Three things you might not know about the 2004 Texas Rangers:
Unlike their division rivals, the Rangers hit the pause button after the season ended and will return with virtually the same group that posted the franchise's first winning record in five years. Other than right field, designated hitter, and one rotation spot, the names haven't changed. Texas will seek internal improvement, perhaps augmented with an in-season trade or two.
OFFSEASON / MANAGEMENT
Last summer, assistant General Manager Grady Fuson was two years and nine months into a three-year intership for the GM position. He and owner Tom Hicks agreed to a contract for 2005. Only weeks later, he was gone. So the story goes, Hicks and alleged lame-duck GM John Hart got to talking. Hart decided he wanted to hang around after all. Manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser lent their support. Just that quickly, Fuson had no promotion waiting for him and no role in the organization.
After last winter's trade of Alex Rodriguez, I expressed skepticism about the heralded "payroll flexibility" in the wake of the Alex Rodriguez trade. To this point, the team has "rewarded" my skepticism by signing exactly one free agent of significance since then: Richard Hidalgo for one year at $5 million. Otherwise, except for a run at Carlos Delgado, Texas has looked askance on the spendthrift ways of its competition. The only other meaningful signings were the aging and oft-injured trio of Pedro Astacio, catcher Sandy Alomar and DH Greg Colbrunn.
Payroll has plummeted from over $100 million to under $60 million in three years. Indeed, the third-highest salary on the club belongs to the starting third baseman for the New York Yankees. Only Chan Ho Park and Alfonso Soriano make more. Regarding Park, remember the fuss about how a team couldn't compete when one player earned too high a percentage of the team's payroll?
Year Team Payroll Highest-Paid Player Player Salary Payroll Pct.
2003 $94,000,000 Alex Rodriguez $23,000,000 23%
2005 $59,000,000 Chan Ho Park $14,000,000 24%
Manager Buck Showalter has yet to wear out his welcome. He deservedly won the Manager of the Year award by leading his troops to an entirely unexpected eighteen-game improvement and meaningful baseball in late September. Arguably, the team's biggest free-agent signing was hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who considered leaving for the Mets. Jaramillo preaches an aggressive style that tends to produce better batting averages but fewer walks. (I hope to publish a study on him soon.) The players swear by him. Pitching coach Orel Hershiser has a bright future, bright enough that he turned down a contract extension. He'll ascend to GM someday, perhaps in Texas. The staff has bought into his mental approach and insistence on pitches that induce ground balls.
You've heard it a million times (I've heard it a billion): "The Rangers have a great offense, but they'll never win with that pitching."
This is demonstrably untrue, and the next time someone says it to you, hit the offender on the snout with a rolled-up newspaper (unless the offending party is your mother). The offense was nothing special in 2004, and it was the deciding factor in the Rangers' slide out of the division lead. On the morning of July 21, Texas held a 2.5-division lead going into a twelve-game stretch against Anaheim and Oakland. Texas scored only 39 runs in those twelve games, lost eight, and set the tone for the rest of the season. Allow me to illustrate:
Period Scored/Game Allowed/Game Record
Through July 20: 5.72 4.97 53-38
After July 20: 4.78 4.82 36-35
The pitching held up while the offense declined by almost a full run per game. After the All-Star Break, Texas batted .248/.316/.432, dead last in the AL in batting average and thirteenth in OBP.
The Ballpark in Arlington (renamed, not acknowledged) isn't Coors Field, but it does give a big boost to the offense. The Rangers led the division in runs scored for the season and simultaneously finished last in OPS+:
Team AVG+ OBP+ SLG+ OPS+ Runs
Anaheim 105 101 99 100 -- 836
Oakland 99 101 99 100 -- 793
Seattle 103 101 95 96 -- 698
Texas 94 93 100 94 -- 860
Now, OPS is not the holy grail of statistics, but the Rangers clearly struggled to get runners on base despite finishing fifth in the league in runs scored. Their .329 OBP was just below the AL average and a gruesome 24 points below average after adjusting for their offense-friendly home park. In fact, the Rangers' OBP+ of 94 was the fourth-worst in franchise history. They outscored the 2003 squad by 34 runs, but the average AL team increased its output by 23.
