Talking Rangers on BBA Live! 03/10

I was pleased to take part in last night’s edition of BBA Live, the podcast of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance. Life after Yu, Roogie Odor and Derek Holland were among the topics. Give it a listen when you have a chance!
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/mets-public-record/2015/03/11/bba-live

When Life Give You Lemons, Discuss The Lemonade

Darvish Fist PumpBy now, even the average baseball fan is aware that Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish is, at minimum, out for at least half the season with a strained ulnar collateral ligament and more likely gone for the season and headed for Tommy John surgery.

The response was immediate and expected from the Rangers faithful: already the 2015 season is gone. Kaput. Doomed. A 67-95 team already down its best pitcher? How could the response be any different?

How about this for a response: Losing Darvish most certainly DOES hurt but it doesn’t mean the Rangers should automatically be picked to occupy the AL West cellar for the second consecutive year.

All one has to do is compare this year’s Rangers pitching staff to the one that began the 2014 season to feel just a little bit better about things. Remember, a year, the Rangers already knew Derek Holland was already out until after the All-Star break at the earliest. Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison weren’t penciled into the rotation until the end of April at the earliest. Then Darvish himself came down with a stiff neck and got scratched from the Opening Day start as a precaution. Thus, we had a Rangers starting rotation of Tanner Scheppers, Martin Perez, Robbie Ross, Joe Saunders and Nick Martinez. Perez was beginning just his second major league season, Ross and Scheppers were transitioning from the bullpen and Martinez had never pitched above the AA level before. The rotation member with the most major league service was Saunders and everyone knew he was a #5 starter at best.

Compare that to the expected rotation without Darvish to start 2015- Derek Holland, Yovani Gallardo, Colby Lewis, Ross Detwiler and one of Martinez, Nick Tepesch and Anthony Ranaudo, obtained from the Red Sox for Robbie Ross. Or none of those three could be #5, replaced by Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez, the Rangers’ #3 prospect behind Joey Gallo and Jorge Alfaro. Gonzalez threw three shutout innings against the A’s just today (3/9) in an exhibition game.

When the news on Darvish came down, a lot of doom and gloom came down from fans, particularly on Twitter. Sure, it was understandable but those fans didn’t expect this: Derek Holland replied to some of them. Dutch basically said, “Oh, so the other 24 members of the team don’t matter?” “You think the rest of us should just give up?” It was a great response, especially from Holland.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers

Dutch has always had a label: good stuff, inconsistent and he’s a goof. Anyone who’s paid attention to Holland since he came back from knee microsurgery in September last year should note the difference in the public Derek Holland. He still likes to have fun but he’s also let everyone know how he isn’t satisfied how his career has gone so far (51-38 with a 4.38 ERA). Dutch was often scolded by former manager Ron Washington when he let his focus slide. Now you hear him talking about stepping up and being the ace if he has to, how he’s striving for more consistency. If Holland’s performance changes and matches the new intensity he’s showing, Rangers fans could be in for a very big surprise this season.

Add to Dutch the newly acquired Yovani Gallardo. He’s an innings eater, a former ace and someone whose new focus on getting groundouts instead of strikeouts plays right into Globe Life Park. Colby Lewis showed in the season’s second half he’ll be the same reliable starter he was in 2010 and 2011. Detwiler was a decent 9-8, 3.58 as a starter for the Nationals in 2012.

Without Darvish, the Rangers rotation will never be confused as one of the best in the American League. It won’t even be the best in the AL West. It is, however, still better than the rotation the Rangers threw out there most of the 2014 season.

Looking Ahead To 2015: Bench

In 2011, Andres Blanco was Mr. Irrelevant. Blanco, signed at the end of Spring Training in 2010, was just what the Rangers needed in their first World Series run. Second baseman Ian Kinsler was on the disabled list on two separate occasions and, especially the second time, Blanco played steady defense and contributed some key hits as the Rangers steamrolled their way to an AL West title, their first since 1999.

In 2011, Blanco was still around, but Kinsler stayed healthy, as did shortstop Elvis Andrus. Blanco was with the club the entire season but played in only 36 games, only half of which were starts, getting only 76 at bats the entire season and, in one stretch, went 25 says between game appearances. The Rangers sported a potent 11-player line-up that year. Michael Young acted as a “Super Utility” player and Blanco’s services were seldom needed. He was not even placed on the post-season roster, though he did get a share of the post-season money.

Fast forward now to 2015. Our last spotlight looks at the Rangers bench. Like most teams, Texas will have four men on the bench to start every game. Once upon a time, teams carried 15 offensive players and 10 pitchers on the 25-man roster. This was back in the day of the 4-man rotation and before the era of the Designated Hitter. Now most teams have 12 man pitching staffs, leaving room for only 13 hitters.

