The good news for the Texas Rangers the past two seasons, of course, is that they won the American League West. Some might say they did so unexpectedly, even in 2016 as the defending division champs. Their playoff experience, though, has been a disappointment, with consecutive losses to the Toronto Blue Jays in the division series. In 2016, the Rangers were barely competitive in a three-game sweep.
Here the Rangers are again, being doubted. They no doubt have their flaws but are also a better team than they were a year ago.
Cole Hamels was a Cy Young contender in his first full season with the Rangers before a subpar September. The lefthander issued more walks and home runs than he deems acceptable but pitched well with runners in scoring position. Yu Darvish will be in his first full season after Tommy John surgery, and the Rangers expect the traditional jump that comes 18-plus months after the procedure. The righthander saw a jump in fastball velocity and again showed he could dominate with a wipeout slider. Lefty Martin Perez was inconsistent but durable, and he pitched well down the stretch. Andrew Cashner signed a one-year, $10 million contract in November after recording a 5.25 ERA in stops in San Diego and Miami in 2016. The Rangers believe he will blossom working with pitching coach Doug Brocail. They could add another starter before spring training but might have to look internally for the final piece to the rotation. A.J. Griffin would be a strong candidate after making 23 starts last season, albeit with a 5.07 ERA. Chi Chi Gonzalez and Nick Martinez have pitched in the majors, including so-so showings in 2016. Waiver claim Tyler Wagner and Rule 5 Draft pick Mike Hauschild, both righties, are also possibilities.
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Sam Dyson will open as the Rangers’ fourth different closer in the past four seasons after taking over the spot in May. Dyson saved 38 games, using an upper-90s sinker and improved changeup as an effective two-pitch combo. If he struggles, Matt Bush could be next in line. Bush missed several seasons while in prison for a drunk-driving incident that nearly killed a motorcyclist. He has hit 100 mph, and his slider and curveball are also out pitches. Another bullpen bright spot was Tony Barnette, who became a steady middle-innings reliever. He was a closer in Japan, and it showed often as he was unfazed by high-leverage opportunities. Jeremy Jeffress is another potential closer-in-waiting after being acquired at the trade deadline. He was Milwaukee’s closer but assumed a prominent setup role after the deal. Lefty Jake Diekman and righty Keone Kela had down years after solidifying the bullpen in 2015. Both have fastballs that sit in the mid-90s with quality sliders. Diekman lost his command late in the season and then his spot in the bullpen pecking order. He’s also out until at least the All-Star break after undergoing surgery in January to remove his colon to alleviate the ulcerative colitis he has dealt with since he was a kid. Kela needed early-season surgery on his elbow and upon returning wasn’t as sharp as he was in 2015. Alex Claudio figures to assume a bigger role after a breakout season as a long reliever.
Shortstop Elvis Andrus is coming off a career year, and fellow Venezuelan Rougned Odor had a season that put him in the upper echelon of offensive second basemen. Andrus finished with a team-best .302 average, the first .300 season of his career, and posted career highs in on-base percentage (.362), slugging percentage (.439), homers (eight) and RBIs (69) while stealing at least 20 bases (24) for the eighth time in his eight big-league seasons. His defense was improved, too. Odor has room to grow defensively. If he develops at the plate, the Rangers could be looking at a perennial All-Star. Odor, 23, launched a team-best 33 homers and batted .271 after flirting with .300 for much of the season.
Third base is a sure thing, while the corner opposite from Adrian Beltre figures to be manned by a former All-Star teammate. Beltre enjoyed a rebound that saw him top 30 homers (32) for the first time since 2013 and 100 RBIs (104) for the first time since '12. He capped the year with his fifth career Gold Glove. Beltre, who will top 3,000 career hits this season, is well on his way to the Hall of Fame. Mike Napoli signed a one-year deal right before the start of spring training and figures to get most of the playing time at first since Gold Glove winner Mitch Moreland signed with Boston as a free agent. Napoli, who played for Texas from 2011-12 and towards the end of '15, bounced back in a big way last season, slugging 34 home runs and driving in 101 for AL champion Cleveland. An All-Star with the Rangers in 2012, Napoli has always enjoyed hitting in Arlington and his power bat should make Texas’ lineup even more dangerous.
When it came to addressing a need in center field, the Rangers went with affordability and defense in choosing to re-sign Carlos Gomez on a one-year, $11.5 million deal instead of Ian Desmond. Gomez was signed off the trash heap in August following his release from Houston, and he was arguably the Rangers’ best player down the stretch as their left fielder and leadoff hitter. Desmond had an All-Star season, and he cashed it into a five-year, $70 million deal with Colorado. The Rangers aren’t sure how the rest of the outfield will line up, though the best bet is Nomar Mazara at one of the corner spots after a standout rookie season with either Shin-Soo Choo, Jurickson Profar or Ryan Rua manning the other. Mazara’s average cooled to .266 after a hot start while replacing Choo during the first of four DL stints. Mazara popped 20 homers, but the left-handed hitter needs to be better against southpaws. If Choo is healthy, he can be a force from the leadoff spot.
Lucroy was acquired from Milwaukee at the trade deadline and became the Rangers’ best catcher since Ivan Rodriguez. No one outworks Lucroy in the video room as he formulates a scouting report for each game, and he knows how to manage pitchers. His framing skills are enviable and have been copied by many. His throwing can help shut down running games. Lucroy isn’t just defensive-minded. He swatted a career-high 24 homers, 11 in 47 games after the trade.
The Rangers are considering not having a full-time designated hitter but instead rotating several players at the spot, including Choo, Profar, Rua and maybe even Napoli. In theory, that would keep players healthy and allow Texas the opportunity to field a pretty deep lineup. A bench of catcher Robinson Chirinos, Delino DeShields as an extra outfielder and infielders Hanser Alberto and Drew Robinson offers speed and defensive flexibility. Joey Gallo, remains a question mark, as the youngster has plenty of power with just as many holes (76 SO in 133 AB in the majors) in his swing. He could make the team out of spring training as a reserve, but is likely headed back to Triple-A Round Rock.
Jeff Banister returns for his third season along with the 2016 coaching staff, except for field coordinator Jayce Tingler, who took over as farm director. Tingler was replaced by Josh Bonifay. Tony Beasley is expected back full time as third-base coach after being declared cancer-free in December. GM Jon Daniels enters his 12th season and has shown no hesitancy in trying to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline.
A third-straight AL West title is within reach. The Rangers have two aces in the rotation, a top-flight bullpen and offensive firepower. That combination will help them stay in contention in the AL West, but the rest of the rotation needs to carry its weight. Choo and Beltre must stay healthy, Napoli needs to keep slugging, and DH must be productive to make a push for a three-peat.