Carlos Delgado would not have been a frivolous addition to an already dynamic offense. On the contrary, he would have filled a gaping hole. The dubious DH situation is one reason why Texas is just not good enough to make the postseason in 2005.
The Sure Things
25 next month, first baseman Mark Teixeira looks ready for entry into the realm of elite sluggers. Teixeira improved on his average, patience and power in his sophomore season. Unlike many Rangers, he did not slump after the All-Star break and hit well on the road. He has quickly established himself as a fine defender.
Third baseman Hank Blalock roared out of the gate in 2004 and carried a line of .303/.369/.572 into his second All-Star appearance in two years as a regular. A sore wrist and general exhaustion resulted in a gloomier second half (.240/.338/.406). Not sitting against lefties as he did much of 2003, Blalock simply wore out. To his credit, he showed extraordinary patience to compensate for his weakened bat. In fact, he had more walks in September (17) than extra bases on hits (16). He is a solid if unspectacular fielder. Blalock is seven months younger than Teixeira.
Michael Young is exactly the kind of player fans can love and a suitable replacement for retired fan favorite Rusty Greer. He's far too talented to deserve the backhanded compliment of "scrappy," but he is also someone who gets the very most out of his talent and has improved beyond expectations. Young reached the Majors as an impatient .260 hitter with decent power and has evolved into a .300+ hitter with good power. He's still impatient. Young's .313 average in 2004 tied a career best at any level, and his 22 homers surpassed his best season to date (16 in the low-A Sally League) by six. He played shortstop for a while in the minors and handled the move from second with ease.
The Wild Cards
Texas's chances of contention rest largely with the four gentlemen below.
Alfonso Soriano finished his first season in Ranger blue with a .280 average, 28 homers, a 91 RBI. What a letdown. Yes, Soriano is an elite performer in fantasy leagues. In the real world, he declined dramatically from 2003, especially in light of his move from a pitcher's park to the best hitter's park in the AL. Walking once per twenty plate appearances makes for an uninspiring OBP when combined with that .280 average. Soriano is also well below average defensively. For someone who demands to play second base and only second base, he seems awfully indifferent to his performance at the position. He'll make a fine play and ten minutes later will let a lazy grounder bounce through his legs. Soriano is not a bad player, just a disappointing one. Despite all my negativity, I do expect the 29-year-old to return partially to Yankee form. That assumes he is healthy. A torn hamstring tendon ended his 2004 three weeks early, and he has run and fielded tentatively so far in Spring Training.
Left fielder Kevin Mench trailed only Mark Teixeira in slugging percentage in 2004. He is a mirror image of the team's offense as a whole: plenty of power but just short in batting average and walks. After over two years of frustrating injuries and a couple of dubious on-field decisions, Mench forced himself back into the everyday lineup in mid-August and provided one of the few post-All Star offensive bright spots. He is more the .279 hitter of 2004 than the .320 hitter of 2003, so the improved patience he showed in the second half is a welcome addition if permanent. Mench gives the appearance of a Greg Luzinski in the field but has surprisingly good range. He has played center field without embarrassing himself.
A very quick glance at the statistics would suggest that center fielder Laynce Nix was reaching his potential until a mid-June shoulder sprain wrecked his swing. Unfortunately , he'd already tailed off severely after a mesmerizing opening month (.365/.397/.714). Nix batted a wretched .224/.269/.380 after April 30 and enters 2005 on a short leash. He has yet to produce against lefties and probably will sit against them in favor of Gary Matthews (who actually hits better against righties). A lack of production will result in his sitting against almost everyone or even a demotion to AAA. Nix is very athletic and toolsy, which is why folks persist in hoping that he'll be a better player than Mench despite negligible evidence to date. His batting eye was keen in the minors but has been blind in the Majors. Even Soriano doesn't strikeout five times for each walk.
In my ESPN "job" as Rangers fantasy correspondent, I receive more questions about right fielder Richard Hidalgo than anybody else. I dread them. Review his OPS+ over the last six years -- 93, 147, 104, 89, 142, 90 - and tell me what to expect for 2005. Review his 2004 splits - a .341 batting average in April following by a .329 slugging percentage in May and June - and predict his future. Fortunately for Texas, even a mediocre season from Hidalgo will provide substantial improvement over last year's would-be right fielder Brian Jordan. Hidalgo is an extreme fly-ball hitter who could do some damage in Arlington if he doesn't become too pull-happy, as the left field line and power alley are the only places in the park not totally in favor of hitters. Hidalgo has adequate range and a strong arm.
