2014 Team Preview: Are the Texas Rangers favorites to win the American League?

The Rangers are currently having injury problems of their own, but have one of the most talented rosters in the game.

The Texas Rangers found themselves in a familiar position at the beginning of the 2013 season: watching one of their former stars make his debut for the Los Angeles Angels while wondering how they can atone for their World Series losses in 2010 and 2011. Unfortunately, 2013 did not result in a third trip to the Fall Classic for the Rangers. They had a division lead at the end of August for the second season in a row, but once again saw the Oakland Athletics run away with the AL West with a scorching September. Instead of watching more stars walk away this offseason, the Rangers went out and plucked a pair of their own in Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder. With a combined quarter billion dollars owed to the two over the next seven seasons, the Rangers are sparing no expense to stay competitive in the AL West.

Manager: Ron Washington (8th year)

2013 record: 91-72, 2nd in AL West

SB Nation blog: Lone Star Ball

Other Rangers coverage: The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

First series vs. Tigers: May 22-25 @ Comerica Park

Lineup

Prince Fielder could once again be part of one of the best offensive corner infield tandems in the game despite changing organizations this offseason. Fielder hit .295/.387/.491 in his two years in Detroit and tallied 7.0 WAR despite some serious defensive shortcomings. There are currently no plans to have him DH, leaving the job up to any combination of players, including Mitch Moreland, who seriously disappointed in 2013. Third baseman Adrian Beltre isn't quite as good of a hitter as Miguel Cabrera, but is still among the best defensive third basemen at the game. He has a .382 wOBA and 137 wRC+ in his three years with the Rangers with a pair of top-10 MVP finishes in the last two seasons. While he turns 35 this season, it is tough to see Beltre slowing down anytime soon. If he wards off regression for another couple years, expect the Hall of Fame talks to begin.

If they get healthy, look out: this might be the best team in the American League.

The Rangers have their double play combination of the future locked up for the next half decade, but their fanbase will have to wait for two to three months to see them in action. Second baseman Jurickson Profar was diagnosed with a torn muscle in his right shoulder last weekend. Profar was used in a utility role last season, splitting time between four positions and the designated hitter slot in 85 games. Just 20 years old, Profar only tallied 490 plate appearances between Triple-A and the big leagues last year, leaving many to criticize Ron Wahsington's use of the consensus top prospect in the game. Elvis Andrus also had a subpar offensive season in 2013, but was still worth 2.8 fWAR thanks to his typical stellar defense. His .328 on-base percentage was a career worst, but he still swiped 42 bases in 50 attempts.

With Geovany Soto slated to miss the next 10-12 weeks after having meniscus repair surgery, the Rangers will start the season with a catching tandem of J.P. Arencibia and Robinson Chirinos. Arencibia slugged 21 home runs last season, but hit just .194/.227/.365 in the process. The Toronto Blue Jays non-tendered Arencibia, leading him to Texas, where he was first expected to replace A.J. Pierzynski. Chirinos had a .756 OPS for Triple-A Round Rock last season and has put up strong numbers so far this spring. Ramon Hernandez is also in camp, but is not on the team's 40-man roster.

Shin-Soo Choo will need several more seasons like his 2013 campaign if he is going to live up to the seven year, $130 million contract he signed with the Rangers this offseason. Choo hit .285/.423/.462 atop the Cincinnati Reds' lineup, putting up 5.2 fWAR despite a glove that fared well below replacement level. His 15.7% walk rate was a career high, but don't expect it to fall too far if Choo is leading off again. In right field, Alex Rios will be looking to replicate the .772 OPS he produced in 197 plate appearances after arriving from the Chicago White Sox just after the non-waiver trade deadline last year. Rios is in the last guaranteed year of the mega deal he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in April of 2008. He will be 33 years old this season and could be out of a job next year if he fails to produce in 2014. Leonys Martin got plenty of playing time in 2013 with Craig Gentry in the mix, but a slow spring coupled with a strong showing by Michael Choice -- whom the Rangers traded Gentry for -- may make the early rotation a bit fuzzy.

