Sunday, December 24, 2006

Looking Ahead: Texas Rangers

2006 W-L Record: 80-82
2006 pW-pL Record: 86-76
Runs Scored: 835 (4th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 784 (8th in AL)
Free Agents: Rod Barajas, Mark DeRosa, Adam Eaton, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Carlos Lee, Gary Matthews, Jr., Kip Wells

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Mark Teixeira
2B -- Ian Kinsler
SS -- Michael Young
3B -- Hank Blalock
LF -- Frank Catalanotto/Brad Wilkerson
CF -- Kenny Lofton
RF -- Nelson Cruz
C -- Gerald Laird?
DH -- Jason Botts?

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Kevin Millwood
Vicente Padilla
Brandon McCarthy
Robinson Tejeda
Edinson Volquez/Kameron Loe

2007 Proj. Closer: Eric Gagne

The Ranger offense appears to be in fine shape. The 2006 club wasn't quite as potent as anticipated, but in some ways they compensated. Where Mark Teixeira and Brad Wilkerson slumped, Gary Matthews and Mark DeRosa had unlikely career years. Adam Eaton got injured, but Vicente Padilla stayed healthy. The team traded for Carlos Lee and didn't even have to give up much to get him. That looks like a lot of turnover among their free agents, but the core group of contributors is still there. The Rangers appear to have a potent lineup, and although the outfield could use some juice, they'll probably be just fine.
The Texas infield returns intact from 2006. First baseman Mark Teixeira had a bit of an off year in '06 (282/371/514 is an off year for him), but should make a strong return in 2007. Second baseman Ian Kinsler is what the Rangers expected; a thoroughly capable hitter (286/347/454) and defender (-3 FRAA) who should man the position for the near future.
At shortstop, the Rangers have Michael Young. Young has always hit well for the position, and 2006 was no exception (314/356/459). But in the past, Young was a defensive liability. A former second baseman, Young shifted to shortstop when Alfonso Soriano came to town. That gave the Rangers arguably the worst middle infield in baseball. Young wasn't a bad second baseman, but at shorstop, he was agonizing. He was among the league's worst from 2003-2005, posting an FRAA of -16, -14 and -14 in those years.
But last year, Young's FRAA flipped to a Gold Glove-caliber +20. This was no illusion. Although the change doesn't appear as dramatic, other metrics have Young making a sizable improvement defensively. Win Shares has him improving from 4.3 fielding WS in '05 to 7.7 last year, a whole win unto himself. It's really hard to say what's actually going on here. It's unlikely that Young made a sudden improvement in defense at age 29, and even if he was that good in 2006, it's tough to predict what will happen in 2007. With defense, it's difficult to separate the underlying reality from the system of measurement. Part of this improvement could be due to the subtraction of the woeful Soriano to his left (defense does have an interdependent quality). But if pressed, I'd say that Young is more likely to be a below-average infielder next year. It's hard to imagine that he just suddenly got a lot better, although his case is eerily similar to that of Derek Jeter, who did maintain his defensive improvement.
At third base, the Rangers have the only real disappointment in the entire infield. It's sad, too, because he was supposed to be a rising star. None the less, Hank Blalock's career has hit the skids, and it's hard to see why. With almost no change in playing time, Blalock's power, patience, and batting average have all dropped from the high levels of performance he set in 2003 and 2004. Last year, Blalock hit 266/325/401, below-average for a player in Texas' offensive haven. This was a step down from 2005 (263/318/431), which was a step down from 2004 (276/355/500). Blalock's power has been cut nearly in half; in 2004 he had 73 extra-base hits, but he fell to just 45 last year. It's highly unusual for such an all-around wonder to succeed so well at such a young age (Blalock hit the game-winning homer in the 2003 All-Star Game at age 23) and then suffer a plunge in quality for no apparent reason. It seems like Blalock should bounce back eventually, but it's not looking good. Blalock may, unfortunately, share a page in the history books with contemporary Sean Burroughs as unexpected failures.
The Ranger outfield has been their weakness for years, as they've failed to find good hitters, especially in the outfield corners. And while the 2007 squad isn't that scary, it does have the potential for improvement. Time in left field will likely be shared between Frank Catalanotto and Brad Wilkerson. That would make for a fine platoon if both men weren't lefties. Catalanotto has had good success in Toronto as a platoon player, hitting 300/376/439 last season. But his success was mainly due to a platoon; 91% of his at-bats were against righties, and he hit just 237/348/342 when he did face lefties.
One possible solution would be to combine Catalanotto with Nelson Cruz. The Rangers seem determined to give the 27-year-old Cruz a spot in the starting lineup, but Catalanotto's need for a platoon mate could override that commitment. Plus, the Rangers have the advantage of redundancy in the outfield; even if you combine Cruz/Catalanotto in left, you can put Wilkerson in right and have Jason Botts as your full-time DH. Wilkerson had the worst year of his career struggling through injuries in 2006 (222/306/422), but the 252/358/448 lifetime hitter should be able to bounce back with solid offensive production to g0 with his defensive versatility.
Botts, who will get at least some playing time at DH, is a product of the Texas farm system. He's the classic big ol' sugger, with lots of power and lots of strikeouts. But Botts has already shown good plate discipline and has nothing left to prove in the minors (2006 in Triple-A: 309/398/582). His defense will limit him to DH, but he should hit well enough to hold down the position, even if only part-time.
In center field, the Rangers signed Kenny Lofton to a one-year contract. Lofton isn't going to give you a lot, but he does provide defense and solid offense from the position and is a far better investment than outgoing CF Gary Matthews, Jr. Plus, Lofton's 1-year agreement leaves the Rangers free to pursue one of the big-name center fielders coming on the market in the 2007 offseason (Andruw Jones, anyone?).
Behind the plate, the Rangers will replace the overrated Rod Barajas with Gerald Laird. Laird isn't much of a hitter (although he hit 296/332/473 in '06), but is a good defender and a good placeholder until hot prospect Taylor Teagarden is ready (around 2008-9).

