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On the Mend - A Texas Rangers preview

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A look ahead at our opponents for the weekend portion of our homestand.

Garciaparra who? Meet the new Nomar.
Garciaparra who? Meet the new Nomar.
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, let's talk about what I wrote last year about the Texas Rangers.

For those who aren't feeling click-happy today, the Rangers were 16-23 on May 19 last season, a solid nine-and-a-half games back of the Houston Astros in the AL West. As if that situation wasn't dire enough, the Rangers had a whole host of injury problems, including nearly a full rotation's worth of pitchers on the disabled list and top prospect Jurickson Profar out for the season. Of course, we all know at this point that the Rangers made an improbable comeback and wrestled the AL West crown away from Houston. How'd they do it?

No. 1: Trades

The Rangers sat seven games out of first place and three games out of the second wild card slot on July 31, 2015. Furthermore, there were five teams ahead of them in the race for the two Wild Card slots with the White Sox and Tigers just a half-game behind. The Wild Card race was sure to be a dogfight to the end and even improving the core quality of the roster would probably be of secondary importance to sheer randomness the rest of the way. With the division seemingly out of reach and the possibility of a one-game playoff as the only seemingly feasible prize, it sure seemed like the smart money was against using prospects to buy rental players for a postseason push.

So they didn't.

At the time of the trade deadline, the Rangers controlled four of what would be Baseball Prospectus' top 25 prospects for 2016. With the future looking bright, the Rangers did in fact decide to be buyers; they just bought players that they'd control well beyond the end of the 2015 season to augment future rosters. They sent a package centered around the lowest-ranked of those four prospects (outfielder Nick Williams) and highly-regarded catching prospect Jorge Alfaro to the Phillies for ace starter Cole Hamels. Hamels was just what the doctor ordered, as he more or less carried over his National League performance and went 7-1 for the Rangers down the stretch. Hamels will front the Rangers rotation for the time being; his best weapon is a changeup that sits in the low-mid 80s.

Also coming over from the Phillies in that trade was hard-throwing reliever Jake Diekman, who greatly improved his control after transitioning to the American League. The Rangers further augmented their bullpen by plucking Sam Dyson from the Marlins. Dyson pitched to a 1.15 ERA down the stretch, and he did it by throwing about 80 percent mid-90's fastballs. Both guys reprise prominent roles in the 2016 Rangers bullpen setting up closer Shawn Tolleson.

No. 2: Breakthroughs from young players

Hot prospect Joey Gallo struck out far too often (46.3 percent) in his first taste of big league action, but the Rangers enjoyed nice performances elsewhere. 21-year-old Rougned Odor stepped up in a big way by putting up a .204 ISO while holding his own at second base. Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields was placed on the Opening Day roster as a bench guy so that Texas could keep him under team control. When the Rangers decided they had enough of Leonys Martin and his .264 OBP, DeShields was pushed into a full-time role as the team's center fielder and leadoff man. While he was a bit stretched in center, DeShields was more than adequate at the plate, as he got on base at a .344 clip. Furthermore, he was a serious threat on the bases, finishing 5th in all of baseball in FanGraphs' Base Running statistic.

No. 3: Bounceback seasons from key veterans

Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo gave the Rangers a fat lot of nothing in 2014 but the resurgence of both players was integral to Texas making the playoffs. Fielder carried the offense in the first half of the season as he rediscovered his ability to hit for average while clubbing 23 home runs.  Choo effectively rediscovered the Choo we used to know; he cleared 20 homers and drew tons of walks. The South Korean still carries a massive platoon split and should be shielded from lefties, but he's still a really useful player.

No. 4: Adrian Beltre

The star third baseman turned in yet another stellar season at age 36. Beltre's power has fallen off from his heyday, but he can still pick it with the best of them at third base and can deliver 50-some extra base hits. Faces have come and gone, but Beltre has been the Rangers' leader since putting on the uniform in 2011.

No. 5: Luck

The Rangers had a +18 run differential and finished two games ahead of the Astros, who had a +111 run differential. Despite the Hamels acquisition and the stellar work from the new bullpen imports, the Rangers had a patchwork starting rotation for much of the year and they allowed the third-most runs in the American League. This didn't come back to bite them, but that's just how baseball works sometimes.

******

The Rangers have returned largely the same cast of characters for 2016, with a couple exceptions. They brought in former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond on a one-year deal to have him play left field. It was an odd fit because the strikeout-prone Desmond's bat had been eroding for several seasons and certainly couldn't withstand such a plummet down the defensive spectrum unless he became a stellar corner outfielder. It became an even weirder fit when Desmond bust out of the gate slashing .109/.180/.109 through his first 12 games. He started to warm up earlier this week in Houston, so we'll see if that carries over.

The other significant change came from the farm system. With Choo and Josh Hamilton on the disabled list and ticketed for returns sometime in May, the Rangers promoted top prospect Nomar Mazara to take over in right field. Mazara has a smooth swing from the left side and has plenty of raw power. The 21-year-old Dominican tore his way through the Rangers system since signing as a 16-year-old and will look to add a successful rookie year to his list of accomplishments. Mazara's hitting .378/.419/.514 through his first ten games. So far, so good.

In addition to Choo and Hamilton, the Rangers expect to get ace starter Yu Darvish back from Tommy John surgery sometime in May. Even if he doesn't regain all of his former ability, the Rangers will need his capable arm because things get dicey in the rotation beyond Hamels. Lefties Derek Holland and Martin Perez are absolutely awful bets to stay healthy and the odds of 36-year-old Colby Lewis chewing another 200 innings (while winning 17 games with a 4.66 ERA, no less) as he did last season are fairly thin. Temporary fifth starter A.J. Griffin made his comeback from Tommy John surgery last season in the minor leagues but was DFA'd and released by the A's after last season. It's anyone's guess if he'll be able to regain his former 4th-starteresque glory.

It's that rotation that leads to questions about whether the Rangers will be able to repeat as AL West champions. If at least four of their current starters hold up and Darvish makes a successful return, Texas will have a quality pitching staff and a team that can hold up against the best in the American League. Even if not, they still have the chips to upgrade on the fly. Mazara's probably here to stay, but Texas still has Gallo, center fielder Lewis Brinson, and a couple other top-100 prospects with which to go shopping. The Rangers will probably once again fight a battle with the disabled list all season long, but unlike last year, they've got the talent and enough potential for reinforcements to take the division without it registering as a massive surprise.

Projected Record and Finish: 86-76, 1st place AL West

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Friday, April 22: Jose Quintana vs. Martin Perez
  • Saturday, April 23: Carlos Rodon vs. Colby Lewis
  • Sunday, April 24: Mat Latos vs. Derek Holland

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Delino DeShields - CF

SP1. Cole Hamels - LHP

2. Nomar Mazara - RF

SP2. Martin Perez - LHP

3. Adrian Beltre - 3B

SP3. Colby Lewis - RHP

4. Prince Fielder - DH

SP4. Derek Holland - LHP

5. Ian Desmond - LF

SP5. A.J. Griffin - RHP

6. Mitch Moreland - 1B

CL. Shawn Tolleson - RHP

7. Rougned Odor - 2B

RP1. Sam Dyson - RHP

8. Elvis Andrus - SS

RP2. Keone Kela - RHP

9. Bryan Holaday - C

RP3. Jake Diekman - LHP