February 2012

Drinking The Kool-Aid

After 42 years of watching this game and being a fan of this team, there’s one thing I’ve learned about Spring Training: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

When a veteran player says he’s in the best shape of his life, don’t believe it. When coaches say so and so has been the best pitcher in camp thus far, don’t mentally pencil him in to your starting five for the season. Most of all, when you hear great things about a rookie, resist the temptation, at all costs, of declaring him Rookie of the Year or even Cooperstown bound before he’s even played a regular season game.

Needless to say, I’ve learned how not to drink the Kool-Aid over the past 42 years. I’d much rather be pleasantly surprised by someone, like Mike Napoli in 2011, than bitterly disappointed, like with Rich Harden in 2010.

A few days ago, the Rangers coaches said Koji Uehara has had the best stuff of any pitcher in camp thus far. Uehara had an outstanding season with the Baltimore Orioles in 2011. He had a terrible end of season with the Texas Rangers in 2011. He also kept the Rangers from trading him twice in the off-season. In other words, I don’t care how good Koji looks in camp right now. I’m not going to be a Koji fan until he pitches for Texas the way he did for Baltimore or he finally allows the Rangers to trade him.

Ditto Nelson Cruz. Yesterday, Nellie gave the often heard “I’m in the best shape of my life” speech and said he’s ready to put his hamstring problems behind him for good. Yes, I’ve read Nellie came to camp some 20 pounds leaner, that he did off-season workouts specifically to improve the durability of his hammies, etc. Again, I’ve learned. Cruz has had five DL trips over the past two seasons, all due to his hamstrings. I will not drink this Kool-Aid until Nellie appears in his 140th game of the regular season for the first time. Until then, I’m expecting at least on DL trip for him in 2012.

Yes, when it comes to Spring Training hype, I am known as Mr. Skeptic. So imagine my surprise, in the midst of all my disbelief, that somehow I am totally buying in to the man who has yet to throw a pitch in a major league game and is still a week away from throwing his first pitch in a Spring Training game. Yep, I am officially drinking the Yu Darvish Kool-Aid.

So when I listen to MLB Radio and hear Kevin Kennedy predicting a 13 win season for Darvish, I talk back to the radio and say, “You’re crazy!” When I hear commentators say it will be a rough transition to the American game, I call BS. And when I hear every Rangers minor league hitter who’s stood in against him at batting practice talk about what great stuff he has and how Darvish is going to win a lot of games for Texas, I buy it 100%. Not an ounce of disagreement in my mind.

Why? Because I trust the Rangers front office of Jon Daniels and his staff. They have been on a roll the last few years and I can’t see them committing this much money to an unproven MLB player if they weren’t pretty dang sure it was a good bet.

If Texas didn’t think Yu Darvish was going to perform better than CJ Wilson over the next six years, they would’ve made Wilson a much more substantial offer than they did. Will Darvish do better than Wilson in 2012? Maybe, maybe not. But if JD & Company think Yu will do better over the next six years than CJ, I believe it.

So when minor leaguer Ryan Stausberger says: “Faced #Darvish today. He’s got some wins in him for us this year”. And Jake Skole adds: “filthy stuff Awesome addition to #rangernation“. And when reports say he’s reaching out to bond with his teammates and working at fitting in instead of standing out? I buy it. 100%.

Put me squarely in the Darvish camp in 2012. Reports are he’s already talking to teammates in English. And Spanish. My last post was having fun with his Japanese tweets. Now he (or someone translating for him) is issuing tweets in English.

Will Darvish win more than 13 games for the Rangers, as Kennedy predicted? I think so. He may not win 20, but 15 is in reach. And here’s the REALLY weird thing. While I’m not willing venture much above 15 in predicted wins, I have had this funny feeling for weeks now that we may see a Darvish no-hitter sometime in 2012.

Yep, I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. I hope it tastes as sweet in October as it is right now.

Fun With Translations

Now that Yu Darvish is a Texas Ranger, it would be remiss for me to fail to do things like finding him online. Thus, your dedicated scribe now follows Yu Darvish on Twitter. Unfortunately, Yu only tweets in Japanese. But hey, Mike Napoli and Derek Holland are following him, so by God, I’m going to follow him too! That way I know there are members of his own team that have no idea what he’s saying either.

