The Texas Rangers open the 2016 season in less than three weeks, and for many of us, Opening Day can't get here soon enough! Several players stepped up last season and helped the Rangers make a surprising but satisfying postseason appearance. It's going to take that kind of effort from a number of guys in 2016 to make another playoff run. Texas looks pretty solid on paper right now, but the games are won and lost on the field. The following is a list of five players who are key to Rangers success this season.
- Ian Desmond
The signing of Ian Desmond was a bit of a surprise to say the least. With Josh Hamilton's health uncertain as usual, Desmond is going to get a shot to play left field for the Rangers. He was an All Star in 2012, hitting 25 home runs while driving in 73 runs. His OPS was an impressive .845, and his OPS+ was 125. Since then, however, it's been a steady decline that hopefully bottomed out in 2015. He still hit for a little power last season, but his average dipped to a career-low .233. His OPS was a paltry .674.
For this one-year deal to work out in the Rangers favor, Desmond is going to have to finish somewhere in the middle of his 2012 and 2015 seasons at the very least. If he ends up with an OPS somewhere in the .750 range while driving in 70 or more runs, he'll be very valuable for the Texas offense. At multiple times in 2015, the offense was very left-hand dominant in the power category. He can help balance that out.
That being said, Desmond is also going to be playing left field to start the season. He was an infielder during his time with the Nationals, but he had plenty of defensive struggles at that position in recent years. Left field is a major question mark for the Rangers heading into the season, and whether or not he can be a capable outfielder in the majors is going to go a long way in determining how the season goes.
- Derek Holland
Derek Holland has been a tough case to figure out. He's flashed signs of having dominant stuff with top-of-the-rotation potential. On the contrary, he's also struggled to stay healthy and has stretches where he gives up far too many long balls. Rangers fans would obviously love to have the first option, although many would be pretty happy with a healthy version of Holland somewhere in the middle. After starting only 15 games the past two seasons combined, seeing him toe the rubber 28-30 times would be a welcome sight.
Holland started 10 games in 2015, and he was 4-3 with an ERA of 4.91. The stat that worries me even more was the 6.3 strikeouts per 9 innings compared to 2.6 walks per 9 innings. He's obviously not missing bats at a very high rate, and the distance between the two stats will need to be larger moving forward.
He also gave up nearly two home runs per 9 innings a season ago, and when he's at his best, that number is much lower. First and foremost, Holland needs to give Texas close to 30 starts. If his ERA is on the south side of 4.00, that's a bonus. When he's a viable starter for the Rangers, things are much more pleasant in regards to the starting rotation. That will be the case in 2016 as well.
- Mitch Moreland
Mitch Moreland had his best full season by far in 2015, and he'll be looking to keep that going in 2016. The lefty hit .278 with 23 home runs and 85 runs batted in. The average and RBI total were career highs, while the home run total was tied with his previous career high. In addition, his WAR was 2.1 which is by far his best to date. He pretty much showed improvement across the board offensively.
Moreland is somewhere in the middle of the pack defensively, and that makes him even more important to the Rangers. The better he performs at the plate and on the field, the more games Jeff Banister can put Prince Fielder at DH. Fielder is certainly capable of playing first base on occasion, but this team will be better with him at DH and Moreland at first base.
Moreland had a career year in 2015, and it was a great relief to get him through arbitration fairly smoothly. He is very capable of repeating his numbers from a year ago, but that kind of projection is probably on the high side. Nonetheless, there's no reason to believe he won't give Texas another 130-140 games along with 20-plus home runs and nearly 75-80 runs batted in.
- Shawn Tolleson
Shawn Tolleson came out of nowhere to become a reliable closer for the Rangers in 2015. It was a major need for the team at the time, and it allowed a number of things to be put in place elsewhere in the bullpen. He converted 35 saves in 37 chances with a 2.99 ERA. He posted career bests in WHIP (1.147), strikeouts per 9 innings (9.5), and walks per 9 innings (2.1). Numbers are important for any position, but when it comes to closers the 35 out of 37 is the stat that means the most. They have a job to finish out games, and Tolleson did it well.
It remains to be seen whether or not Tolleson is the long-term plan as closer for the Rangers, but there's no reason to believe he won't be the man again in 2016. His presence at the end of the bullpen allows Jeff Banister a lot of flexibility throughout a game. It gives the manager the option to continue using the three-headed monster of Sam Dyson, Jake Diekman, and Keone Kela to hold things together until the 9th inning. There aren't many teams with a better bullpen than the Rangers, and the guy at the end of it is a big reason for that.
- Chi Chi Gonzalez
Chi Chi Gonzalez had a pretty quick rise to the big leagues, and while the results have been mixed, there's a lot of excitement when it comes to his future. He started off really well last season before going through a rough patch on occasion before being sent back down to the minors. He returned to the Rangers late in the season with another batch of mixed results. His walks per 9 innings (4.3) were higher than his strikeouts per 9 innings (4.0), and that's never going to be a plus. It's a definite concern, but he's looked pretty good so far this spring.
Chi Chi is going to get every opportunity to at least be in the starting rotation to start the season. Yu Darvish's return date isn't known yet, but he'll at least be out the first month or so. That will give Gonzalez several starts to show if he's ready to stay in the big leagues or not.
For Rangers fans, he's going to be a huge key to this year's team. He'll almost surely be in the rotation to start the season, and the best-case scenario is that he's a dominant piece of the rotation all season. If Darvish returns and he's the odd-man out, he'll still be a very valuable piece when others need a break or miss time due to injury. In addition, he could end up being a very important contributor as a long reliever if he isn't used as a starter.