The Rangers look great on paper, but injuries could prove to be their derailment.
The Rangers' mini-dynasty took a bit of a hit last season, as the club failed to make the postseason for the first time since 2009 despite boasting a 91-72 record and +92 run differential that ranked fourth best in the AL. Of course, the 2013 Rangers were much different from their counterparts of the three year prior, as they underwent a dramatic shift in their roster makeup, going from an offensive juggernaut who scored an average of 817 runs from 2010-2012 (730 runs scored last year, 7th best in AL), to a pitching-heavy squad (636 runs allowed last year, 4th in AL) anchored by the likes of Yu Darvish and Derek Holland.
This winter, the Rangers shifted their focus back to offense in order to complement an already outstanding rotation, making a pair of splashy moves in adding Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. However, the supposedly stellar pitching staff has already taken a major step back, succumbing to a number of injuries that will force the team to start Tanner Scheppers (who has yet to start a game in two years of big league work) on Opening Day, and follow him up with three other starters who, up until about a month ago, Texas had no plans of seeing work until at least mid-season. Three of Texas's best starters (Darvish, Holland, and Matt Harrison) and a pair of starting position players (Jurickson Profar and Geovany Soto) will open the season on the DL, making the early goings of the 2014 season crucial for a potential October return.
OF Shin-Soo Choo, C JP Arencibia, 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff, 2B Donnie Murphy, C/OF Chris Gimenez, IF Josh Wilson, 1B Prince Fielder, LHP Joe Saunders, OF Michael Choice, LHP Pedro Figueroa, RHP Daniel McCutchen, RHP Seth Rosin, C Chris Snyder, 2B Chris Bostick, IF Brent Lillibridge, IF Andy Parrino, OF Bryan Peterson, OF Brad Snyder, RHP Shawn Tolleson, RHP Scott Baker, RHP Miles Mikolas, RHP Justin Germano, RHP Nathan Adcock, RHP Daniel Bard
Yeesh, the Rangers sure were busy this offseason.
Arguably the biggest (if not the most surprising) move made this offseason was the Rangers' dealing of longtime second baseman Ian Kinsler to the Tigers for Prince Fielder and his mounds of cash. Fielder's addition immediately stabilizes the lineup, providing the type of middle-of-the-lineup power-hitter that the Rangers missed in the absence of Josh Hamilton last year. In the long run, Fielder may not be the best bet to hold up in terms of both health and production, but in the short term, he's a valuable asset to have, and someone that the Rangers are counting on to invigorate their offense.
Complementing Fielder in the Rangers' lineup is Shin-Soo Choo, whose seven-year, $130 million deal nearly eclipsed the Fielder/Kinsler trade in terms of blockbuster-ness. Choo is without a doubt one of the top leadoff hitters in the game, as few can lay claim to having his package of power, speed, and supreme on-base ability. While it's tough to imagine Choo posting a 151 wRC+ or .423 OBP again, he could settle in as a ~.390 OBP, four-win catalyst for the Rangers. With Choo and Fielder on board, the Rangers' projected one-two-three-four of Choo, Elvis Andrus, Fielder, and Adrian Beltre may be the best in baseball*.
*The Rays, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cardinals' quartets are of similar stature.
The other significant move the Rangers made this offseason was their dealing of outfielder Craig Gentry and reliever Josh Lindblom to the division-rival Oakland Athletics for prospects Chris Bostick and Michael Choice. Not only are intra-division trades extremely rare, but you almost never see those trades consist of a high-end prospect who may come back to bite the other team. Choice has the potential to really hurt the Athletics in the long-term, as his big-time power provides for a lot upside if he can cut down his strikeouts and increase his contact rate. Gentry is a very useful player to have, but with a full outfield of Choo, Alex Rios, and Leonys Martin, he was expendable. Choice should immediately impact the big league squad as he has already made Texas' Opening Day roster, and is currently slated to serve as the team's fourth outfielder.
