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A Texas Rangers preview from a fan's perspective

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A good friend of DQ and myself, Dan Hagelberg, was kind enough to write up a Texas Rangers preview article. As much as Astros fans may not like to admit, the Rangers are becoming a team to be reckoned with. Considering the strength of their farm system, and the direction the club is headed in with Nolan Ryan at the healm, north Texas baseball fans have a lot to be excited about. Thanks to Dan for writing this for us. Also, welcome to any readers from the Ranger's SBN blog, Lone Star Ball.

Chances are you’ve heard about the Texas Rangers and the collection of talent that comprises what most call the best farm system in all of baseball. The depth acquired from trades, the amateur draft, and Latin America has a perennial doormat primed for a serious and extended run of contention.

This however, does not mean that the 2009 Texas Rangers will be competitive. The majority of this talent remains in the lower levels of the farm system and this leaves the current ballclub looking much like the team that won only 79 games last year. They signed no free agents to major league contracts this offseason and have elected to hold their cards until the minor league cavalry arrives.

Let’s take a look at the roster:

Infield:

Much of the talk this offseason was about the drama that erupted when Michael Young, fresh off of winning a gold glove at shortstop, was asked to move to 3rd base to make room for 20 year old Venezuelan prospect, Elvis Andrus. Initially, Young demanded to be traded but considering his declining offensive value and albatross of a contract (he’s due $15-16 million per year for the next five), this was next to impossible. Eventually, he acquiesced to the move and returned to being the consummate professional he is known for.

The primary reason for this move was to improve the defense on the left side of the infield. Andrus is a gifted fielder with exceptional range and Young will be a dramatic improvement from the trio of Hank Blalock, Ramon Vasquez, and Chris Davis. John Dewan, the author of the fielding bible, is on record saying these two moves alone could save well over 40 runs during the course of the year. Despite the defensive improvement, Andrus has to prove he can be at least an average offensive player (a tall order for a guy making the jump from double-A) or his defensive prowess will be for naught.

Ian Kinsler was turning in his finest season when he succumbed to another freak injury, this time a sports hernia that shut him down for the year in mid-August. He is in camp, healthy again and hoping to play over 130 games a year for the first time in his career. He could put up a monster season if he could stay healthy.

After only two years in the minors, Chris Davis was called up mid-season and turned in an impressive performance as a rookie, hitting 17 home runs in only 295 at bats. He is improving defensively and has been named the first baseman for the immediate future. The sky’s the limit for this for this young power hitter.

Behind the plate, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden comprise 2/3rds of the best young catching talent in the game. There were rumors that Saltalamacchia would be shipped to Boston in exchange for starter Clay Bucholtz but nothing has happened so far. Saltalamacchia is going to be the primary starter but he will be spelled frequently by Teagarden, who is a superior defensive player. In Triple-A, Max Ramirez will undoubtedly continue to destroy minor league pitching and wait for the opportunity to be a full-time player.  It’s a position of great depth for the ballclub and one of these three will most likely be involved in a trade for pitching during the course of the year.

Davis_medium

Chris Davis

Outfield:

The outfield is a little crowded right now with six players vying for five spots.

We have all heard about the incomparable Josh Hamilton by now and he will continue to anchor the offense and man centerfield for the Rangers. He has rebuilt his swing in an effort to be more consistent and to avoid the late season slump he endured in August and September last year. If he can accomplish this, he will be an MVP candidate by the end of the season.

In right field, Nelson Cruz, a perennial quad-A player, seemed to finally turn the corner last year, hitting nearly .340 with 44 home runs between the minor and major leagues. He is a good defender and one of the few right handed power bats the Rangers have. He will be the undisputed starter for the first time in his career and how he performs with 600 or so at-bats will be crucial to the Rangers’(and High Leverage’s fantasy team) success.

Left field is a little muddled. David Murphy has been declared the starter but his struggles against left handed pitching cries out for a platoon with Marlon Byrd.  He had a solid year going until a collision with Pudge Rodriguez at the plate ended his season with an MCL sprain. He will get his opportunity to prove himself but will be the outfielder most likely spelled throughout the year..

Marlon Byrd has resurrected his career here in Arlington and is a solid defender with a great arm. He is a serviceable offensive player and will get his at-bats this year as a 4th outfielder. He would also be a good candidate for a mid-season trade, the Cubs were rumored to be interested last year but nothing manifested. He will be a free agent after this season and with the talent on the way, it will most likely be his last with the Rangers.

Andruw Jones has made the team as a 5th outfielder and a right handed DH. It’s another one of the Rangers reclamation projects for the year and despite a marina sized trench drop in production over the past two years, hitting coach Rudy Jarmillo feels confident he has fixed the flaws in Jones’ swing and that will turn in a productive 250-300 at bats for the Rangers. It’s a bit of a puzzling move for the Rangers because Jones can’t possibly have a future outside of this season with the team but none the less, he will begin the year on the 25 man roster.

To make room for Jones, Italian superstar Frank Catalanotto was released, the Rangers eating the remaining six million dollars of his contract. As a skilled pinch hitter, he will latch on with another National League team soon enough.

