Depending who you asked, there was a healthy amount of optimism heading into the Rangers 2014 season. No, it wasn't a roster filled to the brim with All Star talent -- like the 2011-'13 years -- nor was it projected to be even a 90-win team according to Dan Szmborski's ZiPS projections. This was supposed to be a different kind of year and a different kind of team, more in line with what 2010 was: The start of something new.
The construct of the team made sense during the offseason, however, mostly due to injuries, it simply never got a chance to manifest once the season got underway.
What resulted was a 67-95 ball club, the third-worst record in Major League Baseball.
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The 2014 Texas Rangers, in Theory
Back in November of 2013, Jon Daniels let the first major domino of the baseball world fall. He traded longtime second baseman, Ian Kinsler, to the Tigers for Prince Fielder, with the thought being that Texas had finally found the everyday first baseman it had spent so desperately long searching for. (Sorry Chris, Justin, Mitch.) Kinsler understandably wasn't happy with the decision, and many Ranger fans (including myself) weren't satisfied with the move when it went down, but it nonetheless cleared a path for the game's top prospect, Jurickson Profar, to man second, and, at least temporarily (as it would turn out) cured the club's middle infield logjam.
The immediate blowback when the trade got finalized was both emotional -- because Kinsler was a fan favorite -- and rational -- because Fielder is owed a ton of money over a ton of years -- but in retrospect I tend to think the shock value is really what polarized so many.
About a month later Texas made its big free agent splash of the winter, inking outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to a monster 7-year, $130 million contract. In the meantime, the front office hedged their bets by issuing Nelson Cruz the $14.1 million qualifying offer, so at the very least they could recoup the first-round pick they lost to the Reds when they signed Choo. I don't think anyone actually thought Cruz would accept the QO, and the fact it only took a one-year, $8 million deal to sign him suggested the Rangers didn't really want him back anyway. Clearly they valued a compensatory #1 pick more than a glorified designated hitter in decline.
That was, in essence, the extent of the offseason. Texas replaced Kinsler at 2B with Profar, swapped out David Murphy (who signed with Cleveland) for Choo in the outfield, and retained the rest of their relevant core. Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus made up the left side of the infield, Prince was the new first baseman, and the outfield looked pretty strong on paper with Leonys Martin and Alex Rios flanking Choo in left.
Conflate that with a rotation featuring Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Martin Perez, a recovering Matt Harrison and some reasonable facsimile of a #5 starter (whether it was to be Colby Lewis or Alex Ogando or Nick Tepesch or Tanner Scheppers or Robbie Ross or someone else entirely); the only position on the diamond that appeared as an obvious weakness was behind the plate, where Geovany Soto, J.P. Arencibia and Robinson Chirinos were going to battle it out as the club's replacement-level backstop.
Even if we take into account the questions surrounding unproven entities like Profar at second and Perez in the rotation, or the potential declines of Fielder at first and Beltre at third, it was still a roster capable of staying in the race long enough to pursue reinforcements at the trade deadline. After all, Yu Darvish had already established himself as one of the game's best pitchers, Derek Holland was on the rise as a strong #2 option, and one would think there would be enough wins -- and enough individual alpha to outperform projections -- around the diamond to make this thing work.
Now that we're here, we know that was very, very wrong to assume.
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I was at the DMV in Palm Desert, CA on January 10th of this year, the day it was announced that Derek Holland had knee surgery from apparently tripping over his dog (but probably because he was playing hockey), and would be out until around the All Star Break. I know this because a few days before, I passed the audition at my new dealing job in a casino in Coachella, and needed to gather a superfluous bundle of documents for the background investigation they were conducting to make sure I wasn't some deranged murderer, or something. (Hint, I'm not anymore.) As I sat at the DMV for what felt like an eternity, I decided to check Twitter, and all the Rangers bloggers/beat writers/fans were freaking out over Holland's injury, and rightfully so. It was a huge blow.
Forever the optimist, I convinced myself Texas could whether the storm; looking back, it was the first of many more foreboding signs that would deliver the Rangers to the precipice of the #1 pick in the 2015 draft. If only I'd known what the baseball gods already knew.
In March, only a week before the season got underway, Jurickson Profar went down with a torn teras major muscle, an injury that was to sideline him for 10-12 weeks but isn't considered career-threatening by any means. It was another bump in the road -- we thought -- which is why career scrubs like Josh Wilson and Donnie Murphy were on the roster in the first place, as weak utility insurance.
Once the season got underway, Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo also had their dance with the disabled list devil -- for only a couple weeks apiece -- and to compensate for their losses the Rangers magically had Kevin Kouzmanoff (.362/.412/.617, 185 wRC+ in 51 plate appearances) on their side, and with his help they parlayed to a 15-9 record.
The Rangers were 15-9 and in first place at one time. This is worth mentioning for some reason.
But, as we experienced during a miserable season, all good things must end. And once they ended, it only got worse.