For most teams, the bench consists of a second catcher, a utility infielder and two outfielders. The only position definitely filled on the Rangers bench is Carlos Corporan as the second catcher. His acquisition from Houston was for the express purpose of being Robinson Chirinos’ back-up. Beyond Corporan, the picture is murky. Here are some of the contenders:

Infield

If there’s such a thing as a utility incumbent, it would be Adam Rosales. He provided some pop with the bat and can play just about any position on the infield. Last year, he offered up a .262/.328/.378 slash line with 4 home runs in 56 games. Rosales won’t just be given the job, though. There are several other contenders out there looking to grab the pine for more than 50% of the Rangers’ games. There’s Kyle Blanks, a corner infielder/outfielder who showed promising power for the Padres but injuries have slowed him down the last few years. He’s already behind the other players in camp as he’s still getting over issues with both feet. Elliot Johnson has played with Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Atlanta and Cleveland in five major league seasons. He offers more speed on the basepaths than Rosales. In 2013 he was successful on 22 of 24 steal attempts and twice swiped 43 in the minors. Ed Lucas is another candidate. Just two years ago he played in 94 games with the Miami Marlins, and in both of his seasons there played all four infield positions as well as a few games in the outfield. His versatility gives him a shot. In fact, all three candidates here have played both the infield and the outfield in their major league careers, but it’s likely they won’t play much in the outfield. A very longshot candidate would be Tommy Field, a minor league free agent pick-up who played college ball for Texas State in San Marcos. Field has had a couple of cups of coffee in the bigs with Colorado and the Los Angeles Angels but doesn’t offer the versatility, having never played first base. His signing was more for minor league depth than a serious look at helping the big league club.

Outfield

This got covered a lot in the look at the left field battle. As mentioned in that post, there are no less than ten candidates vying for the left field starter position and there’s no doubt the 4th and 5th outfielders will come from that group. You can read that post here. Since the Rangers were so injury-prone a year ago, I’m guessing the Rangers brass would really like to see the positions filled by the home-grown talent that hasn’t had injury issues, such as Michael Choice and Ryan Rua, both of whom could outright win the left field battle. Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields Jr. is in the mix as his Rule 5 status requires him to be with the club all year or be offered back to the Astros for $25,000. Ryan Ludwick’s recovery from shoulder issues also will play a factor. Again, the club wants reasonable assurances of health so Ludwick has to show he is a productive and healthy player again. Jake Smolinski is also in the mix.

Conclusion

The question is, what is Jeff Bannister looking for in his club? If he thinks the Rangers’ best chances to win include speed, Elliot Johnson and Delino DeShields both have great opportunities to earn roster spots. If Banny wants for bang from the bats, the likes of Rosales, Choice and Ludwick become the favorites. And don’t count out another player getting signed at the end of Spring Training to put all of them out of a job. It’s how Blanco and Matt Treanor became Rangers in 2010 and it could happen again in 2015.

One nice thing to add to the Rangers bench without costing an offensive roster spot? Yovani Gallardo, the #3 starter acquired from the Brewers, is a good hitting pitcher, with 12 home runs in an 8-year career. He loves to hit and Bannister will almost certainly use him as a pinch hitter on occasion. Not many American League teams have that luxury.

Looking Ahead To 2015: The Bullpen

There is nothing harder in baseball than putting together a good bullpen. No matter what team you’re a fan of, you’re sure to remember the year the lights-out bullpen that ended up being one of the league’s worse. Conversely, many a team has gone to the playoffs when a little-regarded bullpen suddenly became dominant.

Unless your name is Rivera, closers can go from 45 saves one year to 15 the next with said closer replaced by another 100-mph fireballing phenom in mid-season.

Neftali Feliz

Neftali Feliz

Look at the Texas Rangers. In their World Series years of 2010-2011, the bullpen was one of the team’s strengths. Neftali Feliz replaced Frank Francisco just a week into the 2010 campaign as closer and rode that train for two years. Darren O’Day was a waiver claim who had an incredible 2010. On the other hand, Koji Uehara should have been the final bullpen piece when the Rangers acquired him at the deadline in 2011. He pitched so poorly for Texas he was left off the World Series roster. A year later he was dominant again and now he’s the closer for the Red Sox.

Year to year consistency in the bullpen is the toughest thing to acquire. Among the many ills for the Rangers in 2014, the bullpen was one of them.

Under the circumstances, one could make a case that the Rangers relief corps kept the team from finishing worse than 67-95. While not as formidable as earlier years, they were overall middle of the pack in the American League in contributing a 4.0 WAR. Much of that came early in the season, when the pen consisted of veterans like Jason Frasor and Joakim Soria, both of whom got sent packing at the trade deadline to pennant contenders. And, while the WAR was decent, the Rangers were a piddling 13th in Saves and 11th in Holds.

General Manager Jon Daniels has a philosophy when it comes to bullpens. The main mantra is “Save your money”. Outside of closer, you’ll seldom see Texas spend any substantial dollars on relievers. The aforementioned Frasor pitched two years in Texas, both times on 1-year contracts. Same with recently departed Neal Cotts. Occasionally Daniels will spring for a 2-year deal. Outside of O’Day, those get reserved for proven closers (Joe Nathan, Soria).

Daniels does like to gamble a little with the bullpen. He’s constantly acquiring relievers with big league experience but got released by other clubs due to injury. Success stories include Cotts and Soria, but there have also been busts, such as Nate Adcock and Kyle McLellan. But what the heck, they didn’t cost much money so do real harm there. Daniels mixes these low risk, high reward veterans with young bucks from the farm system whose contracts are under club control for the foreseeable future. It’s worked pretty well during the Daniels regime and it’s what the Rangers once again looking at in 2015.

