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American League Two-a-Days: Texas Rangers

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Texas Rangers

2013 record: 91-72 (lost play-in game to TBR)
2013 runs scored: 730
2013 runs against: 636
2013 pythag. record: 92-71

The Rangers overcame multiple pitching injuries and were excellent at preventing runs in 2013, led by Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus on defense.  The offense had a very inconsistent year, but produced at an above average level overall.  But the real story of the Rangers’ 2013 season was the September crash.

The Rangers as currently constructed have run out of gas each of the last three seasons, but progressively earlier.  They’ve looked like one of the best teams in baseball at different points in each of the last three years.  But they were an out away from the Championship in 2011, and couldn’t close.  They made it to the playoffs in 2012, but a disastrous last week of the season cost them the AL West title, a designation that they were 96% certain to achieve at the start of the week.

Last year, the fade began at the beginning of September.  The Rangers couldn’t right the ship until the final week of the season, but by then they had no lead in the AL Wild Card race, and had fallen far out of the AL West race, a race they led on September 1.  They had an unbelievably strong record against David Price of the Rays, the man they faced in the 163rd game, and the Rays still beat them decisively.

The question now is: are the Rangers still a good team?  They’ve aged since they peaked as an organization around the 2010 season.  They’ve done a great job of developing and signing their young talent in order to sustain their success.  Despite that, it’s an older team, and a lot of the big moves the Rangers have made (like trading Ian Kinsler to Detroit for 1B Prince Fielder) is about managing a roster that hasn’t been living up to the expectations they have set for themselves in recent seasons.

Who is having a good spring?

The Rangers are not having a good spring as a team, but Jurickson Profar is showing signs of the breakout season many are anticipating with a .300/.364/.525 line.  Yu Darvish looks like himself, and RHP Joakim Soria has yet to allow a run this spring.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Rangers

The organization continues to produce a lot of talent.  Profar could improve on Kinsler at second base, Fielder will probably improve on Mitch Moreland at first base, and Alex Rios will play right field for a full season over Nelson Cruz, who left in free agency.  The Rangers’ bullpen was excellent a year ago and should remain a strength.

The offense is likely to improve from last season as a group.  Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder join Adrian Beltre to give the Rangers a much more legitimate middle of the order than what they had been running out there the last two seasons.  Andrus and Profar are perfectly capable of holding down the top of the order.  Trying to build an offense when Ian Kinsler is the second best player on it is now Detroit’s problem.  A.J. Pierzynski batting fifth for a team with legitimate playoff aspirations is a thing of the past.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Rangers

The catcher acquired to replace Pierzynski, J.P. Arencibia, is actually worse offensively than Pierzynski is.  The Rangers project to be a good offensive team, but they’re still going to run out a bottom of the lineup that will be an out machine: Arencibia, Leodis Martin, and a Moreland/Michael Choice platoon maybe?

The pitching rotation is going to be problematic, unless the Rangers can sustain the great defense they enjoyed last season.  Darvish and Holland are a good top of the rotation, except that Holland is going to miss a couple of months, and some scouts are a bit skeptical about Darvish’s health with his velocity down a tick this spring.  Matt Harrison, who made two starts last season, is still not healthy.  Matt Garza left in free agency, so young prospect Martin Perez is bumped up to the second spot in the rotation — he’s best suited to be a no. 4 starter.  Then the back end of the rotation looks like Joe Saunders/Alexi Ogando/Tanner Scheppers/Colby Lewis for three spots.  Lewis is back as a non-roster invite, Ogando was the team’s swingman last year, Saunders was second in the AL in hits allowed for the Mariners, and Lewis missed the season with Tommy John.  Scheppers has been the most effective of the group this spring, but he was a relief ace last year, and hasn’t been stretched out quite yet this spring.  This is a desperate situation until Holland returns.

Scheppers to the rotation also means he can’t inherit Joe Nathan’s role as the closer after Nathan signed with Detroit in the offseason.  It could be Neftali Feliz who regains the role, after missing most of last season before returning to the bullpen in September.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Rangers is 41.2, 3rd in the American League.  Their 23.0 Batters WAR projection is 7th in the AL. Their 18.1 Pitchers WAR projection is 4th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Rangers to win 85 games, a 6 win decline over last season.  Yu Darvish is the Ranger with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 5.3.  Adrian Beltre is the position player with the best average projection at 4.8 WAR.

The Rangers vs the rest of the AL West

The AL West is a below average division, and the weakest of the AL divisions in 2014.  This despite having four above average teams and an “improved” Astros team.  This is the case because no teams in the AL West are a lock to win 90 games.  According to Cool Standings, the division winner is projected to win 86 games.  It’s a true four team race in 2014.  The Astros will not participate.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Texas Ragers

The projections are actually a fan of the Rangers’ pitching, but I’m a bit more skeptical of those chances.  The Rangers’ rotation is projected to produce 13.9 wins by Fangraphs, but it produced 11 WAR last year as a unit, and that’s with 6 wins from Darvish and 33 starts from Holland.  The rotation is in much worse shape this season.  If they can get 9 wins out of it, they should feel good about that, given where they are right now.  But that’s five wins in the projections the Rangers will have to make up somewhere.

Manager Ron Washington isn’t going to help much.  The defense will help a little bit in addition to the conservative projections, but the whole operation is problematic, and those 3-4 wins are going to have to come from either deep within the organization, or outside it.  I’m going to predict 82-80 based on the opening day roster, and whether they blow past that depends on whether impatient ownership forces GM Jon Daniels hand again and forces him to trade for pitching help (as happened last year with Garza).

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