The Texas Rangers seemed like they had run out of gas coming into the 2015 season. Starting in 2010, the Rangers had set a standard that they were going to be elite every season. The Rangers won their first American League Pennant in 2010, repeated themselves a year later before losing in the American League Wild Card game in 2012. The Rangers seemed poised for another postseason appearance in 2013, but a rough finish put them in a position where they had to play a play-in game to advance to the postseason. Unfortunately, they lost that game. And with that loss seemed to go the Rangers greatest run in the history of the franchise.
Dim expectations embarked the team going into 2015. New manager Jeff Banister is well respected throughout the game, but it seemed like the veteran team was on its way down. The Rangers inexplicably lost 95 games in 2014, so it seemed like the air was out of the balloon. The 2015 Rangers in the preseason resembled the 2013 Philadelphia Phillies, a team that had its share of success only to watch father time catch up with him. The Rangers were a team on the decline and according to the "experts," there was no way they could improve off such a horrendous season.
The Rangers of last season were kind of living up to the hype of the "experts" through the end of July. The Rangers had a 50-52 record, trailing the first place Houston Astros by several games. In a move that was completely baffling at the time, general manager Jon Daniels made a trade with the Phillies to obtain left handed ace Cole Hamels. With Cole under contract through the 2018 season, the move was thought to be about the future. Incumbent ace Yu Darvish was to miss the entire season due to Tommy John surgery so the thought of a Hamels/ Darvish one-two at the top of the team's rotation for 2016 looked encouraging. However, the deal united team and along with other moves such as acquiring Sam Dyson, Mike Napoli and even the presence of Josh Hamilton, the Rangers played to a remarkable clip to finish the season as American League West division champions. The Rangers finished the season 38-22 in regular season games in August through October and their 88-74 record was good enough to hold off the Astros and Los Angeles Angels.
The Rangers seemed poised to move back into the American League Championship Series. They took the first two games against the Toronto Blue Jays only to drop the next three and the series. The off season for the Rangers has been relatively quiet. They did swing a deal with the Seattle Mariners to acquire right handed relief pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen (2-2, 3.19, 13 saves, 60 strikeouts, 62 innings pitched) in exchange for center fielder Leonys Martin (.219 batting average, 5 home runs, 25 runs batted in, .576 on base plus slugging). The Rangers signed free agent outfielder Justin Ruggiano (.248, 6, 15, .805). Ruggiano's high OPS had to do with the fact that 15 of his 31 base hits being for extra bases. The Rangers then converted former Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond (.233, 19, 62, .674) into an outfielder with a contract offered at the beginning of spring training.
The core of the Texas Rangers lineup will come from veteran third baseman Adrian Beltre (.287, 18, 83, .788) and designated hitter/ first baseman Prince Fielder (.305, 23, 98, .841). First baseman Mitch Moreland (.278, 23, 85, .812) had a break out season and should be trusted to be a middle of the order presence. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo (.276, 22, 82, .838) had an unexpected great season, one that got very little attention. Players like Choo had the history to digress after that first terrible year- like Choo did in 2014- and Choo (at least for last season) defied the odds. Second baseman Rougned Odor (.261, 16, 61, .781) had a good season, one in which he won the second base job by default over the loss of former top overall prospect Jurickson Profar.
The top of the Rangers lineup will feature 2015 Rule 5 Draft selection Delino DeShields Jr (.261, 2, 37, .718, 25 stolen bases, 10 triples) and shortstop Elvis Andrus (.285, 7, 62, .667, 25 stolen bases). DeShields' performance allowed for the trade of Martin and took some talent away from the division and state rival Astros. Catcher Robinson Chirinos (.232, 10, 34, .762) fills out the lineup with the expectations he will give a little more offensively in a full season of games. The Rangers lineup I would go with is Andrus SS, DeShields CF, Beltre 3B, Fielder 1B, Moreland 1B, Desmond LF, Choo RF, Odor 2B, Chirinos C. Hamilton (.253, 8, 25, .732) should have the ability to earn a regular role in the lineup even though he is unlikely to start the season on the 25 man roster. Once he is healthy, he can fill in for Choo and Desmond, perhaps allow for Choo to spell DeShields in center and perhaps Desmond to spell Andrus at shortstop and Odor at second base. Ruggiano, infielder Hanser Alberto, outfielder Ryan Rua and top prospect Joey Gallo should round out the bench with Chris Gimenez likely serving as the back up catcher. Also, look for Ike Davis, Drew Stubbs and outfielder James Jones (acquired in the Martin/ Wilhelmsen trade) to push for a spot somewhere.
