Playing Pepper 2017: Texas Rangers

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Texas Rangers
95-67, first in AL West, lost in LDS
Last year’s Pepper

It’s been a good run for the Texas Rangers.  Save the 2014 aberration, the club has been first or second every year since 2008 and last year won the second-most regular season games in that span, just short of the 96 put up by the 2011 squad that went to the World Series.  However, since Nelson Cruz was unable to catch David Freese‘s drive, October hasn’t been kind to the club.  They’ve lost a Wild Card Game and two LDS, including being swept by the Blue Jays last year.

We’ve got four bloggers to talk about this interesting squad.  Jamey and Chris are old hands at this, but we welcome in Alex and Brandon and their perspective on the club.  Follow them all on Twitter for some great Rangers content!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Jamey Newberg The Newberg Report NewbergReport Spitballin'
Alex Al-Kazzaz Nolan Writin' BearManofTX
Chris Fox The Texas Rangers Blog TTRBTweets
Brandon Land One Strike Away onestrikeaway

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

NR: It was unrealistic to expect Texas to pony up for Chris Sale (in trade) or Edwin Encarnacion or Ian Desmond (in dollars), but I was hopeful that the club would find a way to trade for Chris Archer or Jose Quintana, and sign Mike Napoli and Carlos Gomez. They got the latter two moves done, and while they didn’t add someone to the top of the rotation to join Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish (notably, no team met Tampa Bay’s or Chicago’s price on Archer or Quintana), the prospect of Tyson Ross returning to health and to form on a pillow deal is intriguing. I’m a little less bullish on Andrew Cashner but open-minded given that his production — mostly for underachieving teams — has seemingly fallen short of his upside.

Another thing that is frequently overlooked with this club is that its July moves are often designed not only to boost that season’s pennant run, but also to address roster needs for the following season. As in 2015, when Texas added Hamels, Sam Dyson, and Jake Diekman before the trade deadline and had multiple years of control of all three after that summer, the Rangers added Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress last summer with more than just 2016 in mind. (Gomez and Carlos Beltran were on expiring deals, but of course they re-upped with Gomez.) So when judging the Rangers’ winter, it’s only fair to dial back to the trade deadline to see who was acquired a few months — and an extra pennant race — early. Adding Lucroy, Gomez, Napoli, Ross, Cashner, and Jeffress is a pretty solid haul.

NW: I think it was a decent off-season for the Texas Rangers. After a heart-breaking early exit from the playoffs last season, it was going to be a long and tough off-season. But that’s in the past and this team needs to focus on the future. They did do what they needed to do. They brought back some needed players, as well as sign some players. To me, Arlington is the land of opportunity! Well, for baseball players, anyway. Because this off-season and many prior off-seasons, they signed some players with derailing careers. Texas brought them in and gave the chance. That’s a good way of building a roster. Bring guys in, give them a chance, and boom. Well, I would have loved for Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo to sign with Texas. There were rumors that it maybe JUST maybe it would happen, but truth be told, I knew Texas wasn’t going to risk it due to their very high payroll. I think Texas did the right thing by not giving big contracts to free agents. In my opinion, Texas is planning to save up to re-sign Yu Darvish, and extend Rougned Odor, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Nomar Mazara. It’s wiser to keep young guys rather than aging guys. Keep in mind, a franchise needs players with FUTURES and not PASTS. 

TRB: The offseason was typical for the Rangers. I never really expect them to make a splash, because they don’t typically go after any of the big names. I think they filled the holes they needed to with the highest value players they thought they could get. The starting pitching usually makes me nervous going into the year, and everyone in the outfield played very well at times, but showed inconsistency. It was tough to watch Ian Desmond leave, but they were never going to pay him that kind of money. He was a leader in the clubhouse, and seemed to come up with some huge hits last year for a team that needed a lot of late inning heroics. I would have loved for them to pick up somebody like Cespedes, who could hit a ton at The Ballpark, but that’s not realistic, given they don’t spend big money in free agency right now.

Forget everything I just said. This was a very successful offseason because they didn’t even entertain the idea of offering Jose Bautista a contract.