Tanner Scheppers

Tanner Scheppers

The Knowns

What is certain for the Rangers is the closer will be Neftali Feliz, back in the role of his greatest success during the World Series years. Feliz missed most of 2013 to Tommy John surgery and moved back to closer in 2014 after Soria got traded to the Tigers. His velocity isn’t what it once was but he says he finally has most of the zip back.

Texas hopes the 8th inning set-up man will be last year’s Opening Day starter, Tanner Scheppers. Feliz, Scheppers and the departed Robbie Ross were the final nails in the coffin that was Texas trying to convert relievers into starters. It worked once with CJ Wilson but failed miserably with the other three. Scheppers and Feliz are now okay with their roles. Scheppers was the best set-up man in the AL in 2013 and the Rangers are hoping he’ll return to form.

Shawn Tolleson was one of Daniels’ low risk, high reward signings a year ago. Coming back from Tommy John, Tolleson was a respectable 2.76 ERA in 64 appearances and 71.2 innings pitched with 69 K’s. He was a little homer prone, giving up 10 dingers. Tolleson will be the 7th inning reliever. Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux is already saying Tolleson looks better in the early going of camp than he did all of last season.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Texas Rangers

Shawn Tolleson

The Unknowns

Four more spots are open in the bullpen and be assured whoever starts the season is in no way guaranteed of being there in September. Among the farmhands, the hopefuls include Alex Claudio, Phil Klein, Spencer Patton and Jon Edwards, who all got a taste of the bigs with the Rangers in the last month of the 2014 season.

A young heat thrower who hasn’t reached the major league level yet is Keone Kela, but he isn’t considered a factor in Arlington until later in the season at the earliest.

Joining the competition are those LRHR players Daniels loves, including Kyuji Fujikawa, Japan’s all-time saves leader whose move to America and the Cubs resulted in yet another Tommy John surgery; Juan Carlos Oviedo who, when pitching as Leo Nunez, saved 113 games from 2009-2011 with the Florida Marlins; and ageless veteran Jamey Wright, back with the Rangers for the second time in a career that has spanned 19 years and 10 different teams.

The most thankless job in the bullpen is long reliever. A pitcher in that role might go two weeks between appearances, then be asked to make a spot start two days after throwing 2 1/3 innings in a game. Veteran Scott Baker admirably filled that role for the Rangers last year and it’s a darn shame nobody has signed him for 2015.

For the Rangers, the likely long man is whoever the last man out is in the competition for the #5 starter. At this writing, the prediction would be for either Ross Detwiler, Nick Tepesch or Nick Martinez to fill that role.

Conclusion

Bullpens are more works in progress than any other part of a ball club. No matter the predictions here, out of the seven member relief corps that starts the season, odds are good three of them will be gone by season’s end. If Texas can improve on last year’s 4.0 WAR pen, they’ll be a playoff contender.

 

 

Looking Ahead To 2015: Starting Rotation

image_20121221102423Here’s the most telling stat on how the Texas Rangers fell from a perennial playoff team with 90 wins to the 67-95 mess of 2014: Texas used THREE complete starting rotations in one year.

That’s right, 15 different pitchers got at least one start for the Rangers in 2014. If a member of the rotation never misses a start, he’s on track to make 32 or 33 starts. For Texas, not a single starter managed even 30 starts and the pitcher who had the most starts, 29, didn’t even play in 2013, was coming back from hip replacement surgery and posted a 6.54 ERA after his first 16 starts.

Yes, 2014 was a disaster from the get go for the Rangers pitching staff. It began before Spring Training even arrived, with Derek Holland messing up his knee in a home accident involving a flight of stairs and his dog. Thanks to a stiff neck, ace Yu Darvish got scratched from the Opening Day assignment and replaced by Tanner Scheppers, making his first ever major league start. Among the names getting a start in 2014 were Robbie Ross (12), Miles Mikolas (10), Scott Baker (8), Joe Saunders (8), Lisalverto Bonilla (3), Jerome Williams (2) and Phil Irvin (1).

More well-known names started but fell by the wayside. Second-year Martin Perez threw back to back complete game shutouts in April, then went down for the dreaded Tommy John surgery in May. Matt Harrison appeared on the comeback trail from back issues and thoracic outlet surgery, but lasted only four starts before back issues resurfaced. His career is in jeopardy. Lastly, Darvish began experiencing elbow discomfort and wound up making only 22 starts before calling it a season.