Just for fun, I decided to go to one of the translation services available online and plug in one of Yu’s tweets. If your computer reads Japanese characters, here is Yu’s most recent tweet:

今日から野手組も合流です。 今日の練習は軽めでした(^^) 午後ゆっくりしたかったので7時半には球場入って、トレーニングしました(^з^)‼

Since I’m a little low on funds, I went for the free translation service. Here’s what Yu said:

“Even the fielder set is join from today.   《主語なし》Today’s practice wa light was (^^) in the afternoon slowly wanted because 7 o’clock half into ball park enters, training did (^з^)? an/the I and it “

Aren’t you glad we could clear that up?

Best bet what Darvish was actually saying? Probably that there were players in the field for the first time today, it was a light practice for him, he arrived at 7 AM and faced three hitters throwing batting practice. But don’t quote me on that.

For more Yu, I also discovered his official blog today. You can find it here: http://ameblo.jp/darvish-yu-blog/ I believe you can press a button at the top of the page to get a mangled translation, which I guess is better than nothing.

By the way don’t forget to add your two cents to the poll on the right hand side of the page on how many games you think Darvish will win in 2012. The poll will remain on the site through Opening Day.

Last Yu tidbit: Darvish is set to make his spring debut March 7th. The game apparently will be available online through mlb.com, but I don’t know if it’ll be a free bonus game or only for those subscribing to their mlb.tv package.

How To Build A Team

Jamey Newberg’s been around for awhile. One of the first fans to start a web site for the like-minded, The Newberg Report is one of the daily must-reads for diehard Rangers fan and his season-ending bound copy of reports chronicling the Rangers’ season continues to sell more copies every year (I finally got my first bound copy for Christmas).

Now Jamey has released an e-book: “JD: Building the Team That Built a Winner”. It’s a look at the meteoric rise of Rangers’ GM Jon Daniels and how he built two teams, both on the field and in the front office, into winners.

It’s a fascinating read and a nice look into all the people it takes to make informed decisions, as well as what Daniels does so well that allows him to succeed at his job.

If you’re looking for dirt, wondering what REALLY happened in last year’s Michael Young trade demand fiasco or how the Rangers front office handled the revelations about manager Ron Washington’s failed drug test, you WON’T find it here. This is strictly a mini-book about how JD got his job, how he learned from his mistakes and built both his athletic and executive teams. One thing you WILL learn is all the work that went into scouting and acquiring Yu Darvish and why he’s a better bet to succeed than some may think.

It’s a good read and only $2.99, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. It’s available for download in a variety of downloadable formats for e-readers, iPads and Kindles. Rangers fan or baseball fan, it’s a good read. If you’d like to get a copy, click on the title to order “JD: Building The Team That Built A Winner.”

A Tale Of Two Halves

Thanks to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News for pointing this out…

At the outset of the 2011 season, I opined it would be a critical year for Derek Holland, that he needed to take it to the next level for the Rangers to have a chance at repeating.

Holland went 16-5 with a 3.95 ERA in 2011. Some have attributed the strong W-L record to A) his run support and B) facing the other team’s 4 & 5 starters most of the time.

Certainly the run support helped (6.5 Runs Per Game), but Dutch still earned most of those wins. Check out the first and second halves of Derek Holland in 2011:

April – July 2nd: 6 Wins, 4 Losses 100.2 IP,  39 W,  75 K,  5.10 ERA

July 7th – EOS: 10 Wins, 1 Loss 97.1 IP, 28 W, 87 K, 2.77 ERA

Holland also pitched 3 times in the post-season, going 2-0 with a 3.37 ERA, including a sterling performance in Game 4 of the World Series.

Dutch indeed took it to the next level in 2011. If he ups it another notch in 2012, the Rangers could boast two Aces in Holland and Yu Darvish.

Open Pitching Spots

A week or so ago, this space looked at the open position spots for the 2012 Rangers, not that there was much to discuss: 5th outfielder and utility infielder. Today, it’s time to look at the pitching staff, where things are a lot more interesting.