OSA: It’s unclear just yet how good or bad the offseason was for Texas. The front office, still led by Jon Daniels, appears to have taken a low-risk high-reward approach. That is, they signed a number of reclamation projects in hopes that even a few of them will stick and provide excess value. Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner are both pitchers that are coming off of disappointing seasons — Ross due to injury, Cashner due to underperformance — but the organization seems to think there might be something there to tap into.

Beyond that, the Rangers were able to bring Carlos Gomez back on a one-year deal. The hope will be that he’s closer to the player he was in the second half of 2016 rather than the first half while he was in Houston. If so, center field looks really good for Texas in 2017.

C70: How exciting was it to see Ivan Rodriguez enter the Hall of Fame on his first ballot?

NR: More exciting for me than I expected it would be (as I spelled out in this story). I’m not a big awards guy, and knew Pudge would eventually be in Cooperstown, but the fact that it happened on his first ballot did fire me up . . . unexpectedly.

NW: When I heard that Ivan was going to be inducted, I was filled with joy. I said to myself, “It’s about time!” He’s one of the greatest players in history. Truth be told, he may be the greatest catcher in history. I was beyond excited. The news broke out on my birthday, so that added a lot of happiness. Ivan truly deserves it. I am very happy for him. 

TRB: It was amazing. There aren’t enough Rangers hats in the Hall of Fame. He was incredible to watch, because there really wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, an amazing catcher who could hit 30 HR’s and steal bases. One of the best things I read about him around his induction was that his career base stealing percentage was higher than the players that tried to run against him. And he came up in the system. To me, he was still a Ranger after he left, and it was no surprise that he retired that way.

OSA: Seeing Ivan Rodriguez make it into the Hall of Fame was a pretty neat moment for me. As a child, Pudge was the first player I ever idolized, and it was because of him that I played catcher for many years growing up. Back in 1996, my family and I inadvertently stood in line for a Pudge autograph session because we thought it was the line just to get into the gift shop at the ballpark. Turns out, Pudge was my first autograph.

C70: What one thing has to go right for this to be a successful season?

NR: It’s always health. But if you’re asking for a specific key for the club, I’d say it’s going to be for Hamels to pitch like he did in the first half last season and for Darvish, in his contract year, to take his game to another level that we all know is in there. If those two pitch to capability, there should be enough offense and bullpen depth to overcome questions in the back half of the rotation — and Texas is always prepared to boost the club at trade time in July.

NW: The key for the Rangers to have a successful season is to STAY positive. They need to stay healthy and focused. If they can do so, they can win series after series, which prevents negativity from invading. The Rangers have got plenty of talent. The type of talent capable of going to the World Series and bringing the title to Arlington.

TRB: The one thing they have to do is fix their run differential. I think they ended last year at +8, and it would be incredibly difficult to see them duplicate that stat and win 95 games again. They certainly got blown out a handful of times, which skews that stat, but it’s mainly a factor of winning something like 36 one-run games. As exciting as last year was, if we rely on it playing out like that again, I think we’ll be disappointed.

OSA: The one thing that needs to go right for the season to end up as a successful one is the starting pitching. Health in the rotation would obviously be the first indicator of that, but beyond health concerns, Texas will need contributions from the back-end of the rotation. Yes, the Rangers were historically good in one-run games in 2016. However, that’s not exactly a repeatable skill that you can hang your hat on as a baseball club. The offense is going to score. Run prevention will be the key for the 2017 club.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

NR: While many eyes are on Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar to see whether both can restore the elite status they had as prospects and fulfill their promise, Ryan Rua is a player who could sneak up on folks and put up the kind of unexpected production that helps good teams get where they want to be. Rua punishes left-handed pitching, is versatile defensively, and will likely be counted on heavily.

NW: Matt Bush. A few years ago, Bush was serving a prison sentence. When he was released, the Texas Rangers gave him a shot, and it worked out very well. Now he’s performing at the Major-League level and he’s doing great. He’s come a long way from being the #1 overall pick in the 2004 MLB Draft, to being a convicted felon, to now making his way to becoming a star for the Texas Rangers. 

