SB Nation's 2010 MLB Previews: Texas Rangers, Dripping With Promise

Every day, from March 1st through March 30th, we will be posting a new team preview for the upcoming MLB season, written up by our excellent network of baseball bloggers. Follow this section for daily updates as you prepare yourself for the summer ahead. Team previews will be posted in ascending order of Las Vegas World Series odds. (NOTE: the Rockies and Rangers previews will be posted out of order.)

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SB Nation's 2010 MLB Previews: Texas Rangers, Dripping With Promise

By Adam Morris of Lone Star Ball

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Introduction

Let’s see.  The team’s most recognizable player is a recovering drug addict.  The manager just admitted testing positive for cocaine last year.  The team was forced to borrow money from MLB to stay afloat this past summer, and was unable to afford to sign its first round draft pick, because the owner over-leveraged the club to buy a soccer team; the owner then, after much stalling and delay, agreed to sell the team, although that is being held up because the owner’s creditors feel they aren’t getting enough money from the sale.  The team’s Opening Day starter from 2009, their nominal ace, was traded, with the club paying another team to take him off their hands.  One of the team’s key offseason signings announced on the eve of spring training he wouldn’t be showing up because he was suffering from anxiety.

Yep, it was just another offseason for the Texas Rangers, the team that might just be the weirdest franchise in MLB.

Position Players

C – Jarrod Saltalamacchia
1B – Chris Davis
2B – Ian Kinsler
3B – Michael Young
SS – Elvis Andrus
LF – Josh Hamilton
CF – Julio Borbon
RF – Nelson Cruz
DH – Vlad Guerrero

Bench – Taylor Teagarden (backup C), David Murphy (4th outfielder), and a utility infielder and righthanded bench bat to be determined.

Gone are the days when the Ranger lineup was a collection of big bats with questionable gloves.  The Rangers in 2009 jumped back into playoff contention because of a dramatic improvement in their team defense, while falling short of the postseason because of an inability to score runs, particularly in late August and early September.

The double play combination of Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is strong – Elvis had a dynamic rookie season, flashing incredible defensive skills while not being overmatched at the plate as a 20 year old rookie, while Kinsler had a streaky 2009 that saw him reach the 30/30 mark while being hounded once again by the injury bug.  Kinsler is a potential MVP candidate, if he can stay healthy and avoid the extended slumps that seem to plague him, while Andrus is a guy who appears to be poised to be one of the premier defensive shortstops in the league for the next 15 years.

On the corners, the Rangers have the reliable vet, Michael Young, and the enigma, Chris Davis.  Young balked at moving to third last season, but ended up having a resurgent offensive year, while showing improvement in his glovework as the season went on.  Davis, meanwhile, earned kudos for his defense at first base, but had an apocalyptically bad first half with the bat, striking out a historic rate before being demoted in July.  Davis seemed to get straightened out in AAA, hitting much more like he did in 2008, when he had folks seeing 50 homer potential, and was decent upon his return to the majors in mid-August.  But whether the Ranger offense rebounds in 2010 depends a lot on Davis.

The other guy the Rangers need a bounceback season from is Josh Hamilton, who went from MVP candidate to oft-injured, and not very good when not injured, disappointment in 2009.  He’s moving to left field from center to make room for Julio Borbon, who will be hitting leadoff for the Rangers in 2010.  Borbon was largely limited to DH duty last season, but he energized the team with his speed while getting on base at a good clip, and the feeling is that his range in centerfield should help upgrade the Ranger outfield defense.  Nelson Cruz in right field, meanwhile, is one of the Rangers' more underappreciated players, a guy who was named to the All Star team at the same time he was being benched, who is ripped by casual fans for his defense despite advanced defensive stats indicating he is very good in right field, someone whose power and speed result in plaudits while his mental errors on the basepaths evoke moans.

Along with first base, DH was a weak spot for the Rangers in 2009, something that they are hoping to solve by getting notorious Ranger killer Vladimir Guerrero into town.  Guerrero is a future Hall of Famer, of course, but last year was a definite off-year, as he looked old and slow.  He can’t do much of anything in the field anymore, but the early reports from Arizona are that Guerrero’s bat appears to still have some life in it, and if Guerrero can be anything close to his old self, it would be a huge boost for a team that needs more productivity from the middle of its lineup.

Rotation

Rich Harden
Scott Feldman
Colby Lewis
Tommy Hunter
Brandon McCarthy, or Matt Harrison, or Derek Holland, or maybe C.J. Wilson

It is a strange feeling for a Rangers fan…Texas has a #1 starter who actually has #1 starter caliber stuff and results (if not #1 starter medical history), several guys behind him who evoke a certain amount of confidence, and several pitchers vying for the #5 spot who, in years past, would probably be penciled in as the #3 or #4 starter.

Rich Harden, everyone knows, is the former Oakland stud who burst on the scene, looked like the latest A’s ace, and then struggled with injuries before being traded to the Cubs.  Harden has actually started the same number of games the past two seasons – 51 – as John Lackey, his fellow free agent who got a huge guaranteed deal from Boston.  Texas would likely take 25 starts and 150 innings from him, as long as he’s ready to go in Game 1 of a playoff series.