So why is there so much hope in Arlington this year? Believe it or not, it starts with starting pitching. A year ago, the lack of depth in the minors contributed to the poor performance of the pitching staff. This year, two guys who made over 20 starts for Texas a year ago aren’t even sure if they’ll make the team for the Season Opener. Here’s the rotation as we know it:

Darvish Fist Pump#1: Yu Darvish

There’s no question Darvish is the ace of the staff. On any given night, there’s the potential for greatness. Darvish has the biggest arsenal of pitches most anyone has seen. At any given time, a hitter can expect one of 8 to 10 different types of pitches. Yu is temperamental and will often shelve a pitch for good in the first inning if he feels it isn’t working that day. Still, he’s good for 15 wins or more for the season.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers#2: Derek Holland

It was Dutch who suffered the first injury going into 2014. If the results he showed upon his return in September continue in 2015, this could be a special year for the lefthander. Holland made five starts down the stretch in 2014 and posted a 2-0 record with a 1.46 ERA, going seven innings in four of the five starts and giving up two earned runs or less in all of them. Holland has been inconsistent throughout his big league career but his 4-0 win over the Cardinals in Game 4 of the 2011 World Series ranks as one of the best performances in Rangers history. He’s got the stuff. By all accounts, last year’s injury has upped his desire. If Derek gets consistency, he could easily add another 15 wins to the Rangers total.

Yovani Gallardo#3: Yovani Gallardo

Gallardo is the new kid in town, a guy who lives in Fort Worth in the off-season and now truly gets to plays his home games at home. Gallardo is an innings eater and, as he’s gotten older, has become more of a ground ball pitcher than a strikeout machine. Ask Matt Harrison and CJ Wilson how that ground ball thing works out in Arlington. There’s reason for excitement about having at least a year of Gallardo (he becomes a free agent at season’s end). He was once the ace of the Milwaukee Brewers staff. Now he’s a #3. That’s something to feel good about.

Working For The Weekend: Rangers 4-8, Tigers 8-4#4: Colby Lewis

It’s incredible to believe that Colby Lewis led the Rangers staff in starts with 29 in 2014. As mentioned above, this is a guy who didn’t even play a game in 2013. After blowing out an elbow near the end of the 2012 season, Lewis’ arthritic hip added to his woes,  finally getting to the point where his career was in jeopardy. After getting his hip shaved, Lewis began a long rehab process. As much as a thank you for his contributions during the World Series years as anything, Lewis got the chance to rehab in the minors. Who knew the injuries on the big league club would bring him back to Texas in mid-April. The results weren’t good the first half of the season. Just looking at box scores and statistics, one might think Lewis merely suffered from bad luck from the BABIP gods but those of us actually watching the games knew differently. Colby got shelled often. His pitches weren’t fooling anyone and he wasn’t hitting his spots. Remember, though, this is a guy who was still getting used to pitching without pain when putting pressure on the hip. Once he started getting used to it, the results were outstanding. From July 19 on, Lewis was only 4-8 but his ERA was 3.86. The BABIP through July 18 was .410. The rest of the way it was .267. Now Texas has the fully rehabbed Lewis for a full season and as their #4 starter instead of #2.

#5: Up For Grabs

This is the reason for optimism about the Rangers. A former #1 is now a #3, the former #2 is now the #4 and two of the guys fighting for the last spot were the #3 and #4 pitchers a year ago. This bodes well for the Rangers. It certainly gives them more depth than they had a year ago. Nick Tepesch (5-11, 4.36) and Nick Martinez (5-12, 4.55) are the incumbents. Martinez was here by necessity a year ago after never having pitched above AA all year. Despite staying all year, he’d surely benefit by at least beginning the year at AAA. For Tepesch, this is his third year with the Rangers. He needs to show improvement, particularly in facing the opposition batting order the second and third time. He still has at least one option so he could also go to AAA for a while. Martinez and Tepesch will compete with Lisalverto Bonilla, who pitched decently in three starts, newcomers Ross Detwiler (Nationals) and Anthony Ranaudo (Red Sox) and possibly top prospect Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez. Some have Gonzalez pegged as a possible surprise winner, but GM Jon Daniels would like to get him some more seasoning and not rush him. Before the first exhibition game is in the books, Detwiler and Tepesch are the likely front-runners.

In The Wings

He isn’t available until after the All-Star break at the earliest but Martin Perez will be ready to pitch again this season. Meanwhile, there’s no telling what will happen with Matt Harrison. Nobody has ever attempted to return from the type of back surgery he had. Harrison could come back or his career could be over. If it’s the latter, he can retire knowing he was a vital part of two World Series teams.

No matter how you slice it, this is a much deeper starting rotation than the Rangers had a year ago. It may not stack up in quality to the Mariners rotation or even the A’s but it has the potential of being a very good staff, not to mention one able to withstand an injury or two.

Looking Ahead To 2015: Designated Hitter

There have been some great Designated Hitters in the history of baseball. David Ortiz is the first to come to mind in the here and now. Others have included Edgar Martinez, Don Baylor, Jim Thome and Frank Thomas. When the DH was first introduced, it appeared it would be the domain of aging sluggers whose best defensive years were behind them or young sluggers whose defense was shoddy at best.

As a fan, I used to want one of those sluggers in my team’s line-up, that team being the Texas Rangers. Even today, there’s a clamor among Rangers fans for Prince Fielder to transition to DH so we don’t have to put up with his lack of range as a first baseman. I no longer subscribe to that theory. The Rangers first foray into the World Series in 2010 put an end to my thinking that way.