- Matt Harrison made 4 starts before his season was cut short, and now his career is very much in jeopardy.
- Martin Perez pitched beautifully in 8 starts before going down with Tommy John surgery.
- Kouzmanoff had back surgery and missed the remainder of 2014.
- Alexi Ogando faded off into oblivion (where the hell is he?) after only 25 IP. Tanner Scheppers, too, threw 23 innings before being shelved.
- Prince Fielder (.247/.360/.360, 89 wRC+) was gone with neck surgery after less than 200 PAs.
- Mitch Moreland needed ankle surgery and his season was lost.
It wasn't that the Rangers didn't have the talent; I swear, they did. But with so much lost, and so early on, they didn't have even the slightest chance of being competitive. The Holland and Profar injuries hurt, but they weren't damning until the rest of the flock went down. To compete, Texas needed pitching. And without Holland, Harrison and Perez -- 60% of the 2014 rotation -- there just wasn't much left to do other than admire Darvish's mastery and Beltre's continued brilliance.
Then again, Yu went down, too. By that time the season was already well over.
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The Rangers On The Field
The Rangers were bad in 2014. Like, really bad. They started the season 15-9, and ended the season 13-3. That's a composite record of 28-12 (.700). Over the remaining 122 games, Texas went 39-83 (.320), an extended stretch of baseball that I don't have enough adjectives to describe how horrible it was. During that interval is when the club's attrition rate went through the roof; it's when we all lost beloved beat writer, Richard Durrett; it's when we lost the most successful manager in the history of the franchise.
It was not a fun baseball season.
With that said, I'm not going to bitch about how bad the Rangers played collectively on the field, because that's fairly evident, no? Yes, there were poor individual performances, but there were also encouraging ones. Let's get into both:
Before going down with elbow inflammation, er, before Texas's front office decided to shut him down, Yu Darvish was again one of baseball's very best starting pitchers. In only 144.1 IP, Darvish provided +4.1 fWAR, ranking 10th among American League starting pitchers in 2014 in spite of throwing roughly 50-75 IP less than the rest of the group. His 30.1% strikeout rate was the best in baseball at the time, and he brought his walk rate (8.1%) down to league average, which is probably the most positive thing to take from his year. He finished with a 3.06 ERA and an xFIP of 2.96.
Adrian Beltre, the ageless wonder, was the Rangers best player and one of the best players in MLB in 2014. In a shade over 600 plate appearances he generated a .324/.388/.492 (141 wRC+) triple slash line, good for +5.9 fWAR. At age-35, only nine players in MLB were worth more according to FanGraphs. It's a testament to how great Beltre is, sure, but that he accomplished so much during a completely hopeless, uncompetitive season is even more impressive.
On the flip-side, the hopelessness of the Rangers did not have the same effect on Elvis Andrus. This was Elvis's 6th full big league season -- so we can't talk about him like he's a kid anymore -- and it was by far his least productive (+1.2 fWAR). He's probably never going to be a league average hitter, but what was more troubling in 2014 was how his defense took such a step back. After five straight years with a plus-UZR -- where most of his value is tied up, on defense -- Andrus actually cost the Rangers runs on defense. He has to be better in 2015.
Down the stretch, Rougned Odor was the most intriguing position player to watch. Pressed into action in his age-20 season, Odor held his own with a .259/.297/.402 (90 wRC+) triple slash, but as the season progressed he was even better. In September he beasted on AL pitching, batting .296/.345/.481 (128 wRC+) in 88 plate appearances, and is a sure bet to be the club's opening day second baseman in 2015.
Leonys Martin had a rough go of it through the first half, but quietly put his stamp on a second consecutive 3-win season. On the year he hit .274/.325/.364 (89 wRC+) with 31 stolen bases. If all clicks right with Leonys, which only takes a small bump in the offensive department, he could be a 4-plus win center fielder next season. It's an optimistic yet obtainable projection.
Michael Choice was bad. He was well sub-replacement-level (-2.1 fWAR) in less than 300 plate appearances. After Alex Rios gets bought out this offseason, Choice will be part of a collection featuring Ryan Rua, Daniel Robertson and Jake Smolinski to be part of the everyday outfield mix next year. What Choice was in 2014 wasn't pretty, but keep in mind his BABIP was only .208. I'm not a BABIP scout, but even if that figure marginally improves, his .182/.250/.320 (55 wRC+) won't look nearly as inept moving forward. Also, it's only 300 PAs we're talking about, so let's not write him off too soon.
Colby Lewis pitched well enough, particularly in the second half, to warrant another one-year contract from the Rangers in 2015, who figure to be balling on a budget. Neftali Feliz, too, looked brilliant down the stretch, and barring some sort of setback is the odds-on favorite to be the team's closer heading into next year.