From Opening Day through June 24 of last season, catcher Rod Barajas fused the powers of Johnny Bench and The Hulk, batting an unprecedented .284/.293/.627 including twelve homers in 134 at-bats. Yes, that's an .009 difference in his OBP and batting average, courtesy of two HBPs and exactly one walk. That span represents about 15% of his Major League career. In the other 85% he has batted .217/.259/.338. Which version of Barajas is more likely to appear in 2005? Barajas does play adequate defense, but he would need to mimic Ivan Rodriguez circa 1995 to offset his hitting.
Last year's Opening Day starter, 25-year-old Gerald Laird, will open in AAA. Laird won the job in Spring Training and played well until tearing a thumb ligament. He retuned hastily and batted .078 until losing his backup role to Ken Huckaby. He is healthy now. Is Laird really worse than Barajas, or is Ranger management mistaken? Either answer is disappointing.
At designated hitter, Texas offers the two-headed monster of David Dellucci (vs. righties) and Greg Colbrunn (vs. lefties). Dellucci adds value to a team if used the right way; he's a fine fourth outfielder, adequate defensively, able to draw a walk and put the ball in the seats on occasion. As a fourth outfielder and DH, he's overmatched. Dellucci might surpass last year's 387 plate appearances, an event not likely to coincide with a division-clinching victory.
Colbrunn was once a premier lefty-masher and pinch hitter. A wrist injury has limited him to just ninety plate appearances in the last two years. Age and rust don't normally add up to much, but Texas will hope for 200 quality plate appearances from him. The rest of the bench hits better against righthanders, so Texas is putting a lot of faith in Colbrunn. Designated hitter is a prime spot for improvement via trade.
Bench and Reinforcements
For much of last season, Showalter used platoons or frequent rotations at DH, catcher, and two outfield spots, practically guaranteeing every position player at least two starts per week. This year's bench will also see plenty of action.
Texas signed outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. when Atlanta released him last April, and in barely a month Matthews had become a valuable addition to the lineup. Last year's surprising line of .275/.350/.461 was not entirely without precedent, but on the whole Matthews is a bit below average in all respects but walking. Like Dellucci, he is a good bench player who would be stretched too thin in a starting role. Matthews does play capable center field defense.
Backup catcher Sandy Alomar hasn't displayed health and effectiveness in the same year since 1997. Why does Texas believe he will now? Ideally, the Ranger backup would be an offense-oriented type that partially compensates for the deficiency of Barajas. Alomar is decidedly not that type. Assuming Barajas and Alomar do receive the majority of starts behind the plate, Texas will sport one of the three or four worst-hitting corps of catchers in baseball.
This year's backup infielder will be Mark DeRosa, who represents a step up from Manny Alexander but a lesser bat than Eric Young, who departed for San Diego. Unlike his benchmates, DeRosa won't leave the dugout much unless someone gets hurt.
Adrian Gonzalez is a fine defensive first baseman who is incapable of playing elsewhere and who certainly won't supplant Mark Teixeira. Gonzalez might force his way into a DH-sharing arrangement if he continues his hot spring. His humdrum AAA season and ML debut were mild disappointments, but he's not yet 23. Gonzalez probably will begin the season in AAA with placement on a short list for a call-up.
The ascent of 2B/SS Ian Kinsler may push Soriano out the door before long. The 22-year-old batted .345/.429/.568 between AA and low-A followed by a similarly dandy line in the Arizona Fall League. Back spasms early in Spring Training ruined whatever slim chance 1B/OF Jason Botts had to make the club. Previously a .290 hitter with tremendous patience but little power, he nearly doubled his career best in homers with 24 and, like Kinsler, excelled in the AFL. He'll join Kinsler in AAA for now.
So, the offense was nothing special and certainly was not responsible for the 18-game improvement in the standings. What was? Would you believe the rotation?