Pitching:

The Rangers had the worst pitching staff in the majors last year. It was comically bad at times (see a 19-17 loss to the Red Sox) but the starters were also wrought with injuries. Texas started fifteen different pitchers over the year, another dubious league high total.

This year features many of the same faces but super prospects Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz are waiting in the wings and will most certainly be called up before the All-Star break to counteract any injury or inefficiency by the starting five. If the Rangers can remain somewhat healthy and have just average to mediocre pitching, their offense could carry them into the playoffs. Like everything, but especially with the Texas Rangers, it all comes down to pitching.

Kevin Millwood will make his fourth opening day start and will be counted on to be the horse of the starting rotation. After two stints on the DL last year, Millwood declared himself to be an "embarrassment" and spent the offseason becoming more fit so that he could stay healthier and be more effective. I’m going to pretend that Millwood’s $12 million dollar option for 2010 that kicks in if he reaches 180 innings pitched has nothing to do with his new found dedication. Regardless, he has proven himself to be an above average starter with Cleveland and Atlanta and while it might be hoping for too much to expect something like that, the Rangers will only go as far as Millwood can take them.

Vincente Padilla remains a loose cannon but was named the Rangers organizational pitcher of the year last year. He is a serviceable starter and is also a free agent after the season, giving him more incentive to pitch up the relatively effective levels he displayed in 2005 and 2006. At this point, he is what he is-occasionally dominate, frequently erratic, and known to willingly plunk Angel hitters and anger Ozzie Guillen(another Astro favorite).

I’m afraid that even typing Brandon McCarthy’s name will hurt him so I’m just going to say that he’s 25 lbs heavier and survived spring training without any injury for the first time in his Ranger career. I hope one day he will make me wish we hadn’t traded John Danks for him. Now shhh…Brandon, get back in that bubble.

Matt Harrison is the lone lefty in the rotation and came over from Atlanta in the Mark Texiera deal two years ago. Like most young pitchers, he had some starts that were dominate and some that were not. He throws in the low 90s and has an effective breaking ball. He won’t win any Cy Youngs but the Rangers hope he can be a solid third or fourth starter for many years to come. He’s one of the first legitimate pitching prospects to establish himself in the rotation in the last three years (such a scary thought).

Kris Benson has somehow recovered from rotator cuff surgery that has kept him out of the majors for the last two years and pitched himself into the rotation this spring. He has never been anything other than average but the Rangers just need innings from him and hopefully he can provide that. He will never live up to his draft status (#1 overall in 2006) but time will tell if he really does belong back in the majors.

The bullpen was abused last year and pitched the most innings of any ballclub. They were average before the huge workload that the starters dumped on them and after a summer of abuse, they became downright terrible. With an emphasis on the starters going deeper into ballgames, the hope is that the bullpen will be able to remain effective throughout the year as it was in 2004, when the Rangers last had a winning record.

Frank Francisco, when not throwing chairs at fans, is a very good pitcher. He throws heat and has a hard slider that misses a lot of bats. He took over for the injured and maddeningly inconsistent C.J. Wilson last year and performed well. He begins the year as the closer.

C.J. Wilson’s season ended in August last year when he had surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow. It was a frustrating season because there would be stretches when he was reliable and others when he couldn’t seem to close out a game with a three run lead. Now healthy, he has been almost unhittable this spring and will be one of the two lefthanders in the pen. He is the primary eighth inning setup man right now and will be first in line to close should Francisco struggle. If he can command his pitches, he has the most talent of any pitcher in the pen.

Warner "Mad Dog" Madrigal as he is known, was snatched away from the Angels last year when they missed the deadline to sign him. He’s a hard throwing right-hander who not surprisingly has control issues but remains tantalizing enough to earn spot in the bullpen.

Eddie Guardado was traded midseason to the Twins last year (for Mark Hamburger-such an awesome name!) but was re-signed this offseason. While not overpowering anymore, he remains a good left-handed pitcher who can be counted on to get outs. The generic veteran clubhouse influence over the younger pitchers also applies.

Jason Jennings (you Houston fans know him well) parlayed an ERA over 6.5 last year into another minor league contract with the Rangers after successfully recovering from a torn flexor muscle in his elbow. He will start the year in the bullpen as a long reliever and a spot starter if needed. I hope that it will not come to that.

After being the most reliable (notice I didn’t say best) starter last year, Scott Feldman was rewarded with a demotion to the bullpen to be the other right handed long reliever. Apparently the Rangers feel Kris Benson can offer more than Feldman’s 150 innings of ERA+ 83 pitching. Who am I to say?

Josh Rupe rounds out the bullpen and will most likely not survive the season. He has moments of effectiveness but they are often marred by walks and homers. He is the last resort.

With an above average offense and below average pitching staff, I’m expecting nothing more than a .500 ballclub. If some breaks fall our way and Millwood can return to his old ways, it would be easy to see them exceeding that record. The AL West is definitely down this year and it might not even take 90 wins to win it, it all comes down to the pitching.  The Rangers have a surplus of talent and while this year may not show it, they are most certainly a team on the upswing, look for them to become competitive in 2010. Until then, enjoy the offense, they are fun to watch.