by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 14th team preview of the series, featuring the Texas Rangers (the first of three consecutive AL West previews).
The Texas Rangers have been among the better teams in baseball since the turn of the decade. Beginning with the 2010 season, the Rangers have won at least 90 games five out of a possible eight times, winning four division titles and two AL pennants during that span. They’ve finished lower than second in their division just twice: 2014, when they finished dead last with a 67-95 record, and 2017, when they went 78-84 and finished third. They weren’t an awful team last year; the Rangers finished 16th in OPS (.750) and 21st in cumulative ERA (4.66). They added to a solid farm system with the trade of their ace, and they received contributions from both young talent and older vets.
Texas was in a good position to make a run for the second Wild Card spot late in the year. After a win against the Mariners on September 21st, the Rangers found themselves just 2.5 games behind the Twins with 10 games to play. It’s obviously difficult to make up a couple games in the standings that late in the season, but the Rangers still had an opportunity to head to the postseason for a third consecutive campaign. However, they picked the worst possible time to go on a slide, losing seven consecutive games and eliminating themselves from playoff contention. Their demise was truly cemented in a three-game series against the Astros, losing 11-2, 14-3, and 12-2 to the eventual World Series Champions.
Joining the list of catchers that broke out in 2017, Robinson Chirinos posted the best numbers of his career at the young age of 33, slashing .255/.360/.506 with 17 home runs and a wRC+ of 127. The 11.0% walk rate was the highest of his career as was the .369 wOBA. Excluding a 28 plate appearance stint in 2013, the 46.2% FB% that Chirinos finished with was also a career-high and might partially explain the 17 homers that the backstop managed to hit. He was slightly below average behind the plate as made evident by the -0.0 adjusted FRAA (60th) and -1.3 Framing Runs (81st) marks he finished with.
Mike Napoli managed to find his way back to the Rangers for the third time in his career and was not particularly effective at the plate or in the field. He hit below the Mendoza line, finishing with a slash line of .193/.285/.428. The 29 home runs were nice, but the 33.6% strikeout rate (6th highest among batters with at least 450 plate appearances) and 81 wRC+ (the lowest mark of Napoli’s career) were not nice. The 1.1 UZR was passable, but overall the 12-year veteran showed that, at this point in his career, he might be all power and not much else.
Former top prospect Rougned Odor appeared in all 162 games last season for the Rangers but had a tough go of it at the plate in some aspects. He cranked 30 home runs for a second consecutive campaign, but the overall slash line of .204/.252/.397 was unsightly. The second baseman’s strikeout rate spiked at 24.9%, and he posted a career low BABIP of .224. Odor wasn’t phenomenal in the field, either—the -5.2 UZR he had at the keystone was second-worst among all qualified second basemen. He was a positive on the base paths again, though, swiping 15 bags and finishing with a 2.0 BsR.
The 2017 Rangers WAR leader, shortstop Elvis Andrus had his second consecutive above-average campaign at the dish. Posting a 110 wRC+, the nine-year veteran hit to a line of .297/.337/.471 in 689 plate appearances, hitting a career-high 20 balls out of the yard while stealing 25 bases. The one issue was his plate discipline—Andrus had a career-high strikeout rate of 14.7% and a career-low walk rate of 5.5%. Still, 20/20 players aren’t super common, so Andrus had an intriguing 2017 season if nothing else.
Chicks dig the long ball, or so they say. Joey Gallo is one of my favorite players in the league and he showcased why in 2017. At first glance, the .209 average, 41 home runs, and 36.8% strikeout rate (second-highest in the league) would make you assume that he’s a home run only hitter with poor plate discipline. There’s some truth to all of that—of his 94 hits, 41 were dingers and 18 were doubles. Still, Gallo’s overall triple-slash is eye-opening: .209/.333/.537. The 14.1% walk rate he finished with was tied for eight-highest in the league with a guy named Paul Goldschmidt. That’s not because he was intentionally walked a lot, either—Gallo received an intentional walk just once all season. Combine that with a 4.6 BsR, and Gallo is one of the most interesting players in all of baseball.
