2015 Texas Rangers season preview.
It can't be worse than last year, right?
If we have to have a motto for the 2015 Texas Rangers, that's as good a choice as any. The 2014 Texas Rangers were expected to be contenders in the American League, powered by their splashy, expensive offseason acquisitions, Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. Instead, the Rangers were destroyed by a history-making collection of injuries that buried them in the A.L. West, resulting in the team finishing with an A.L.-worst record of 67-95.
Things can only get better. Even without Yu Darvish and Jurickson Profar -- both of whom are slated to miss all of 2015 with injuries -- the 2015 Texas Rangers have to be better than the 2014 Texas Rangers.
Changes from 2014
Well, we could talk about Alex Rios's departure, about Jason Frasor and Neal Cotts finding greener pastures, about new acquisitions Yovani Gallardo and Kyuji Fujikawa and Carlos Corporan...
But let's be realistic. The biggest change from 2014 to 2015 for the Texas Rangers is the guy filling out the lineup card. For the first time since 2006, Ron Washington won't be the Texas manager on Opening Day. The guy who led the Rangers during their most successful stretch in franchise history, who skippered a pair of A.L. Championship teams, who made you love him despite making you crazy with some of his moves, is back home in New Orleans, having resigned late in 2014 under mysterious circumstances.
Instead of Wash, the Rangers will be managed by Jeff Banister, a native Texan who has spent his professional baseball career in the Pirates' system, where he spent the previous few years on the staff of Pirate manager Clint Hurdle, a former Ranger hitting coach who is held in high regard by the Texas front office. Banister has an inspiring back story and has embraced the use of analytics in decision-making, and he will most likely be more willing to implement strategies the front office suggests -- an area that was supposedly an area of contention between the Rangers and Wash.
There wasn't a lot of turnover for Texas during the offseason, in part because they were locked in to some big contracts, in part because of a belief that the team will improve with better health in 2015. The biggest departure was probably Alex Rios, who left to join the Royals, opening up a starting job in the outfield. The most significant addition is clearly Yovani Gallardo, a Fort Worth native who was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers to solidify the rotation, and who will likely be the team's Opening Day starter.
Looking at the 2015 Texas Rangers Roster
The Projected Lineup
Leonys Martin -- CF
Elvis Andrus -- SS
Shin-Soo Choo -- RF
Adrian Beltre -- 3B
Prince Fielder -- 1B
Ryan Rua -- LF
Mitch Moreland -- DH
Robinson Chirinos -- C
Rougned Odor -- 2B
Bench -- Carlos Corporan, Adam Rosales, Delino DeShields, Jr., Ryan Ludwick
With there being a little more than two weeks to go before Opening Day, there's a certain amount of guesswork involved in the above. Banister has indicated that he's going to be more willing to tweak the order on a daily basis, depending on matchups and situations, than was Ron Washington, who tended to want to keep players in the same spots on a regular basis.
There appear to be only three jobs that are really up for grabs among the 13 position players who will make the team, and all three jobs are outfield related. There's an opening for the regular left fielder, as well as a righthanded bench bat to platoon with Mitch Moreland at DH, and a number of players competing for those two spots. Ryan Rua is thought to have the inside track on the role of starting left fielder, after an impressive 2014 season that saw him get a cup of coffee in the majors, but he doesn't have a lock on the job. Also in the mix are Michael Choice and Jake Smolinski, currently on the 40 man roster, as well as Kyle Blanks, Ryan Ludwick, Carlos Peguero and Nate Schierholtz, who are on minor league deals. The last spot is backup centerfield, and it appears to be Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields, Jr.'s, job to lose, with Antoan Richardson and Jared Hoying waiting in the wings if he falters.
The Projected Rotation
The Rangers thought they had a solid top four to their rotation, with just the #5 spot for contenders to battle for. Then Yu Darvish went down for the year, turning what looked like a potential strength of the team into a potential weakness, and making everyone move up a slot.
Derek Holland is looking to make up for what was largely a lost 2014 campaign, when he missed most of the year after having to undergo microfracture surgery on his knee after injuring it while playing with his dog. Yovani Gallardo is entering his free agent year, and after being acquired for Luis Sardinas, Corey Knebel and Marcos Diplan, he's wanting to earn a big payday and reward the Rangers for parting with a nice prospect package to get him. Colby Lewis, meanwhile, spent the first half of 2014 re-learning how his body worked after hip surgery meant he had a full range of motion again, and the Rangers are hoping his strong second half, rather than his awful first half, are what they can expect from him this year.
Texas grabbed Ross Detwiler -- like Gallardo, a free agent after 2015 -- from Washington for Chris Bostick and Abel de los Santos, and he was considered the leading candidate for the #5 starter spot before Darvish went down. Now, he looks to have a secure grasp on the #4 starter spot. Nick Tepesch has spent parts of the past two seasons in the Rangers rotation, and has shown an improved changeup this spring, a pitch that would be key to him being able to have success in a major league rotation.
There are numerous others battling it out with Detwiler and Tepesch for the final two spots. Nick Martinez beat out Tepesch last year for a rotation spot, and while he probably wasn't major league ready, he showed flashes to indicate he can be a viable starter. Lisalverto Bonilla, acquired from Philly in the Michael Young trade, got a shot at starting late in the year and didn't embarrass himself. Anthony Ranaudo, acquired from Boston in the offseason for Robbie Ross, Jr., is a big righthander who the Rangers are hoping will respond to a change of scenery. And 2013 first rounder Chi Chi Gonzalez is the dark horse in the race, a guy who is thought to still need a little more time in the minors, but who is coming in a hurry, and who has the highest ceiling of any of the candidates.
