For my initial foray into the American League, I decided to start with one of the more fascinating teams in the Junior Circuit. The Texas Rangers' 2009 season could be the beginning of something special in the Lone Star State and, refreshingly, it would be totally unrelated to the Dallas Cowboys.
Part of what's brewing has to do with the increasing weakness of the AL West—what's the deal with West Coast baseball? Good grief.
The Los Angeles Angels saw Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez, Jon Garland, and Garret Anderson walk while bringing in Brian Fuentes and Bobby Abreu. Regardless of your particular opinions of those players, it's undeniable that this winter saw the Halos suffer a net loss in terms of talent.
Of course, LA did finish 2008 with a 21 game working margin so they had a nice little buffer with which to work. And they probably used a good bit of it up—how much remains to be seen.
Both the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners have gotten better, but so has Texas.
That's the other part of the potentially sweet smell wafting out of Arlington. The Rangers improvement just figures to come from within and that—combined with the convalescent home Texas was apparently starting through free agency—has made the progress fly a bit under the radar.
But it's there.
Texas figures to see stronger years from some young up-and-comers as well as continued strong play from some established (and still relatively young) studs. Check it out:
Projected starting lineup
Catcher—Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Taylor Teagarden
First base—Chris Davis
Second base—Ian Kinsler
Third base—Michael Young
Left field—David Murphy
Center field—Josh Hamilton
Right field—Nelson Cruz
Designated hitter—Hank Blalock
It seems Ranger management works primarily to ensure that offense is never the problem in Arlington. Maybe its just really good at assessing hitters and really bad at doing so with tossers. Whatever the reason, 2009 will not lack for fireworks at the Ballpark in Arlington.
The Rangers are probably the only team with such a colossal logjam of talent at the catcher's position. Max Ramirez probably won't even make the big club because Saltalamacchia is having a good spring and Teagarden seems to be preferred over Ramirez as part of a platoon should Salty cool off once the games count.
In addition to that gauntlet of starters, Texas has some pretty good depth.
It's got Omar Vizquel for defensive insurance, Andruw Jones for the perverse spectacle of it, Marlon Byrd who had a warm 2008, Joaquin Arias for middle infield depth/speed, and young first sacker Justin Smoak who is currently raking in Spring Training.
Ace—Kevin Millwood (R)
Second spot—Vincente Padilla (R)
Third spot—Matt Harrison (L)
Fourth spot—Brandon McCarthy (R)
Fifth spot—Jason Jennings (R)
That rotation emits a different kind of odor.
The "ace" put up a 5.07 earned run average and 1.59 WHIP in 2008, but gets to keep his moniker because Scott Boras bled the franchise for ace dollars. Padilla had a decent year in '08, considering Texas' home stadium is very live, but he's not really a legitimate No. 2.
Matt Harrison sounds a whole lot like Kirk Rueter and not many guys with Rueter's stuff have the same good fortune that played a leading role in Woody's prolonged success.
Who knows what you'll get from McCarthy. He's shown glimpses of Major League stuff, but he's always injured. And Jason Jennings is just keepin' the spot warm.
Actually, lefty Kris Benson has shown some promise in Spring Training so he might be a better bet for that backend spot. Which would mean an excuse to go look for pictures of his wife—that's always fun.
Closer—Frank Francisco (R)
Set-up—C.J. Wilson (L)
Set-up—Eddie Guardado (R)
Set-up—Derrick Turnbow (R)
Set-up—Joaquin Benoit (R)
Let's knock the offense down right away because the fascinating thing about the Rangers is the pitching.
We've covered the catcher's spot, but let's stick with that theme of unproven and enthralling potential. That means Elvis Andrus, David Murphy, Nelson Cruz, and Chris Davis.
The young shortstop (21 in August) is still awaiting his first official Big League at-bat, but Andrus supposedly projects out as a faster version of Edgar Renteria. But even those conservative heights don't figure to be reached this year—I wouldn't expect too much from him yet.
