The Texas Rangers have been widely known for a long while as a slug-first team. From Juan Gonzalez to Alex Rodriguez to Mark Teixeira to Josh Hamilton to Joey Gallo, the Rangers have had a plethora of sluggers that have produced countless moonshots and earned their fair share of individual accolades.
On the pitching side, the Rangers don't boast nearly the same pedigree. Sure, there have been a number of noteworthy pitchers, including the most iconic Texas Ranger ever, Nolan Ryan. But throughout the course of the Rangers' history, the offense was vastly ahead of the pitching staff.
Even in the Rangers' best years in 2010 and 2011, the lineup was arguably the best in baseball while the starting rotations were respectable, but not dominant. The acquisition on Cliff Lee highlighted the 2010 season, along with two outstanding years from C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis.
Even with a solid pitching staff, the team was inevitably going to go only as far as the offense could take them. In 2010, the lineup turned as cold as a polar vortex in the World Series and the Giants won handily in five games.
Now in 2020, things are different. The Rangers are shifting toward contention after a three-year rebuild, bringing along a couple of good arms in Mike Minor and Lance Lynn they acquired during that time. Minor and Lynn had fantastic 2019 seasons, with both of them earning Cy Young votes.
The Rangers went into the winter with the plan to upgrade the rotation a bit more, but their primary goal was to go hard after third baseman Anthony Rendon. As insurance for their Rendon pursuit, Daniels acquired Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles as a couple of nice depth pieces for the rotation. At the time, it looked like if they were going to get Rendon, those two might be the only major additions to the rotation, which would've been an upgrade, but still not good enough to compete.
When the Rangers were outbid by the Angels on Rendon, it seemed like the winter all of a sudden became a failure. They missed on their primary target, hadn't upgraded any other position in the lineup yet, and still had some depth issues with the rotation. To top it off, the Rangers' new crown jewel Globe Life Field caught on fire only three days after Rendon chose Southern California over Texas.
Jon Daniels refused to tuck his tail between his legs and run off and hide. The next day, Daniels pulled the trigger on a swap for two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, solidifying the starting rotation in the process.
Now, the dynamic of this team has shifted. Instead of being the traditional slugging, offensive team, they are now embracing that the strength of this team will be on the mound.
"This year our focus was more on improvement, both with what we're doing behind the scenes and at the end of the day, what we're doing with the roster," Jon Daniels told the media Wednesday. "Particularly on the pitching side, we feel really good about that."
Pitchers and catchers held their first official workouts on Wednesday in Surprise, Arizona. It didn't take long for manager Chris Woodward to tell his pitching staff how leadership feels about this staff.
"Woody just talked to the pitchers and catchers group," Daniels said. "He said, 'I know this organization hasn't been known for being led by the pitching staff, but that's what the opportunity here is for this group.'"
There are a number of questions with the rotation, with Kluber's 2019 season as the elephant in the room. His season was dismantled by injury, but even his seven starts beforehand were very un-Kluber-like, registering a 5.80 ERA and a 1.65 WHIP in 35 2/3 innings. The Rangers are counting on Kluber to bounce back to his prior form, which if he does, that changes the whole dynamic of the rotation.
Mike Minor and Lance Lynn will then be very formidable pitchers to fill in the second and third spots in the rotation. The question surrounding those two is if they can replicate or be close to their superb 2019 form. If they can, the Rangers top-three rotation spots can be one of the best in baseball.
Once Kluber was acquired, it enhanced the signings of Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles. Both pitchers have had some fine moments in their careers, but definitely profile as end-of-the-rotation pitchers. Having them in those roles increases not only their own value, but the value of the starting staff overall.
Having the set one-through-five of Kluber, Minor, Lynn, Gibson, and Lyles also allows younger hurlers like Kolby Allard, Joe Palumbo, and Brock Burke an opportunity to make final refinements in their development at Triple-A Nashville. Through the wear and tear of the regular season, those young pitchers also give the Rangers quality depth in case any of the starting five goes down.
On the first day of pitcher and catcher workouts, Woodward met with his young arms to reinforce their importance and challenged them on their growth.
"Our younger guys that come up, we're going to need them all," Woodward said. "They're going to have really good – and different – guys to watch and learn from, and that was my challenge to the younger players. “'Learn from these guys, pick their brains, make them tired of seeing you around. Don’t be intimidated by Corey Kluber. Go up and talk to him. Annoy him, almost.'”
The starting five is very aware of the depth behind them.
"There's a lot of guys who have the ability to do a lot of good things," Lance Lynn told the media on Wednesday. "You need that depth because as the season goes on, it's hard for the starting five to make all their starts. Hopefully we can do that, but also we know the young guys behind us are going to be ready and chomping at the bit to help."
Regarding the bullpen, which we will tackle another time, having a deep and reliable rotation takes some pressure off the bullpen. The Rangers have a lot of moving parts this spring regarding the bullpen, along with its own list of questions and concerns. If this rotation performs to its capability, they will be able to eat a lot of innings, which can only enhance whatever ends up happening with the bullpen.
We have yet to see what the Rangers' lineup is capable of. Along with the bullpen, the lineup has a number of unknowns. But this is a season where the dynamic of what the Rangers have traditionally been can be flipped. Even offensive guys like Joey Gallo are excited about that.
"They're all guys who give you a chance to win games," Gallo said at Rangers mini camp last month. "As an offensive player, that's what you want – you want a guy who's going to go out there and give you a chance. All of those guys give us more than a chance to win games."
The dynamic is flipped. Here and now in 2020, the Rangers will go as far as the rotation will take them. If there's any reason for optimism this season, it will rest on the arms of this revamped rotation.
“My challenge to them is, 'Let’s be the best in baseball,'” Woodward said. “There is a lot that goes into it, but if you set the ceiling high, the bar high, I want our guys to take ownership in that.”
Spring Training Outlooks
Recap on the other deep dives we've done on some spring training storylines.
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