For the fifth straight year, Playing Pepper returns to C70 At The Bat. If you aren't aware, this series helps get a feel for the other 29 teams in baseball by asking those that follow them the closest--their bloggers. We've got spring training action going, so it's time to play a little pepper.
93-69, second in the AL West and lost in the inaugural AL Wild Card Game
The end of 2013 was quite unexpected for Rangers fans. A team that had gone to back-to-back World Series and then got out to a commanding early lead for the division in 2012 was stunned by an Oakland team that came from behind and wrested the divisional title away from them on the last day. Forced into a game they never thought they'd play, they were beaten by the plucky Orioles and sent home for the winter, trying to figure out how those two teams had ruined another October run.
The losses continued in the offseason, as team fixture Josh Hamilton followed Albert Pujols out to sunny California to the home of the rival Angels. While the team was reportedly in on some trade options during the winter, no big replacement was forthcoming. On paper, it looked like the balance of power in the division had shifted west.
They don't play the games on paper, though we do write about them there (if you consider a blog posting on virtual paper). Steve Helsing follows the Texas squad over at his blog One Strike Away...Twice! You can follow him on Twitter @RangersBlogger as well. You can find Jamey Newberg at The Newberg Report and on Twitter @newbergreport (and you can buy his preseason book as well.) Steve and Jamey talk about the offseason and the running game of their shortstop after the break!
OSA: In terms of expectations considering all the names attached to the Rangers in the off-season? To that I would say disappointing. But if I'm going to look at it a little deeper than as just a fan, I've got to say Texas did about as well as they could do. Unlike other teams out there, the Rangers ownership is not going to put the long-term financial viability of the team at risk, no matter how good the player. Zack Greinke took the most money to go with the Dodgers and admitted as much. I had a feeling Josh Hamilton was leaving all along because somebody would offer him more years than they were willing to and that happened as well. Texas isn't willing to go for more than two years for relievers for the most part, so goodbye Mike Adams. And the Diamondbacks were trying to get as much from Texas for Justin Upton as the Rangers got from the Braves for Mark Teixera so that didn't happen. I was a little disappointed JD [Jon Daniels, Rangers GM] couldn't re-sign Koji Uehara and I really thought Mike Napoli was going to return as well. Still, with the familiar caveat of "if they remain healthy," getting A.J. Pierzynski, Berkman and [Joakim] Soria wasn't as bad an off-season as some would say.
NR: Maybe a B-. The club reportedly wanted to do something big, with Zack Greinke and James Shields heading the list on the pitching side and either Josh Hamilton or Justin Upton in their sights on the hitting side. Those things didn't come together, as the Dodgers weren't going to be outbid on Greinke and Texas didn't want to go to the lengths that other clubs went for others through free agency or trade. Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski fill needs without crippling commitments, and though losing Mike Adams and Koji Uehara from the bullpen could hurt, Joakim Soria could be a big addition once he's healthy and ready to go.
C70: Is it strange to see Lance Berkman on the roster? What are your expectations for him?
OSA: Well, it's strange because I hate his part in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, but beyond that, I'm ready to be a fan. What I like about Lance is his ability to work the count, something that was lacking in the Rangers offense last year. I also love that he and Pierzynski have something the rest of the players don't: a World Championship ring. That can only be a positive in the clubhouse. I think Lance will mostly DH to save his knees, with the occasional backing up of Mitch Moreland at first. While he can play right field, I don't think the Rangers will play him there, just to save the wear and tear on his knees. He's no Hamilton, but in some respects, he may be a better #3 hitter for Texas than Josh was.
NR: It was strange at first, but for a few years I thought he might end up here. As long as his knee is healthy, and from all indications it is right now, I expect a really strong year from him at the plate.
C70: Elvis Andrus didn't steal as many bases last year. Change in philosophy?