Rotation

Yu Darvish made the leap into the elite category of MLB starters last season, allowing a 2.83 ERA and 3.28 FIP in 209 2/3 innings. He led the majors with 277 strikeouts, a rate of 11.9 per nine innings. This led to a stellar 3.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which led the Rangers' rotation. Hiss 12.6% swinging strike rate also led all MLB starters. Slotting behind Darvish will be left-hander Martin Perez, who allowed a modest 3.62 ERA in 124 1/3 innings as a rookie. His 4.23 FIP was largely due to a low strikeout rate, which should improve as he ages if his minor league numbers are any indication of future potential.

Left-handers Derek Holland and Matt Harrison were initially penciled in to the middle of the rotation, but respective knee and back injuries have them sidelined for the time being. The team is hopeful that Harrison will return in mid-April. With just 1 2/3 innings under his belt this spring, he will need plenty of work before getting back to a normal starter's routine. In their places will be any combination of four pitchers: Joe Saunders, Colby Lewis, Robbie Ross, and Tommy Hanson. Saunders was one of the worst starters in the game last year, allowing a 5.26 ERA in 183 innings. His .307 batting average allowed was the highest among qualified starters, and he also gave us this gem in September.

Saunderspg_9-16-13_medium

Hanson was not much better than Saunders, allowing a .282 batting average en route to a 5.42 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 73 innings. He missed some time on the disabled list with a forearm issue, but was ineffective both before and after the DL time. He allowed fly balls at a 44.7% clip, which could prove problematic as he moves from a very pitcher-friendly venue to the homer-prone Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Lewis has drawn positive reviews from scouts, who claim that he is back to his old self. He was 6-6 with a 3.43 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 2012 before succumbing to an elbow injury that sidelined him up until this point. Ross was the most productive pitcher of the bunch in 2013, but the Rangers may opt to keep him in the bullpen going forward. He allowed some ridiculous reverse splits last year; left-handed hitters had a .950 OPS against the southpaw in 2013.

An open competition for the closer role seems to have sorted itself out, with Joakim Soria winning the job thanks to a 1.13 ERA in eight innings this spring. Soria allowed 10 runs in 23 2/3 innings last season, but was one of the most productive closers in baseball for the Kansas City Royals prior to his Tommy John surgery in 2012. Both Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz have held down starting roles during various points in their respective careers, but it appears that both will be in the bullpen in 2014. Ogando has been unable to regain his All-Star form from 2011, and dealt with some command issues during an up-and-down 2013 season. Feliz was the other main competitor for the closer role, but a dip in velocity has some questioning whether he will begin the season in the majors. Neal Cotts will reprise his role as the team's high leverage lefty -- he was fourth on the team with 1.59 WPA last year -- after allowing a 1.11 ERA in 2013.

Walking Texas wounded

If you thought the Tigers had injury concerns heading into this season, think again. The Rangers will be without starting second baseman Jurickson Profar for 10 weeks after he tore a muscle in his shoulder. GM Jon Daniels has already stated that 20 year old prospect Roughned Odor will not start the season in the majors, leaving Adam Rosales and Josh Wilson to fight over playing time. Additionally, catcher Geovany Soto will miss 10-12 weeks after meniscus surgery, Adrian Beltre and Mitch Moreland are dealing with respective quad and oblique injuries, and Yu Darvish is questionable for Opening Day. Add in the fact that the team will be without starters Derek Holland and Matt Harrison for a significant amount of time and you see why some fans are taking liberties with the team's logo.

Player to watch: Martin Perez

Perez put in a solid performance during his rookie season in 2013, allowing a 3.62 ERA in 124 1/3 innings. He even earned the trust of manager Ron Washington to start Game 163 against the Tampa Bay Rays, but was bested by David Price. Despite the loss, the Rangers rewarded Perez with a four year contract extension during the offseason. This season, he will be expected to pick up more of the slack with Matt Harrison and Derek Holland sidelined for varying amounts of time. Perez posted some lackluster numbers in the minor leagues -- admittedly in some hitter-friendly environments -- but was rated as a top-100 prospect for five (!) consecutive seasons by Baseball America. His progression in 2013 could help determine where the Rangers finish in a difficult division.

Outlook

The injury bug is a major concern for the Rangers at this point, because it's likely the only thing stopping them from returning to the postseason. Their roster is stacked -- though they are thin in a couple key areas -- and the farm system is bursting with young talent that could have an impact this season. They may not have the pitching to dethrone the Oakland Athletics atop the division, but the offense may score enough runs to mask any deficiencies in the rotation. If they get healthy, look out: this might be the best team in the American League.

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