My beloved Texas Rangers bombed out of the playoffs Friday night, finishing their season on a terrifically bad stretch. For a long time it looked a relative certainty that they’d be the top seed in the American League. But then the last week of the season happened. And now the 2012 season is over for the Rangers.

But hope springs eternal, and on that note it’s not too early to begin looking at the 2013 team. Despite the flaws they do have, the Rangers were one of baseball’s best teams this year, even through their pitching staff being plagued by injuries, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. With a few notable exceptions, the core of that team is coming back and healthy for next season. So without further ado, let’s see what the team might look like for next season:

Note – players with an asterisk (*) by their names are free agents who I am assuming (for now) that the Rangers will re-sign. 

Starting Pitchers: Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Alexi Ogando

These guys are under contract already, and collectively represent a pretty good rotation. Darvish had his ups and downs early, but was really starting to figure it out at the end of the year. Look for him to be the unquestioned ace of the staff next year and (dare I say it?) on the fringe of the Cy Young conversation. Harrison was a workhorse this year, and Lewis has been in the past. Harrison will probably put up better season numbers than Lewis, but the Rangers resigned Lewis because he has undeniable moxie. It’s also possible that Harrison, who is arbitration eligible this off season, will receive a new four or five year contract instead. Holland continues to be a bit of an enigma – great one game, struggles the next – but since about halfway through the 2011 season he’s at least been reliable, able to work through a lot of those struggles. And when the brilliance comes, he’s as unhittable as anyone in the league.

Which brings us to the fifth member of the rotation. Breaking camp this last year, that role belonged to Neftali Feliz. He did an ok job in most of his starts, but bombed out pretty quickly due to injury. I imagine he’ll get a shot to win the job back next year. Alexi Ogando, who was an All-Star in 2011 and pitched well in his only start this season before pulling a muscle trying to beat out a ground ball, leads the other candidates, who include Robbie Ross, who surprised everyone in spring training and was an important member of the bullpen, and Martin Perez, who spent most of the season in AAA but made several starts for the Rangers this year. Justin Grimm will likely be stretched out in big league camp next spring as well. He spent most of the season in AA but made a couple starts for the big club this year, and pitched very well in one of them. If I were a betting man, I’d wager Grimm starts next season in AAA, although its possible that a strong spring lands him in the bullpen. Also, I’m guessing the Rangers buy out Scott Feldman’s  contract instead of picking up the option, so he’s gone.

There’s also the possibility, of course, that the Rangers will sign a free agent or trade for a front line starter. The problem here is that the free agent class isn’t very deep. Zach Greinke is probably the best name on the list, but I don’t think the Rangers will pay him or anyone else the kind of money it would take.

My prediction is that Ogando returns to the rotation with that killer fastball/slider combo.

UPDATE: I didn’t realize at the time of original posting that Lewis is unlikely to be ready before midseason next year. This significantly increases the probability sign a free agent starting pitcher. Re-signing Ryan Dempster becomes a realistic goal, as does targeting the likes of Shaun Marcum or Anibal Sanchez. Brandon McCarthy and Hiroki Kuroda would be interesting options as well. It also becomes more likely that the Rangers target a starting pitcher through a trade. See the trade section for more on that.

Bullpen: Joe Nathan (closer), Neftali Feliz, Robbie Ross, Mike Adams*, Koji Uehara*, Robbie Ross, Martin Perez

Seeing how the bullpen fills out will be interesting. If Ogando does indeed go into the rotation, Ross and Feliz will be in the pen. If the Rangers fail to re-sign Mike Adams, Feliz likely takes over the setup role for Nathan. If they do manage to re-sign both Adams and Uehara, though, that’s a very scary back end, even better than they had this year. Uehara came on strong at the end of the year, and if you have a four man punch with Uehara, Feliz, Adams, and Nathan, not to mention Ross who with a season of high-stakes pitching under his belt looks to come back even better, the Rangers would be able to put a stranglehold on late leads while keeping pen arms fresh.

I’m penciling in Perez as the long reliever right now, although there’s a chance he breaks camp next year in AAA so he continues to get work as a starter. Ross could also fill the long relief role, although as the only lefty of the group he’s more valuable in a late inning role. Mark Lowe is a free agent, but I doubt the Rangers will re-sign him unless they can’t sign Adams and Uehara.

Catcher: Geovanny Soto, Mike Napoli*

Napoli comes with the additional asterisk that if the Rangers pony up enough money to keep Josh Hamilton around, Napoli is almost certainly gone. I think Napoli likes being a Ranger, and that a platoon catching situation between him and Soto is pretty ideal. Napoli showed flashes of 2011 this season, but I think he can be had for a reasonable price on a two to three year contract, and I think the Rangers pull the trigger on that.

As for Soto, the Rangers were happy with the way he handled the staff, and he provided just enough pop to not be a total zero at the plate. He’s arbitration eligible, so he sticks around.

If the Rangers aren’t able to re-sign Napoli, look for them to sign another free agent to platoon with Soto. No one who would be a huge addition is going to be available, but there are some serviceable options. Expect the offensive numbers to take a hit, though.

Infield: Adrian Beltre (3B), Elvis Andrus (SS), Ian Kinsler (2B), Mitch Moreland (1B), Jurickson Profar (SS/2B), Mike Olt (3B/1B), Michael Young (1B/Util.)

Napoli may see the occasional game at first, but with Moreland, Young, and Olt all able to play first it won’t be much. I think Profar definitely spends the whole season in the majors, and there’s a very good chance Olt will as well. Young’s playing time will be interesting to watch. He’s still the leader in the clubhouse, but he’s coming off a down year and he’s in the last year of his contract. He still may be the regular DH, but I’ll be very surprised if he gets as many at-bats as he did this year.