There isn't the star power here that we associate with the Texas offense, and their friendly home park probably makes them look better than they are. But they're well-set with at least adequate production at every position and decent depth as well. If they can get pitching support, they could be considered a dark horse candidate for the postseason.

Of course, we've been saying that for years. The Rangers haven't had a really good pitching staff in over 20 years. In fact, the Rangers are rarely even above-average. In 1983, the Rangers posted an ERA+ of 122, the best in the league. Since then, they've only topped 102 four times in 23 years. The Rangers have only been strongly above-average 4 times since 1983, and they haven't been excellent since (their highest ERA+ since was 111 in 2004). It becomes very dull and repetitive to say that the Rangers need pitching every offseason, but it's still as true as it ever was. The Texas pitching staff was adequate in 2006 (ERA+ of 102), but with a poor defense and a lineup that's merely good, it will take a lot more than that to solve things.
Making matters worse, the Rangers' efforts to solve their pitching problems since '83 have led to catastrophe more often than not. The most notable example is the 5-year contract handed out to Chan Ho Park in 2000, one of the worst free agent deals ever. While the Rangers haven't repeated the Park fiasco since, they've committed a lot of money to pitchers that just aren't worth it.
The Rangers are paying Kevin Millwood Park-esque money; he's entering the second year of a 5-year, $60 million deal. Of course, Millwood is a better (and more proven) pitcher than Park, and what with inflation and all, the deal isn't that bad. But it's a backloaded deal, meaning that Millwood will earn $11 million in 2009 (at age 34) and $12 million in 2010 (if his option vests).
It must be said that the Millwood deal looks a lot better in light of what's happened this past offseason. But for their troubles, the Rangers did not get an ace (as they were hoping); they got an above-average pitcher whose durability is questionable. Millwood's ERA in 2006 was 4.52, although considering his ballpark, he did pitch fairly well (ERA+ of 102). His peripheral stats were basically unchanged from his 2005 season (2.86 ERA, ERA+ of 143). This could mean that Millwood was unlucky in 2006, or that he was lucky in 2005. Probably both.
The Millwood deal won't kill the Rangers, but it should be said that they're counting on him to be something that he's not: a #1 starter. Only with the salary inflation of the past few months does this deal look acceptable.
Much less acceptable is the deal given to Vicente Padilla. The Rangers traded for Padilla before 2006 and saw him put up a 4.50 ERA. He has similar peripherals as Millwood, except that his BB rate is much higher and his K rate is slightly higher. What Padilla doesn't have, however, is any sort of reputation for reliability. I discussed Padilla's deal when it went down, and my reaction is still that he's not reliable enough to pay $11 million a year. It's true that the contract is one of the more reasonable of those given out to free agent pitchers this offseason, but I'm still skeptical. The only extenuating circumstance here is the Rangers' desperation for starting pitchers -- even those who are just decent. And that desperation is the result of their own negligence.
The Rangers have Brandon McCarthy pencilled in as their #3. I'll be discussing the McCarthy deal in more detail later, but in short he's a big boost to their rotation. They may have given up too much to get him, but McCarthy's advantage is that he's already established himself at the big-league level. The trouble here is fly balls; McCarthy gives up a lot of them, and Texas isn't the place for that.
It will be the same bunch of shmoes filling out the back end of the rotation, with the possible exception of young Edinson Volquez. Volquez is one of the Rangers' top pitching prospects (yes, they do have some), and the closest to contributing at the big-league level. He threw 33.1 innings with the big club in 2006, but those are best forgotten (7.29 ERA, 17:15 BB:K ratio). Volquez does have a bright future, but he also has a troubling increase in walk rate to explain. Even at Triple-A last year, he was walking a lot of hitters (72 in 120.2 IP). This set a new career high for him by a mile; his combined 89 walks in 154 IP last year were far more than his previous career high of 41, set in 127.1 IP in 2004. The result could be that he begins that season in Triple-A.
If Volquez doesn't make the rotation, it will likely be the unimpressive if adequate combination of Robinson Tejeda and Kameron Loe filling things out.

