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2007 Team Preview: Texas Rangers

2006 W-L: 80-82 (3rd place)

2006 Pythag: 86-76

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:

Brandon McCarthy, Frank Catalanotto, Marlon Byrd, Kenny Lofton, Eric Gagne, Slammin' Sammy

Going:

Rod Barajas, Gary Matthews Jr., Mark DeRosa, Carlos Lee, Jerry Hairston, Adam Eaton, Kip Wells, Nick Masset, John Danks

The Rangers In a Nutshell:

For those of us who don't actively follow the AL West during the season, it's easy to lapse into thinking of the Rangers as also-rans in a division long-dominated by the stat-rich A's and the just-plain-rich Angels.  Despite having a losing record in '06, the Rangers scored 50 more runs than they allowed, and should avoid some of the pitfalls (Phil Nevin, anyone?) that befell them in offense-focused positions last year.  The division will remain competitive, but the Rangers should be in the thick of it.

Offense:

If you don't count catcher as an "up the middle" position, few teams were stronger up the middle last year than the Rangers were.  They'll have Ian Kinsler and Michael Young back, but Gary Matthews Jr. signed elsewhere.  This isn't a bad thing: just because he OPS'd over 850 and made one too many highlight reels to remain objective about doesn't mean he'll ever do that again.

The Rangers should be happy about their infield corners: Mark Teixeira is a lock to slug 500, and I think this is the year Hank Blalock silences his doubters--I don't have a good argument for that, I just think it is.  However, the rest of the positions on that side of the defensive spectrum are the biggest question marks this team has.

In a way, Jon Daniels is calling a stathead bluff with his LF/RF/DH combination the same way that Jim Bowden is doing so with his rotation.  If you have good offensive players in some traditional weak positions, as the Rangers should at both 2B and SS, you don't necessarily need impact bats at the corners, you just need some average production.  (It doesn't hurt to have Tex hulking in the middle of your lineup, of course.)  

You can (so the argument goes, anyway) get such average production from a solid young player (Nelson Cruz, Victor Diaz, Jason Botts), a recovering buy-low candidate (Brad Wilkerson, or in the extreme, Sammy Sosa), or a platoon monster who should never play full-time (Frank Catalanotto).  Texas loaded up on those three without spending more than a few million on any of them.  By providing Ron Washington with options, Daniels should avoid suffering through another 300+ ABs of a sub-replacement Wilkerson, or anything resembling Phil Nevin's 2006 performance.

While Daniels did a nice job of assembling an offense without spending too much money, it's questionable whether this year's crew represents an improvement on last year's version.  Sure, LF and DH will get boosts, but Cruz probably won't outdo Mark DeRosa's career year, and there's no way that Kenny Lofton will manage anything like the 2006 GMJ outlier show.  If Washington can coax average-or-better production out of LF, RF, and DH, though, the offense ought to at least tread water.

Starting Rotation

The Rangers may still have the worst starting five in the the division, but it's a big step up from last year's rotation.  The major difference is the addition of Brandon McCarthy, who came at high cost (John Danks and Nick Masset) but could step right in to the #3 spot left vacant by everyone who tried to fill it last year.

McCarthy slots in behind Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, two pitchers who aren't about to challenge for the Cy Young award, but are about as close to a lock for 25+ above-average starts as you'll find in the American League.  Neither missed an outing last year, which is important: while this rotation has the potential of a quite solid front four, it falls off fast after that.

Forming the middle of the rotation with McCarthy is Robinson Tejeda, a 25-year-old who, last year, was solid in the big leagues and dominant in Triple-A.  Tejeda is the first guy I've mentioned who carries a heavy dose of risk; whether he provides 30 average-or-better starts could be the difference between a September that matters and a September that's just humid.

There are plenty of candidates for the 5th spot; it probably doesn't matter much who gets the nod out of spring training, as the first loser will probably get at least a dozen starts, and the second loser will too.  The three returning possibilities, along with their 2006 ERAs, are John Koronka (5.69), Kameron Loe (5.86), John Rheinecker (5.86), and Edinson Volquez (7.29).  

