Playing Pepper 2016: Texas Rangers

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Texas Rangers
88-74, first in the AL West, lost in the ALDS
Last year’s Pepper

There was supposed to be an uprising in Texas last year, but many thought it would be the Astros.  While Houston obviously had a great season as well and the two teams were just outs away from facing each other with a trip to the World Series on the line, the better regular season came in Arlington.  While it’s not as uncommon as it used to be, last to first stories are still pretty rare in baseball and Texas was able to pull that off.  What they do for an encore, that’s another story.

A story that can start to be told by the three bloggers we have with us today.  Chris Fox writes over at The Texas Rangers Blog.  It’s Chris’s second straight year to be with us and you can find him on Twitter @TTRBTweets.  Next up, for the third straight year (and fourth overall) is Rob from Texas Rangers Cards.  Rob’s the rare non-Twitterer!  Finally, we have Jamey Newberg of The Newberg Report.  Jamey, who Tweets @NewbergReport, is with us for the sixth time over the span of the series.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

TRB: Not surprisingly, I wasn’t that impressed with this offseason. I thought the biggest thing they needed was a right-handed bat. They didn’t do much there. They focused primarily on their bullpen. It once again falls back on their ability to stay healthy.

TRC: It looks like the club did what they needed to do for the most part, which was not panic or tinker too much. The Rangers off-season was pretty quiet until the Ian Desmond signing but quiet was what they needed to do. Secure the current guys, add a fit role players, and look at getting everyone healthy for 2016. That didn’t work out with Josh Hamilton in left field, at least for the first part of the season. The result was a hole in left and an open competition – until the Desmond signing. That was about the only big news and probably the only big move they needed to make.

One thing from the off-season that could be a big deal is something the Rangers did with little fanfare. That was letting pitching coach Mike Maddux walk. For a franchise that was not really known for its pitching until he took over, it seems like a big risk to let him go. New coach Doug Brocail has some big shoes to fill and I think that storyline could garner some attention before the end of the season.

NR: To fairly answer the question, you have to recognize that what Texas needed to do this off-season was initially addressed in July, when the club boosted the top of the rotation by trading for Cole Hamels and the top of the bullpen by fortifying it with Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman. Without those three — and truthfully, even without the two relievers alone — the Rangers would not have reached the post-season in 2015.

The club’s winter work was minimal — shipping Leonys Martin to Seattle in a deal that brought Tom Wilhelmsen back was probably the most notable move, while candidates for roster spots like reliever Tony Barnette (back from Japan) and outfielder Justin Ruggiano were brought in as well — but this is also a roster that will be getting Yu Darvish and Jurickson Profar back. Yovani Gallardo moved on to Baltimore (netting Texas a supplemental first-round pick since he’d been tendered a qualifying offer and declined it), and 2015 contributors like Mike Napoli and Ross Ohlendorf signed elsewhere, but non-roster candidates like A.J. Griffin, Jeremy Guthrie, Cesar Ramos, and Pedro Ciriaco were brought in to give the Rangers added camp competition.

And then, midway through camp, Texas swooped in and signed free agent Ian Desmond to a one-year pillow contract, with a clear indication that he would be the team’s left fielder — where he had never played professsionally. He certainly gives the club day-to-day flexibility given his years as a frontline shortstop, but he’s looked solid in left field and has even gotten looks in center. More than anything, his right-handed bat should be a significant boost to a lineup that leans heavily to the left.

What Texas needed to do this off-season was boost the rotation if possible, and shore up a decent bullpen. The club did both in July, making both pitching corps significantly more dangerous, and they start the 2016 season far more healthy than they were for most of 2015 — and in spite of the Rangers’ significant health issues last year, they were a playoff team. There’s reason to believe that they’re considerably stronger now.

C70: What’s the latest on Yu Darvish’s health and what do you expect from him this season?

TRB: As for Darvish, we can’t tell. The last thing to come back after Tommy John surgery is control. The reason that troubles me with Darvish is that that has only been his every problem. He’s never seemed confident enough in his ability, so he tries to nibble around the edges. If he doesn’t just let loose and pitch, he’s going to miss.

TRC: Word is Darvish is progressing quickly and looking good. He’s thrown off a mound at a decreased distance and should be doing so at the full distance pretty soon. The team says he’s looking good. As usual, Darvish hasn’t said much. Right now he’s projected to return in the first part of May.

I’m not sure what expectations to place on Yu. Coming back from Tommy John is always a gamble. He does have an advantage though since he’s always had a wide variety of pitches he can through and isn’t dependent on just blowing batters away. I would like to see him come back and hit the ground running full stride to supplement Hamels and Derek Holland. Not sure that’s going to happen though. Look for a gradual increase in innings and quality as he re-adjusts to a new elbow against live batters in real games.

NR: All indications are that Darvish is ahead of the 14-month timetable the organization objectively put in place after his March 2015 surgery, but the club will resist any temptation to accelerate his schedule and get him back on the mound sooner than planned. Barring setbacks — and there have been none so far — he’s expected to be ready to pitch big league games in mid-May (the start of June at the latest). The recent track record for frontline starters coming back from Tommy John (Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey) suggests the stuff shouldn’t be an issue, and though command sometimes trails stuff when a pitcher returns from such a lengthy layoff, Darvish is a special ballplayer and the Rangers believe that once he’s back, he will be effective right away, if not dominant.