Cruz (29 in July) was in danger of being the best minor league player to never translate his success to Major League Baseball until last season. He finally started to figure out MLB pitching during his brief stint to the tune of a .330 average, nine doubles, seven home runs, 19 runs, 26 runs batted in, three stolen bases, a .421 on-base percentage, and a 1.030 OPS in 115 ABs.
That's an awesome campaign if he can stretch it out over 162 games. No guarantee there, though.
Murphy (27) and Davis (23 in a couple weeks) each got some good run in '08, but neither has enough of a sample size from which to draw firm conclusions. Murphy showed decent everything, but outstanding nothing in his 415 ABs while Davis showed tremendous power (17 bombs) and lack of plate-discipline (88 strikeouts versus 20 walks) in 295 ABs.
However, whatever Texas can reap from those guys is gravy because the real heavy lifting in the lineup will be done by Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, and Michael Young with a random sprinkling of Hank Blalock (if he can regain healthy form).
Kinsler wore it out in 2008, hitting .319 with 41 doubles, 18 HRs, 102 runs, 71 RBI, 26 swipes, a .375 OBP, and an .892 OPS despite missing over 40 games due to injury. Not back for a second baseman who won't turn 27 until July.
Hamilton's story is well known so I won't bore you with further details, just raw data—hit .304 with 35 doubles, 32 taters, 98 runs, 130 RBI, a .371 OBP, and a .901 OPS in 2008. This from a center fielder who turns 28 in May i.e. there's probably more production in there somewhere.
Young is only 32 and Blalock will be 29 in October so neither is ancient. But Young's best days may be behind him and the same could be true of Hank considering the litany of injuries he's suffered in recent years. Still, Young's good for a little bit of everything and Blalock should put up 20+ longballs if he can see 500+ ABs (good luck).
So that's the offense and it's—more or less—the same old story for the Texas Rangers. They've got bats to spare and the pitching cupboard is almost bare. But there's a wrinkle this time.
That wrinkle is actually several wrinkles, as in Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, Michael Main (to a lesser degree), and the bullpen.
The three kids—Holland's 23 in October, Feliz is 21 in May, and Main is 21 in December—are all top prospects who have been shredding the lower levels. None has made it to AAA ball yet, and Main's not even in camp for Spring Training. BUT Holland and Feliz have been staggering to date at AA and are both surviving with the Big Club this spring.
If either of the top young arms can figure it out and explode on the scene a la a guy the Rangers traded away (Edinson Volquez), look out. Texas might very well vault right over the Los Angeles Angels and become the class of the AL West.
Such a development would bump Millwood and Padilla back a spot and make the rotation fit much more comfortably into talent levels. McCarthy would hold firm at No. 4 and Texas could let Harrison/Jennings (or Kris Benson, Kason Gabbard, Scott Feldman, Luis Mendoza, etc.) scrap for the fifth spot.
Meanwhile, the bullpen looks like it could be strength with all those live arms ready and waiting.
Frank Francisco throws the pearl almost as well as he chucks chairs. C.J. Wilson is a tad wild and working back from injury, but he's got gnarly stuff from a southpaw and showed the mental fortitude to handle the closer's role. Every-third-day Eddie Guardado and Joaquin Benoit probably aren't the most reliable guys out there, but—placed in a reduced role—both could settle into a nice little niche.
And who knows what a change of scenery will do to Derrick Turnbow. One thing's for sure—it couldn't hurt. Even if if does, the Rangers have other capable arms to trot out in the sixth or seventh.
Now obviously, asking a 21- or 22-year-old kid to suddenly step in and become an ace is asinine. Even more so since neither Holland nor Feliz has thrown a single pitch at the pro level that counted. As I said, neither had even faced a batter above AA until the current exhibition season.
But these are the Texas Rangers we're talking about. And I'm sincerely discussing phenomenal pitching talent in the farm system. Talent that looks destined for jaw-dropping success in the Show.
The future looks really bright for the Texas Rangers when you pair those prospects on the bump with the offense that's already on display in the Bigs.
And the future might just arrive in 2009.