If you need to know how the season went, Nick Martinez and Nick Tepesch ranked 3rd and 4th, respectively, in innings pitched. Both acquitted themselves nicely, at least to the perpetually low standards we have set for ourselves as Rangers fans, but Texas might actually have something there. Tepesch has as good of a shot as anyone to break camp as the team's #5 starter next spring, and Martinez -- a converted infielder who should have been in Double-A or Triple-A this year -- looks like he could turn into a solid depth guy in the future. It's not sexy, but it's something, and something is better than nothing.
I mention these names because these are the players who will mean something moving forward. Like I've said, the talent is here, and it's going to be here next year. All we need is for it to actually be on the field.
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Looking ahead, Texas are faced with more questions than answers. Will Jurickson Profar be healthy enough to start 2014 in at Triple-A? Will Prince Fielder recover to be the middle of the order bat the Rangers need him to be? Will Choo bounce back from his ankle/elbow issues that derailed his season? And who will the manager be next year?
Let's start with the latter, because the latter is the easiest: If it's not Tim Bogar, then... I don't even know. Managing in baseball is less about X's and O's than we'd like to believe, and has more to do with players wanting to play for their manager. That's why Ron Washington was so successful in the second half of his tenure with the Rangers. Yes, Jon Daniels provided him a world-class roster to work with, and that helps, but he was never a good tactician. He didn't know how to construct a lineup and didn't know how to deploy a bullpen.
Still, you can't listen to this and tell me his players didn't love him. If Bogar is the guy -- and we have no reason to assume he won't be -- then Texas will automatically improve in the strategy department, even if they have to take a minor step back in the clubhouse. And that's OK.
Contrary to the downward spiral of the big league team, the Rangers were wildly successful on the farm in 2014. Joey Gallo established himself as a premier prospect, Jorge Alfaro kept up his progression behind the plate, and 19 year-old outfielder Nomar Mazara ascended rapidly to become the youngest player in Double-A before the season ended. Offensive depth is something the Rangers lacked in 2014, and there's a decent chance all three of these players get a cup of coffee in the big leagues before next season ends.
On the pitching side, former first round pick Chi-Chi Gonzalez appears ready for a challenge in Triple-A to start next year, and could see Arlington at some point during the summertime. He projects as a #3 starter. Luke Jackson, conversely, dominated Double-A and then got absolutely lit up when he got promoted to the Pacific Coast League. His future is more likely to end up in the bullpen, but because starting pitching is incalculably more valuable than relief pitching, look for the Rangers to continue exhausting his potential in the rotation until he proves without a doubt he can't handle it. Should the Rangers compete in 2015, Jackson is a decent bet to pitch out of the bullpen during the dog days.
With Jurickson Profar's season-long injury, and the fact he's being shut down for another 2-3 months this offseason, we will be lucky if he's healthy enough to begin next season in the minor leagues. I can't stress enough how a teras muscle injury is not career-threatening, but, rather, what was more damaging in 2014 was that he missed out on 600 PAs worth of experience. He won't be playing winter ball this offseason, so he can't cut into any of those missed at bats, but it's still too early to call him a bust. Texas's top priority with its young players is their health, so it behooves them to be as patient as possible with the game's former #1 prospect.
Prince Fielder is another guy the Rangers need healthy in 2015. All signs point to him being ready for opening day, but fingers are still crossed as far as he goes. He is still owed $144 million over the next six years, with Texas being responsible for $114 million of it.
During the offseason, the Rangers will look to add a DH, two starting pitchers, and will somehow have to fill the void left in right field once Alex Rios becomes a free agent. If that doesn't seem like too much to ask for, it's because it's not. Jon Daniels received a decent amount of flack this year for the Fielder trade, and for not retaining Nelson Cruz, but let's not mistake either of those moves as if they would have cured this lost year. It was only the difference between finishing with 67 wins and, maybe, about 70. We're still in the same position, and we're still talking about the same things.
Over the last decade, Daniels has established himself as one of the premier general managers in MLB, but 2014 was not his finest hour. It's fine to acknowledge that. Still, under a new manager, a new era of baseball in the metroplex, the Rangers have the pieces in play to transmogrify from a 67-win team into a division champion next year. As always, health will be a key, and it's sure to be a dog fight when you're in a division with the Angels and A's, an ever-improving Astros organization and a Mariners club that certainly won't roll over. Texas have their work cut out for them.
2015 is a big year in that regard. Though, with how bad things went this season, there truly is nowhere to go but up. Yu Darvish and Derek Holland will be back as the club's top two starters, the lineup should return Fielder and Choo and a franchise shortstop with renewed motivation. Adrian Beltre is still here.
The foundation is here for a contender. It's going to take a little creativity this offseason to fill the remaining gaps on the roster, but complementary parts are all that is really needed; the Rangers will not make or break on a power hitter or top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
I'm happy to see this season end, but I'm still sad it's going to be another six months before baseball is back in my life.