I know optimism sets in when dealing with a pitcher and presence on the Texas Rangers team as important as Yu Darvish. But, let us get something straight. Darvish had Tommy John surgery about a year ago and it is in his best interest to wait a full 15 months before returning to MLB action. That means the end of June, perhaps as late as the All Star break this year. The Rangers would be wise to wait it out before rushing him back. In the meantime, that will put a little added pressure on left hander Derek Holland (4-3, 4.91, 10 starts, just 15 starts since the beginning of 2014). Holland has been a stalwart on this staff before and the Rangers hope his health issues are behind him. With him and Hamels at the top, the rest of the rotation should fall into place. The ageless Colby Lewis (17-9, 4.66, 33 starts, just under 205 innings pitched) will be followed by left hander Martin Perez (3-6, 4.46, 13 starts) and right hander Chi Chi Gonzalez (4-6, 3.90, 10 starts). Veteran Jeremy Guthrie (8-8, 5.95, 24 starts) was terrible in Kansas City last season in what was the last year of his contract. If he has anything left, he may provide fifth starter quality.
One of the more underrated late game relievers was the Rangers Shawn Tolleson (6-4, 2.99, 35 saves, 76 Ks, just over 72 IP). The former 30th round draft pick could have been had by anybody after the Dodgers placed him on waivers. Tolleson will be joined by Dyson (5-4, 2.63, 71 Ks, just over 75 IP), Wilhelmsen and left hander Jake Diekman (2-1, 4.01, 69 Ks, just over 58 IP). Two time Tommy John champ AJ Griffin comes over after he was let go by the Oakland Athletics. If he has anything left, there is a place for him in the bullpen. Right hander Keone Kela (7-5, 2.39, 68 Ks, just over 60 IP) and lefty Sam Freeman (0-0, 3.05, 40 Ks, just over 38 IP) have a good chance to return to the major part of the mix. A dark horse candidate is right hander Nick Martinez, a starter over the past couple seasons who may be able to excel in a short relief role.
Gallo got a lot of play last off season. His less than stellar MLB debut last season (.204, 6, 14, 57 Ks, 108 at bats) did little to tame the expectations. The question is just going to be over what position is he best suited for. He probably is not a third baseman and would not play there anyway as long as Beltre is around. Can he be a corner outfielder or a first baseman? Maybe, but that would require some rearranging of the Rangers starting position players. Gallo is best suited to start the season in AAA, just like he did last season. If he tears up the Pacific Coast League, like he is expected to, the Rangers could explore a trade of Moreland, Desmond or even Beltre, Fielder or Choo. Perhaps the Rangers can add some much needed pitching, especially if Darvish takes a little more time to get re- acclimated. Right hander Dillon Tate has an opportunity to debut this season even though he was taken second overall in the 2015 draft. The Rangers will manage him based off their needs and ideally would like to leave him in the minors all season. An interesting player to look at is outfielder Nomar Mazara, a 20 year old who raked in AAA last season.
I think the Rangers 2014 season was an oversight. It seems like there is enough talent on this team to overcome such a rough season. 2015 showed that. The Rangers will go as far as their pitching takes them. Does Lewis have another full season left in him? When does Darvish come back? What about Desmond in left field? I like this team, but not enough to predict a division championship like last season. Las Vegas has them at 86 for their over/ under. I think it is close enough as I have the Rangers finishing at 84-78, second place in the American League West division.