- Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli are back in Texas, where they'll try to help the Rangers win the AL West for the third straight year.
Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Texas Rangers.
95-67 (.586), first place in AL West; lost Division Series to Blue Jays
OF/DH Carlos Beltran, OF Ian Desmond; RHP Colby Lewis*, 1B Mitch Moreland
* player is still unsigned as of publication
RHP Andrew Cashner, RHP Dillon Gee, RHP Adam Loewen, 1B James Loney, 1B/DH Mike Napoli, DH Travis Snider, IF Will Middlebrooks
Off-season In Review
Only the eventual World Series champion Chicago Cubs (103) won more games than the Rangers (95) did year, yet that comes with a notable caveat: Chicago was actually better than its gaudy record suggested, as it had a Pythagorean record—a projection based on the number of runs and team scores and allows—of 107-55, while Texas actually should have been much worse; the Rangers' Pythagorean mark was just 82-80 because they scored just eight more runs than they allowed.
After bowing out in the American League Division Series to the Toronto Blue Jays for the second straight season, the Rangers have endured a bumpy off-season. They made the easy decision to pick up Jonathan Lucroy's $5.25 million option, so they are still set at catcher, but they did lose Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond and Mitch Moreland in free agency, are not planning to bring back a longtime rotation stalwart and one of their key relievers has been sidelined by an unfortunate illness.
Texas got just 52 games and seven home runs for Beltran, who cost them a trio of prospects—including top-50 pitcher Dillon Tate—when they got him from the Yankees. Desmond at least brought back a draft pick when he decamped for the Rockies, but the team also was left with a hole in centerfield. Carlos Gomez, re-signed to aa one-year deal, could fill that need if he resembles the player he was after joining the Rangers at midseason (134 OPS+) and not the player he was while he was at the beginning of the year with the Astros before being released (64 OPS+). As for Moreland, he has headed to Boston, leaving behind first base for, potentially, slugging prospect Joey Gallo to finally claim an everyday spot.
Another candidate for at-bats at that position is Mike Napoli, who agreed to a one-year deal for his third stint with the team. Napoli hit a career-high 34 home runs for Cleveland last year, though he batted just .239 and turned 35 during the World Series. He'll likely get plenty of at-bats as the designated hitter.
James Loney will have a chance to prove he should be in the first base mix too thanks to his invite to spring training, but he had an OPS+ of only 87 with the Mets last year. Fellow non-roster invitee Will Middlebrooks will get the opportunity to surprise in Surprise (Ariz.) as well; the former top prospect has never played even 100 games in a big league season. The most intriguing possibility in camp is undoubtedly former AL MVP Josh Hamilton. Now 35, Hamilton missed all of last season following knee surgery, so it is unclear how much power he'll be able to produce, but the possibility that he can rediscover his slugging ways of yore make him a gamble worth taking.
Pitching-wise, Texas added righty Andrew Cashner via a one-year, $10 million contract. He was dreadful last season for the Marlins and Padres, going 5-11 with a 5.25 ERA, and his 95 ERA+ in seven big league seasons doesn't suggest that he has a very high ceiling. All the Rangers really need him to do is to prove an adequate replacement for Colby Lewis, who had a 3.71 ERA at age 36 and pitched nine years for the club; he is still a free agent and won't be back, as he recently acknowledged in a farewell statement to the team's fans.
The bullpen took a hit with the late January news that lefty Jake Diekman will be out until at least midseason while he recovers from surgery for complications related to ulcerative colitis, a condition he's dealt with since he was a child. The 'pen was already a weak spot, having posted a 4.35 ERA that was the second-worst in the American League a year ago, better only than that of the 103-loss Twins.
Unfinished Business: Bullpen
Assuming some of the new (Cashner) and sort-of-new faces (Gomez, Hamilton, Napoli) are able to produce, and that young players like Gallo, outfielder Nomar Mazara (fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting) and perhaps even former top prospect Jurickson Profar contribute as expected, Texas's only notable weak spot will be the depth of its relief corps. Sam Dyson was effective in his first year as closer, racking up 38 saves with a 2.43 ERA, and lefty Alex Claudio (2.79 ERA) and righty Matt Bush (2.48) form a capable duo as set-up men. If manager Jeff Bannister can get a similarly strong performance from the rest of his relievers, the Rangers will stand a good chance of winning their third straight AL West title.
Preliminary Grade: B
Keeping Lucroy was a no-brainer, and the low cost of bringing back players like Gomez, Napoli and Hamilton justify those moves too. Cashner may not pan out, but with a one-year deal he is also worth taking a gamble on. Losing Beltran, Desmond and Moreland won't be easy—and not having the bat of Prince Fielder, who retired prematurely last summer because of neck injuries—but there is enough talent up and down the lineup to compensate.