By David Pressman, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (89-73) - Third Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: C - Sandy Alomar Jr.; OF - Richard Hidalgo; SP - Pedro Astacio; 1B/DH - Greg Colbrunn
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: OF - Brian Jordan; INF/OF - Eric Young; DH - Brad Fullmer;); DH - Herbert Perry; SP - Colby Lewis; RP - Jeff Nelson
PROJECTED LINEUP: Michael Young (SS); Hank Blalock (3B); Alfonso Soriano (2B); Mark Teixeira (1B); Richard Hidalgo (RF); Kevin Mench (LF); David Dellucci (DH); Rod Barajas (C); Laynce Nix (CF)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Kenny Rogers (LHP); Ryan Drese (RHP); Chan Ho Park (RHP); Pedro Astacio (RHP); Chris Young (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Francisco Cordero (RHP)
MANAGER: Buck Showalter
Dean Smith, Joe Paterno and Sparky Anderson. Other than their advanced age, what do these four people have in common? They all possess the wisdom that is passed down through generations in the form of adages and dictums that, despite lengthy beliefs to the contrary, always end up forming to be true.
In sports, the one cliche that always creates the eye-rolling response is offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships. Even better is in baseball, where defense in the form of pitching can be so dominant, the actual fielding defense doesn't have to do much.
And so it goes for the Texas Rangers, who for the last decade have not been able to spot the word pitching if they tripped over it. It was not too long ago that this club was owned by the man who now occupies the White House and even back then, ignored the game's most important position.
Yet, despite the pitching problems and a collective 4.53 team ERA, the Rangers won 89 games last year and Buck Showalter was voted AL Manager of the Year. It represented the most victories for the team since capturing the AL West in 1999.
When current owner Tom Hicks has a few laughs with Yankees boss George Steinbrenner and Boston's John Henry at the annual owners' meetings, one would think that at some point during those conversations, Hicks might take the hint from those two that there really is something to this whole pitching thing.
No further evidence is needed than six months ago, when perhaps the greatest comeback in sports history took place over seven days between two teams who despise each other. But if all of the fluff from that amazing series between the Yankees and Red Sox is put aside, the team with the better pitching came out on top. The rule applies to practically every World Series champion, but some teams simply never catch on, either due to a lack of financial resources or stubbornness.
Texas certainly falls into the latter category. Hicks has deep pockets - so deep that four years ago, Alex Rodriguez became the beneficiary of the biggest deal in that part of the country since the Louisiana Purchase. But even a major splash such as that does not lend itself to the most important upgrades for a team with championship desires. The Rangers are a tremendous offensive ball club, but ticket sales do not equate to a postseason berth.
Every general manager in baseball would salivate at the thought of having just one of the Rangers' young infielders, so it is no surprise that the club's marketing campaign centers around four guys named Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, Michael Young and Hank Blalock.
Teixeira began to tear the cover off the ball during spring training in 2003 and basically hasn't stopped since. He shook off an early injury and belted 38 homers to go along with 112 runs batted in last season. Teixeira has the prototype body for his position and will be a staple in the lineup for years to come.
Opposite Teixeira at the corner spot is Blalock. The left-handed batting duo is beginning to draw comparisons to the former Bash Brothers, who are on the receiving end of congressional bashing these days. Teixeira and Blalock have a chance to be better than their predecessors and neither will reach the age of 25 by Opening Day.
Although Blalock did not come close to his .300 batting average of 2003 last year, his power numbers improved to the tune of 32 and 110 despite a major post All-Star slump. The sky is the limit for Blalock, who is just as consistent in his hitter-friendly home park as he is on the road, where exactly half of his 16 homers were hit.
As if the cornerstones weren't good enough, the middle infield contains one of the better five-tool players in the game. When the Yankees traded Soriano to the Rangers during the winter of 2003, the court of public opinion foresaw the new home digs allowing a push for 40 homers. That did not happen, but there is still plenty of time for Soriano, 29, to reach that number. Even if his second season in suburban Dallas is no better than his first, nobody will complain. Clearly, he is the best power-hitting second baseman and it's not even close. What is questionable about Soriano, however, is his long-term stability with the club. Rumors swirled this offseason about a possible trade, centering around some concern within the front office about his contract situation.
