Tell me you predicted the Texas Rangers would win the AL West in 2015. Go on, tell me! Of course you didn’t. I didn’t. Nobody did! And yet, there they were, sitting atop the standings at the end of the year, besting the feel-good Astros, and even taking the muscular and tanned Blue Jays to five games in the ALCS.

Tex Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013 .558 (10) 97 (14) 94 (6) 69 (3) 39 (7) 35 (7) 2 (12) 140 (8)
2014 .414 (28) 88 (25) 117 (29) 99  (20) -43 (26) -7 (22) -1 (20) 140 (10)
2015 .543 (8) 96 (19) 101 (13) 97 (17) 5 (14) 23 (5) 19 (1) 152 (7)

 

Now, the numbers will tell you the Rangers were actually quite a bit better than pretty much anyone predicted they’d be, but also probably a little lucky. They outperformed their base runs record by seven wins, and had an unimpressive collective wRC+ of 96 despite also ranking 5th in the AL in WAR. They led the league in baserunning, and played pretty solid defense, but they didn’t pitch great, with a 4.25 team ERA and a 4.34 FIP (2nd worst in the AL), so the argument could be made that there were some smoke and mirrors involved in the surprising run of success. Fangraphs’ clutch metric suggests the Rangers did particularly well in high leverage situations, outpacing every other playoff-bound team during the regular season.  It all made for a very compelling Cinderella type season, but we’re left going into 2016 scratching our heads with a wry smile and shrug of the shoulders.

rangers1

So who are the 2016 Texas Rangers?  Well, I can tell you.  They’re not bad, on paper at least. The trade deadline addition of ace Cole Hamels anchors the rotation until Yu Darvish comes back around May (optimistically). Prince Fielder appears still to be capable of doing Prince Fielderly things, at least to the tune of a .305/.378/.463 slash in 2015. While that’s not vintage Prince Fielder, it’s nothing to sneeze at either. Shin Soo Choo bounced back from a dismal 2014 to post 3.5 bWAR last season. Overall, the 2015 squad is largely intact, and appears poised to at least make a run at last year’s success.

 

Key Additions:

Ian Desmond, SS/OF?

Shortstop Ian Desmond agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Rangers to play… left field?  That’s the plan, apparently.  Now, keep in mind, Desmond has played all of TWO GAMES in the outfield in his career with the Nationals, the last in 2010.  Of course, we’ve seen other shortstops give left field a try, and ask Hanley Ramirez how that went.  But there’s also the case of Ben Zobrist, and Desmond seems a better comp to him, since he was generally regarded as a pretty decent defensive shortstop, and the same can’t be said for poor Hanley, so, hey, there’s a chance this could work, at least until Josh Hamilton comes back, and then all bets are off.  Defensive position aside, Desmond adds a bat with some pop to the lineup, capable of putting 20+ baseballs over the wall, albeit at the cost of a strikeout rate pushing 30%.

 

Tom Wilhelmsen, RP

Wilhelmsen, who came over in the Leonys Martin deal, is a solid, average middle reliever who regularly gets it up there in the mid 90s.  He strikes out close to a batter an inning, walks a few too many guys, but has the pure stuff to be a decent 6th or 7th inning option.  He got hit pretty hard by lefties last year (.313/.416/.458) but has much better career numbers, and also sported a BABIP well above his career mark, so there’s a chance he has a nice bounce-back campaign with the Rangers.

 

Key Subtractions:

Yovani Gallardo

Gallardo threw 184.1 solid but unspectacular innings for the Rangers in 2015, with a 3.42 ERA and 4.00 FIP.  He generated the second highest (2.5) WAR among Rangers hurlers (after Colby Lewis), but his contributions should be matched and eventually outpaced by a full year of Cole Hamels.

 

Neftali Feliz

Feliz’ 4.58 ERA/4.20 FIP in 18 games with the Rangers won’t be sorely missed, and he pitched even worse when he made it to Detroit.  There are capable replacements in the Rangers’ pen.

 

Key Players for 2016

Adrian Beltre, 3B

beltran mets

After four truly remarkable years with the Rangers, Beltre “slumped” to the tune of a .287/.334/.453 slash line in 2015, with 18 homers.  That’s a great line for a third baseman with good defense on almost any other team, but this is the up-until-now ageless Adrian Beltre, and you have to wonder if he’s FINALLY starting to show his age.  He’ll turn 37 the first week of April, and you have to wonder how much nitro he has left in the tank.

Here are his projections for 2016, all of which are pretty bullish on a rebound.

SLASH (AVG/OBP/SLG) HR
ZiPS .289/.342/.452 16
PECOTA .294/.343/.474 24
STEAMER  .291/.343/.462 17

 

None of those are particularly poor projections, but you have to wonder if the computers are putting too much stock in his past performance, although his BABIP was the lowest in four years in 2015.  Now, you could make the argument that Beltre is one of the best third basemen of all time, and should be given the benefit of the doubt.  He ranks 8th all time in WAR at the position, behind only the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Wade Boggs, and George Brett.  Several of those gentlemen aged quite well.  Boggs, for instance, put up a .303/.382/.402 line in his age 37-40 seasons, along with 10.4 WAR.  Jones hit .273/.372/.446 with 9.2 WAR.  So it’s not inconceivable Beltre could continue to thrive in his twilight years, but I’d bet on the under, if I was a betting man.