Going into camp, the Rangers have seven potential pitchers for only five starters spots: Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando, Scott Feldman and Neftali Feliz.

It seems to be a foregone conclusion at this time that the Rangers starting five come Opening Day will be Lewis, Holland, Darvish, Harrison and Feliz, with Feldman being the long man/spot starter and Ogando moving back to a set-up role in the bullpen.

However, Rangers brass has also announced Ogando will continue to be stretched out as a starter in Spring Training. This could be meaningless, as it could only be Back-Up Plan A: Ogando as starter if one of the first five goes on the DL to start the season. Maybe so, but it could also mean something this space has opined on before: the thought that Ogando could start the season as a starter to give Neftali Feliz a chance to get his feet wet as a starter at AAA Round Rock. Most disagree with me on this assessment, but Feliz still has all three of his option years available. It just makes sense to me. Why not let Feliz get used to being a starter at AAA where he doesn’t have the added burden of getting consistency on his secondary pitches while pitching meaningful games for a pennant contender? Once the front  office is convinced his secondary pitches are where they want them to be, bring him up. He’ll be ready.

Beyond that, the big battles in Spring Training will be for a precious few bullpen positions. With an expected pitching staff of 12 to start the season, that leaves seven relief openings. Feldman is pretty much set for the long role. Also guaranteed a spot on the roster are new closer Joe Nathan, set-up man Mike Adams and, since it looks like trade talks have broken down, set-up man Koji Uehara. That leaves only two openings if Ogando is in the pen come Opening Day, three if Texas lets Feliz start the year in AAA.

Candidates for those two openings include incumbents Mark Lowe and Yoshinori Tateyama, along with a number of pitchers who saw at least some time with the Rangers in 2011: Cody Eppley, Mark Hamburger and Michael Kirkman. Also in the mix are new 40-man roster additions Kelvin De La Cruz (acquired yesterday from Cleveland), Martin Perez (#36 on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 Prospects) and Neil Ramirez (#77 on the same list).

Of the newbies, the best bets to receive serious consideration are the lefties: De La Cruz, Perez and Kirkman. Of those three, Kirkman is at the most critical stage of his career. He only has one option remaining in 2012. Just two seasons ago, Kirkman’s change-up was rated among the best in the minors. He pitched critical innings down the stretch for the Rangers and made appearances in both the ALCS and World Series. 2011, however, was a disaster. Making the club out of Spring Training, the Angels torched him for six runs in 1 2/3 innings in his first appearance. After a month in AAA, Kirkman returned for a little over a month, still only managing a 5.82 ERA in ten appearances. Another trip to AAA, then back up for the September stretch run when he finally did a decent job. He struggled at Round Rock as well, compiling a 3-3 record and a 5.05 ERA.

Long story short: the Rangers would love to see the 2010 version of Michael Kirkman return and nail down the left-handed specialist role left open by the departure of Darren Oliver to Toronto. But he’s one of seven pitchers competing for at best three relief openings on this staff. This will be a fun battle to watch.

Beginning The Season Ramp-Up

Spring Training Tidbits:

1) Looks like Koji Uehara will remain a Ranger. GM Jon Daniels says talks have stalled on a Uehara trade package.

2) The Rangers acquired lefthander Kelvin De La Cruz from the Cleveland Indians and he became the 40th member of the Rangers’ 40-man roster. De La Cruz hasn’t pitched above AA, but held lefthanded hitters there to a .143 average in 2011. That makes him a candidate to be the Rangers’ LOOGY in 2012.

The Rangers' Japanese Mafia

3) Some unknown guy by the name of Darvish made his first appearance in Surprise, Arizona, tossing a bullpen session and joining fellow Japanese Mafia members Koji Uehara and Yoshinori Tateyama for a clubhouse picture. Reports are this Darvish fellow could make the big league roster out of Spring Training.