Those numbers aren't quite as bad as they look: in Ameriquest, all of them except for Volquez's are good for an 80 ERA+, roughly replacement level.  Having three options that could give you replacement level innings is nice, but that's where Tejeda's durability comes in: if the Rangers need 60 or 70 starts from this trio, they'll be competing with the Mariners, not the A's or Angels.  Volquez is the wildcard: he's still only 23, and he's likely to be a solid pitcher one of these years.  It would be foolish, though, to rely heavily on him this season.

The Bullpen

This is my eleventh team preview, and let me tell you, I don't much like writing about bullpens.  I would like to tell you that Eric Gagne is going to return to form and that he'll be wonderful.  Or that he'll bomb, and that Akinori Otsuka will anchor a surprisingly effective bullpen in Gagne's absense.

But let's face it: I don't know.  And neither do you.

What we do know is that it's a darn good thing that Buck Showalter is gone.  Showalter buried Brian Shouse (who put together a nice couple of months in Milwaukee, to no benefit of the Rangers), and demoted Francisco Cordero after a rough few outings.  That demotion led (indirectly, of course) to Cordero's inclusion in another Milwaukee deal, the more prominent one for Carlos Lee.  While Gagne could be spectacular, it's unlikely he'll be much better than Coco would've been--and the Rangers had a team option on Cordero for $5M.  (No millions in incentives, and no Scott Boras, either.)

But that's all water under the bridge.  I would hope that the arrival of Ron Washington means that more of the young arms in the Rangers system will get a better shot.  After Gagne and Otsuka, it would appear that Ron Mahay, Rick Bauer, Joaquin Benoit, and C.J. Wilson can count on jobs with the big club.  That leaves plenty of guys on the bubble: Scott Feldman, Wes Littleton, Josh Rupe, Frank Francisco, and Volquez, among them.

Mahay is as volatile as they come, but when he's at the top of his game, he's a very solid left-hander.  If he falters, Wilson appears ready to fill the breach.  Bauer and Benoit are fungible middle-relief guys; either one could probably be replaced with the best of the bubble bunch without the team noticing much of a difference.

The 9th inning, of course, is the big question mark, and it's the one I can't even venture a guess about.  Lucky for the Rangers, Otsuka proved he can close; whether he's pitching in the 8th or 9th inning, he's one of the better relievers in the game.  If Gagne returns to anything close to his best form, lots of games will be over after seven innings.  (Which may be enough, if Koronka's on the mound, but that's neither here nor there.)  If Gagne isn't...well, we can all hope for a resurgent Frank Francisco.

All Together Now

With Phil Nevin gone, the Rangers are finally completely out from under the financial aftermath of the Alex Rodriguez and Chan Ho Park contracts.  That means the Rangers were not only able to upgrade the rotation (and plan for the long term of that unit) in each of the last two offseasons, but that they'll be more financially flexible during the season, as well.

That's all great news for the fans in Arlington, because this team is poised, at the very least, to be a major part of the race in 2008.  A run at the division in '07 depends on a few things going right: some combination of the fringey corner guys needs to provide some pop, the front of the rotation needs to stay healthy, and of course it wouldn't hurt if Gagne goes back to striking out 3.5 guys per inning.

If you put much faith in the Rangers 86 pythagorean wins last year, it's easy to see them as the division winner.  That would've left them only 8 games short of the postseason, and it's possible that 90 wins will do it this year.  If you use their 80 actual wins as a baseline...well, we're back to the '08 scenario.

I'm going to venture a guess that the Rangers will win 85 games.  After the season, Daniels will sign (or trade for) an impact corner bat (Adam Dunn, perhaps?) and Texas will be poised for a run in 2008.  If all goes well, no one will worry about having lost John Danks, and Buck Showalter will have to buy his own drinks.