The quartet is completed by its least recognized member, but Young is a converted shortstop entering his prime and coming off a season in which he knocked in nearly 100 runs. Taking the place of the departed Rodriguez is a hefty task, but Young did a more than admirable job. His 22 home runs, not to mention a .313 average last year, raised eyebrows.
The Rangers are hoping that the revolving catcher act that plagued them last season will be solved in 2005. Three different backstops saw time behind the plate due to injuries, which led to a lack of stability in terms of developing good chemistry with the pitchers. Starter Rod Barajas produced solid power numbers for a catcher with 15 homers despite getting to the plate 358 times. Veteran Sandy Alomar was brought in to provide depth and Gerald Laird remains an option as well.
With all the talk surrounding baseball's best infield, the lively bats that make up the outfield should not be overlooked.
The center of the garden was supposed to be unquestionably handed to Laynce Nix, who has solid pop, but also hidden speed that was not shown last year due to several injuries. Nix has displayed steady improvement in two years. Eight homers in 2003 became 14 last year, and 30 RBI nearly reached 50, but it is imperative that he produces early because Gary Matthews Jr. is waiting in the wings.
While Nix still has room to grow, to his right is the prize of the outfield in the form of Kevin Mench. Going along with the broken-record youth movement theme, Mench is yet another under-30 Texas hitter who has great potential. A 35 homer campaign is within reach. Mench is even more valuable considering he interrupts a predominantly lefty lineup and it won't be long before he is mentioned among the top offensive outfielders in the American League.
Following a brief hiatus that took him to New York, rightfielder Richard Hidalgo returns to the state of Texas as a free agent. Nearing the age of 30, Hidalgo is one of the only veteran players on the entire roster. In addition to the sudden confusion surrounding the pronunciation of this last name, Hidalgo broke out a bit last season and showed shades of strong seasons past with the Houston Astros. However, this team has enough offensive firepower. What the Rangers need in his spot is a .300 hitter, which is exactly what Hidalgo was in his last full season of 2002.
David Dellucci will begin the season as the designated hitter and has a chance to improve on his 17 home runs and 61 RBI. Last year, Dellucci only played in 107 games, but that will no longer be an excuse. He underwent surgery during the offseason to correct his vision, which is a good thing since he's had trouble making contact, as evidenced by his .242 average last season.
Under the direction of coach Orel Hershiser, the Rangers' pitching actually improved last season. The staff as a whole finished with the fifth-best earned run average in the American League. However, an encore performance is unlikely, especially since the Rangers' home park more resembles a driving range on a Sunday morning at the Masters. It is simply not suited for strong pitching, but is also what helps the offense build leads that the pitchers often cannot hold.
The much-maligned staff is led by 40-year-old Kenny Rogers, who looks to follow up a career year in which he won 18 games and often dominated hitters. Anyone who knows Rogers is aware that 2004 was the exception instead of the rule, and while he certainly won't flop, a 2005 win total of 12-14 is more likely.
Rogers is the perfect fit as a back-end starter on a contending team, or as the ace for a young staff on a rebuilding club to provide insight and experience. But the Rangers are not rebuilding. They have many of the pieces in place for a nice five-to-seven year run at consistent playoff contention. The only problem is on his way to constructing one of the best offenses in the game, general manager John Hart forgot the more important component, and Rogers is a prime example of that.
It is perfectly fine to have a staff ace in his 40s, so long as his first name is Randy and he stands nearly seven feet tall. But with all due respect to The Gambler, who has had a very solid career, he simply does not have the firepower to consistently halt losing streaks or shut down teams in big spots.
Ryan Drese follows Rogers in the second rotation spot and makes much more sense for this team. Drese is neither fancy nor overpowering, and definitely not very experienced. But what he does boast is the makeup of a very sound middle-of-the-rotation hurler who can become a stalwart on this club for years to come. He is the type of pitcher who won't get too good that the Rangers will not be able to afford him at contract time, but he'll produce well enough to warrant the job. That issue will come about in the next few years, as Drese and the Rangers recently agreed on a two-year contract extension.
