2016 is supposed to be a big year for the Rangers.
Unlike last season, where 60% of the starting rotation -- Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Martin Perez -- was on the disabled list for most or all of the year, this club's (promising) health is one of the more evident takeaways from a fairly innocuous spring training.
So if the health is okay, and if the Rangers are coming off an 88-win season where they won the AL West and came within two innings of reaching the ALCS, what negatives are there to find?
Yu Darvish is set to return to the mound in mid-to-late May; Jurickson Profar, Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara are within months (or maybe weeks in Jurickson's case) of getting called up to help the major league club; this is as complete of a Rangers team, on paper, that we have seen since 2012.
The issue -- that some fans will likely disagree with me on -- is that last year was an aberration, and this year Texas will have to "earn it," so to speak. According to Jonah Keri the Rangers were only an 83-win true talent team in 2015, while the Astros were really a 94-win team. But based on remarkable sequencing, and that Houston went a mere 21-29 in one-run affairs, the Rangers came away with 88 wins to the Astros' 86 and took the AL West crown for the third time in six years.
It isn't a secret that the Rangers and Astros figure to be the two teams with the best shot and capturing the division in 2016, as well. According to Bovada, Houston is opening at +125 ($1.25 for every $1) to win the division, with Texas as the first underdog at +275. Anaheim and Seattle follow them at +400 apiece.
This is an interesting opening line for a couple reasons.
One, just a month ago I wrote that Houston was +160 to Texas's +210 to win the division. In just four weeks, with nothing but spring training to latch onto, the Rangers basically went from 2:1 underdogs to nearly 3:1, and the Astros went from time and a half to where they're at now, which is almost even money.
It's clear the wise guys like the Astros to do very well this year.
That isn't to say the Rangers can't have a strong campaign themselves, or that Houston is immune to bad luck for a second straight season. It's simply the logical stance: The Astros are a year older, and their core is either ascending or already in its prime. There is every reason to expect them to be better in 2016 than they were last year.
Texas, meanwhile, is old(er). Its big money players are either post-prime (Cole Hamels, Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo) or searching for a prime (Elvis Andrus). And much of the next wave of talent won't be penciled in to the regular lineup until 2017, when Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Jurickson Profar and Lewis Brinson could all reasonably be ready for consistent big league action.
With the signing of Ian Desmond to presumably play center field, and with a flush bullpen and Yu on the mend, this is an all-in year for the Rangers. One way or another, through utter collapse or another American League pennant, this roster is getting turned over next season.
Now, indeed much shit will go down in the meantime. It will just be a matter of how well the Rangers do in slowing the aging process. Right now, there's an understandably sharp divide between Rangers fans and Las Vegas when it comes to the club's 2016 expectations.
See, the present over/under win total for Texas, per Vegas Insider, is 83.5. But when Adam Morris of Lonestarball polled almost 1,100 Rangers fans, asking them to predict Texas's 2016 win total, a whopping 96% project more than 84 wins for the club. Further, 67% expect Texas to win at least 90 games.
This is all without mentioning that most computer forecasting models (that I know of/follow) never really cared for the Rangers to begin with. PECOTA (79-83) and FanGraphs (80-82) both predict a sub-.500 finish for the Rangers, and ZiPS trended toward that direction as well. So it goes.
On the other hand, you have national writers like Tom Verducci and Ken Rosenthal who predict the Rangers will defeat the Cubs in the World Series, and Jerry Crasnick thinks Texas knocks off San Francisco for the title. (Oddly, Rosenthal picks Houston to win the West, but for the Rangers to procure the ultimate prize. Seems like a good way to satisfy two fan bases and one large state at the same time.)
If ever there's a time to check yourself in the mirror, it's when mouthpieces like Verducci and Crasnick pick your club to win the damn thing. Then and only then did the idea enter my brain that something here wasn't right.
You have Vegas, FanGraphs, PECOTA and ZiPS all basically saying the same thing, that the Rangers will be average to slightly above average, a range of about 80-84 wins. Then you have Rangers fans -- each of whom is completely objective, of course -- largely voicing optimism, that this is really a 90-plus win team that will compete with the Astros in the West.
If you asked me, I would be the boring guy who sees it somewhere in the middle. I mean, it doesn't take a lot to convince me that this team can win 90 games. Assuming health, by June 1st the rotation could go Darvish-Hamels-Holland-Perez-Lewis, and the lineup could feature Rougned Odor and Jurickson Profar batting 1-2 with Beltre, Choo, Fielder and Mitch Moreland to provide (a little) punch behind them. There should be enough offense to go around, or at least enough support for a pitching staff that could look deadly if everyone is healthy.
Much, obviously, rides on two pitchers for the Rangers: Derek Holland and Martin Perez. Texas gets docked significantly in the computer projections for having so many players spend so much time on the DL in recent years. Holland and Perez would each fall in that category. If they pitch how much they are projected to pitch, which is around 100 innings in both cases according to ZiPS, then Texas is going to have a helluva time making up those extra innings with Nick Martinez and Chi-Chi Gonzalez.
But if they pitch to their capabilities, which is something we've been dreaming on for the last half-decade in Derek's case, then Texas has two strong #3 starters with upside. If Holland and Perez manage to stay on the mound for 180-200 innings in 2016, and put up ERAs in the mid-3's, then the Rangers can take down the West.
There is, however, an unavoidable flip side to that coin, one where Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo are worthless, where Elvis Andrus continues not to hit, and where Delino DeShields regresses in his second full year. I hope against this scenario very much, as you can probably imagine, but it illustrates just how delicate the line is between finishing with 79 or 80 wins, or 89 or 90 wins. We could write this about any team, but the probability is higher with Texas because its roster has proven to be severely fragile the last few years, and it won't be getting any younger until 2017.
I like the Rangers to make the over on 83.5 wins, but 90 is pushing it. I would love for the club to be in a position where they are within a few games of Houston come September, where they would have the ability to play their way -- head-to-head -- to a division title, and still have one of the two Wild Card slots as a fallback option. The Astros are going to be a problem in 2016, so as long as the Rangers' veteran roster is within striking distance to give themselves a shot at knocking off the upstarts for a second straight year, I would consider that a win this season.