Injuries may have derailed Rangers' season before it could even begin
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 24: the Texas Rangers.
2014 Record and Finish: 67–95 (.414), fifth place in AL West (28th overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 73–89 (.451), fourth place in AL West (24th overall)
The Case For
It's hard to imagine things going any worse for Texas in 2015 than they did in '14. Last year, Prince Fielder, Matt Harrison, Mitch Moreland, Martin Perez, Jurickson Profar were among those who missed huge chunks of time due to various maladies. The injuries to Harrison, Perez and Derek Holland proved especially costly, as Texas's rotation was reduced to a motley mix of minor leaguers, past-their-prime veterans and tired arms. The result: a team ERA of 4.49, second worst in the American League. To make matters worse, Ron Washington unexpectedly resigned near the end of the season because an extramarital affair, the final blow in a brutal season.
But if Texas can avoid the injury bug, the team could make some noise. Fielder lost most of 2014 to a neck injury, but if he's fully recovered, he will give the Rangers a dangerous middle-of-the-order presence. Likewise, a healthy Shin-Soo Choo, who struggled with a bone spur in his left elbow, provides a top-of-the-order presence few teams can match with his career .383 on-base percentage. The ageless Adrian Beltre is one of the league's best and most consistent hitters—last year was his fifth straight season with an OPS+ of 131 or greater—and the up-and-coming Leonys Martin is a speedy threat on the bases. With everyone healthy, Texas's lineup could create headaches for opposing pitchers all year long.
The Case Against
Remember that "if Texas can avoid the injury bug" clause? So far, not so good for the Rangers. The biggest blow is the loss of ace Yu Darvish to Tommy John surgery, an injury that knocks him out for the year and cripples an already weak rotation. Holland and off-season addition Yovani Gallardo are dependable if unremarkable, but the same can't be said for penciled-in starters Ross Detwiler, Colby Lewis and Nick Tepesch. Worse, there are no reinforcements on the horizon: Perez is still a few months away from returning to the mound after Tommy John surgery, and Harrison's status is completely up in the air after undergoing spinal fusion surgery last season. With Darvish gone, it's hard to imagine Texas having the arms necessary to challenge for a playoff spot.
Even if that rotation were fully healthy, though, there are plenty of holes across the rest of the roster that suggest a rough 2015 ahead. The Rangers failed to replace the departed Alex Rios in the outfield and must now choose from the uninspiring cast of Michael Choice, Ryan Ludwick, Carlos Peguero, Jake Smolinski and Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields Jr to man leftfield. The bullpen is a mess, with Neftali Feliz back in the closer role despite a bevy of arm injuries and a drop in average fastball velocity of three miles per hour since '11 (96.3 to 93.1). And at shortstop, Elvis Andrus has become a liability. His poor plate discipline and bad base running (a league-worst 15 times caught stealing and a stolen-base success rate of just 64%) dropped him to barely above replacement level last season (1.0 WAR), his final year before beginning an eight-year extension worth a staggering $118 million.
X-Factor: Prince Fielder
Last year marked the first time since his rookie season in 2006 that Fielder played fewer than 157 games, as well as his first ever stint on the disabled list. Worse, his injury was far from minor: a herniated disk in his neck that required cervical fusion surgery. And even if Fielder weren't trying to come back from a serious and complicated procedure, he'd still be trying to fight off the fourth consecutive year of a statistical decline.
Those numbers are worrisome enough for the Rangers, but here are the two that should concern them the most: 31 and $144 million. The former is how old Fielder will be in May of this year; the latter is how much is left on his contract, at $24 million per season through 2020. Fielder is already on the wrong side of the aging curve, and his price tag makes him just about impossible to move if '15 ends up being another lost year. Texas not only needs Fielder to return to form to have any shot at contending, but also to have any hope that Fielder will contribute for the rest of his career in Arlington. Well, aside from providing them (and us) with award-worthy (and slightly NSFW) GIFs.
Number To Know: 64
All those injuries resulted in the Rangers using 64 players last season. That list included the likes of Nick Martinez, who started 24 games for Texas despite having made only six above A ball before 2014, as well as veteran flotsam like J.P. Arencibia, Brad Snyder and Josh Wilson. Despite all that attrition, the team did little in the off-season to bolster its roster. The losses of Darvish and Profar (who will miss all of '15 with a recurrence of the shoulder injury that cost him the entirety of '14) have already started sapping the team of much-needed depth, and the wear-and-tear of the regular season will take a toll as well, especially with players on the other side of 30, such as Beltre (36 in April), Choo (33 in July) and Fielder. Another wave of injuries could see Texas once again set a record for bodies cycled in and out of a clubhouse.
Most Overrated: Elvis Andrus
"As good as he’s been, I still don’t think he’s fulfilled his potential. This guy should be an All-Star in this league with his skillset. But I still think it’s possible that he will be."
Most Underrated: Leonys Martin
"A guy that plays centerfield and bats leadoff is as important as he can be to a club. The guy can swing the bat. When he first got to the majors, he struggled. There’s a lot more confidence in him, and I think he can be an above-average everyday centerfielder. I don’t think people really understand how good a player this guy is."