Year IP W-L ER ERA LgERA ERA+
2003 832 47-65 577 6.24 4.94 79
2004 901 55-58 517 5.16 5.05 98
Admittedly, improvement comes cheap when the comparative rotation is so epically awful. Still, the Ranger rotation pitched 69 more innings and allowed 60 fewer earned runs than the 2003 version. If you're nerdy enough to make bar bets over ERA+, bet some poor sucker that the Ranger rotation was the equal of Anaheim in that regard. It's true!
Team IP ERA ERA+ Starters
Oakland 1,031 4.24 110 6
Anaheim 964 4.69 98 6
Texas 901 5.17 98 17
Seattle 988 4.88 88 11
That last column is the mangy 800-pound gorilla. Seventeen players started at least one game for Texas last year. Only Kenny Rogers and Ryan Drese started more than sixteen. Management deserves credit for constructing last year's semi-functional rotation out of binder's twine and rubber cement. This year, their goal is to add to last year's improvement and use several fewer starters in the process.
They're more likely to achieve the second goal than the first. Just in terms of probability, at least one pitcher among Kenny Rogers and Ryan Drese should decline. Chan Ho Park and Pedro Astacio both have several recent years of ill health and ill results. None of the youngsters is an ace-to-be; they have varying levels of potential and brief, sporadic success in the Majors. Again, the rotation's role will not be to win games but rather to avoid losing them.
What a difference a year makes for Kenny Rogers. In spring of 2004, he publicly vented his frustration over the Rodriguez trade, saying he didn't want to be part of a rebuilding effort in the twilight of his career. This spring he allegedly threatened retirement unless he received a contract extension. Whether management plant or true story, Rogers isn't talking to the media any more. Rogers earned an All-Star selection by winning eleven games with a 3.65 ERA over the season's first three months. After that, his ERA ballooned to 6.42, and batters hit .355 against him on balls in play. Bad luck, or the beginning of the end? Rogers doesn't have much in the way of stuff but succeeds with placement, smarts, and agile defense.
Orel Hershiser's resume should consist solely of a picture of Ryan Drese. Recoiling from a career track as the next John Wasdin, Drese junked his eminently hittable four-seamer in favor of a sinker that hitters pounded into the dirt. Like Rogers, he allows plenty of baserunners but minimizes the damage by spreading out those runners and keeping the ball out of the bleachers. Still, that style makes his 4.20 ERA seem like an anomaly. Drese should still be reasonably effective in 2005, but if 4.20 is the benchmark, place your money on the "over." Drese's ascension has allowed management to proffer the lie that Drese was an integral part of the abhorrent Travis Hafner for Einar Diaz trade at the end of 2002.
Every moment spent thinking about Chan Ho Park is a moment lost. Texas will give Park one final chance to justify a portion of his malignant contract. If he fails, they will set him free.
I snickered upon the news that Pedro Astacio was seeking a guaranteed deal. I laughed out loud upon the news that he received it. Upon the news that he signed with Texas, the humor of the situation somehow eluded me. The money itself matters little. However, his automatic placement on the 40-man roster implicitly grants him a rotation spot without him having to prove he can retire Major-League hitters. Shoulder injuries have limited him to 45 woeful innings over the last two years, and in the prior two years he was only a marginally effective inning-eater. A "Marginally effective inning-eater" is what Texas will hope for in 2005.
The back of the rotation offers more interest and promise. Thanks to some added pep to his fastball, Chris Young mutated from an underachiveving B-level prospect in the Pittsburgh and Montreal systems to a vital part of the Rangers' future in nine quick months. His seven-start Major-League trial was only modestly successful but featured memorable and dominating road starts against Boston and Anaheim. The oft-injured Ricardo Rodriguez received a literally crushing blow last July when a Rob Quinlan liner connected squarely with his pitching elbow. Like many Rangers, Rodriguez relies heavily on a sinker. He has occasional control problems, primarily in the form of a curve that doesn't curve. Rodriguez probably will start in AAA, but unless all of the top four starters remain healthy and effective (ha), he'll receive ample opportunity to stake his claim as a big-league starter. Juan Dominguez has better stuff than either of them but persists in aggravating management with his lackadaisical attitude and work habits. Pointedly cut early in Spring Training, he'll head back to Oklahoma City to work on becoming a pitcher instead of a thrower.