Adrian Beltre battled a couple leg injuries last year which limited the 20-year veteran to just 94 games, the lowest since his rookie campaign with the Dodgers. The 38-year-old still found a way to get it done in those 94 games, though. The ageless wonder slashed .312/.383/.532 while hitting 17 home runs. The 13.4% strikeout rate was Beltre’s highest since 2009 with the Mariners, but his 10.0% walk rate was the highest of his career. Beltre even posted a 5.5 UZR in the 552.1 innings he logged at the hot corner, which was 7th among third basemen who played at least 550 innings in the field.
The 2017 Rangers outfield featured two players under the age of 25 and one player who had a much needed bounce-back campaign. Former Astros prospect Delino DeShields rebounded from a rough 2016 and posted a wRC+ of 90, slashing .269/.347/.367 over 440 plate appearances. He contributed 29 stolen bases, a 9.2 BsR grade, and a nice UZR of 6.9 in the outfield. Nomar Mazara had another solid, if unspectacular, campaign. A former top prospect, Mazara hit .253/.323/.422 in his second season, hitting 20 homers for the second consecutive year. He also managed to increase his walk rate (8.9%) by two percent. After two awful years with the Astros, Carlos Gomez seemingly bounced back to a form that was similar to the one fans saw when he was a Brewer. Gomez finished with a 110 wRC+, posting a passable .255/.340/.462 line with 17 dingers and 13 stolen bases. The outfielder did strikeout 29.8% of the time, but he finished with a BsR of 2.1 and wasn’t awful in the field, playing to a -0.6 UZR in center field.
Shin-Soo Choo’s contributions to the Rangers seemingly went unnoticed in 2017. It’s actually quite incredible that since 2008 (the first season he received at least semi-regular playing time) Choo has never posted a below average wRC+. That trend continued last season, as the outfielder/DH posted a 107 in that category, slashing .261/.357/.423 with 22 home runs and 12 stolen bases. He showcased his patience at the plate yet again, finishing with a walk rate of 12.1%, which was right in line with his career average.
The Rangers starters were 17th in the league in ERA in 2017, pitching to a 4.66 mark. Yu Darvish tossed 137 innings over 22 starts before his midseason trade to the Dodgers, finishing with a 4.01 ERA and 3.99 FIP. Darvish posted what would have been the lowest strikeout rate (26.2%) of his career over those 22 starts while allowing more balls to leave the yard (1.30 HR/9) than before. To his credit, he bounced back with the Dodgers, pitching to a 3.44 ERA and 3.38 FIP in nine starts. Cole Hamels had a very uncharacteristic season in 2017. He pitched to an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 4.20/4.62/4.83, which was by far the worst line of his career. The strikeout rate (17.1%) was a career-low, and the 33.7% flyball rate he posted was his highest since 2013. This could have been due to an oblique injury, which limited the southpaw to just 148 innings, his lowest total since his rookie season.
