Philadelphia, PA – (SportsNetwork.com) - Along with heightened success comes heightened expectations, a reality that has certainly held true for the Texas Rangers over the past few years.
After winning 93 games and then losing the wild card game in 2012, Texas put together a 91-win season last year but lost the play-in game to advance to the wild card round.
Can the Rangers rediscover the mojo that took them to back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011?
They would certainly appear to have the lineup to get it done, even without All-Stars Ian Kinsler or Nelson Cruz. Back in November, the team sent Kinsler to Detroit in exchange for All-Star slugger Prince Fielder, along with $30 million in cash. Interestingly, Fielder joins Alex Rodriguez as the only players ever to be traded after signing a contract north of $200 million.
With a logjam of middle infielders featuring Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Kinsler blocking former top prospect Jurickson Profar at second base, and with run-producing outfielder Cruz declining a $14 million qualifying offer and instead bolting to Baltimore in free agency last month (for one year and $8 million), the move made sense for the Rangers.
To help alleviate the loss of Cruz, Texas also acquired left fielder Shin-Soo Choo, who boasted a .423 on-base percentage last season. As for Fielder, he now gets to take his hacks in Arlington's hitter-friendly ballpark while playing for another team with postseason hopes.
2013 FINISH (91-72) - Second Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Prince Fielder (1B), Shin-Soo Choo (LF), Michael Choice (OF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Ian Kinsler (2B), Nelson Cruz (OF), Lance Berkman (1B), A.J. Pierzynski (C), Craig Gentry (OF), Josh Lindblom (LHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Shin-Soo Choo (LF); Elvis Andrus (SS); Prince Fielder (1B); Adrian Beltre (3B); Alex Rios (RF); Mitch Moreland (DH); Geovany Soto (C); Jurickson Profar (2B); Leonys Martin (CF)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Yu Darvish (RHP); Alexi Ogando (RHP); Martin Perez (LHP); Matt Harrison (LHP); Nicholas Tepesch (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Joakim Soria (RHP)
MANAGER: Ron Washington
HOW WILL THE BACK END OF THE BULLPEN SHAKE OUT?
One of the team's biggest strengths from a year ago is also one of its biggest question marks entering 2014. That's because righty Joakim Soria has been handed the role of closer, despite not having saved a game since 2011.
Former closer Joe Nathan, owner of 341 career saves, signed with Detroit in December after posting a 2.09 ERA and 80 saves over the past two seasons with Texas. The Rangers had hoped that Neftali Feliz would seize the opportunity, but that wasn't the case as Soria completely outplayed him this spring.
Now, Soria is no stranger to ninth-inning duties. He was an All-Star closer in Kansas City in 2010, saving 43 games. And he saved 28 games in 2011 before Tommy John surgery cost him the 2012 season.
Soria appeared in 26 games for the Rangers last season and pitched to a 3.80 ERA.
Last year, the Rangers led the majors in save percentage and ranked fourth in bullpen ERA. If Soria can deliver, the 'pen figures to once again be a strength. If they both falter, Rangers fans will find themselves sweating out the end of ballgames this summer.
WHO WILL EMERGE IN THE BACK OF THE ROTATION?
While the closer situation plays itself out, there are even more questions toward the back end of the rotation. After Yu Darvish, both Matt Harrison and Martin Perez have likely shown enough to solidify starting roles. Alexi Ogando is also vying for a spot, but he has had a rough spring and may be slated for a long relief job. He also has some history with shoulder issues.
Ultimately, health will be a big factor in determining who earns which job. Harrison missed almost all of last season and had two surgeries to correct a herniated disk in his back, along with another surgery on his throwing shoulder. Like Ogando and Harrison, Tommy Hanson has also battled shoulder woes but remains hopeful of continuing his once promising career as a starter.
Colby Lewis missed all of last season due to surgeries on his hip and elbow, and he has not had a very encouraging spring. And then there is Derek Holland, who will miss the first half of the season while recovering from knee surgery. Former starter Joe Saunders has been relegated to the 'pen, while another candidate, Nick Tepesch, was recently sent down to the minors. Even Perez, despite being healthy and showing promise last year, comes with questions about what kind of workload he can handle given his limited big-league experience.
HOW WILL THE NEW ADDITIONS HELP?
The addition of Choo, assuming his on-base percentage stays around its usual vicinity, should boost the top of the lineup and, in turn, the run production from the middle of the order. Likewise, the short porch in right field at newly renamed Globe Life Park in Arlington plays right into the wheelhouse of another new addition, Fielder. The Rangers are hoping that Fielder can provide some much needed pop from the left side of the plate.
Of course, the division-rival Angels can provide a cautionary tale or two about big-name acquisitions. They have not sniffed the playoffs since landing Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols over the last two offseasons. Choo, for all of his consistency, is playing on his first nine-figure contract and must prove he can remain productive amidst all of the pressure that comes along with those dollar signs. Fielder knows a thing or two about mega contracts, yet his offseason was spent trying to trim down after fading in the postseason once again (career .194 hitter in eight playoff series).
The front office is banking on those two acquisitions to the lineup making up for the losses of players like Kinsler, Cruz, Lance Berkman, A.J. Pierzynski and Craig Gentry.
X-FACTOR: JURICKSON PROFAR
The organization's prized second base phenom will have to wait a bit to start his season, as he is expected to miss 10-12 weeks after suffering a slight muscle tear in his right shoulder. Widely regarded as the top prospect in all of baseball Profar called up from Triple-A Round Rock in May and went on to hit .234 with a .644 OPS scattered across 85 games. And after the Kinsler deal, this was going to be his breakout season. But, this spring has been tough, as he was first set back by shoulder tendinitis and then by minor surgery to remove four wisdom teeth. This latest injury, of course, is more severe, but he should be back around the All-Star break.
Questions abound for the 2014 Texas Rangers, although few teams boast a more robust collection of talent from top to bottom. The lineup is a big reason for that, although that is no big surprise. The additions of Fielder and Choo should help offset the offseason losses.
Pitching will be a big key to the team's success. Depending on how things play out, the Rangers could either have a strong and deep rotation, or they could end up with Darvish and then a handful of No. 4-5 starters. With Soria and Feliz, they could have as potent an 8th-9th inning punch as any team in baseball, or they could be left scrambling to close out games if both relievers struggle to regain pre-Tommy John form. It seems plausible there may be some struggles out of the gate while these aforementioned storylines play themselves out. But the Rangers simply need to stay afloat throughout the early part of summer as some key players return to health and team chemistry develops. Barring a rash of injuries, they'll be primed for a second-half charge and figure to once again be among the last teams standing in the American League.