4) I’ve decided Jim Memelo on MLB Radio is a Rangers hater. Over the past two weeks, Memelo has called the Yu Darvish signing one of his “Most Questionable Moves” of the off-season. This morning, he ripped into Derek Holland for saying in an interview he didn’t think the Rangers were getting enough respect. Memelo said the Rangers didn’t do anything to make themselves better while other teams in the AL did. Well Jim, if you meant they didn’t plop down $200 million plus on Prince Fielder to replace Mitch Moreland at first, you’re certainly right there. Beyond that, it seems to me when you have a starting rotation listed by many publications as one of the top five in baseball, a bullpen expected to be one of the top three and an offense that’s the consensus number 1 in the game, you’re already sitting in a pretty good position.

5) For the first time, I purchased the Baseball Prospectus Pre-Season Guide with their PECOTA rankings of expected performance. Interesting read, but I was a bit puzzled. They stated at the outset they weren’t posting a ranking on Yu Darvish because, as of press time, the Rangers hadn’t signed him yet. I get that. But then, in their PECOTA ratings, they rank Neftali Feliz strictly as a reliever. This despite the fact the Rangers stated shortly after the World Series and long before going to print he was going to become a starting pitcher and there’d be no going back. Hard to believe that little nugget slipped by the bright minds at BP.

New Year, New Name

Long-term readers know this site’s original name was “World Series 40, Rangers Fan 0.”

It had a certain ring to it. A paean to being a fan of a team of lovable losers over a long period of time. Some readers said the title was what brought them to the blog in the first place.

When the original Senators made the World Series, the title naturally changed to “World Series 41, Rangers Fan 1″. It still showed the longevity while honoring the achievement of the Rangers’ first ever World Series appearance.

Another appearance later and the questions began, mostly asking when the title would be changed to “World Series 42, Rangers Fan 2.”

Problem is, keeping the theme going through the Rangers’ success seems to have taken away a little bit of the humor the original title had. For the Texas Rangers are now no longer lovable losers, they are annual contenders, with all indications that this ownership group is sincerely interested in making a long-term commitment to winning, something the Dallas-Fort Worth area has not seen on the baseball scene before.

So, in considering a new title for this small planet of the Internet Universe, I wanted to get back to something that not only conveyed who my favorite team is, but also managed to keep its sense of humor concerning my history of following them. Two World Series appearances in as many years is great, but not sealing the deal the past two years has been as frustrating as hoping for even a playoff appearance each of the 4o years previous to that.

With that in mind, this blog has a new name listed above, which I hope conveys that feeling almost as well as the original title did. And I thank you for your continued visits.

Countdown To Spring Training

The only recent news to report is the Rangers say they’ve reached their payroll budget limit and are “unlikely” to make any more changes headed into Spring Training a week hence.

If this is indeed the case, it means the Rangers will stay within the system to fill out the team. As constructed now, the only real issue is who will be the designated “Forgotten Man” of the offense, otherwise known as the Utility Infielder. For the last two seasons, Andres Blanco has been the Rangers’ Mr. Irrelevant and actually performed pretty well in the role, particularly in 2010 when he had to play on a regular basis towards the end of the season with Ian Kinsler on the DL. In 2010, though, Blanco’s role was a little more important.

In 2011, the role of the Utility Infielder was essentially one of filling in for Elvis Andrus on occasion, as Michael Young was expected to act as Kinsler’s back-up at 2nd, Adrian Beltre’s back-up at 3rd and Mitch Moreland’s back-up at first. This isn’t expected to change in 2012.

With no outside help on the immediate horizon, the odds right now are for Mr. Irrelevant to be Alberto Gonzalez (Career .242/.281/.317), signed to a minor league free agent contract in December. Gonzalez played all four infield positions for the Padres in 2011.

The only other offensive question is in center field, where Craig Gentry (.271/.347/.346 in 2011) apparently has been told he has a chance of getting the gig fulltime, instead of just as a platoon. I don’t see it. Gentry is a great defender and awesome base-stealer (a perfect 19 for 19 in 2011), but he doesn’t hit well against right-handers. If, however, the Rangers think Gentry can handle the load fulltime, it would allow minor league free agent signee Conor Jackson (career .271/.351/.407) to be the 5th outfielder, providing more potential power than someone like Julio Borbon could provide. I still think Borbon will stay as a platoon, unless he’s beaten out by Kyle Hudson, signed out of the Orioles system in January.