Vladimir Guerrero

Vladimir Guerrero

In 2010, the Rangers had future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero as their Designated Hitter. It was a match made in heaven. Here was a quality power hitter whose knees could no longer take the regular pounding of playing in right field every day. Vlad’s one year with Texas was superb: a .300/.345/.496 slash line with 29 home runs and 115 RBI. Guerrero slumped in September but rebounded a little in the playoffs with a .267 average, 3 doubles and 4 RBI in 11 games. Then came the World Series.

The problem with having your everyday DH being one of your main RBI guys is something’s got to give in the World Series when you visit the National League park and can’t use a DH. Either you sit a major part of your offense on the bench or you put his less than stellar defense on the field. Ron Washington felt he had no choice. Guerrero got penciled in as the Rangers’ right fielder, where he’d played all of 16 games in the regular season.

The problems surfaced immediately. Vlad committed two errors in what turned into a 3-run 8th inning that helped propel the Giants to an 11-7 Game 1 victory. So poor was his performance, Washington decided it was better for his slugger to ride the pine in Game 2.

 

Michael Young

Michael Young

Lesson learned, right? To a certain extent. In 2011, Wash went with a carousel of Designated Hitters, led by Michael Young’s 69 games. Young also served as a sort of “Super Utility” infielder, getting starts at all four infield positions. He responded with a .338/.380/.474 year with 106 RBI despite just 11 homers. Again, Wash felt obligated to play Young in the field on the road in the 2011 World Series. Defensively, Young had a nickname among Rangers fans: PADMY, an acronym for “Past A Diving Michael Young”, heard often in the play-by-play. He wasn’t the butcher Guerrero was but there were better defensive options.

In the pivotal Game 6 in St. Louis (the One Strike Away Twice game that gave this blog its name), Young played first base and committed two errors, both eventually leading to runs. Without those errors, the Rangers may very well have been the World Series champs. We’ll never know.

That brings us to today and the Rangers are pretty certain Mitch Moreland is their primary DH. He will NOT, however, be the everyday DH for three reasons: 1) He’s a streaky hitter; 2) he doesn’t hit lefthanders well (a career .227/.289/.347) and 3) he is a walking injury case.

Fans have wanted to love Mitch Moreland for some time. He came along in 2010 when both Chris Davis and Justin Smoak bombed as the Rangers first baseman and contributed a decent 9 home runs and 25 RBI in 47 games. He further endeared himself with the fans by going 6 for 13 in the World Series, which included a Game 3 home run off  Jonathon Sanchez that led to the lone Texas win in the Series.

Mitch Moreland

Mitch Moreland

Since 2011, Moreland has spent time on the disabled list in each of the last three seasons. He missed half of June and most of July in 2012, half of June in 2013 and more than half the season a year ago, playing his last game June 7th.

This has to be considered Moreland’s last shot with the Rangers. He has power potential, which is why they keep him around, but at some point he has to deliver. either by hitting southpaws better or by staying healthy. I’m not convinced he’s able to do either.

The question is who will serve as the Rangers DH against lefthanders? Washington gave Moreland every chance against lefties. Jeff Bannister is under no obligation. That’s why DH will likely be another revolving door, which isn’t a bad thing. Odds are Mitch plays mostly against righthanders and maybe he’ll play first base on occasion so Prince Fielder can DH (Moreland is OK defensively at 1st). Against lefties, the Rangers are hopeful newly acquired Kyle Blanks will be able to overcome injuries and tape into the power potential he showed with San Diego.

The problem here is Blanks has been just as injury prone as Moreland, thus making DH as much of a battle for playing time as left field is for Texas.

Moreland will play the most games at DH if he stays healthy. Beyond that, the spot in the order for Designated Hitter is probably Bannister’s best way of rotating quality at bats for the other three bench players. Unless Moreland is productive, it might also be the weakest position in the Rangers line-up.

Looking Ahead To 2015: Left Field

“Get your scorecards here! You can’t tell the players without your scorecard. Get your scorecards here!”

Once Spring Training gets underway for Texas Rangers position players, even the coaching staff is likely to need a scorecard to unravel the players competing for the left field job in 2015. The odds are excellent no single player will truly win the job. Far more likely is two players will serve as a platoon most of the time unless or until someone gets the hot hand in mid-season and wins the right to play full-time.

First, a recap of last year and it resembles the mess that begins this season. Eight different players were left fielders for the Rangers in 2014. Shin-Soo Choo led the way with 63 games in left, but he moves to right field this year. Also seeing playing time in left, in descending order of games played, were Michael Choice, Daniel Robertson, Jim Adduci, Ryan Rua, Jake Smolinski, Mitch Moreland and Mike Carp. Of that group, Robertson, Adduci and Carp are no longer around.

Ryan Rua

Ryan Rua

Still around, though, are four players: Choice, Rua, Smolinski, and Moreland. BUT THAT’S NOT ALL, FOLKS! They’ll be joined in Spring Training by Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields and non-roster invitees Ryan Ludwick, Nate Shierholtz, Antoan Richardson, Carlos Peguero and Jared Hoying. What does this tell you? The Rangers front office is not 100% sold on any single player for left field. It’s a wide open competition. Here’s where each of them likely stand.

