The offseason started pretty well for the Texas Rangers as they acquired Prince Fielder from the Detroit Tigers and signed Shin-Soo Choo to bolster the outfield. Just a few days before the start of the regular season, things look drastically different as injuries to the starting rotation have completely decimated the Rangers pitching staff and have left the team wondering what 2014 will actually hold.
The Rangers fell one game short of the playoffs last season because they lost the second wild card spot tiebreaker game against the Tampa Bay Rays. What the Rangers accomplished was rather impressive because the 730 runs that they scored was the team’s lowest total since the strike-shortened year of 1995. Not only that, but it was the lowest in that span by over 50 runs. The pitching staff was the difference as the Rangers allowed just 636 runs, the fewest they’ve allowed since 1983.
As such, the Rangers made moves in the offseason to attempt to strengthen the offense, figuring that the team’s pitching performance last season would be enough to push them to the next level. The Rangers allowed four or fewer runs in 111 of their 163 games last season and were 74-29 in those games. Of course, it also means that the Rangers were 17-43 when allowing more than four runs. Most teams have problems when allowing more than four runs, but Rangers Ballpark in Arlington tends to be a good hitter’s park, so the Rangers wanted to strengthen their offense. Forty-eight of the team’s 72 losses came in games where they scored two runs or less.
Texas was downright dominant in the American League West with a 53-23 mark. They were 32-6 against the Angels and Astros. Only the Athletics played more teams with a record below .500. The Rangers were 53-31 in those games. By Pythagorean Win-Loss, the Rangers should have ended the break at 50-45, but they were 54-41. Regression hit a little bit in the second half and the Rangers had losing months in July and September and were just six games over .500 despite a +71 run differential. Their Pythagorean Win-Loss should have been 42-26, but it was just 37-31 and wound up being the difference between a playoff berth and losing Game 163.
Yu Darvish’s MRI came back pretty clean, so oddsmakers still have a rather bullish take on the Rangers. All three of BetDSI.eu, 5Dimes.eu, and BetOnline.ag have the Rangers at 87 wins with varying juice, as low as -102 on the under at DSI to as high as +100 on the over at 5Dimes. Bovada.lv has the lowest number at 86.5 with -115 on both sides.
Key additions: Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, Scott Baker, Joe Saunders, JP Arencibia, Geovany Soto
Key losses: Ian Kinsler, Joe Nathan, Craig Gentry, Lance Berkman, Nelson Cruz, Matt Garza, AJ Pierzynski, David Murphy
Talent in and talent out for the high-priced Rangers. The move that got the most attention was likely the Price Fielder-Ian Kinsler swap with the Detroit Tigers. In Prince, the Rangers get a big-time power threat that has stayed healthy despite his hefty frame and they also trade away Kinsler, who wasn’t particularly happy in the organization. Shin-Soo Choo adds a dynamic that the Rangers lacked as a guy with an extremely high on-base percentage. The Rangers hit for a good average, but they had one of the AL’s lowest walk rates and Choo fills a need in that regard. Also in Fielder and Choo, the Rangers replace Lance Berkman and Nelson Cruz with more valuable players.
The Rangers had to scramble to find some pitching depth with the additions of Tommy Hanson and Joe Saunders in light of Matt Harrison’s recurring injuries and Derek Holland’s microfracture knee surgery following an injury suffered while playing with his dog.
The loss of AJ Pierzynski prompted the Rangers to try and go with a combination of JP Arencibia and Geovany Soto at catcher. Soto, like seemingly everybody for the Rangers, is hurt, so the Rangers will rely heavily on Arencibia and recently-signed veteran Chris Snyder, as well as organizational player Robinson Chirinos.
The loss of Craig Gentry is an underrated development for the Rangers. Gentry is one of the game’s better defensive players and he puts the bat on the ball and walks. He was second in fWAR for the Rangers last season and was a better offensive player than Leonys Martin, his likely replacement in center field.
David Murphy moved on to the Indians after a terrible season with the Rangers. He’s largely a platoon bat against righties and the Rangers already have a guy with sharp splits, but top-five performance against righties in Shin-Soo Choo. Matt Garza also left after underwhelming the team during last year’s stretch run.
Why bet the over?
The Rangers offense should be a legitimate group capable of scoring runs in bunches. What’s interesting about last season for the Rangers is that three of the top four position players in fWAR accumulated most of their value defensively. Craig Gentry, Elvis Andrus, and Leonys Martin were second, third, and fourth in fWAR for the Rangers, a sign of how much the team struggled offensively.
Upgrades Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo will be huge for the Rangers offense. The leaders in home runs for the Rangers were Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz, both right-handed hitters. The ball carries extremely well for lefties at Rangers Ballpark, so Fielder and Choo, both guys with some power, should see a spike in their numbers. In terms of the American League, Rangers Ballpark has the third-highest home run park factor for lefties. Of the 176 home runs the Rangers hit, only 63 of them came with runners on base. Expect that number to go up with those two key cogs near the top of the order.
For as talented as the Rangers offense is with a friendly park to hit in, they ranked 12th in wOBA against right-handed pitching last season at .319 and were just 59-53 against right-handed starters. In their careers, Fielder and Choo have posted OPS rates of .971 and .932, respectively, against righties. Since teams face a right-handed starter around 75 percent of the time on average, the Rangers will be a lot more productive against righties and that should lead to a lot more offensive success.
Is there a more underrated player in baseball than Adrian Beltre? Beltre should have no problem reaching 400 career home runs this season and has performed well in both hitter-friendly and pitcher-friendly parks. Up until last season, Beltre was also an elite defender at his position. In his 15 full seasons at the Major League level, beginning at age 20, Beltre has averaged just shy of 147 games played per season. Last season, at age 34, Beltre played 161 of the team’s 163 games. The incredible thing is that Beltre shows no signs of slowing down. All of his peripheral stats stayed high last season and the expectation should be another .300-25-90 season from the hot corner.
