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The injury bug and free agency have wreaked havoc on the Rangers' pitching staff this offseason, but they are still a playoff caliber team with a bright future ahead.
To say that the Texas Rangers fell short in 2012 is a bit of an understatement. After two consecutive World Series appearances, the Rangers led the AL West by five games on September 24th only to go 2-7 over their last nine games and lose the division to the Oakland A's. Josh Hamilton then bolted to Los Angeles in free agency and the injury bug got loose in the rotation, setting expectations lower than they have been for the Rangers in several years. However, there is still plenty to be optimistic about in Texas for 2013.
Manager: Ron Washington (7th year)
2012 record: 93-69, 2nd in AL West
SB Nation Blog: Lone Star Ball
First series vs. Tigers: May 16-19 @ Rangers Ballpark in Arlington
Like he has done for four of the past five seasons, Ian Kinsler will be the Rangers' primary leadoff hitter. There were rumors that he would move to left field with the emergence of uber prospect Jurickson Profar, but those rumors have been squashed for 2013; Kinsler has only played at second so far during Spring Training. Incumbent shortstop Elvis Andrus will likely hit behind Kinsler, though many fans feel that his skill set would be best served in the leadoff spot.
One reason that changing the lineup might be useful in 2013 is the gigantic Josh Hamilton-shaped hole in the middle of the batting order. There is still plenty of power left -- Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Mitch Moreland, David Murphy, and Nelson Cruz all hit at least 15 home runs last season -- but you don't replace a .305/.363/.549 hitter with 142 home runs and 506 RBI in the last five seasons overnight. Lance Berkman will slide into the third spot of the lineup, if Spring Training lineups are to be believed. He only played in 32 games last season, but put up some big numbers for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.
Lost amid the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout MVP debate last fall was the monster season that Adrian Beltre had in 2012. He hit .321/.359/.561 with 36 home runs and 102 RBIs while playing legitimate Gold Glove defense at third base. Clearly, playing in a hitter's park agrees with him. Behind Beltre, things will be a bit more fluid. Nelson Cruz bounced between the fifth and sixth spots last season, while David Murphy has seen a decent amount of time behind Beltre this spring. Odds are that manager Ron Washington will plug Murphy between Beltre and Cruz whenever possible to split up his left-handed hitters. A.J. Pierzynski will likely also be in this mix on days that he catches. Geovany Soto is the backup.
Mitch Moreland appears to have won the Spring Training battle for playing time at first base, as prospect Mike Olt was sent down to Triple-A yesterday. Given the number of good hitters on this roster, however, I'd imagine that we will see Lance Berkman at first on occasion to give other hitters some burn in the DH slot. Center field, on the other hand, seems to be an all-out war. Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin have both been hitting well during Spring Training. Gentry played well in 122 games for the Rangers last season, hitting .304/.367/.392, but Martin has more upside. Julio Borbon has also played well enough during Spring Training to earn a roster spot over the non-roster invitees in camp.
Here's where things get a bit iffy. Yu Darvish may be the de facto ace of the Rangers' staff after a stellar rookie season. Darvish struck out 221 hitters in just 191 1/3 innings, but his 89 walks were a bit concerning. It will be interesting to see how Darvish has adapted to the game in his second big league season. He was scratched from his start on Monday due to neck stiffness, but appears to be fine.
Matt Harrison may be the Rangers' Opening Day starter, provided he's healthy. He has been dealing with a toe issue this spring that sidelined him for a couple extra days between starts last week. Last season, Harrison was 18-11 with a 3.29 ERA and made his first All-Star appearance.
Derek Holland didn't pitch particularly well in the World Baseball Classic -- especially against Team Canada's lefty-heavy lineup -- but has been more effective for the Rangers in Spring Training. The Rangers need Holland to step up after he failed to back up the club's faith in him (provided by a fat contract extension prior to the season) in 2012. He was better during the second half, but this was largely thanks to a .246 BABIP.
Alexi Ogando will move back to the rotation after spending the 2012 season in the bullpen. He racked up 1.5 bWAR in just 66 innings, but this pales in comparison to the 3.2 bWAR he had in 169 innings in 2011 as a starter. This move weakens a bullpen that also lost Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, and Mark Lowe during the offseason, but bolsters a rotation that will be without Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz for an extended period of time. Depending on how effective Feliz is when he returns from his Tommy John rehab in the late summer, Ogando could be moved back to the bullpen for a stretch run.
The fifth starter spot is still up in the air, and is not limited to players within the organization. Left-hander Robbie Ross and prospect Nick Tepesch are the front-runners after top prospect* Martin Perez broke his arm in early March. Ross was also in the bullpen last year, which may turn into Joe Nathan and six beer-league softball players by the time the team breaks camp. Tepesch, on the other hand, is raw: he has never pitched above Double-A after being drafted by the Rangers in 2010. The Tigers have shown interest in Tepesch, a University of Missouri product, in exchange for Rick Porcello.
*Seriously, where do they get all of these guys?
Spring Training storylines
It hasn't gotten much press so far this spring -- from what I've seen, at least -- but the "will they, won't they" game being played with Jurickson Profar still hasn't been resolved yet. Will he make the 25-man roster? Will the Rangers do the right thing and send the 20 year old down to Triple-A? Will they trade him to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Oscar Taveras? It's easy for us to say that he should start the season in the minors, but you have to wonder whether there is any organizational pressure to bring up Profar given the loss of talent that the Rangers have suffered during the past two offseasons.
Player to watch: David Murphy
While Lance Berkman will be taking Josh Hamilton's place in the batting order, Murphy will be viewed as Hamilton's replacement in the Rangers outfield. As scary as that proposition sounds, the Rangers are in good hands. Murphy has hit .286/.347/.453 throughout his career in a Rangers uniform while hitting 18 home runs and stealing 13 bases per 162 games played. He hit .304/.380/.479 last season, but some of this success was due to an absurd .433 BABIP against left-handed pitchers. He is no world-beater against southpaws, but should hold his own if the Rangers don't platoon him. Murphy's numbers in 2013 could go a long way in determining how well this team is able to get over the loss of Hamilton in the lineup.
We said this last year, and it turned out to be true: the Rangers still have an extremely deep and talented roster. Their pitching may be a bit suspect after losing half of their bullpen to free agency and/or the rotation, but the offense should still score plenty of runs despite losing one of the most talented players in all of baseball. I think that they are a clear second to the Angels now (instead of the 1a/1b I viewed them prior to last season), but I still see them in the playoff hunt come September.