In 2003, the Texas pen begrudgingly set the Major League record for innings pitched with 601. In 2004, the collective threw 62 fewer innings and allowed an astonishing 119 fewer earned runs. They led the AL in ERA, wins, fewest losses, and Expected Wins Added (per Baseball Prospectus). In a sense, the bullpen's amazing 2004 is a problem. Five of the seven probable Opening Day relievers had career years, and Texas can't reasonably expect a repeat performance. The bullpen will simply be good, not otherworldly.
Regardless of the results, John Hart appears to have learned his lesson regarding bullpen construction. After signing a series of expensive and/or high-profile flops such as John Rocker, Hideki Irabu, Esteban Yan, Todd Van Poppel, Jay Powell, and Dan Miceli, Hart has become the poster boy for cheap and effective bullpen construction:
Player How Acquired
Carlos Almanzar Minor-league free agent
Frank Francisco Trade for Carl Everett
Brian Shouse Minor-league free agent
Ron Mahay Minor-league free agent
Doug Brocail Minor-league free agent
Francisco Cordero runs the show. Finally given the closer's job in Spring Training after proving he deserved it for two years, he promptly produced his best season including a franchise-record 49 saves. While not as dominating as Gagne, Lidge or Rivera, Cordero features a killer fastball-slider combo that produced more than a strikeout per inning and allowed just one homer all season. Occasionally his control abandons him. A rise in last year's 2.13 ERA is probable, but he should still rank among the best ten closers in baseball.
Texas inked Carlos Almanzar to a minor-league deal after he struck out 54 and walked only three in 46 innings as a Louisville Bat. A sore arm and general fatigue led to late-season ineffectiveness, but on the whole Almanzar easily justified his signing. He'll return to his setup role.
Frank Francisco debuted in the Majors last May after embarrassing Texas League hitters for six weeks. Big-league hitters fared little better. Francisco walked far too many batters but otherwise left themm dumbfounded with his 95+ fastball and splitter. For the season (AA and AL), he allowed 43 hits and struck out 90. Francisco has yet to pitch the spring because of a sore elbow and may open the season on the Disabled List. The Smoking Gun did not deem him important enough to post his mug shot.
Brian Shouse is the LOOGY, pitching 44 innings in 53 appearances last year. Good luck hitting the ball skyward against him; as a Ranger he has a 2.82 ground/fly ratio and has allowed four homers in 105 innings. Fellow lefty Ron Mahay is the longman. Yet another sinker-thrower, he allowed only fourteen extra-base hits in a career-high 67 innings.
Doug Brocail didn't pitch for three years because of arm troubles, and his first few appearances were dreadful. With his career in the balance, he suddenly rediscovered his fastball and curve and took on a more important role as other relievers flagged. Texas re-signed him on the basis of that half-season of excellence and will hope for more. R.A. Dickey, a man born without an elbow ligament in his throwing arm, will be the team mop. Dickey can chew through several innings and start if needed, but he simply doesn't have the stuff to retire hitters consistently.
On the outside are lefty Erasmo Ramirez and Joaquin Benoit. Ramirez's money pitch is a 65-MPH changeup that lulls hitters to sleep on its way to the plate. Ramirez has options and probably will start the year in AAA. Texas kept the ineffective Benoit on the roster last year because he was out of options. This year they may cut bait. A sore arm and a possible DL stint could buy Texas some time to think things over.
I'll be honest. As I wrote this preview, I often felt brimmed with optimism, something with which I do not ordinarily brim. "If Soriano reverts to form and Nix breaks out and Rogers holds up and Drese isn't a fluke and Ricardo Rodriguez and Chris Young are for real and " you get the idea. This isn't the AL East. Consolidation of last year's gains and a few well-placed career years could take the division.
Alas, at the end of the day I am enslaved to Realism, cruel yet honest. In 2004, Texas won a few more games than their run differential would suggest, and they also scored more runs and allowed fewer than their peripherals would suggest. They could very well improve on last year's performance but still win fewer games. Texas did not adequately address last year's shortcomings in the offseason. They could win the division but will not, instead retreating to about 84 wins and a third-place finish.