C70: Jurickson Profar is another guy that’s dealt with some serious health problems. What’s his role this year and how do you think he’ll be able to produce?

TRB: Profar is a wildcard. We’ve never seen what he can do yet. Andrus’ contract is untradeable, and Odor is a player we need to keep. So the best bet is probably to let Profar prove himself in the minors and trade him away.

TRC: Profar presents the Rangers with an interesting situation. He’s been looking pretty good in Spring Training and seems to be past his physical issues. If he is, he should be able to start working his way back up the list of Texas prospects. Problem is, Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor have him pretty effectively blocked in the middle infield. Jurickson will start the season in the minors. If Andrus or Odor stumble (like Odor did last season) look for Profar to make an appearance. It will be up to him if he capitalizes on any opportunities that come his way. Right now his role appears to be getting everyone convinced he’s back to where he was when he was a top prospect and waiting in the wings for something to happen. That something could be a trade involving Andrus or Profar, an injury to a Major League player, or Odor not living up to expectations.

NR: The interesting thing about Profar’s situation is that the development of Rougned Odor made it obvious that his return to health would not mean a return to the lineup — and in fact, Profar wasn’t even competing for a roster spot this spring. And that’s not a bad thing. He’s still extremely young (he turned 23 during camp), and given his two-year layoff, the most important thing for his development is to see pitches and ground balls and run the bases so he can rediscover his rhythm. Profar will go to AAA to start the season, will presumably play shortstop everyday, and if there’s an injury anywhere in the big league infield he could be the player called on to reinforce things. And if he finds that rhythm and starts looking again like the player who many felt three years ago was baseball’s best prospect, there will be teams in July or next off-season who will call Texas to talk about Profar, or possibly the idea of taking on a subsidized portion of Elvis Andrus’s contract.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

TRB: This was easier last year, but I’ve been struggling with this one. I guess I’ll pick Joey Gallo. I don’t think Hamilton makes it through a whole year healthy, and I hope Gallo steps up. I hope he doesn’t turn out to be Mike Olt.

TRC: Rougned Odor. With the re-emergence of Jurickson Profar the pressure is on. With the great half of the season he put out last year, the time looks right. Odor’s young and he showed the ability to adapt when the Rangers sent him down for a stint in the minors last year. He should be able to put his experience to good use and the signing of Ian Desmond should take a little of the offensive pressure off and allow him to be more deliberate at the plate. I expect to see some very good baseball being played by Rougie this year.

NR: This is Martin Perez’s year to take a big step forward. It’s also going to be fascinating to see how Desmond takes to the outfield — and if at some point the club believes the stronger defensive alignment has him in center and Delino DeShields in left, where his instincts and arm strength may fit better. Many believe that Lewis Brinson will roam center field in Arlington for a long time, perhaps within a year, and that DeShields will ultimately be a left fielder or fourth outfielder (with second base versatility) on a contending team. It’s conceivable that the transition to left could start at some point this summer, if Desmond gives the team confidence in such a defensive move.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

TRB: I think this team ends up winning 87 this year and contending for the AL West title. I don’t know that Seattle or the Angles have done enough to best that. I do think the Astros have enough talent to take it. I don’t believe in the A’s. I think the Astros win it.

TRC: I usually err on the side of caution and shy from predicting titles and such. This year I really feel good about this Rangers team though. They seem to have a good balance of pitching, defense, and offense. They also seem to be really meshing in Spring Training and there seems to be a chemistry there that reminds me of 2010. Still, my natural caution kicks in so I’m not going to predict a World Series appearance. I will say 90 plus wins and in a fight for the division title. Would not surprise me if they win the AL West.

NR: I hate predicting records in March, but this feels like an 89-win team — and there’s always a strong possibility with this club that an impact player or two is added in July, and that could boost the win projection further.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

TRB: I enjoy beating the A’s. It’s a long running joke that I don’t believe in the A’s. The truth is I believe in them until they get to the playoffs, then I don’t think they can succeed. But, as a result, I still want the Rangers to beat them. Badly.

TRC: Angels, hands down. Any of the versions: LA, California, or Anaheim. Love it when the guys take them down. I’m not real familiar with how the Halos are stacking up this year but I recently read an article on their off-season. Seems like Arte Moreno has locked up the bank and the farm system is running dry. I like the Rangers chances against most clubs but it seems as if they may be in a good place against the Angels this year. I’m going to say we take the season series against them, no matter where they want to claim to be from.

NR: My answer to this question will Houston for the next 20 years, at least. It’s going to be intense every time these two teams tee it up, and I feel as good about Texas in that series as I did last year, when the Rangers won 13 of 19 against Houston, helping them win the division by two games.

My thanks to Chris, Rob, and Jamey for their thoughts.  It sounds like there should be some excellent baseball in the Lone Star State again this year!

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