It seems like the Texas Rangers have been part of the playoff picture for the better part of a decade, but in reality they've only made the playoffs in three of the past 14 seasons. With that said, fantasy baseball owners have been lining up for Rangers hitters dating to the mid'90s, and that was no different last season.
Strangely, the offense had an uncharacteristic off year, scoring just 730 runs -- its lowest number since the strike-shortened 1995 season. Texas led the majors in scoring in 2012, with 808 runs, and it entered the 2013 season with the hottest prospect in baseball, second baseman Jurickson Profar. A drop in scoring was not expected, and the Rangers feel that they've amended that situation by bringing in one of the most prolific power hitters in the game.
Easily the biggest trade this offseason, the Rangers sent 2B Ian Kinsler to Detroit for Prince Fielder, in a table-setter for a table-cleaner trade. The Rangers had a surplus of very good middle infielders, with Kinsler, Profar and Elvis Andrus on board, and they were able to swap out the oldest of the three for one of the best power hitters of the past half-decade.
With that said, that left the Rangers thin at the top of the lineup, so they inked former Reds leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo to perform the same job in Arlington. He's better at getting on base and he's going to be setting the table for an incredible lineup that should return to the top of MLB in 2014.
While we expect the Rangers' offense to be better than it was in 2013, it will still have some issues against left-handed pitching.
The Rangers' pitching staff was much better than expected, as it ranked 10th in the majors with a 3.71 ERA (ranked fourth in the AL), and its 636 runs allowed were the fewest for the franchise since 1983.
But Derek Holland injured his knee playing with his dog this offseason, and now he's sidelined until midseason. And Matt Harrison is still trying to return from a back injury. This rotation should look a lot better at the end of the season than it does at the beginning.
With nine or 10 Rangers expected to get drafted in your mixed league draft, a down year by the offense or pitching staff could affect fantasy leagues greatly.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Shin-Soo Choo, LF
2. Elvis Andrus, SS
3. Prince Fielder, 1B
4. Adrian Beltre, 3B
5. Alex Rios, RF
6. Mitch Moreland, DH
7. Geovany Soto, C
8. Jurickson Profar, 2B
9. Leonys Martin, CF
1. Yu Darvish, RHP
2. Alexi Ogando, RHP
3. Martin Perez, LHP
4. Joe Saunders, LHP
5. Tommy Hanson, RHP
Others: Derek Holland (knee), Nick Tepesch
Bullpen: Neftali Perez (Closer), Joakim Soria, Tanner Scheppers
What does Prince Fielder's presence mean for this offense? While it's true Fielder is coming off a mediocre season, with the fewest home runs (25), walks (75) and the lowest batting average (.276) of his career, everyone's excited about what he should be able to do at Globe Life Park in Arlington. (Strangely, Comerica Park in Detroit was better for home runs last season, which is the first time that has happened since 2007.)
Entering this season, Fielder has 285 home runs, which ranks 19th on the active leaders list. But of the 18 active players with more career home runs, none are as young as the 29-year-old first baseman. As a matter of fact, his former teammate, Miguel Cabrera (30), is the only player with more home runs that is within three years of Fielder's age.
Fielder's presence means great things for Adrian Beltre and Alex Rios, who will now hit behind his power bat, which means they should see better pitches to hit.
Beltre doesn't get the publicity that Cabrera does, but Fielder goes from hitting next to the best hitting third-baseman in the league to hitting next to the second-best third baseman in the league. Beltre averaged 33 homers and 100 RBI while batting .312, over the past three seasons. He saw a small dropoff in power from 2012, when he was hitting near Josh Hamilton in 2012. He smashed 30 homers with 92 RBI last season -- hitting in front of catcher A.J. Pierzynski and behind 18-HR-hitting Rios.
Rios is coming off a career-high 42 stolen bases last season, despite being a 6-foot-5 outfielder, but his steals should fall back to earth this season. Although hitting in front of Mitch Moreland and Geovany Soto, he might need to force his way around the bases.
The Rangers offense should certainly return to its Josh Hamilton glory days from a couple seasons ago, but let's not discount that five players hitting third through seventh have an average age of 31. If the injury bug hits, this offense could derail quickly. But then what offense can't you say that with? We love this lineup. Period.
Can Shin-Soo Choo be as good as he was last season with the Reds? Choo replaces Kinsler at the top of the Rangers' lineup after coming off a career year. (In his contract year, no less, who woulda thunk!?!) While the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati is considered a great hitter's park, Choo should have a great chance at eclipsing his career high of 22 home runs that he hit in Cleveland in 2010. Remember, though, that his job is to get on base to start the hit parade for the bolstered Rangers' lineup. If he can repeat his 112 walks, that would serve the offense just as well. Only former teammate Joey Votto had more walks (135) last season.