RHP Josh Lindblom, OF Craig Gentry, OF Nelson Cruz, RHP Joe Nathan, 2B Ian Kinsler, 1B Chris McGuiness, OF David Murphy, RHP Matt Garza, IF/OF Jeff Baker, DH Lance Berkman, C AJ Pierzynski
The Rangers' offense underwent a massive overhaul this winter, and that is evident in the club's eschewing of four key pieces from last year's lineup. Kinsler was obviously traded to Detroit, and while Texas may be regretting his departure at the moment considering Profar's recent injury, the deal made plenty of sense at the time, and will be easily justified if Profar can make it back by the end of June and produce adequately.
Nelson Cruz and David Murphy both signed elsewhere, though considering the Rangers' already deep outfield, they won't be missed too much. Plus, they got a draft pick from letting Cruz walk.
Pierzynski was similarly replaceable through Geovany Soto, though he is expected to miss the first few months of the season, handing over the starting duties to JP "what is getting on base?" Arencibia. It probably wouldn't have been a good idea to bet on a 37-year-old catcher who can't walk anyways.
On the pitching side, the Rangers could sure use Matt Garza right now, but, it's easy to see why Texas jettisoned him considering their great rotation outlook at the time and Garza's injury concerns. Joe Nathan is also a significant loss, but the Rangers' bullpen should hold-up fine without him, and, as in the case of Pierzynski, giving a multi-year deal to a 39-year-old reliever rarely works out.
Players to watch
Coming out of college in 2008 and 2009 (he failed to sign with the Pirates after being drafted in the second round in '08), Tanner Scheppers was a hot-topic among draft-hounds due to extreme upside and high-volatility injury risk as a starter. The end result has seen Scheppers move to the bullpen, where he has been highly effective (1.88 ERA and 2.2 WAR last season) and healthy so far. However, due to Texas' recent rash of injuries, Scheppers will be forced to step into the Rangers' rotation for at least the first month of the season. Considering just 12 of Scheppers' 210 professional appearances have come as a starter, the Scheppers rotation experiment* should be one of the more interesting story lines during the early parts of the season.
*For whatever it's worth, Scheppers has been effective as a starter this spring, allowing just five runs and striking out 14 in 14.2 innings.
Even though he'll miss the first 10-12 weeks of the season, Jurickson Profar could be pivotal in whether the Rangers make the playoffs or not. The Rangers deemed him ready enough to move the ever-popular Ian Kinsler this offseason, and 2014 was set to be his coming out party until the recent bad news. Profar played poorly in his limited exposure last season, posting a -0.4 WAR in 85 games, however, that performance can probably be chocked up to no defined role, inconsistent playing time, and the fact that he was just 20. Of course, we're talking about a guy who was considered the consensus top prospect in baseball just a year ago, so any inkling of potential from Profar could bode well for his future.
Yu Darvish. Because he's cool.
Best Case Scenario
When healthy, this may be the best team in the American League, with no real weaknesses aside from maybe Mitch Moreland at DH. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and the Rangers will head into the 2014 season with essentially a quarter of their roster on the disabled list.
The best thing that can happen for this team is to just get healthy, as the production should come with everyone on the field. Aside from that, the team is really hoping that Profar and Martin Perez take steps forward to reaching their potential, as well as a rebound season at the plate from Andrus.
If all breaks right, the Rangers could win 95 games, but health is never a guarantee and the Rangers are currently getting to know that rule very well.
Worst Case Scenario
If more players get hurt, or some of the currently injured guys suffer setbacks, things could get ugly. Still, there is so much depth on this team that their baseline is 85 wins, though they're going to need to perform, as the Rangers can't afford to spend another October at home.
As I stated above, this Rangers squad will look much different than years past, especially on offense, where much of the lineup's core over the last few years (Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, and Mike Napoli) has departed since the end of 2012. The Rangers are hoping that things will come together, and if they do, this team could be scary good.