Ryan Rua

Rua is the “front-runner” for the job, mostly on the basis that he was the starter in left field in Game 162 in 2014. A 17th round pick, Rua could become the third Rangers’ 17th rounder to make a name for himself in the big leagues, joining Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland. He began to turn heads in the organization in 2013 when he mashed 29 homers for Class A Myrtle Beach, whose park is NOT conducive to home runs, then adding another 3 in 95 plate appearance cup of coffee with AA Frisco. The power wasn’t as prevalent in 2014, but he hit .300 with 10 home runs in half a season with Frisco, then .313 with 8 home runs in 58 games at AAA Round Rock before getting the call to Arlington just before September roster expansion. With the Rangers, he hit .295 in 28 games with 2 home runs and 11 RBI. Rua has hit at every level and had a positive defensive WAR. Though he largely played second base in the minors, he’s got some experience in left field.

Michael_Choice

Michael Choice

Michael Choice

All things considered, if I had a wish for one person to lay claim to left field, the choice would be Choice. Nothing against Rua. The difference is power. Michael Choice has more home run potential in his bat than Rua and outside of Prince Fielder, there’s no other Rangers player with 30 home run potential than Choice, at least until Joey Gallo shows up. Choice outright won the right field job in Spring Training last year after being acquired in a straight up trade that sent popular Craig Gentry to Oakland. A Dallas native, everyone was ready to love to former first round draft pick and he blew his first chance. He never got untracked at the plate, hit a paltry .182 with 9 home runs in 86 games (with a trip to Round Rock mid-season). His defense wasn’t good and Fangraphs had him listed with an overall NEGATIVE 2.1 WAR. Yep, he graded out at worse than replacement level. Still, he’s a former 1st round draft choice with pop in his bat. He will get another chance. We’ll see if he can seize it.

Mitch Moreland

Let’s not kid ourselves. Mitch Moreland will NOT be the regular left fielder. For the most part, he will serve as the Rangers designated hitter, so I will dwell on him in a later post. He is, however, going to see playing time in left field, maybe right field as well, but not as a regular.

Jake Smolinski

Jake Smolinski

Jake Smolinski

Smolinski is an interesting name to add to the mix. A former 2nd round draft pick of the Nationals, Jake signed with the Rangers as a minor league free agent after being released by the Marlins in 2013. Like Rua, Smolinski started 2014 at AA Frisco, earned a July promotion to the majors on the basis of a 10 HR, 43 RBI half season, hit .389 in 11 games before getting sent down to Round Rock when Jim Adduci returned from the DL, then returned to Texas in mid-September after rosters expanded. Overall, Smolinski contributed a .349/.391/.512 slash line to the Rangers with 3 HR and 12 RBI in 24 games. This, however, is considerably higher than the combined .267 he hit in 80 games for Frisco and Round Rock. Like Rua, he also had a low walk rate getting used to the major league strike zone. With stats so similar to Rua’s, the edge goes to the former just because he’s a year younger and thus has a little more upside. I have a feeling Smolinski will be part of a late spring trade that will bring either a utility infielder or a left-handed reliever to Texas.

Delino DeShields

Son of a former major leaguer, DeShields is a Rule V pick from the Houston Astros, which means he MUST be on the Rangers roster all year or he has to be offered back to the Astros for $25,000. That means DeShields will be given every opportunity to win the job of 4th or 5th outfielder. If nobody wins left field outright, the odds of DeShields getting a job go down substantially. The upside for DeShields is speed. In five minor league season, he’s swiped 241 bases. The downside is he’s never played above the AA level and has a “lazy” tag attached to him.

Ryan Ludwick

Ryan Ludwick

Ryan Ludwick

Ludwick is an interesting wild card here. A 12-year big league veteran, he’s only 3 years removed from a 26 home run, 80 RBI season with the Cincinnati Reds. He also once hit 37 home runs for the Cardinals. A shoulder injury in 2013 cost him a lot of his power. If he can find that power stroke again in camp, Ludwick could grab the job outright.

Nate Schierholtz

Schierholtz has played exclusively in the National league for the Giants, Cubs, Phillies and Nationals, putting up a career .253/.302/.405 line with 52 home runs. Rangers fans saw him in the 2010 World Series with the Giants. Last year was pertty forgettable for Nate, as he hit a combined .195 for the Cubs and Nationals in 122 games. A longshot at best to make the squad.

Carlos Peguero, Antoan Richardson, Jared Hoying

I’m lumping the last three together because their chances of sticking with the Rangers for the Season Opener are even more doubtful than Schierholtz. Over four seasons, Peguero has never played more than 46 games at the big league level. He’s got some pop in his bat, having hit 30 home runs for AAA Omaha last season but the odds are he’s one of those 4-A players, a AAA All-Star who just doesn’t translate to the big league level. Richardson has had two brief appearances in The Show, 4 at bats with the Braves in 2011 and 16 with the Yankees last year. He’s got little power to speak of but has 324 steals in 10 minor league seasons. If he makes the team it’s because DeShields didn’t and a lot of other people had bad springs. Hoying is a 10th round draft pick of the Rangers who became a minor league free agent and re-signed with the club. He got a non-roster invite as a courtesy after hitting 26 homers with 78 RBI for Round Rock last year. The homers were more than twice as many as he’d ever hit in a professional season. If Hoying is on the roster in April, things have gone horribly wrong for the Rangers.