OSA: I can't say exactly what went wrong with the running game a year ago. It wasn't just Elvis, it was the whole team. More pickoffs, more caught stealing, less attempts. Maybe they became too predictable in the counts they were running on or maybe they just were too complacent. If I recall correctly, I think the Rangers had only three steals the entire month of September, so fatigue was certainly a part of it, as Ron Washington played his regulars virtually every day down the stretch. For Elvis in particular, I think Josh Hamilton was part of the problem as well. Elvis batted second, Hamilton 3rd and Josh sees fewer pitches per at bat than just about anyone in baseball. I see Andrus getting more aggressive on the basepaths in 2012 and having someone like Berkman looking at a lot of pitches can only help him.
NR: The team as a whole lost some of its efficiency (and aggressiveness) in basestealing situations, and they've committed to refinding that part of their game in 2013. I'd expect Andrus to be at the forefront of it.
C70: What rookie will make the biggest impact in 2013?
OSA: The biggest prospects are Mike Olt and Jurickson Profar, but Leonys Martin is the one to watch for. At worst, he will probably start the season in a center field platoon with Craig Gentry. Profar is likely to start the season at AAA Round Rock. Mike Olt makes the team, I think, but he'll be a back-up DH, 1st baseman and right fielder. Wash will get him some at bats, but Marin is the one who gets the most playing time.
On the pitching side, on March 1st I would have said Martin Perez would be the #5 starter to begin the season, but a broken arm has him sidelined for at least a month and probably two before he's back in playing shape. So if there's a rookie pitcher out there ready to impact the club, I don't really see one right now. Someone might come along out of nowhere like Robbie Ross did a year ago, but I'm not feeling it yet.
NR: Leonys Martin has had a terrific camp and will share center field with Craig Gentry - but he's technically not a rookie. Though Jurickson Profar won't make the Opening Day squad, he'll be up at some point, and I'd expect his impact to be the biggest on the club.
C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?
OSA: Most of the projections I've read seem to be pegging Texas to have about 86 wins in 2013. I have a hard time picking this one because there are so many ifs for the Rangers this year. If everything breaks right, meaning Colby Lewis returns in May, Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz return to help the bullpen after the All-Star Break, Lance Berkman stays healthy and all of them perform somewhere close to what we've expected of them in the past, then this Rangers team will be a LOT better than a lot of people think and a legitimate playoff contender. If all of them either don't return or perform below their previous levels, it could be a longer season than I'd like. I'm sure as I write this, there will be a deal or two made that will add more bench strength and maybe another starting pitcher that could change my thinking even more. Long story short, I guess I'll say the health concerns split 50/50 and 86-76 is a safe bet. Of course, if Nelson Cruz gets suspended for 50 games (which I don't think is going to happen), then it's back to the drawing board again!
NR: I hate making W/L predictions for several reasons, but this feels like an 86-92-win team. Ask again once we know about Soria and Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz and Martin Perez returning to health, and who Texas picks up in advance of the trade deadline.
C70: What one thing from your team are you most looking forward to watching?
OSA: I'm looking forward to big things from the top three starters. I think Yu Darvish will be a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate in 2013 and may even be a 20 game winner. Don't believe those who say he's just like most every other Japanese pitcher before him. Darvish is the real deal and is going to be even better in 2013. Along with Darvish, Derek Holland has a lot to prove this year and I can't wait to see if he's ready to step up his game and pitch more like a #2 in the rotation. If Holland does that and Matt Harrison stays as steady as he's been, the top three will be among the best in the AL this season.
NR: That's easy: what Yu Darvish has in store.
My thanks to Steve and Jamey for their thoughts about the Rangers this year. Being that they are the closest AL team to me, I tend to try to keep up with them and I hope they are able to reclaim their top spot again this year!
The BBA has, as a secondary aim, the goal of producing year-end
awards in a similar fashion to the Baseball Writers of America. These
awards can be found at the official site in October with links back to the voters,
ensuring transparency and, most likely, the onset of some good baseball