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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

DTGG Season Preview: The Rangers, or Learning the Hard(en) Way

The Rangers surprised many last season by finishing second to the Angels in the AL West.  What's even more surprising is that they did so on the strength of pitching and defense.  The 740 runs they allowed was their lowest total since the strike shortened 1995 season, and lowest total in a full 162 game season since 1990.  Wow.  Unfortunately for the Rangers, the 784 runs they scored were the fewest they'd put up in a full season since 1992.

At first glance it would seem that the arms of Kevin Millwood, Scott Feldman, and Tommy Hunter were responsible for their success in run prevention.  Millwood made 31 starts and put up an ERA of 3.67 while Feldman and Hunter combined for 53 starts and both had ERAs in the low 4.00s.  The starters, however, were helped significantly by an exceptional bullpen and a strong defense.  Texas had eight pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched, and only 2 had ERAs over 4.00 (Jason Jennings, 4.13, and Eddie Guardado, 4.46).  Particularly strong were Darren O'Day (1.94 ERA), CJ Wilson (2.81), and, in a brief major league debut, Neftali Feliz (1.74).

All of these pitchers, especially the starters, got a big boost from their defense.  Although neither Michael Young (-8.4 UZR) nor Chris Davis (-3.3 at 1B) were particularly strong the rest of Texas' position players were well above average defensively.  Elvis Andrus made the club as a 20 year old on the strength of his fielding and he didn't disappoint, putting up the third highest UZR (10.7) among ML shortstops last year.

The Rangers return largely the same team in 2010 that played in Arlington in 2009.  Their biggest move was trading away Kevin Millwood and replacing him in the rotation with Rich Harden.  On offense they let Marlon Byrd go in free agency and will replace his at bats (and his time in the field) with Julio Borbon. 

The question for the Rangers is whether they'll be able to maintain their strong run prevention, while improving their offense enough to push them to the front of the AL West.

The Rangers return the bulk of their exceedingly strong bullpen from last year.  They lost two of their weaker members in Jennings and Guardado, but will see one of its stalwarts, CJ Wilson, start the year in the rotation.  Frank Francisco will be the closer, and while he's no slouch himself, the Rangers' best reliever may be Neftali Feliz.  Feliz, one of the game's best prospects, was dominating in his major league trial last year.  He struck out about a third of the batters he faced in the majors last season while walking only 8 in 31 innings.  His future most likely lies in the rotation, but he showed last year the kind of impact he can have while in the bullpen.  Darren O'Day is death to righties and Darren Oliver 2.0 is just as tough on lefties.  Dustin Nippert, Chris Ray, and Doug Mathis round out a bullpen that rivals the A's both in depth and in top-end quality.

The Rangers have a very strong core of a lineup, starting with Ian Kinsler and Michael Young.  Each have been consistently good offensively, and both have, at times been very good.  Josh Hamilton may be a bit overrated because of his awe inspiring display in the Home Run Derby in 2008 and his awww inspiring life story, but he has shown that he can be very good when healthy.  Nelson Cruz is also a good hitter who may put up another All-Star season in the next year or two.

(Quick-ish note on Nelson Criuz, former A's prospect.  The A's acquired him from the Mets in exchange for Jorge Velandia.  Four years later they traded him to the Brewers in the deal that brought Keith Ginter and his 22 hit, 25 RBI season to Oakland.)

Texas' offense also has a lot of upside.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been pretty awful so far in the majors, but his minor league track record suggests he's not as bad as his 2009 line.  While he probably will never become the star some had envisioned, CHONE, as well as a few other projection systems, expect him to be a league average hitter in 2010.  Regardless of how much he improves, it'd be hard for him (or Taylor Teagarden) to put up a worse line than his .233/.290/.371 2009 campaign.

Chris Davis was another young player who disappointed last year.  After putting up a .285/.331/.549 in half a season in Texas in 2008, Davis stumbled badly in '09, eventually getting sent back down to AAA.  He hit well in September, but his struggles with strikeouts and lefties may prevent him from becoming a star.  The Rangers brought in the right handed hitting Ryan Garko whose presence will allow Davis to sit against some, if not all, lefties.  Even if Davis doesn't set the AL afire with his bat, a Chryan Darko platoon will certainly outperform Davis' 2009 campaign.

The Rangers biggest soft spot is their starting rotation.  As mentioned above, Kevin Millwood was very good in nearly 200 innings of work last year.  A's fans are super-familiar with his replacement, Rich Harden, and what he does and does not bring to the table.  What is essentially a given is that he won't pitch 200 innings.  And while he's likely to be good when he is healthy, he was far from dominating last year, posting an ERA of 4.09 and a FIP of 4.35.  For all of his ability, its not clear that going from Millwood to Harden is at all an upgrade.

Opening Day starter and new multi-millionaire Scott Feldman is also a bit of a question mark.  He lowered his ERA by more than a full run last season in what almost assuredly was a career year.  Yes, he's an extreme groundball pitcher, but his low K rate and mediocre walk rate makes him look like, at best a league average pitcher. 

Behind Feldman and Harden are another pair of question marks, CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis.  Wilson, despite not starting a game since 2006 (when he started 6), converted to starting pitching this offseason.  Even taking into the account his exceptional '07 and '09 campaigns, its hard to imagine him being much better than a replacement level pitcher.  I like the Lewis gambit quite a bit more, but to this point its just that, gambit.  While his major league numbers stateside (career 6.71 ERA) strongly suggest that he doesn't belong anywhere near a big league rotation, his Nintendo-type numbers in Japan (9.79 K:BB ration) suggest he's become a different pitcher.  The only real way to test which one is true is to let him pitch, but I don't think anyone can say with certainty how this will end up.

The rest of the Rangers' options are not particularly comforting.  Brandon McCarthy, Matt Harrison, and Tommy Hunter each have some upside, but none of them have particularly high ceilings.

The other problem with the Rangers is the large amount of risk they have in their players even outside of the rotation.  Ian Kinsler has only once played more than 130 games and is already hurt.  Josh Hamilton has played only one full season in the major and minor leagues combined.  Michael Young is 33 and missed a month of the 2009 season.  Chris Davis and Julio Borbon could stink, Justin Smoak may not be ready.  Wilson and Lewis may not pan out as starters and Feldman could turn into a pumpkin.  Harden will get hurt.

What's significant about all this risk is that I'm not giving a list of far-fetched scenarios.  While it's unlikely that everything breaks badly for the Rangers, their season really relies on how many of these things go right.  Yes, every team does have to deal with injuries and to some extent relies on a young player breaking out or old guy returning to form, but the Rangers have so many of these.

If everything goes right the Rangers have one of the league's top offenses, a decent starting staff, and a strong bullpen - a formula for a 90+ win team.  If enough things go wrong the Rangers could have one of the league's worst pitching staffs and a mediocre offense - a formula for a 75 win team.  Split the difference and you're looking at a roughly .500 team.  I could see any of these things happening.

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