Why will the Rangers win the pennant? Why wouldn’t they? They won the pennant in 2010 and 2011, they’ve won at least 90 games four four straight seasons, and a total of 457 games since 2009. While the Rangers have been perceived as disappointments the past two seasons for finishing second in the West, the 93 games they won in 2012 was the fourth best total in franchise history, and the 91 games they won in 2013 was the fifth best total in franchise history. This is a successful, well-run franchise with a strong farm system, ownership willing to spend money, and a front office considered one of the best in the game.
The priority this offseason was to upgrade an offense that sorely missed departed free agents Mike Napoli and Josh Hamilton in 2013. The Rangers were hoping that A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman would be able to fill the holes, but while Pierzynski did a respectable job, he was no Napoli, and Berkman was hurt much of the season and ineffective when he wasn’t hurt. Texas ended up the season 7th in the A.L. in runs scored, and while the disappearance last year of the jet stream made The Ballpark in Arlington somewhat less hitter-friendly than it has been in past years, that’s still an unacceptable performance for a team with championship aspirations.
Jon Daniels made a pair of bold moves to upgrade the offense. First, he dealt Ian Kinsler – who was, before he was dealt, the longest-tenured player on the team, and a guy Daniels had identified as a "cornerstone" player – to the Detroit Tigers for Prince Fielder, a move that solved two problems at once by giving the Rangers an established presence at first base for the first time since the Mark Teixeira trade while opening up a position for wunderkind Jurickson Profar at second base. Unfortunately, Profar will miss the first half of the season due to a torn shoulder muscle, which means that the Rangers will look to Donnie Murphy or Adam Rosales or Josh Wilson to hold down the position until Profar is ready to return (or unless Rougned Odor plays so well in the minors he forces the Rangers to call him up).
Daniels followed that up by signing free agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to a $130 million deal, giving the Rangers a new left fielder and leadoff hitter. The deal was widely criticized in sabermetric circles, being seen as an overpay for a player who has been stymied by lefties the last two years and who graded out as a poor defensive centerfielder; however, Daniels has praised Choo’s work ethic and dedication, and like Adrian Beltre, who was signed to a similarly controversial deal three offseasons ago, the Rangers seem to believe that Choo will age better than the normal player.
Daniels made clear he wanted to change the offense and have a lineup that was more oriented towards getting on base and working counts, and with the addition of Choo and Fielder, both of whom have a career .389 OBP, this should be a team that gets on base more than they did last season. The commitment wasn’t cheap – Texas will have to pay the pair over a quarter of a billion dollars over the next seven years – but if Daniels is right, these two should be key parts of the next Ranger team to win the A.L. pennant.
Other than Fielder and Choo, the 2014 Texas Rangers look a lot like the 2013 Texas Rangers. The plan was for J.P. Arencibia to be sharing time with Geovany Soto behind the plate, instead of Pierzynski, though Arencibia will be sharing time with Robinson Chirinos for the first few months while Soto recovers from a torn meniscus. Part-time outfielders David Murphy and Craig Gentry are also with new teams, but Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus will be anchoring the left side of the infield, while also providing leadership in the clubhouse
The most significant additions to the pitching staff were Joe Saunders and Tommy Hanson, who battled Colby Lewis and Robbie Ross for spots in the starting rotation, with Saunders making it and Hanson getting released. The Rangers are hoping the return of Lewis, who has not pitched in the majors since June, 2012, and Matt Harrison, who made only two April starts in 2013 (and who will miss one or two starts this April, starting the season on the d.l.), will provide a boost to a rotation that was running on fumes by the end of last season. Derek Holland will miss the first half of the season after a fluke injury playing with his dog, but which hurts, but barring any other injuries, the rotation should be able to keep the team afloat until Holland returns.
Closer Joe Nathan left for Detroit as a free agent after the season, and Tanner Scheppers is moving (at least temporarily) to the rotation, but otherwise, the Rangers are bringing back much of what was one of the best bullpens in baseball last year. Two relievers who had Tommy John surgery in 2012, Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria, are back, with Soria closing, and while Feliz is starting the season in the minors, the Rangers hoping he can re-gain the velocity that made him such a weapon out of the pen in previous years. Alexi Ogando, who was a starter in 2013, will join them as a late innings reliever, as will Neal Cotts, who started the season in the minors and ended it with a 1.11 ERA in 57 major league innings. Jason Frasor and Robbie Ross (assuming he moves back to the pen from the rotation once some starters are healthy) are also back, and Pedro Figueroa has made the team as a middle man, leaving just a couple of spots open.
The bottom line for the 2014 Rangers is that they are a good team that carries playoff expectations. Anything can happen in baseball, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they won just 84 games and finished out of the hunt (especially given the injuries they've been stricken with this spring), and I wouldn’t be surprised if they won 98 games and ran away with the A.L. West. But I expect the Rangers to repeat what they’ve done the last several years, and win 90-something games while finishing first or second in the A.L. West, and being a threat to go all the way in the playoffs.