It would be easy to look at the Texas Rangers' injury-plagued 2014 season as a lost year and simply repeat everything said during spring training last year. After all, they return largely the same roster that fell apart -- quite literally -- and lost 95 games, finishing behind the Houston Astros in the AL West. Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Derek Holland, and Yu Darvish represent a solid core of players that could lead the Rangers back to the postseason if they play up to their usual standards.
However, there's more to this team than the rosy predictions of 2014 suggested. For one, Darvish is already hurt, and will miss the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. Jurickson Profar will miss a second consecutive season due to injury. Choo played hurt for most of 2014, but his defense wasn't particularly inspiring before he arrived in Texas. Andrus, like the survivor of a zombie movie, somehow stayed healthy, and just declined for no good reason. For an organization blessed with so much talent in the minor leagues, they don't have a lot of depth at the major league level, and won't be able to withstand many repeat injuries if they hope to compete in 2015.
There are positives, though. Prince Fielder is both healthy and happy, something he apparently hasn't been for the past couple years. Rougned Odor has made Profar somewhat irrelevant by his rapid rise to the big leagues, and should improve upon a promising-for-his-age rookie season. Derek Holland was impressive down the stretch in 2014, giving reason to believe he can shoulder an ace-level load in 2015. Adrian Beltre is still in a Rangers uniform.
These positive notes may not have been enough to get the Rangers into the postseason, even before Darvish went down. However, with so much invested into the current payroll -- they owe $348 million to just Choo, Fielder, and Andrus over the next decade -- they may not have the necessary flexibility to go out and acquire the pieces they need to stay in contention with an improving AL West Division. Will they even be better than the Astros? No one knows, and it makes them one of the more fascinating teams in baseball this season.
For as bad as they were in 2014, the Rangers' offense was relatively passable. They were 10th in the American League in runs scored despite finishing with the league's worst record, and were fifth in batting average. Third baseman Adrian Beltre led them in just about everything, hitting .324/.388/.492 with 19 home runs and 77 RBI. While 2014 marked the first time in nearly a decade that Beltre didn't eclipse the 20-homer plateau, he still led the team with 5.7 WAR. And if you think the power outage is a sign of decline, think again: Beltre's 147 OPS+ was his highest since 2004. Across the diamond is former Tiger Prince Fielder, who only played in 42 games before undergoing spinal fusion surgery to fix a longstanding problem emanating from a herniated disc in his neck. This season may tell us whether Fielder's semi-diminished numbers with the Tigers in 2013 were injury-related or just a slightly down season. Designated hitter Mitch Moreland is still around after hitting .246/.297/.347, hit second consecutive year with an on-base percentage under .300. He had season-ending surgery in late June but has some fans hopeful with a pair of home runs already this spring.
The Rangers' middle infield has the potential to be one of the best in baseball for a number of years. Shortstop Elvis Andrus was a four-win player in 2011 and 2012, but his offensive numbers have dropped off considerably in the past couple seasons. Defensive metrics were also unhappy with him in 2014, but one-year blips in the data aren't uncommon. The real question is whether he can get on base, and the signs aren't promising. His walk rate has dropped in each of the past five seasons, and his .263 batting average last season was a career-low. Rougned Odor played just 32 games at Double-A as a 20-year-old before being called up last season, but he kept his head above water in 417 plate appearances. A top-50 prospect prior to 2014, Odor has potential to be an above average second baseman sooner rather than later.
Catcher Robinson Chirinos wasn't able to replicate the offensive numbers of predecessors Mike Napoli or A.J. Pierzynski, but above average defense made him the most valuable Rangers catcher since Napoli put up 5.4 WAR in 2011. Chirinos held his own at the plate with a .705 OPS in 338 plate appearances, but his 40 percent caught stealing rate was even more impressive. He rated as one of the worst pitch framers in baseball, though. Former Astros backup Carlos Corporan will fill a similar role with the Rangers this season. As one might expect coming from that organization, Corporan was one of the better pitch framers in the game. However, his cold bat made him expendable when the 'Stros acquired Hank Conger from the Los Angeles Angels during the offseason. It will be interesting to see which catcher new saber-savvy manager Jeff Bannister prefers, but expect Chirinos to get the larger number of starts.
Two-thirds of the Rangers' outfield is set, with Leonys Martin and Shin-Soo Choo penciled in to center and right field, respectively. Martin hit .274/.325/.364, stole 31 bases, and played spectacular defense in 2014, making him worth 3.5 WAR. He will begin the season as the team's leadoff hitter, but will need to improve upon a career 6.2 percent walk rate if he wants to excel in that role. Choo has dealt with health and injury issues this spring after dealing with injury issues that ultimately ended his season in 2014. He had elbow and ankle surgery after the season, but looks like he will start on Opening Day barring any setbacks. Ryan Rua appears to have the left field job all but locked down after an impressive 2014 debut and red-hot spring, but it's tough to say just how good he can be. A 17th round pick out of Lake Erie College in 2011, Rua is a career .284/.365/.489 hitter in four minor league seasons.