In the bullpen, the Rangers made a big splash by signing Eric Gagne to a 1-year contract. This is a big risk, but it's a relatively cheap one and one that could pay off well. It's odd, though, that the Rangers got Gagne when they already had a closer in Akinori Otsuka. Otsuka is a bit old (35 next year), but is reliable and did quite well in his first season in Texas last year (2.11 ERA, 11:47 BB:K ratio). It's not that Gagne isn't a risk worth taking, it's just that it seems to me that the Rangers could have put that money to use elsewhere. And there is the very real possibility that Gagne will get re-injured, or that he just won't pitch nearly as well as he used to.
One benefit of the Gagne signing is that it gives the bullpen more depth, with Otsuka moving to a setup role. The Rangers should be able to fill out a competent group behind them, with returning favorites Ron Mahay and Rick Bauer along with some of their rising young pitching talent.

In the end, though, there's very little chance that the Texas pitching staff will be much better than it was last year. They added some upside with the acquisition of McCarthy and Gagne, as well as the continuing development of their prospects, but the realistic expectation just isn't much more than average to above-average -- the same as always.

Offseason Game Plan:
Now that I've finished my "Looking Ahead" series, the offseason is virtually over. I did not anticipate this, as there are usually a few big names stuck around after the New Year. But for whatever reason, everything happened really fast this year. Barry Zito (Giants) and Jeff Suppan (Brewers) are gone, and now the biggest names left out there are guys like Mark Mulder, Cliff Floyd, and Eddie Guardado.
So there's not much that the Rangers can do. The good thing is that there's not much they should do. The Rangers are basically stuck with what they've got, and unless they can find a good deal for Hank Blalock, this is what they're going to be taking into 2007.
There's a lot of encouragement to be found in the Rangers' Pythagorean W-L record of 86-76 last year. This suggests that the team already was above-average, and just needs to take a small step forward to enter the land of 90 wins, and thus contention. However, I'm pessimistic that the Rangers were really that good in 2006, and I'm also fairly pessimistic about how much they've really improved for 2007. The Rangers should be considered as an outside shot for the postseason -- if everyone hits like they should and the rotation stays healthy, it's not unreasonable to see them winning 90 games -- but it's highly unlikely that the Rangers can pass all of the other AL teams that are hovering around the 90-win mark.
Only four AL teams can make the postseason, and right now I'd say that the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Indians, White Sox, Twins, Tigers, Angels, and A's are better teams than the Rangers. It's important to remember that; the Rangers are about the 10th-best team in the AL. Even if they shock everyone and pass three or four of the teams on this list, that means that they're going to be watching the postseason on TV once again.
There is hope for Texas; they have young pitching prospects, a core of offensive talent, and the money to buy more offense. But it's a very tall order to expect them to be contenders as soon as next year.

1 comment:

t ball said...

Your team previews have been a great read. I'm a Rangers fan, so I read this one with special interest, and have a comment or two.

On the pitching staff, you must be out of the loop a bit. The assumption here all winter among the media, fans, and with concurring comments from the front office, has been that Tejeda will be the 4th starter going into ST, with the 5th spot decided amongst youngster Josh Rupe, Kameron Loe, Koronka, etc. Volquez is likely headed back to AAA to work on his control issues. All that assumes they don't sign or trade for anyone else.

Tejeda showed some promise last in '06, so fans are hopeful that he can be an average #4 starter (which, in '06 meant an era 5.10, and an era+ of 89).

Regarding Young's defensive improvement at SS, it was perhaps not as much of a surprise to fans as to outsiders. His best asset is his work ethic, and most of us felt he made improvements last year that didn't show up in the ratings. I'm betting he regresses towards the mean a bit, but remains solid.

I look forward to your analysis of the McCarthy/Danks trade. I hope you'll look a little deeper in the numbers than some, who just assume the Rangers home park is the worst outside of Denver. The Cell has been worse for homers in some years, and McCarthy is on record saying he didn't like his pitch selection last year. I think it was a good learning experience for him.

His splits also seem to indicate he might not be such a bad bet in Arlington. His career WHIP against lefties is 1.10, and his home run rate is also much lower against them. This bodes well for Arlington, where lefties can aim for the short right field fence.

Comments of an ever hopeful Rangers fan, take them with a grain of salt...