Either way, it’s only a temporary situation, for a year at best, until Leonys Martin is deemed ready for the majors. The Cuban defector signed a 5-year deal with Texas in 2011 and there’s no way the Rangers allow more than two years of that contract to be earned playing in the minors. Some folks in the know peg Martin as being with the Rangers no later than May or June of this season.

Those are the only two offensive openings on this entire team at this time. Next time, a look at the available openings on the pitching staff.

Advice For The Contract-Lorn

Dear Original Senators Fan,

    We are a talented group of young men. We have taken our team to nearly the pinnacle of team sports. During the off-season, we all expressed interest in staying with our employer for a long period of time. They say they’re interested in having us stay for a long period of time as well, yet here we are, about to start our work season, and none of us could come to a long-term contract agreement with our employer. What gives?

Sincerely,

Dutch, Nellie, Josh and Naps

Dear Confused Players,

    I agree with you, you are all very talented. I also agree that you are also young (at least compared to me) and therein lies your problem. Your youth tends to cloud your mind as to your worth and speaks volumes about our entitlement culture.

Dutch and Naps, I think you could indeed fit into your employer’s long-term plans. Your problem is you want to make a salary reserved for players who have consistently put up good numbers for years when you only have one good year to show so far. Granted, you both had very good years. Your employer would just like you to put up at least one more just like that before committing large sums of money over an extended period of time. Oh, and Dutch? It would be good if you did less of this in the future:

Nellie, there’s no question you can carry your team for two-week stretches at a time. The problem with you is two-fold. First, you’ve been on the DL five times in the past two years, every time due to hamstring pulls or strains. Then, when you return from the DL, you look worse than a Little Leaguer at the plate. You put up better numbers in 110 games than many players do in 150. You need to show your employer you can reach that many games just once.

Josh, you have the same problem as Nellie. Your employer would love to see you play 140 games a year instead of 110-120. Putting that aside, though, your employer has made you offers to guarantee a long career with them. You, however, are unwilling to give your employer a “home team discount”. And let me tell you, with the personal issues you have, you need to recognize your employer has bent over backwards to give you a support system designed to keep you on the straight and narrow. Many other employers wouldn’t consider doing that for you and many others aren’t going to pony up the dollars you think you deserve just because of your personal issues. My advice to you is recognize the good thing you have right now and act accordingly.

OSF

But You Still Have To Play The Games…

Now that most of the off-season moves have been made, and there’s time to waste before the start of Spring Training, projections have started coming out for the 2012 season.

Here’s what’s surprising. Just six weeks ago, the baseball world was abuzz over the Angels’ signing of both Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson. Talk was quick and almost unanimous in praise of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, their starting pitching core and what a difference Pujols will make in their offensive line-up. We heard many predictions of the Angels being the prohibitive favorites for the World Series in 2012.

Now, just six weeks later, Sports Illustrated has come out with their first Power Rankings of the season. Who’s at the top of the list? The Texas Rangers.

Clay Davenport, the co-founder of Baseball Prospectus, has released his 2012 projections as well. Who’s Davenport got pegged for the AL’s best record? The Texas Rangers, with a projected 96 wins. Where are the Angels? A projected 86 wins, ten games behind the Rangers. Coincidentally, that was the margin in the AL West a year ago.

What’s apparently being said here is Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz as a starter equals Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson in Angels red. At least on paper.

As the old saying goes, you still need to play the games. I would never peg the Rangers as a ten game favorite in the West in 2012. I still think Texas has the better offense, the better defense and the better bullpen, with a starting staff not that much behind LA. Still, I would peg the margin in the West this year as only about three games, with no guarantee the team from Arlington will be in first when it’s all over.

I also think if MLB adds the extra wild card team in 2012, both the Rangers and the Angels will make the playoffs. If it’s still only one Wild Card, it could be a dogfight between the second place teams in the AL West and the AL East.

Still, knowing the Rangers are still favored by a couple of well-respected sources even after the free agent splash of the Angels does this fan’s heart good.

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