A lot of people have the opportunity. Seeing how it all shakes out will be the most interesting story for the Rangers this spring.

Looking Ahead To 2015: Center Field

There’s an insurance commercial that airs down in this part of the country that shows a guy driving an ice cream truck when it gets a flat tire. As he gets out and disgustedly looks at the tire, he hears a bell ring and realizes he’s broken down right in front of a school just as they’re dismissing for the day. The announcer then says, “Now THAT’s a pleasant surprise!”

That’s kind of the feeling as it applied to Leonys Martin for the Texas Rangers. No, he didn’t put up MVP type numbers, He didn’t lead the league in hitting. It was just a pleasant surprise that he was about the only Rangers regular who WASN’T injured in 2014.

As a result, the Cuban immigrant played in 155 of a possible 162 games and posted a .277/.325/.364 slash line with 7 home runs and 40 RBI. He added a team leading 31 steals, 17 bunt singles in 29 attempts and was second to Adrian Beltre in runs scored.

Leonys Martin

Leonys Martin

While it was a decent enough offensive year, defense is where Martin shines. Blessed with a cannon for an arm, Leonys got credit for 11 outfield assists and assisted on three double plays. He threw out eight runners at home. His arm was so respected that of the 22 times a fly ball was hit to him with a runner on third and less than two outs, the runner stayed on third 7 times. With a runner on second and less than two outs, the runners stayed put 22 out of 40 times. The American League is well aware of the strong, accurate arm of Leonys Martin. Thanks to that defense, Martin compiled a 4.6 WAR by Baseball-Reference, a 3.5 WAR by Fangraphs. Both were second among Rangers offensive players to Adrian Beltre.

So yes, 2014 was a pretty good year for the almost 27-year-old outfielder, especially considering he was also dealing with the trial of a man who essentially kidnapped him in Mexico after he defected from Cuba. This year, pretty good needs to be even better.

There’s a lot of pressure on Leonys, more pressure than he’s ever had. This year, he won’t bat near the bottom of the order as he has in the past. This year, Leonys Martin is the Rangers’ lead-off hitter.

To thrive in that role, Martin is going to have to do two things: improve his walk rate and cut down on his strikeout rate. A decent lead-off hitter should have an OBP of around .345. Martin a year ago was at .325. His walk percentage was 6.7% and he struck out 19.6% of the time. By contrast, Coco Crisp of the A’s walked 11.8%  and struck out only 12.4% of the time. Better contact, better understanding of the strike zone, cut down on the caught stealing (he got nailed 12 times in 2014), all while continuing to play superior defense. That’s what the Rangers need Martin to accomplish this year.

GM Jon Daniels doesn’t believe Leonys has reached his ceiling yet as a player. I’m not convinced he’ll be able to top last year’s offensive output. Besides the walk and strikeout rates, he needs to improve his numbers against southpaws. While he hit a respectable enough .250 against lefties, his OBP was only .287 and his Slugging Percentage .294, compared to .337 and .388 respectively against righthanders.

If Martin maintains the same WAR in 2015 as he did in 2014, it’s a sign he and the team did okay in 2015.

Looking Ahead To 2015: Right Field

Alex Rios

Alex Rios

By the WAR stat, the Texas Rangers should consider themselves lucky their right field play finished 10th in the American League at 1.1. They’re lucky because last season’s regular right fielder, Alex Rios, got hurt and finally hung up his cleats with 22 games to go in the regular season, allowing other more qualified people play the position. Rios finished the season with a 0.2 WAR, 45th among American league right fielders.

Rangers fans really wanted to love Alex Rios. When he came to the Rangers in 2013, replacing the suspended Nelson Cruz, they knew he wasn’t going to replace Cruz’ power. On the other hand, we knew what Rios lacked in power, he would make up with speed on the base paths and better defense than Nellie provided.

Once Cruz departed for the Baltimore Orioles, right field became Rios’ domain. The season started well enough. As late as June 25th, Rios was hitting a robust .335 with 14 doubles, 8 triples, 3 home runs and 32 RBI. Whether he got hurt around this time is unknown. Maybe he stayed in the line-up while hurting because of all the other injuries the Rangers suffered. Call him a gamer if you wish, but the fact is Rios hurt the team by playing after a while. From June 15th to his departure in September, Rios hit a paltry .224 over 66 games with only one home run and a measly 8 walks compared to 49 strikeouts. This isn’t the kind of production you want from a guy you’re paying $13 million dollars a year.

Making matters worse, when asked about his lack of power, Rios stated he could hit more home runs but he’d have to adjust his stroke and he didn’t want to do that. At a time when Adrian Beltre was about the only power source in the Texas line-up, Rios didn’t want to make adjustments for the benefit of the team.

Once Rios went down, Jake Smolinski and Daniel Robertson received the bulk of the playing time in right field and managed to put up a combined 0.9 WAR compared to Rios’ 0.2. Needless to say, the Rangers declined the option in Rios’ contract and allowed him to leave and sign with the Kansas City Royals, whose cavernous park may allow Rios to hit even fewer home runs in 2015.