First base is the only position that hold much intrigue in this infield, though. It’s been one of the best in the league for the last couple years defensively, and represents three of the first four hitters in the lineup offensively (maybe the top of the order if Hamilton isn’t re-signed). Profar and Olt will help keep the others well rested, and shouldn’t be slouches on either side of the ball themselves.

Outfield: Nelson Cruz (RF), David Murphy (LF), Craig Gentry (CF), Leonys Martin (CF/OF)

This is where things get hairy. It’s all contingent on whether or not the Rangers re-sign Josh Hamilton, and I don’t think they do. I think the Rangers offer three or four years at about 18 million a year, which is what Hamilton’s worth all things considered, but I think someone else gives him five or six years at 25 million and he takes it. The Rangers might go up to 20 million, but I think it’s going to come down to years and I think they’re smarter than giving Hamilton a contract into his late 30’s. And that means that, if Adams, Uehara, and Napoli are all signed, the outfield is the weakest part of the Texas Rangers in 2013.

But while it’s unquestionably a tall order to replace Hamilton’s numbers in the middle of the lineup, I don’t think that’s the end of the world. If you look at the rest of the team, there’s a good chance of plus starting pitching and an excellent bullpen and infield. In the outfield, Cruz is streaky but an above average hitter. He’s an average defender, but has an excellent arm. Murphy’s an average defender, but a grinder at the plate who always seems to grow stronger as the season progresses. Center field is the biggest hole, certainly, but Gentry is a good defender, has had an above average OBP the last two seasons, and is always a threat on the base paths. We’re still waiting for Martin to really come around, but I could see him sliding into a fourth outfielder spot much like Murphy has filled the last several seasons. I’m not saying it’s a great outfield, but it’s not exactly a liability either.

As far as free agents go, I might like to see the Rangers make a run at Michael Bourn if they don’t get Hamilton. He’s not a huge upgrade over what’s there, but he would give the outfield some depth. More likely is that if help is coming, it will be through a trade, although there’s also the chance that Kinsler might play a few games in the outfield next season to make room for Profar in the infield. Moreland can also play some outfield if Olt starts clicking offensively and takes over regular first base duties.

Trades:

Cruz, Kinsler, and Andrus have all been bandied about as potential trade bait. I think it would be foolish to trade Andrus, and I don’t think a trade of Cruz makes a lot of sense because you lose one of your remaining power bats (assuming Hamilton’s departure). Kinsler is more interesting, but he’s also a little hard to move. The Rangers gave him a new contract early in the year. The only way they move him is for a power outfield bat (or maybe first base if Moreland is included in the trade) or a front line starter. I could also see a package for a number of near-majors prospects, but I think it’s unlikely that another team is going to give much for Kinsler in that regard.

I actually think Moreland is the most likely Ranger to get traded this off season. The Rangers are obviously committed to Olt, and with him, Young, and Napoli able to play first base there’s not a whole lot of room for Moreland. If the Rangers can bandy Moreland and maybe a couple prospects for a outfielder who could slide into  maybe the 5-hole in the order (yes, I know I’m forgetting cleanup right now, assuming Beltre moves forward a spot; I’m just using that as a measure for the kind of offensive player they’d need) I think they’d pull the trigger in a heartbeat.

UPDATE: As discussed above, Lewis being on the DL for half the season increases the Rangers’ need for another starting pitcher or two. Makes it pretty imperative, actually. So the chance that Kinsler or Andrus is traded becomes likely, provided they can get the right team to bite. If one of the two is going, I’d prefer it be Kinsler. Their career batting averages and on base percentages are nearly identical, and Elvis plays better defense in a more important position. Kinsler hits for more power, but he’s thirty now, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Andrus continue to make incremental improvements to his game next year. If, on the other hand, you could lure David Price from Tampa Bay with Andrus, I think you have to do that. I might ship Andrus for Shields, but I’d do a lot more to try to sell Kinsler first. Much like San Diego near the 2011 trade deadline, the Rangers should be (quietly) shopping Kinsler, but be ready to trade Andrus if it’s a package that’s worth it. I think the Rangers believe Profar is ready, much like Andrus himself being thrust into the lineup his rookie season.

Overall:

So there’s your possible 25 man roster. It’s not as scary a team offensively as they have been the last couple years, but I think it’s a team just as equipped to win, and maybe beat you in some different ways. It’s a speedier team, with Gentry getting more time and Profar getting some semi-regular play. It’s one that will need to hit well situationally, but will also be able to keep games very close with its pitching.

Clearly, it would be stupid not to try to re-sign Josh Hamilton. For all his faults, he’s too talented a player not to make a run at. The guys who can literally carry a team are rare, and when Josh is on he’s one of them. But the Rangers need to be ready to turn their attention elsewhere as soon as it becomes clear Josh’s price leaves their comfort zone. Napoli is going to be the best offensive catcher available, and if you don’t re-sign at least one of either Adams or Uehara the bullpen suddenly has a lot of questions. For the price Hamilton is likely to end up commanding you could nearly sign all three of them. Then the Rangers can turn their attention to giving Harrison an extension and maybe flipping Moreland for an outfielder, particularly if it looks like Martin might need more seasoning in AAA.

This off season is very important to how competitive the Rangers will be for the next few years, but it doesn’t all hinge on Josh Hamilton. If the Rangers play their cards right, they will be in fine position to compete for the division and World Series titles again next year.

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