 

Rougned Odor, 2B

rangers 4

Odor enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2015, hitting .261/.316/.465 with 16 home runs.  He only walked 23 times in 470 plate appearances, but the power seems to be real, and the Rangers are hoping they’ve found their second baseman for the next several years.  The projection systems are high on him, too, suggesting another slight step forward this year.

SLASH (AVG/OBP/SLG) HR
ZiPS .273/.324/.465 20
PECOTA .268/.313/.439 17
STEAMER .273/.321/.449 17

 

Yu Darvish, SP

Coming off Tommy John surgery, Yu Darvish might be the single biggest question mark of the Rangers’ season, with the potential to make arguably the biggest impact in one direction or another.  The team is taking it slow with his recovery, predicting a mid-May return, at which point, a healthy and effective Darvish would give the Rangers one of the best 1-2 punches in the American League.  The bad news? The projection systems are only cautiously optimistic, and PECOTA even less than that.

IP ERA FIP
ZiPS 132 3.41 3.45
PECOTA 74 3.50 3.34
STEAMER 145 3.47 3.52

 

Now, that’s quite a range, the difference between Darvish making 12 and 24 starts.  Naturally, it will make a big difference for the Rangers which one is closer to the truth.

 

The Offense

As mentioned previously, the Rangers’ offense didn’t set the world on fire in 2015, but they hit well enough to stay in ballgames.  Well, everyone’s back, plus one Ian Desmond, so there’s a chance for at least some improvement in this department. Delino Deshields, kicked Leonys Martin out of centerfield and has another year of development under his belt. The same goes for Rougned Odor.  You can hope for some steps forward from those two.  Beltre is solid, and Fielder, barring injury, is likely to hit well enough.  Shin-Soo Choo and Mitch Moreland could be due for some regression, but it’s also possible they won’t regress, given that their performances weren’t horribly out of line with their career numbers.  What you have is a good-not-great lineup that should rank somewhere in the middle of the American League, with the wild card of Josh Hamilton coming back at some point.  Hamilton is a shell, an empty husk really, of the player he was in his prime, but a one-year renaissance with the team that nurtured and believed in him isn’t totally out of the question.

 

Pitching

darvishThis is an area that could potentially set the Rangers apart, if everything goes right. “Everything going right” almost never happens, but even some combination of mostly going right and luck and bacon grease could see the Rangers with a formidable pitching rotation by September, anchored by a healthy Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, with a bounce-back from Derek Holland, and one of Colby Lewis, Martin Perez, or Chi Chi Gonzalez finding a groove.  That’s asking a lot, but it’s not completely out of the question.  Rangers fans at least have something to dream on, although the thought of a measely 74 innings out of Darvish could easily turn that dream on its head.  The bullpen, meanwhile, looks fairly stout, featuring a completely renovated Shawn Tolleson, who struck out more people and walked fewer than he ever has, and Keone Kela, who throws propane gas and struck out 10 per nine.  The pen is rounded out by the flamethrowing Jake Diekman, Sam Dyson, and the aforementioned Whilhelmsen, and could also be pretty solid.

 

The Farm

Baseball America ranks the Rangers minor league system 7th overall, which makes sense considering the talent knocking on the door to the majors.  The depth on the farm is a luxury, and the Rangers have three major league ready (or close to it) position players ready to step in should one of the regulars suffer an injury or just doesn’t play well.  Joey Gallo has 80 grade power, plays a passable third base, and could conceivably play an outfield corner as well.  He hit .204/.301/.417 in 108 major league at bats in 2015, striking out just all the time.  It’s a legitimate question if he’ll ever make enough contact to stick long-term in the majors, but the colossal power is too tantalizing not to give him a couple more shots.  Just behind Gallo (and just ahead of him in the Baseball Prospectus team prospect rankings) is OF Nomar Mazara, who hit .296/.366/.443 over two levels last year, with 14 homers in 490 at bats.  BP likes him a little more than MLB.com, grading him as a 65 overall player, with a middle-of-the order bat.  It’s only a matter of time before Mazara gets a shot in the Rangers outfield.  Last, but certainly not least, Lewis Brinson enjoyed a breakout year, playing at three levels in 2015 to the tune of an eye-popping .332/.403/.601 slash line.  BP grades him as having plus raw power, and a 70 glove, with the potential to be a first division center fielder for years to come.  Should incumbent Delino DeShields, Jr. falter at any point, say around mid-June, there’s a chance Brinson could get a shot, but likely only if the Rangers find themselves in contention.

 

Outlook

Given the talent on the major league roster, it’s not inconceivable that the Rangers would repeat last season’s success, even if they don’t get quite as lucky.  The computers over at Fangraphs project the Rangers to win just 80 games, good for fourth in the division, but I find that to be a bit of a pessimistic outlook.  The Rangers’ fate will rest heavily on the rehabilitated right arm of Yu Darvish, but there is enough of a talented core and more talent on the way to believe in the Rangers, this year and on into the future.  My prediction?  87 wins, 130 quality innings from Darvish, and in the hunt for the wild card.

 

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.
2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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