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MLB Opening Day 2016: Texas Rangers look to repeat in the A.L. West

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It was a quiet offseason for the Texas Rangers, who are looking to repeat as A.L. West division champs

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 season for the Texas Rangers was a wild and unexpected ride, as the team lost Yu Darvish for the year in spring training, saw Derek Holland get sidelined one inning into his season, stumble out of the gates, and appear to be an also-ran as late as August, when they were still under .500.  However, a strong finish to the season, fueled by a revitalized bullpen and the addition of Cole Hamels, led Texas to claim first place in the A.L. West, and returned them to the ALDS for the first time since 2011.

For the most part, the offseason for the Rangers was quiet...Texas made its big move last summer, packaging Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Matt Harrison in the deal that brought Hamels and Jake Diekman to town.  Once the Rangers re-upped Colby Lewis on a one year deal, the rotation was pretty much set.  Heading into spring training, the biggest move the Rangers had made was still a pretty minor one in the overall scheme of things, dealing Leonys Martin and Anthony Bass to the Mariners for Tom Wilhelmsen, Patrick Kivlehan and James Jones.

Then spring training started, Josh Hamilton's knee was acting up, it became clear he would start the season on the disabled list, and the Rangers acted quickly and unconventionally, forfeiting their first round draft pick to sign free agent shortstop Ian Desmond in order to put him in left field.  Desmond was coming off an abysmal year with the bat, and a combination of forces led him to be stuck taking a one year, $8 million deal as camps were opening.  Desmond has gotten good reviews so far, though, and has taken to the outfield well enough that there's talk he may end up moving to center field, bumping Delino DeShields to left field.

There seems to be optimism emanating from Surprise this spring, as the team has managed to largely avoid the rash of injuries that struck the club the previous two springs, and is bringing back largely intact the club that made the playoffs last year.  The Houston Astros are the chic pick in the West, but the Rangers look like a team that should, at a minimum, be playing meaningful games in late September.

Lineup

Texas is heading into 2016 with much the same lineup they had in place for 2015.  Ian Desmond is replacing the grab-bag of players who were in left field last year -- a whopping 12 players started at least one game in left for the Rangers in 2015 -- but otherwise, this is the lineup you should know and, if not love, at least be familiar with.

Expect Delino DeShields, Jr., and Shin-Soo Choo to be at the top of the lineup to start the season.  DeShields went from Rule 5 afterthought to leadoff hitter and sparkplug last season, and he'll no doubt be hitting leadoff this year as well.  Shin-Soo Choo recovered from a historically bad April to finish the 2015 season strong, getting on base at a good clip, hitting for power, and looking like the guy the Rangers will be paying $20M per year to for the next five years.

The middle of the lineup will involve some combination of Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder in the #3 and #4 spots, followed most likely by some combo of Mitch Moreland and Ian Desmond behind them.  Beltre is the ageless wonder, continuing to perform at an All Star caliber level despite turning 37 in just a few days, and Prince came back from neck surgery that basically wiped out his 2014 campaign with a solid 2015.  Desmond is looking to rebound from an awful 2015 season and give the Rangers some power and speed behind Beltre and Fielder.  Moreland, meanwhile, is looking to put up big numbers in advance of his being a free agent this offseason, though there's a good chance he will sit against lefties in favor of Ryan Rua.

Rounding out the bottom of the lineup will be some combination of Rougned Odor, Robinson Chirinos and Elvis Andrus.  Odor, like Choo, was awful to start 2015...unlike Choo, Odor was sent down to get straightened out, and upon his return to the majors, performed at a high level.  He's picked by many to be poised for a breakout this year, and if he does break out, he'll likely be up at the top of the lineup before too long.  Chirinos isn't going to hit for a ton of average, but has some pop and draws a few walks, and is a nice starting catcher so long as he stays healthy.  Elvis, of course, is Elvis, an enigma who is looking to build on a strong second half as he looks to get his production back to where it was a few years ago.

This isn't a lineup that is going to lead the league in scoring, but it should be a solid 1 through 9 that will make pitchers work from top to bottom.

Rotation

Whether or not you believe the Rangers will be a serious threat to the Astros in the West largely depends on what you think of their rotation.  Cole Hamels is, of course, Cole Hamels, a legit #1 at the top of the rotation.  After that, though, there's a lot of room for interpretation.

Yu Darvish is due back in mid-May to early-June, and the reports are that his rehab has been going great, he's on schedule, and everyone feels good about him.  However, its a big leap to assume he will take the mound and immediately be the Cy Young candidate he was pre-injury.  The optimist says the Rangers are getting one of the best pitchers in baseball back early in the season...the pessimist says there's no guarantee he'll be back, and if he does make it back, there's no guarantee as to how good he will be.

Martin Perez and Derek Holland have very similar profiles at this point...they both have the stuff that makes you think they can be a quality #2/#3 starter, but they have struggled to consistently put up the results to match that, and they've missed a good chunk of the previous two seasons due to injury.  Perez appeared ready to break out before going down with Tommy John surgery in early 2014, and after a couple of rough outings when he first returned in 2015, he was one of the team's best pitchers the final two months.  Still, a skeptic can look at him and say, he doesn't miss enough bats, and he hasn't shown he can be even an average pitcher for an extended period.  With Holland, its a matter of staying healthy and maintaining consistency...after two straight years where he was out the first half due to injuries, he needs to show in 2016 he is ready to take the next step.