The next three starters are all similar – innings-eating strike-throwers, guys who aren’t going to whiff a bunch of hitters, but who are going to throw strikes, rely on their cutter, and let the defense do the work.  Lewis is something of a wild card, a former phenom who flamed out in Texas, went over to Japan, and had two terrific years, reinventing himself as a pitcher rather than a flamethrower.  His stats in Japan are outstanding – he struck out about a batter an inning while hardly walking anyone – although some believe that American hitters will make Lewis pay if he’s as aggressive in throwing strikes here as he was in Japan.

The fifth starter battle is fascinating, in no small part because of the addition of C.J. Wilson to the mix.  Wilson, who has been a key cog in the bullpen the past several years, was promised a shot at the rotation this year by Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels, but was told he would have to show he was one of the team’s two best starters for the organization to feel comfortable moving him out of the pen.  He’s impressed so far in camp, but so have his competitors.  Brandon McCarthy, who has been good, not great, when healthy since coming to Texas, but has spent too little time being healthy, appears to have the edge, and he’s expanding his repertoire by adding the cut fastball that has become all the rage among Ranger pitchers.  Matt Harrison has come back from TOS surgery throwing in the mid-90s, while Derek Holland is hanging around, trying not to be overlooked by just being one of best young lefty arms in baseball.  Whoever wins this job isn’t going to back into it…

Bullpen

Frankie Francisco (Closer)
Darren Oliver
Darren O’Day
Chris Ray
Dustin Nippert
C.J. Wilson (if he’s not in the rotation)
Neftali Feliz

Right now, the bullpen looks fairly settled, with Frankie Francisco returning as the closer, C.J. Wilson handling the setup role, Darren Oliver and Darren O’Day filling the middle relief roles, Neftali Feliz and Chris Ray being the power righty arms who can offer an inning or two when you need Ks, and Dustin Nippert as the long man.

Wilson’s possible move to the rotation, however, complicates matters, and could open the door for someone like Harrison, Holland, or Rule 5 pick Ben Snyder to step into the bullpen as the second lefty.  McCarthy could also slide to the bullpen if he doesn’t stick in the rotation, possibly bumping Ray or Feliz.  In the meantime, Luis Mendoza, who is out of options, Guillermo Moscoso, Doug Mathis, and recent converts to pitching Warner Madrigal and Pedro Strop are hanging around the edges, waiting for a shot.

In The System

The Rangers were the #1 farm system in baseball in 2009, according to Baseball America.  This year, despite graduating Derek Holland, Julio Borbon, and Elvis Andrus from the list, the Rangers have the #2 farm system, according to BA.  The system is deep and has some guys on the horizon who could make an impact.

Justin Smoak is one of the guys to keep an eye on…the Rangers’ 2008 draft pick, a switch-hitting first baseman with plate discipline and good power, is thought to be close to major league ready, and if Davis or Guerrero struggle, Smoak could get a call up to step in.  Mitch Moreland is another option there, a sleeper prospect who was a 17th round pick who also pitched, but who has simply hit at every level since turning pro.  He’s a defensive liability wherever he is, but he looks like he could be a quality righty bat.

That same description could possibly be applied to Max Ramirez.  Technically a catcher, Ramirez will probably be relegated to first base or DH in the majors.  He had a lost season in 2009, but Ramirez has a track record of hitting, and whether he’s in Texas or goes elsewhere, he’s someone who many think is going to hit well enough in the majors to hold down a job.

The biggest help in the system, though, comes from the waves of arms that are available to the Rangers.  Their top pitching prospect, Martin Perez, is only 18 years old, but there’s already talk of the lefty possibly coming up in September.  The pitchers that don’t win the 5th starter battle will likely start the season in AAA, where they’ll provide additional depth.  Texas also has Eric Hurley coming back from injury, Kasey Kiker as a potential lefty arm out of the bullpen, and the guys in the bullpen mix discussed above who will be in Oklahoma, waiting for an opportunity.

The Rangers are well positioned to get help in one of a couple of ways from the system.  First, particularly among the pitching staff, if someone goes down, there should be two or three viable candidates to step in and fill in.  Secondly, if the team needs to add a key piece at the trade deadline, they should have the ammunition in terms of young talent to be able to make a deal.

Miscellaneous

This is a weird, unpredictable team right now.  Nolan Ryan said that if everyone is healthy and things go right, the team should win 92 games.  I’d agree with that…but there are a lot of question marks out there.  Health questions surround Harden, Hamilton, Guerrero and Kinsler.  Andrus and Borbon are young players who have to play key roles.  Davis and the catchers have to show they can hit enough to play at the major league level.  Lewis has to show that he can succeed in the U.S.  A bunch of young pitchers have to show they are major league ready.

This is a team loaded with high-beta players, which makes it hard to predict how things will shake out.  This team could win 95 games or 79 games, and I wouldn’t be shocked either way.

Conclusion

Vegas has its doubts about the Rangers, and who can blame them?  The Rangers are a punch line, an ongoing gag, a team that has never won a playoff series.  Hell, they haven’t even been in the playoffs since Bill Clinton was president.

The odds don’t seem unreasonable to me.  This is a team that has been erratic, that has underachieved, for a decade now.  They seem poised to break through, particularly to those of us who have been watching them build to this point, but really, I can’t blame any outsider for wanting to see something more before they start believing.

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