Its worth noting that there are two other pitchers who will start the season on the Rangers' disabled list, but who could become factors in the rotation in the second half of the season. Martin Perez was off to a great start in 2014 before being sidelined with ligament damage that necessitated Tommy John surgery in late May. He's making good progress in his rehab, and is on pace to return in the second half of the season. Matt Harrison, meanwhile, has missed most of the past two seasons with a back injury that is career-threatening. The Rangers are taking it slow with him, and no pitcher has returned from the type of spinal fusion surgery he had last year, but he's a guy who had established himself as a legit #2 pre-injury, and if he can return and be close to that, he'd be a big shot in the arm for the Ranger rotation.
The Projected Bullpen
Three relievers -- Neftali Feliz, Tanner Scheppers, and Shawn Tolleson -- reportedly have jobs locked up, with Feliz being the closer heading into the season. The other four jobs are up for grabs, and it wouldn't be shocking if none of the other four pitchers I list above make the team. The bullpen is one of the biggest mysteries for the 2015 Texas Rangers, with the potential to be really good...if the Rangers surprise folks and end up making the playoffs this year, the bullpen will almost certainly have to have a big year.
Fujikawa was a well-regarded reliever in Japan who came to the U.S. in 2013, and promptly suffered ligament damage that necessitated Tommy John surgery. The Rangers are hoping he's now healthy and in a position to be a quality setup man. Mendez has a big arm and pitched well in a late-season audition last year, and has the added advantage of being out of options, which means the Rangers have to keep him in the majors or risk losing him on waivers. Beimel is a lefty specialist just signed, and Ohlendorf is a righthander who has impressed early in camp, and who in this scenario would be slated as the long man.
There are other intriguing arms in the mix, however. Spencer Patton, Jon Edwards and Phil Klein are all under-the-radar righthanders who got a taste of the majors last year, and give the Rangers depth in middle relief options. Keone Kela is a closer-in-waiting who can hit 100 mph, and who will be up in Arlington this year if he refines his command just a tad. Alex Claudio is a lefty changeup specialist who can go multiple innings, Michael Kirkman is a lefty specialist who is a one or two batter guy, and Martire Garcia is a hard-throwing lefty who was suspended 50 games last year for testing positive for female hormones -- any one of those guys could end up carving out a role in the pen.
Jeff Banister and Mike Maddux have some hard choices to make, and a lot of good arms to sift through.
Prospects To Keep an Eye On
While the major league team was a disappointment for the Rangers in 2014, there were a lot of positive things that happened on the farm. We are now at a point where some very exciting players are poised to reach the majors in the near future, potentially as soon as 2015.
You may have heard of this guy, Joey Gallo? One of the top prospects in the game? Light tower power? Hits homers that make scouts swoon? Gallo, a 2012 supplemental first round pick, had a breakout year in 2014 that made him one of the most talked about prospects in the game. The third baseman will start 2015 at AA Frisco, where he will work on improving his contact rate while preserving his legendary power. A solid season would see him make it to Round Rock this summer, and potentially be in line for a cup of coffee in September.
Frisco will also feature catcher Jorge Alfaro, #TheLegend. The 21 year old native of Colombia has wowed observers with his big time arm and big time power, but also frustrated with his unrefined catching skills and free-swinging approach at the plate. Alfaro has gotten good reviews for his work this spring, however, and could end up in the majors in 2015, and potentially starting for the Rangers at the start of 2016.
Gallo and Alfaro will be joined in the Frisco lineup by outfielders Nomar Mazara and Nick Williams. The 19 year old Mazara, who has drawn comparisons to Jason Heyward, started slowly at low-A Hickory last year, but starting mashing eventually and then never slowed down, earning a promotion to Frisco, where he was one of the youngest players in the league. Williams, meanwhile, is a pure hitter who split the 2014 season between Myrtle Beach and Frisco, and who is considered to have possibly the best bat-to-ball skill in the system.
On the pitching side, Luke Jackson, a 2010 supplemental first rounder, made it to Round Rock for the end of the 2014 season, but got roughed up in his first taste of AAA. Nevertheless, the hard-throwing righthander is one of the Rangers' better pitching prospects, and will be back in the Round Rock rotation to start the 2015 season, with the possibility of joining the Rangers at some point this season.
Finally, there is Texas native Jake Thompson, a righthanded hurler acquired from the Detroit Tigers in the Joakim Soria trade last July. Thompson impressed upon his arrival in the Rangers' organization, and is considered to be most two be neck-and-neck with Chi Chi Gonzalez for the title of top Rangers pitching prospect. Thompson is just 21 years old, and will likely be in AA Frisco to start the year...he's a little behind Jackson and Gonzalez in terms of ETA in Arlington. However, he might have the highest ceiling of the three, and while he's not a likely candidate to be called up this year, he's someone to keep an eye on as the season progresses, and someone who could be in the mix for a rotation job in 2016.
What to Expect for 2015
The 2015 Texas Rangers are a hard team to figure out. Before the Yu Darvish injury, I was thinking 85-86 wins. Now, I'm predicting an 82-80 record, in part because I want to think the Rangers will have a winning record.
This team could be really good. If Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo bounce back, if the rotation is healthy and productive, if the live arms in the pen pitch well, this is a team that could be playing meaningful baseball in late September.
Unlike the past several years, however, this is a team that is entering the season without much in the way of expectations. The string of four straight seasons of 90+ wins came to an ugly end last year, and there were questions about how good Texas would be in 2015 even before the Darvish injury.
But there's a certain freedom that comes with that. Without expectations, we can kick back, watch the team, enjoy the wins, and accept the losses, while watching what Gallo and Alfaro and the like do in the minors this year. I'm hoping for the best in 2015, but unlike in past years, I'm not feeling like the Rangers are supposed to make the playoffs.