And then there is Colby Lewis, 17 game winner in 2015 and sentimental favorite of all right-thinking Rangers fans.  His velocity isn't what it used to be, and when he's off, he's extremely hittable.  And he's getting up there in years...at some point, his thin margin for error will disappear, and he'll no longer be able to perform as a viable major league starting pitcher.  The Rangers are betting he's got one more year left in him, though.

The Rangers sifted through a cast of thousands (at least, it felt like thousands) looking for someone to hold down the #5 spot in the rotation until Yu was ready to return.  2013 first rounder Chi Chi Gonzalez was the chalk pick, but he had a disappointing spring, and has been sent down to AAA Round Rock already.  Nick Martinez, who has done solid work the past couple of seasons, also has been fighting for a spot, but appears to be on the outside looking in.  Instead, the last man standing looks like it will be A.J. Griffin, the former A's starter who missed most of 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.  The initial thought was that the team would take it slow with Griffin and let him build back up in the minors, but right now, Griffin looks like he's seized that final rotation spot.

I tend to think that this is the area of the team that will ultimately determine the success of the 2016 Rangers.  There is a ton of uncertainty surrounding this group, and the Rangers could have one of the best rotations in the American League, or could see the season collapse from inconsistency from Perez and Holland and Colby finally turning into a pumpkin.  While there are options behind the front five, they are options that appear to be of the "serviceable fill-in #5 starter" type for right now, not anyone who appears ready to establish themselves as a dependable rotation member.  Thus, if one (or more) of the main five guys the Rangers are counting on for the rotation go down this year, you could see Texas be in the market for a starting pitcher again this summer.

Bullpen

Bullpens are always variable, they are hard to predict, they are mercurial, so we take prognostications about them with a grain or eight of salt...that being said, the Rangers' bullpen looks like it should be a strength this year, which is a far cry from where things stood in, say, June of 2015.  Shawn Tolleson is back in the closer's role, with Sam Dyson and Keone Kela offering righty setup relief, and Jake Diekman working as the lefty setup guy.  Newcomers Tom Wilhelmsen and Tony Barnette look like they'll be in middle relief roles, and Andrew Faulkner has followed up his strong 2015 campaign with work in camp this spring that has had him described as the best pitcher in camp, solidifying his hold on the second lefty job.  And that...well, that is 7 relievers, and there are usually just 7 bullpen spots, so the pen appears to be filled.

The question is going to be how some of the guys who were rode hard in 2015 bounce back in 2016.  Tolleson and Kela were both having issues by playoff time, each having shouldered very heavy workloads in 2015.  Dyson and Diekman were great after coming over in trades, but both also performed at a higher level than they ever had before, and its not unreasonable to be concerned that some regression could be coming there.

Still, even if there's some attrition, the Rangers have attractive depth options.  Connor Sadzeck is throwing 100 mph, Luke Jackson looks like he can be a solid major league reliever (even though he's starting the year on the d.l. due to back issues), and former #1 overall pick Matt Bush, having converted from shortstop to pitching, looks like he could be a weapon out of the pen in a hurry.

On the Farm

The Rangers are in the enviable position of having three of the top position prospects in baseball ready to start the year in AAA and be available during the year should the big club need reinforcements.  Joey Gallo, he of the Herculean home run blasts, struggled to adjust to upper level pitching after getting to the majors last year, but has had a solid camp, and will be playing third base in Round Rock to start the season while continuing to learn how to handle advanced pitching.  Nomar Mazara, who is still just 20, could probably handle a starting job in right field in the majors right now, but "The Big Chill" will be in Round Rock refining his game and waiting for the call. He will be joined in the outfield by center fielder Lewis Brinson, the 2012 first rounder who took a big leap forward in 2015, rocketing from high-A to AAA, and putting himself in position to potentially fight for a starting major league job in 2017.

But wait, there's more!  Jurickson Profar is back and healthy again, after missing two years with shoulder problems.  He will be in AAA as well.  So will Patrick Kivlehan, the outfielder who came over in the Leonys Martin trade, and possibly Ryan Rua, too.  The rotation in AAA will likely see Chi Chi Gonzalez, Nick Martinez, Phil Klein and Nick Tepesch jockeying for position for the right to be the guy called up should the Rangers need rotation reinforcements.

There's a ton of interesting guys, meanwhile, in the lower levels...17 year old Leodys Taveras got time in major league games this spring, first baseman Ronald Guzman impressed after a couple of rough seasons, power hitting outfielder Jairo Beras looks like he is right to start turning his tools into performance, and the crew of pitchers from last year's Hickory squad -- Yohander Mendez, Brett Martin, Ariel Jurado, Luis Ortiz, David Perez, Collin Wiles -- are continuing to climb up the ladder.

And we haven't even talked about the #4 pick of the 2015 draft, righthander Dillon Tate, or second round pick Eric Jenkins, who was the talk of the back fields.

There's a lot to be excited about down on the farm.

Outlook

The Rangers have been in a strange place the previous few years, coming off back-to-back World Series appearances to get knocked out in win-or-go-home one game playoffs in 2012 and 2013, then having a the disastrous 2014 season which featured a plague of injuries that even Old Testament God would think was a bit excessive.  Spring training, 2015, featured a new manager, guys looking to return from down years, and a team that was generally viewed as an afterthought.

This year, though?  The 2016 Texas Rangers look like they're in a good place.  Guys are, for the most part, healthy.  They've got a #1 starter in place, and another one due off the d.l. soon.  They've got a deep bullpen, a solid lineup, and the farm system to go get additional pieces if necessary this summer.

If you're a Rangers fan, you should be feeling good about the upcoming season.