The Texas Rangers' lineup is the best in the majors, according to Buster Olney.
In his blog post this morning, Olney ranks the lineups that he believes are the ten best in baseball, and the Rangers are in the top spot.
Olney appears to be ranking lineups on the strength of their offense, without taking defense into account, and that makes the Rangers landing at the top even more surprising. Texas looks like it will be above-average in six of the eight fielding positions, with first baseman likely being below average, and catcher being indeterminable right now (at least, by me).
But as far as the bats go, this is a team that had a 99 OPS+ last season and finished 7th in the A.L. in runs scored. For the Rangers to go from middle-of-the-pack to tops in offensive performance is going to require significant improvements from last year.
Now, it is worth noting there is a lot of turnover from last season...only two players who got at least 520 plate appearances for the Rangers last year, Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus, will be back. The Rangers will also be getting full seasons from Alex Rios and Jurickson Profar and more plate appearances from Leonys Martin, but Rios is unlikely to outperform in 2014 what he and Nelson Cruz combined for in 2013, Profar is unlikely to outperform Kinsler's 2013 season in his first year as a regular, and while I think it is hoped that Leonys Martin will take a step forward, he's not someone you'd be counting on to make a huge leap.
No, where the Rangers are counting on improvement, at this point, is with Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo replacing plate appearances that went to Lance Berkman, David Murphy, Craig Gentry, and a mix of others. While Olney mentions it is possible that the Rangers could bring back Nelson Cruz on a team-friendly, short-term deal, he's ranking the team now with Mitch Moreland at DH, and thus assuming no major additions. In other words, he's banking on Choo and Fielder to mash.
The Rangers clearly are also counting on big things from the pair or else they wouldn't have committed $130 million to sign Choo, and wouldn't have committed $138 million (and given up Ian Kinsler) to land Fielder. As we've talked about before, though, the projection systems seem bearish on both Fielder and Choo, at least relative to what they are being paid. Fangraphs projects the Rangers to have the third best fWAR in 2014, but that's largely on the strength of their pitching...Fangraphs has the Rangers with just the 15th best performance in the majors from their position players in 2014.
Now, part of that is because they project Shin-Soo Choo to be worth -8.8 runs defensively in left field, and that seems rather aggressive on the negative side, with the result being that the team as a whole is projected to be slightly below-average defensively. (Choo is also likely to be in right field, with Rios in left field, but that's a minor issue). Even so, changing Choo's projection to neutral defensively, rather than -8.8 runs, would bump the Ranger position players only from 15th to 14th.
The bigger issue is that Fangraphs -- and specifically, Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection system -- has Fielder projected at a .380 wOBA and a 3.3 fWAR, and Choo projected at a .370 wOBA and a 2.8 fWAR. A .380 wOBA in 2013 would have ranked 19th in the majors, between Matt Carpenter and Adrian Beltre, and a .370 wOBA in 2013 would have ranked 21st, between Jose Bautista and Brandon Moss (and also just ahead of Adam Lind).
The other problem is that Fangraphs projects a .365 wOBA for Beltre, but no one else above .340. The next highest wOBA projections for 2014 Rangers, after Fielder, Choo and Beltre, are Michael Choice (at .339) and Mitch Moreland (at .332). ZiPS thinks the Rangers have an All-Star caliber third baseman in Beltre, four players who are in the 2.5-3.5 win range (Fielder, Choo, Leonys, and Elvis Andrus), and a bunch of sub-2 win guys otherwise. Add all that together, and you've got a lineup that Fangraphs expects to be middle-of-the-pack.
While the Rangers aren't exactly on the cutting edge when it comes to statistical analysis, its fair to say that they know what projection systems like ZiPS are projecting for Fielder and Choo. The reality is that the Rangers think ZiPS is wrong. The Rangers are expecting Fielder and Choo to each be 4-6 win players in 2014. Their methodology leads them to project more value for Fielder and Choo than what the statistical analyses suggest will be there, and they are paying the pair accordingly.
There are reasons to believe that they are right. The Rangers loved Fielder when he was a free agent prior to the 2012 season, and supposedly were getting close to working out a deal for him when the Tigers came in and blew Texas out of the water with a later offer. They presumably believe that Fielder's true talent level is more in the 5 win range, where he was before 2013, and his struggles in 2013 are due at least in part to his dealing with personal issues that impacted his performance. They presumably believe that Choo is a better defender than the numbers over the past couple of seasons (particularly last year, when he was out of position in center field) reflect, and that his work ethic makes him a better bet than some other players would be. They presumably believe that both players will age better than normal because of their disciplined approach at the plate.
But still, if you want to look at a "scouts v. stats" debate, this would be it. The stats indicate the Rangers committed too much money to a couple of guys who are on the wrong side of the aging curve, who won't be as good as Texas is hoping they will be in the near future, and who only have a few years left as above-average players, after which the Rangers will be paying close to $20 million per year for a pair of average- to below-average DHs. The Ranger front office thinks the raw projections are wrong, and that they have seen something in these guys that will make them worth the money.
Buster Olney is clearly expecting big things from Fielder and Choo in 2014, based on his ranking of the Ranger lineup. As Rangers fans, we have to hope that he, and the Rangers, are right, and the statistical models are wrong.