and quality defense behind a pitching staff that relies on the ground ball.
Potential trouble lurks across this unit, as two players could be vulnerable to declines from 2015 and another’s production is clouded by his injury history. The latter is Josh Hamilton, who was acquired last season from the Angels for next to nothing but was injured in his first week on the team. He is one big if, and the Rangers know that it is highly unlikely that he will be an everyday player. Shin-Soo Choo proved to be the Rangers’ best outfielder and was one of the best hitters in the game in the second half. His September was spectacular. He batted .404 and became the first player since Willie Mays in 1958 to lead the majors in September in average, on-base percentage, hits and runs. Delino DeShields will open in center field after a remarkable rookie season as a Rule 5 selection. He can run, he can bunt, and his plate approach gets him on base adequately enough to be a leadoff man. But there is room for improvement, especially defensively, while also the risk for a sophomore slump.
Robinson Chirinos and Chris Gimenez are the best bets to handle the bulk of the Rangers’ catching duties. The Rangers used five catchers in 2015 as Chirinos was felled by an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. When healthy, Chirinos is a top-notch thrower who has power in his bat. The Rangers would love to get 100 games from him and relegate Gimenez to 62. Gimenez, though, has never appeared in more than 45 big league games in a season, and the Rangers are aware of that. The best thing Gimenez has going for him is that Hamels and Darvish love pitching to him. That shouldn’t be understated.
Prince Fielder was the AL Comeback Player of the Year after hitting 23 homers, driving in 98 runs and batting .305 one season after undergoing major neck surgery. Fielder was at his best when the Rangers were at their worst. The body of work left the Rangers believing there is more in store for 2016. Justin Ruggiano figures to be a key contributor off the bench as the right-handed-hitting complement for Hamilton and Moreland. Ruggiano has a .856 career OPS against lefties, and the Rangers’ lineup is lefty-heavy. He can also play center field, as can the speedy James Jones.
Jeff Banister became only the fifth manager in history to be named Manager of the Year in his rookie season, and he did it by holding the club together after a 7–14 April and then by artful use of advanced metrics to position defenders and structure lineups. General manager Jon Daniels again showed an aggressive nature at the trade deadline, bolstering the roster for a winning push. The Rangers have a new pitching coach (Doug Brocail) and hitting coach (Anthony Iapoce) after years of continuity under Mike Maddux and Dave Magadan.
The oddsmakers say it, so it must be true: The Rangers are a favorite to win the American League. They will have the rotation to do so, once Darvish returns to form, and the bullpen could be one of the best in the game. The lineup that led a second-half charge is back, and though a few players could be susceptible to regression, the offense should click earlier in the season than it did in 2015 and stack up as one of the league’s best.
Prediction: 1st AL West
CF Delino DeShields (R)
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
DH Prince Fielder (L)
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
LF Josh Hamilton (L)
1B Mitch Moreland (L)
SS Elvis Andrus (R)
2B Rougned Odor (L)
C Robinson Chirinos (R)
C Chris Gimenez (R)
INF Hanser Alberto (R)
OF Justin Ruggiano (R)
OF James Jones (L)
RHP Yu Darvish
LHP Cole Hamels
LHP Derek Holland
LHP Martin Perez
RHP Colby Lewis
RHP Shawn Tolleson (Closer)
RHP Sam Dyson
LHP Jake Diekman
RHP Tom Wilhelmsen
RHP Keone Kela
RHP Tony Barnette
LHP Andrew Faulkner