With Yu Darvish set to miss the 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery, lefthander Derek Holland will be counted upon to be the de facto ace of the Rangers' staff. Holland, like so many others, missed a significant portion of 2014 due to injury. He returned in September to allow a 1.46 ERA in six appearances, striking out 25 batters to just five walks. He has shown flashes of ace potential before, and was coming off a four-win season with 213 innings pitched in 2013 before getting hurt. While he has the most upside of anyone on the staff, Texas native Yovani Gallardo will likely be the team's Opening Day starter. Gallardo was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers during the offseason in exchange for a trio of prospects, including former Tigers farmhand Corey Knebel. Gallardo allowed a career-best 3.51 ERA in 192 1/3 innings last year, and has topped 180 innings pitched in each of the past six seasons.
Righthander Colby Lewis pitched in 2014 after having a hip replacement, which is a notable achievement on its own. He wasn't particularly effective, allowing a 5.14 ERA and 4.46 FIP. However, he did log 170 1/3 innings, led the Rangers in starts, and was much better (3.86 ERA, 1.23 WHIP) after the All-Star break. Steamer and ZiPS projections aren't particularly bullish on him, but he hasn't worked a full season since 2011. Lefthander Ross Detwiler appears to have a slight leg up on the fifth starter contenders listed below due to his more extensive track record with the Washington Nationals. Detwiler worked 235 2/3 innings with a 3.59 ERA as a starter in 2012 and the first half of 2013, but missed the second half with a herniated disk in his back. He was relegated to bullpen duty in 2014, where he allowed a 4.00 ERA and 4.16 FIP in 63 innings.
Young lefthander Martin Perez is currently working his way back from Tommy John surgery, but is not expected to debut until around the All-Star break. He threw off of a full mound last week, which is a good sign. Matt Harrison, who is coming off of back surgery, also threw off of a mound recently. Until they return, the back of the rotation will be filled by a number of replacement level options. Nick Tepesch appears to be the frontrunner for the fifth starter spot, while 2014 holdovers Nick Martinez, Lisalverto Bonilla, and Anthony Ranaudo could also see some innings. Martinez was forced into MLB action earlier than he probably should have been, but he did show improvement throughout the season. Ranaudo left a spring training game with an injury last week and missed a few days of action.
Neftali Feliz has totaled just 79 innings in the past three seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August of 2012. He had a 1.99 ERA in 31 2/3 innings last season, but had a .176 BABIP and 1.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His strikeout rate has fallen steadily since his stellar rookie season in 2010, and he averaged just 93.4 miles per hour with his fastball last season, well below the 97-98 he averaged in 2010. Tanner Scheppers and Shawn Tolleson are the only other relievers with jobs currently lined up if they're healthy. Scheppers sprained an ankle earlier this spring, but has logged a pair of innings in the past four days. Tolleson was scratched from an outing over the weekend due to arm soreness and hasn't appeared in game action this week. The rest of the bullpen appears to be a complete toss-up, though lefthander Alex Claudio seems safe as he's the only lefty in camp right now.
Down on the farm
While they don't possess the top-end talent of teams like the Minnesota Twins or Chicago Cubs, the Rangers have one of the deepest farm systems in baseball. Baseball Prospectus ranked their system fourth, while Fangraphs' KATOH prospect projection system considers them the best in baseball. Third baseman Joey Gallo is the top prospect in the system thanks to his 80-grade raw power. He hit 42 home runs and drove in 106 runs in 537 plate appearances between Advanced-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Frisco. There are concerns about his hit tool -- he struck out in 39.5 percent of his plate appearances at Double-A -- but not enough to stop him from being a top-10 prospect in all of baseball. Right-hander Chi Chi Gonzalez was recently optioned to the minors, but he should make his MLB debut this season. Catcher Jorge Alfaro, outfielder Nomar Mazara, and former Tigers righthander Jake Thompson have all cracked various top-100 lists.
Player to watch: Adrian Beltre
Watch him while you can. Beltre is one of the best and most under-appreciated players in baseball at the same time. A career .285/.337/.479 hitter with 395 home runs and a sterling defensive reputation, Beltre is already receiving consideration for Hall of Fame votes whenever he becomes eligible. However, we have a long time to wait for that debate. Beltre was still one of the most productive players in the league last season, with an .879 OPS in 614 plate appearances. His 5.7 WAR ranked third among all MLB third basemen, while his 141 wRC+ was tied for 13th among qualified MLB hitters. He has shown zero signs of slowing down -- he led the AL in hits as a 34-year-old in 2013 -- and is under contract for two more seasons. The only real question we may have when he retires is how in the world it took him until 2010 to appear in the All-Star Game.
The first sentence of Lone Star Ball's season preview is "It can't be worse, right?" While losing Darvish to Tommy John surgery seems like the start of "worse," it's hard to see the Rangers being as bad as they were in 2014. Their roster is older and more brittle than many people realized when they were picking them as World Series favorites last season, but there is a good amount of talent in this organization. Fielder and Choo are (relatively) healthy, Beltre is a Hall of Fame talent, and young players like Odor should improve. Even if all of those players stay healthy and effective, it's tough to see them making a huge jump into the upper echelon of the division without the kind of pitching that the A's, Mariners, and Angels have. The 2015 season could be a long one in Arlington, but hopefully not as long and painful as 2014 was.