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Nelson Cruz: Lone Star Fulcrum

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Stephen Dunn

Texas right fielder Nelson Cruz has been implicated in a drug scandal, and Randy Galloway thinks the club shouldn't wait around to see what happens next ...

If I'm Nolan Ryan, if I'm Jon Daniels, then I'm privately moving ahead by immediately subtracting Nelson Cruz from the Rangers' 2013 opening-season plans.

Nellie is going down. Going down for 50 games.

Where's my proof? My proof doesn't matter. It's Cruz who had better have the proof, and have an air-tight alibi, if he's going to skate on this one.

And if Nellie goes down, thus continues a winter of baseball hell in Arlington, during which a good organization has repeatedly gone sideways, or worse yet, backward.


It's a questionable batting order even with Nellie. Take him out of right field for 50 games, and it's a pathetic batting order.

If Cruz goes down, what's the front-office answer?

At the moment, it's difficult to figure what the next best move would be.

But if I'm Daniels, or if I'm Ryan, I'm already subtracting those 50 games for Nellie. And the scramble to replace him would begin immediately.

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Let's look at the Rangers' off-season changes so far, shall we?

DH - minus Michael Young, plus Lance Berkman
Catcher - minus Mike Napoli, plus A.J. Pierzynski
Center Field - minus Josh Hamilton, plus Leonys Martín

Everything else is roughly the same, with prospects Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt should be lurking about, making a few of the veterans nervous. For the loss of Cruz for 50 games to make the Rangers' hitting attack pathetic, it would have already be very nearly pathetic. So let's start with those changes before we draw any hasty conclusions ...

We don't know how well Berkman's going to play. The Big Puma was fantastic in 2011 but hardly played in 2012. Even at 37, he figures to hit well enough when he's healthy, but it's impossible to know how healthy he'll be. But the Rangers' DH's -- again, mostly Michael Young -- were pretty awful last season, ranking well below average once you've figured in park effects (more on that later). I'm inclined to think that some combination of Berkman, Olt, and whoever else is hanging around will improve the position, at least slightly.

Napoli started only 102 games last season, and only 69 of those behind the plate. Yorvit Torrealba and Geovany Soto caught most of the rest of the time, and were essentially zeroes at the plate. As a result, Texas's catchers were around the middle of the league pack, hitting-wise, actually a little worse with park effects. Pierzynski's 27 homers last season came out of nowhere and won't be seen again, but he's still significantly better than Torrealba and Soto; the former is gone, the latter slated for platoon duties. The Rangers might miss Napoli, but the off-season maneuverings leave the club roughly where they were before. Purely in terms of production from their catchers.

Which leaves only center field, where Leonys Martín should get most of the at-bats that would otherwise have gone to Josh Hamilton. Hamilton's probably overrated a little bit -- remember what people were saying about him last May? -- but the Rangers are certainly going to miss him. Martín might be really good, though. Last year in 55 Triple-A games, he posted a .359/.422/.610 line. In The Bill James Handbook, Martín's projection includes a relatively modest .286/.340/.451 line. Obviously, Martín, for all his potential, is no Hamilton.

It seems to me that center field is the only position where the Rangers figure to take a big hit.

What's their baseline? Last season the Rangers led the American League with 808 runs (just a smidge ahead of the Yankees). But as you probably know, Rangers Ballpark is quite friendly to yon hitters; over the last three seasons, it's probably been the hitter-friendliest stadium in yon American League. Would you be interested to learn that the Rangers finished just sixth in the league in road scoring last season? That they scored fewer runs in their road games than the Mariners?

Ah, but that's also misleading. The Rangers' 740 road OPS was actually third-best in the league. Well behind the Angels and Yankees (both 774) but well ahead of the No. 4 Rays.

Yes, that is misleading. The Rangers were undone by their relatively unimpressive on-base percentage, and also by some unfortunate baserunning. But I think it's fair to suggest the Rangers were one of the five best hitting teams in the American League last season.

Would the loss of Josh Hamilton drop them from Top 5 to nearly pathetic. Nah, I doubt it. But let's wind this thing up with one last bit of instanalysis* ...

* ©

If the Rangers lose Nelson Cruz for 50 games -- and there's nothing like a guarantee they will -- they'll be losing a player who was roughly one-and-a-half wins better, last season, than a good Triple-A hitter. Over the whole season, which means his absence for a third of the season makes the Rangers, on paper, one-half of a win worse than they were a year ago.

One half of a win. Even if they were very nearly pathetic, losing Cruz for 50 games wouldn't drop them to pathetic. In fact, the Rangers have enough hitting talent ticketed for the bench that they might not miss Cruz at all. To say nothing of the improvement in their team defense (which does count, by the way).

Yes, the Rangers are probably better with Nelson Cruz than without him. And yes, they're definitely better with Michael Bourn than without him. But the Rangers have not had a particularly bad winter, and the suspension or non-suspension of Nelson Cruz is not likely to make a big difference in their season.