The other four members of the Texas rotation that made double-digit starts were laughably bad. I’ve already talked about how Andrew Cashner severely out-pitched his peripherals—while he somehow ended up as the pitching WAR leader for the Rangers via his 3.40 ERA over 28 starts, his 4.61 FIP and the fact the he struck out just 86 batters while walking 64 in 166.2 innings is more telling of how he actually was. Lefty Martin Perez struggled yet again, failing to live up to his potential. He started the most games of any Rangers arm, pitching to a 4.82 ERA and 4.65 FIP in 32 starts. It doesn’t help that three of the four pitches he throws were graded poorly in 2017; per FanGraphs, his wFB, wSL, and wCB grades were -5.6, -5.2, and -2.8, respectively. The other three arms that haven’t been mentioned yet aren’t really worth discussing in-depth:
Nick Martinez: 18 starts, 5.69 ERA/5.74 FIP, 14.2% K%, 5.7% BB%, .268 BAA, .265 BABIP
A.J. Griffin: 15 starts, 5.50 ERA/6.09 FIP, 18.6% K%, 8.7% BB%, .246 BAA, .249 BABIP
Tyson Ross: 10 starts, 7.04 ERA/6.01 FIP, 15.9% K%, 15.9% BB%, .257 BAA, .290 BABIP
The bullpen, at least in terms of ERA, was worse for the Rangers. This group finished 28th in the league with a 4.76 ERA, which was better than just the Mets and Tigers. Over 516 innings of work, the ‘pen struck out 467 batters while walking 227. Batters hit .268 off of the Texas relievers. To be honest, it was really Alex Claudio, Keone Kela, Matt Bush, and a bunch of junk. Claudio made a team-high 70 appearances, pitching to a 2.50 ERA and 3.21 FIP. He struck out 56 in 82.2 innings while walking 15. Kela finished with similar marks (2.79 ERA/3.26 FIP), striking out 51 and walking 17 in 38.2 frames. Former number one overall pick Matt Bush has seemingly found a home as a reliever, tossing 52.1 innings of 3.78 ERA/4.00 FIP ball. Bush notched 58 strikeouts and 19 walks.
Guys like Jose Leclerc (3.94 ERA) and southpaw Dario Alvarez (2.76 ERA) outpitched their peripherals as their FIPs were much higher, while arms like Jeremy Jeffress (5.31 ERA/5.84 FIP) and Austin Bibens-Dirkx (4.63 ERA/4.44 FIP) just weren’t good regardless.
The Rangers had an interesting offseason in that they made multiple free agent signings while not really moving the needle for their 2018 outlook. Their biggest addition was Matt Moore, a starter who they got in a trade with the Giants for Israel Cruz and Sam Wolff. The organization is hoping that yet another change of scenery will do Moore some good. They also signed Mike Minor, although they’re going to let him start the season in the rotation instead of allowing him to be a great, reliable arm out of the bullpen, which will be interesting to see.
The team’s biggest loss was probably Carlos Gomez. Having said that, with Willie Calhoun set to start seeing regular major league playing time, a spot in the outfield had to open up somewhere. Out of the trio of DeShields, Gomez, and Mazara, Gomez’s spot was the one that was the most expendable.
All Departures: Carlos Gomez, Tanner Scheppers, Prince Fielder, Will Middlebrooks, Preston Claiborne, Anthony Bass, Andrew Cashner, Miguel Gonzalez, Jason Grilli, Dario Alvarez, Tony Barnette, Mike Napoli, A.J. Griffin, Nick Martinez
Best Case: The pitching staff performs well beyond anyone’s expectations. Hamels bounces back, Perez finally lives up to his potential and doesn’t battle consistency issues, Matt Moore shows why he was so highly touted when he was a Ray, and Mike Minor exhibits the starting potential he had when he was with Atlanta. The bullpen isn’t nearly as bad as it was in 2017 thanks to strong performances by Claudio, Kela, and Bush. The return of Diekman helps as does the addition of Lincecum, who proves to the entire league that he’s not washed up and can thrive in relief. The lineup holds up its end of the bargain, and the Rangers fight for a Wild Card spot and finish with around 87 wins.
Worst Case: They don’t post a record nearly as bad as the one they had in 2014, but the Rangers finish under .500 for a second consecutive season. The lineup, once again, is great. Chirinos regresses a bit but the other eight batters perform like they’re supposed to. However, the pitching woes prove to be too much to overcome. The rotation is one of the worst in the league, and the bullpen doesn’t bounce back from a rough 2017 campaign. If the team does indeed finish under .500 again, it would be the first time the organization posted back-to-back losing records since the stretch encompassing 2005-2008.
PECOTA Projected Record: 76-86, 790 RS, 844 RA