TRB: I almost use this as my answer for #3, because I think they need one more really good starting pitcher. I think Tyson Ross could very well be that man if he can stay healthy. Going into last year, he was a dark horse Cy Young candidate for a lot of people. His season was completely derailed when he got injured in the 1st game; he never made it back last season. There still isn’t a lot known about recovering from thoracic outlet surgery, but if he can get, and stay, healthy, he could be a great #3 for the Rangers. Martin Perez might still get there, but last season wasn’t encouraging. and the rest of the potential staff is uninspiring. AJ Griffin was a feel good story last year, but he gives up far too many home runs. And Andrew Cashner has shown flashes in his career, but if he’s a starter, he’ll be injured for much of the year. So, I’m keeping my eyes on Ross.

OSA: Given the front office strategy I mentioned previously, it’s hard to pick any one player as “the guy to watch”. But if you’re putting a gun to my head, I would probably go with Mike Hauschild. Hauschild is a right-handed starting pitcher that Texas picked up from Houston in the Rule 5 draft. He pitched at Triple-A last season, and while there, but up fairly solid numbers. His stuff isn’t overpowering, but he posted up a solid K/BB ratio, and if he can do more of the same, he just might have a spot in the Texas rotation at some point, if not directly out of Spring Training.

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

NR: I checked to see how I answered this last year. Back then I said: “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.” They then went out and won 95 games, most in the AL.

I think I’d issue the same prediction this year — 89 wins, and probably a couple more if the club is playing well enough in July to invest prospects in a trade deadline deal or two.

NW: Hard to say. They’ve certainly got the talent to win a third consecutive A.L. West title, there’s no doubt about it. I can’t predict a record, but I predict they win more than 90 games, win the A.L. West again, and this time, they’ll get past the first round again. 

TRB: I think there’s going to be some regression this year. Their infield is great, and if the outfield can be the better versions of themselves from last year, then the team could score more runs this year. The pitching obviously leaves me feeling less certain. I’ll put them at 87 wins, which I think puts them neck and neck with the Astros, and a few games ahead of the Mariners. I’m going to say it ends up with the Rangers on top, but it will be incredibly close, and if the Astros add anymore pitching, this could change.

OSA: Projecting the team’s record is where it gets a little tough. I truly believe that this year’s club will actually be improved from the one a season ago, but I’m not sure that translates as well in the W-L column. Houston is improved, and it’s virtually impossible that they finish as poorly against Texas as their 4-15 record in 2016 would indicate. That alone could swing much of the momentum in favor of Houston. Seattle also figures to be, at the very least, a tough team in 2017. I’ll go with 88 wins and a 2nd-place finish for the Texas Rangers, with a high probability of playing in the Wild Card game.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Ranger and why?

NR: Adrian Beltre.

I feel like to explain why would take either a thousand words, or none.

I’ll go with the latter.

NW: My favorite Ranger of all-time is Michael Young. My top 5 favorite Rangers: Michael Young, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Nolan Ryan, and Rusty Greer. Young is my favorite because I grew up watching him. When I was 11, I won an essay contest at school. My reward? Two tickets to a Ranger game. I went with my Dad. Texas won the game. At that time, Young was playing shortstop, and in that game, he went 3-5 and scored two runs. That game was my very first Ranger game and when I saw how great of a player Young was, he became my favorite. And one day, I really hope to meet him. 

TRB: So, this is probably based solely upon my childhood, but it’s probably Ruben Sierra. He was the man when I started becoming more aware about baseball. I had just started collecting baseball cards, and I tried to emulate his swing when I was playing ball with friends. I still love Nolan, and wish he were still part of the team, and there were quite a few other obvious choices, but it’s Sierra for me.  

OSB: This one actually isn’t terribly difficult. Adrian Beltre. The man just has fun and keeps producing at a level well beyond what any of us could have expected at his age. He’s a real treasure, and the day he retires will be a sad one for baseball.

Appreciate all these guys letting us have a little more knowledge about the Rangers.  Should be another hot season down in Texas!

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