Shin-Soo Choo

Shin-Soo Choo

That brings us to 2015. Robertson is also gone, sent to the Angels for a player to be named later or cash. Smolinski may factor into the equation as a 4th or 5th outfielder but by and large, right field in 2015 belongs to Shin-Soo Choo.

Like a majority of Rangers players, Choo succumbed to injury, making his first year in Texas one to forget. Like Rios before him, Choo got off to a magnificent start in 2014. On May 6th, Choo was sporting a .370 average with a .500 On Base Percentage. He had an OPS at that point of 1.054. He had more walks than strikeouts and was everything the Rangers wanted him to be. This despite missing a week in April after spraining an ankle.

The bad news is Choo tried coming back too soon from the ankle injury. He kept going out in the field every day and the ankle just kept getting worse. He didn’t attempt a steal after May 24th. His limited mobility cost the Rangers defensively. He served as the DH 36% of the time. After his high water mark on May 6th, Choo went .212 the rest of the way. The ankle affected his swing and he whiffed 108 times to just 36 walks in that stretch (unlike Rios, at least Choo still drew walks). When he got diagnosed with an elbow injury in addition to the ankle, Choo was finally shut down for the year.

In 2015, Choo moves from left field to right field. By all accounts his ankle and elbow are both in perfect working order. Since becoming a regular in 2008 through 2013, Choo averaged a 4.0 WAR. If he even does half of that, that’s still ten times the performance the Rangers received from Alex Rios in 2014. If he hits the average of 2008-2013, you can bet the Rangers are back in the thick of a pennant race.

Looking Ahead To 2015: Catcher

Heading into 2010, the year the Texas Rangers first went to the World Series, if there was one position the front office wasn’t worried about for the present and the future, it was catcher. Texas enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in the catching department. At the major league level, Jarrod Saltalamacchia would be the every day catcher for the first time. Backing him up would be University of Texas phenom Taylor Teagarden, who would supply some needed power. Down on the farm, Max Ramirez was the emergency guy at AAA Round Rock and coming up in the system was well-regarded Jose Felix in AA Frisco.

Saltalamacchia lasted for all of two games and five at bats. He had the game winning hit in the season opener but suffered an injury and didn’t tell manager Ron Washington about it. When it came up after Game 2, Salty went on the DL, Wash publicly chastised him for not speaking up and added he had a lot of growing up to do. Saltalamacchia never returned to the Rangers. During rehab, he developed a case of the “yips”, causing his throws back to the pitcher to sail. He got sent off to the Red Sox in the trade that netted Texas Chris McGuiness and Roman Mendez.

 

Robinson Chirinos

Robinson Chirinos

Meanwhile, it didn’t take long before the Rangers determined Teagarden, for all his power potential, wasn’t able to hit consistently. His long swing led to 34 strikeouts in just 85 at bats. Five of his 11 hits went for extra bases but a .155 average was all he could muster. Before anyone knew what hit them, Teagarden got sent down, Ramirez came up and the Rangers’ starting catcher was someone they picked up at the end of training camp, Matt Treanor, who turned into a godsend. Treanor wasn’t any great shakes, but he gave Texas quality at bats and handled the pitching staff well for 82 games, until the Rangers picked up Bengie Molina from the San Francisco Giants to handle the heavy work down the stretch.

Since that 2010 season, the Rangers have gone through Yorvit Torrealba, Mike Napoli, Teagarden, Treanor, Geovany Soto, Luis Martinez, A.J. Pierzynski, J.P. Arencibia, Chris Giminez, Tomas Telis and Robinson Chirinos and there’s still no true starting catcher in sight for 2015.

Phenom Jorge Alfaro is still at least a year away. In the meantime, the Rangers enter 2015 with the aforementioned Telis and Giminez at AAA Round Rock, if something happens to Chirinos or new arrival Carlos Corporan.

Chirinos was as much a godsend for the Rangers in 2014 as Treanor was in 2010. With Rangers hitting the DL almost every other day, including Soto in pre-season and  Arencibia hitting a pitiful .133 on May 16th, Chirinos came up big time, posting a slash line of .239/.290/.415 with 13 HR and 40 RBI. Adding to his importance was his defense. Chirinos came out of nowhere to lead the American League in throwing out would-be base stealers at 40%. His 2.4 WAR ranked 5th among AL catchers. Chirinos’ performance earned Soto a trade to the A’s once he returned from the disabled list.

Carlos Corporan

Carlos Corporan

This year, Chirinos enters the season as the clear #1, although there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to match any of his 2014 numbers. Last year was his first full season in the majors and his performance could go in either direction. The plan is for Chirinos to catch about 100 games, just a few more than he caught a year ago. Injuries aside, his expected back-up for the other 62 games will be Carlos Corporan, who comes over from the Houston Astros.

Jon Daniels told the crowd at FanFest that they did due diligence on Corporan, talking to a number of Astros pitchers about him. One of them, former Ranger Scott Feldman, praised Corporan and credited him for elevating his game in 2014.

The Rangers aren’t looking for great offense from the catcher position. The top priority is catchers who work well with the pitching staff. Still, Corporan has a little pop in his bat and if the Rangers get a combined 3.0 WAR out of the two of them, they’ll be happy.

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