Last season, Drese perfected his sinker and it helped him finish 14-10 with a 4.20 earned run average in just over 200 innings. Turning 29 on Opening Day helps put into focus the fact that this arm has the potential to become the ace. His body needs to experience the grind of at least two more seasons with 30-plus starts and once that happens, his ERA will begin to come down and his effectiveness will increase.
Next in line is Chan Ho Park, who -- brace yourself -- is once again supposed to return to both the health and success he enjoyed in the late 1990s with the Dodgers. Don't count on it. Park can compare disabled list notes with Ken Griffey Jr. and has not reached 100 innings pitched since the 2002 campaign. When he has been active, even Park would probably admit that his best days are behind him, to put it nicely. Park is overrated and overpaid, a combination that makes him one of the most expensive non-tradable commodities in the game. Set to haul in nearly $30 million over the next two seasons, regardless of his health, he exemplifies why this team will find it hard to reach the postseason. The signing of Park has been a complete disaster and is another example that Hart's long-term commitments, while annually generous, are with the wrong pitching personnel.
Pedro Astacio will serve as the team's fourth starter and is shaky at best after shoulder surgery two years ago limited him to just five appearances in 2004 with Boston. Although he has an overall winning record for his career, Astacio is a journeyman and probably belongs in the bullpen. The 35-year-old has 118 wins to his name, but has finished with an ERA under 4.00 just once in his 13-year career.
The fifth and final starting position will either go to Chris Young or Juan Dominguez. The former is a Princeton graduate who finished 3-2 with a 4.71 ERA last season, his first in the majors. If Young, who stands 6'10", does pan out, then his decision not to play in the NBA was obviously a good one. Dominguez has started just seven games in his career, only one of which resulted in a victory, but has a powerful arm that could be solid as a spot starter.
One of the bright spots among Texas pitchers is closer Francisco Cordero, who is among the best in the business. With a fastball that regularly nears triple digits, Cordero is extremely reliable and will look to better his 49 saves from a year ago.
Frank Francisco, R.A. Dickey, Carlos Almanzar, Kameron Loe and Joaquin Benoit aren't exactly household names for a bullpen, but when looking at the big picture there are some positive points to consider. Almanzar, a 31-year-old righthander, has a solid fastball and by the end of this year could have one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios among AL relievers. Loe, who is expected to start the year in the minors, has excellent location and may actually move into the 'pen midseason or even make a push to join the rotation. Dickey (5.61 ERA last year) and Benoit (5.68 ERA) both have deficiencies that can break down the bridge to get to Cordero.
What's worse is that Cordero came to spring training with a sore shoulder. Also, Francisco, who is the best of the bunch and went 5-1 in 45 games in his rookie year, is already behind the eight-ball due to a sore elbow that landed him on the disabled list to start the season.
At some point this season, former top overall draft pick Adrian Gonzalez will break his way into the everyday lineup. It might be because of injury. It might be because of a trade. Realistically, it will be because manager Buck Showalter simply cannot afford to keep his bat on ice. Scouts for the club can't stop talking about Gonzalez, who could push Teixeira to the outfield or Dellucci to the pine as the replacement DH with his big bat.
Perhaps one of these days, the Rangers will learn that the entire package is necessary to make a serious run at a division title. In order to make that happen, Hart might have to sacrifice one of the young gems. However, the unwillingness to do so could be compensated for in the free agent market, an area that the Rangers should certainly keep a close eye on next winter. Rogers will most likely be gone and Drese needs help, so Hicks will have to dig deep into the wallet and Hart must try to strengthen the team on the mound.
Fans who flock to Ameriquest Field will once again be treated to a great season, that much is undeniable while playing in an exciting division against old names, (Barry) Zito and (Vladimir) Guerrero, and new, (Richie) Sexson and (Adrian) Beltre. Balls will fly over the fence on a regular basis by the combination of sheer talent that, on its own merit, is good enough offensively to stay in the hunt until Labor Day.
But the undoing of this club will come in the final month, when 12 of its final 22 games are played against AL West rivals Oakland and Anaheim. When push comes to shove and the Rangers are three games back with a dozen to play in late September, the superior pitching of either of those clubs, even after the breakup of Oakland's prized staff, will trump the dubious collection of Rangers arms.