Once he is healthy, Jurickson Profar will join Elvis Andrus to form one of the stronger keystone combinations defensively. Profar has more offensive upside than Andrus because of his ability to hit for power, but Andrus has the more consistent performance in batting average and stolen bases. Either way, these two will have value defensively and any offense the Rangers get is a bonus. The same can be said of Leonys Martin, who has great speed and good fielding chops. Martin has some untapped offensive potential with a bit of power and some speed, but sharp platoon splits against lefties hold him back.
The Rangers bullpen will be a strength this season, even without their closer from last season, Joe Nathan. Joakim Soria enters the season as the favorite to close now that Tommy John surgery is over two years behind him. He made 26 appearances last season in his return and fought with his control, but the velocity was there and so were the strikeouts. He had three dominant seasons as the Royals closer from 2008-10 and the same could happen here.
Behind Soria, the Rangers bullpen features a collection of guys that can miss bats and that’s always good for a bullpen. Neal Cotts was one of the league’s top matchup lefties. Jason Frasor will probably be the primary setup man since Neftali Feliz was sent to Triple-A to continue his rehab and return from Tommy John surgery. Alexi Ogando’s career path has sent him back to the bullpen, which could be a blessing as he has had more success in a relief role. With Robbie Ross pushed into the rotation, a spot could open up for Shawn Tolleson, a former Dodgers prospect, who has had very impressive minor league strikeout totals.
The rotation is a bit of a concern, but there’s still talent here. Martin Perez and Tanner Scheppers will be at the top until Yu Darvish’s neck and back discomfort is taken care of. Perez pitched well in a 20-start sample last season with a 3.62 ERA. Perez is a pitch-to-contact guy and ground balls hit at this infield when it’s at full strength with Profar in the mix should yield positive results. He’s a standard lefty with a four-pitch mix and average control.
In Scheppers, the Rangers have a guy who could be the surprise of the season. Scheppers relied on his fastball 81 percent of the time last season, so he’ll need to mix it up a bit more as a starter, but above average strikeout and ground ball rates are a definite possibility. Behind Scheppers will be Robbie Ross. Ross had success as a starter in the minor leagues before a transition to the bullpen in 2012. Like Scheppers, Ross is a sinker/slider guy, so a lot of ground balls will come from this Texas rotation. Keeping the ball down will be essential. Joe Saunders and Nick Martinez are at the back of the rotation.
When Darvish does come back, and the Rangers don’t expect his injury to be that serious, he is a bona fide, elite starter. In terms of the depth of his pitching arsenal, there may not be a better pitcher than Darvish, who has a mid-90s fastball, a couple slider variations, a devastating splitter, and a ridiculous curveball. If the other guys can hold down the fort until Darvish and Holland return, that will be an enormous boost to the team. Holland is aiming for a June return from a pretty serious knee procedure, but he’s an above average starter.
All in all, the Rangers are in a much better position offensively and starting rotation injuries have cast a rather dark outlook on their season. If the Darvish injury is minor and he only misses a week or two, the rotation can more than get by.
Why bet the under?
The Rangers rotation has two guys who should be relievers in Ross and Scheppers, a very average pitcher in Perez, and a serious lack of depth until Derek Holland and Matt Harrison (thoracic outlet syndrome surgery) can return. The problem with pitchers like Ross and Scheppers is that they lack a third pitch to neutralize left-handed hitters. Without a usable change-up or curveball, their platoon splits are going to be ugly. Since the ball already carries well to right field in Arlington, this is a very scary proposition.
Perez posted a 3.62 ERA but a 4.23 FIP and a 4.14 SIERA. Perez may be one guy that outpitches these metrics, and he is just in his second season at the MLB level, but there are certainly reasons to be concerned about him, especially to view him as a #2 or #3 starter when he’s more of a back-end guy. That’s not Perez’s fault by any means, but speaks to a serious lack of depth.
The loss of Profar is a big deal for the Rangers because they traded Kinsler with the expectation of Profar in that role. He’ll be back by late May, but the Rangers could be well off of their win total pace by that time. With top prospect Rougned Odor starting the season in the minors, Adam Rosales will likely be the worst second baseman in the league on an everyday basis.
The catching spot is a disaster for the Rangers. JP Arencibia’s power may play up in Texas, which is about the only area he has value, but Arencibia posted an OPS below .600 last season despite hitting 21 home runs. Some would have thought that to be mathematically impossible, but, damnit, Arencibia did it. Geovany Soto is on the disabled list and there will be a lot of reliance on the catchers to navigate the rather young, rather flawed starting rotation through the early part of the season. That may not happen.
Pick: Under 87 (-102, BetDSI.eu)
This play isn’t so much a knock on the Rangers as it is a serious concern that they will be so far off of this pace by the time they get healthy that a good enough run in the improved AL West will be too hard to do. The offense is clearly top-five material with more balance and the bullpen should be a strength, but the starting rotation is so mediocre, even with Darvish, that it’s really hard to ask this team to win a lot of games in a division projected to have three teams in the upper 80s by the oddsmakers.
It seems pretty unlikely for the Rangers to dominate the Angels the way they did last season and a more even season series would pretty much eliminate the gap between last season’s record and the posted win total. The Rangers struggled outside of the AL West and against quality teams last season. The likelihood of some of last season’s positive trends continuing is rather slim.
While there’s a lot of talent here and the Rangers could easily put it together, win over 90, and take the AL West, their rotation is just too much to overlook right now.
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Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.