We're at the point of the offseason in which most free agent chatter -- with the exception of some Tommy Hanson and Nelson Cruz talk -- has ceased as ball clubs prepare to report to Spring Training.
That hasn't stopped my baseball juices from flowing. Quite the opposite actually. As the Rangers are now seven days away from having pitchers and catchers report, I'm in the frame of mind to have a forward-looking view to see exactly what we might be able to expect from the 2014 Rangers and what the club needs to do in order to win the AL West.
Fangraphs ZiPS projections have the Rangers winning 87 games in 2014. Over at Baseball Prospectus, PECOTA projections have the Rangers sitting at less desirable 84 games. Given that the Rangers have won 90 or more games for four straight seasons, that doesn't seem, on the surface, to be exactly encouraging when we consider that the front office and ownership spent considerable resources over the winter in an effort to improve the roster.
In 2013, the Rangers finished with 91 wins, which happened to match their Pythagorean win percentage, which is calculated based on runs scored and runs allowed. Interestingly, the Oakland Athletics also matched their Pythagorean win percentage and ended up with 96 wins. Heading into 2014, it would appear that Oakland could be weaker in the starting rotation. Furthermore, the Angels would seem to be a prime pick to improve on their 78 win total from 2013 in 2014.
Even moderate bounceback seasons from Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols in 2014 could improve the team by 3-6 wins on a conservative scale. After factoring in that Mark Trumbo was traded away, you're looking at a lineup that could very well be the best in baseball. I'm a bit less bullish on the Angels pitching staff, but for my money, I'd count on the Angels being more dangerous in 2014 than the A's.
Gone from the Rangers are A.J. Pierzynski, David Murphy, Ian Kinsler, Craig Gentry, and most likely Nelson Cruz. Replacing Mitch Moreland at 1B is Prince Fielder, who was acquired from Detroit for Ian Kinsler. Fielder was a bit down in 2013 (2.2 WAR) from his previous two seasons (4.8 and 4.9 WAR). I'm not sure how much of that was simply a down year and how much may have been due to again, but I feel fairly confident that playing his home games in Arlington will go a long way toward putting him back around at least 3.5 WAR in 2014.
David Murphy was a hole in left field in 2013, producing only 0.4 WAR. In his place, the Rangers signed Shin-Soo Choo. ZiPS projections have Choo at 3.1 WAR in 2014. While that estimate is somewhat conservative, I'm not too inclined to raise that figure by more than 1 WAR, but understanding that he provides an upgrade at the position from 2013 is important nonetheless.
Jurickson Profar and Leonys Martin are both younger players that figure to improve at least slightly moving foward. Most notably, ZiPS has Profar at 2.7 WAR in 2014, which actually provides a slight upgrade over Kinsler's 2013 season. It remains to be seen how Kinsler will fare in Detroit, but if Profar does indeed meet that projection, he would essentially be, at the very least, providing the status quo. Martin, with a WAR projection of 2.2, would actually be projected to regress a bit in 2014. While I believe his hit tool will improve this season, Martin will be hard-pressed to replicate his 13 defensive runs saved and 36 stolen bases from 2013. He very well may approach the 30+ stolen base territory, but I'm a bit more reserved toward the thought that runners will continue to test his arm in center field.
In Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Alex Rios, it's likely we'll see more of the same moving forward, and while Beltre's bat may regress a bit, I'd be surprised if his defensive metrics don't bounce back from 2013. While I'm not exactly thrilled with the prospect of having Mitch Moreland as the everyday DH, short of signing Nelson Cruz, I'm not sure how to improve the position. It isn't likely that Michael Choice would be a platoon partner seeing that he figures to have some defensive value to the Rangers in the future as well, and taking away regular minor league at-bats from a young player would probably be viewed as a risky proposition.
In looking at the pitching staff, Yu Darvish figures to be a Cy Young candidate once again, and ZiPS sees him as a 6.0 WAR pitcher. Where ZiPS, I think misses the mark in this case, is on Matt Harrison, where he is projected as a 1.9 WAR pitcher logging only 111.3 innings. I'll be surprised if he doesn't end up somewhere closer to 3 WAR. I could also see Martin Perez approaching the 3 WAR territory, which would give the Rangers a potential top-3 that can excel even in the early-season absence of Derek Holland.
All told, in considering your baseline 47-win "replacement" team, ZiPS sees the Rangers as an 87-win team in 2014, or good for 40 WAR. In my entirely non-expert opinion, however, in addressing what I believe are shortcomings on the projections, I view the Rangers as closer to a 43 WAR team, which would put the club at exactly 90 wins.
In 2013, the club scored 730 runs. Given what I view as a superior offensive talent level in 2014, I could imagine a season in which the Rangers score 760 runs. If the ball club were to manage to match 2013 run prevention and allow 636 runs, that would put the 2014 Pythagorean win total at around 94 wins.
So depending on which way we look at it, I view the 2014 Texas Rangers as a 90-94 win team, with the likely outcome being somewhere in the middle. With that said, the game certainly isn't played on paper. While the numbers and projections tend to be a good tool for teams to forecast production and address areas of need, the game is decided on the field, and we have no guarantee that injuries, lack of production, or other factors won't derail these types of expectations.
Nevertheless, the current window of opportunity for the Texas Rangers is wide open. Winning the AL West will be vitally important, as it is every year, and from there, most of us have accepted the small-sample nature of the playoffs. Getting in is the hardest part, and looking foward prior to Spring Training, I feel optimistic about the Rangers chances of making that goal a reality.