Consider that Choo posted a slash line of .285/.423/.462 a season ago, and the Rangers' leadoff hitters posted.266/.336/.386 -- and you realize the Rangers' offense sees good things ahead with Choo at the top.
My colleague Michael Beller posted a debate we had about which Rangers outfielder to choose first in fantasy leagues. I went with Rios, based mostly on his power-speed possibilities, and Beller went with Choo, noting that he posted 20-20 seasons in three of his past five seasons. Beller also cited Choo's ability to get on base, among other reasons, as to why he'd take Choo over Rios.
Beller likes Choo to improve on his numbers from last season, and possibly lead the league in runs scored (he was third last season, with 107 with the Reds). But I don't think all of it comes together for him as an aging leadoff man on his third team in three seasons. If Choo can repeat what he did last season, in his walk year, he'd go against the odds.
With Joe Nathan now working in Detroit, who's taking over in the ninth inning for Texas? The three players expected to compete for Nathan's job include two guys that have a cadaver's tendon in their arm, and a third player that worked 75.2 relief innings last season -- but had a much-too-lucky .233 BABIP in 2013.
The frontrunner to be the new closer in Texas has to be Neftali Feliz, who's now a couple years removed from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2012. He came back to pitch late last season, and while he didn't look spectacular, he did get work in and proved his health.
Joakim Soria missed the entire 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, and he was able to get into 25 games in the second half of last season, posting a 3.86 ERA, with 28 strikeouts in 23.3 innings. There were very few closers as effective as Soria during his time with the Royals -- a very bad team at the time, mind you. He'll be a slow-start candidate, as he'll no doubt go through some dead-arm moments, but he's buried just enough in the bullpen to make him a fantasy sleeper.
Finally, one of the Rangers' homegrown prospects, Tanner Scheppers, also has a shot to surprise us in the ninth inning. He seems to pitch to contact, which is a tough trait to allow as a closer, but he does throw above 95 mph at times. His .233 BABIP last season was a huge change from the ultra unlucky .390 over 32 innings in 2012, which means he's likely going to fall somewhere between .233 and .390 in 2014.
The bet here is that Feliz starts the season as the closer, but Soria proves to be the better pitcher and overtakes him by midseason.
Martin Perez, SP -- After years of being one of the Rangers' top prospects, Perez finally came through with a 10-6 rookie record last season, and a 3.63 ERA. Unfortunately, he's not striking out a batter-per-inning each game, and he allowed a lot of hits (1.338 WHIP). But let's remember that he's entering his third season in the majors, and it's his first full season as a starter out of spring training. The strikeouts are going to come with his peripherals, and with this offense and bullpen supporting him, Perez could be a 15-game winner -- and one of the best late-round picks of the season.
Neftali Feliz, RP -- If I'm predicting Soria overtakes Feliz as the closer by midseason, then it stands to reason I think he'll be a bust this season. There are already reports this spring that his velocity is down and he's having a tough time with his mechanics. He's just 25, and he's anxious to return -- but those factors could work against him if he ends up trying too hard.
Elvis Andrus, SS -- In the second half of last season, Andrus hit .313 with 36 RBI, 41 runs scored and 23 stolen bases in 64 games (252 at bats). We've been drafting Andrus in fantasy leagues for so long, dating to his rookie season of 2009 that we tend to forget he's just 25. He's batting second in what should be the highest scoring offense in the majors, and he's entering his prime. Sure, he doesn't have much power (never eclipsing five homers in a season), but he averages 600 at-bats, 90 runs, 60 RBI and 30-plus steals, with a solid .280 batting average. That's likely the worst you'll get from him this season.
AL-only guys to know
Michael Choice, OF -- Brought over from Oakland to work as a bench player who can play all three outfield spots, Choice is a hot prospect gone wayward these days. But at just 24, he still has a chance to gain some fantasy favor back -- especially in this homer-friendly park.
Geovany Soto, C -- In a backup role last season, Soto hit nine home runs in 163 at-bats, and he should be able to stave off free-agent signee J.P. Arencibia for the starting role this season.
Derek Holland, SP -- It's important to note that Holland's injury was a knee, so we understand his arm/shoulder is still healthy. He has averaged 195 innings pitched, with 13 wins and a 3.96 ERA over his past three seasons -- so stash him if you have injured slots or a deep bench. He might be back after the All-Star break.