Sunday, November 13, 2005

2005 AL West in review: Texas Rangers

Here is the third entry in our four-part series reviewing the AL West and previewing offseason issues for each team. The previous posts discussed the division champs, the Angels, and then the runners-up, the A's.

Discuss!

Texas
Rangers
79 – 83, 3rd in AL West, 16.0 games back

865 Runs Scored
858 Runs Allowed

Pythagorean W-L Record: 82-80

Team Batting in the form of Player-Seasonal Notation (total team hitting stats divided by 9)

AB

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

SO

SB

CS

BAVG

OBP

SLG

635

170

35

3

28

92

55

124

7

1

.267

.329

.468

The Rangers line looks a great deal like they fielded nine of Eric Chavez in 2005.

Team Pitching in the form of Player-Seasonal Notation

Starter (average stats of top five starting pitchers)

W

L

IP

R

ER

ERA

H

K

BB

HR

8

6

121

67

63

4.70

134

74

37

12

Reliever (all other pitching stats divided by six)

W

L

SV

IP

R

ER

ERA

H

K

BB

HR

6

8

7

138

86

79

5.16

153

94

56

17

How about journeyman Casey Fossum as a representative of the entire Rangers’ staff? Perhaps that’s being generous.

Ownership

Despite the natural association between Texas owner Tom Hicks and a free spending, big market club (an association that recommends itself due to his stupidity in bidding himself up to a record player salary for the services of one A-Rod in the 2000 offseason), the Rangers are in fact operated with a smaller payroll budget than you might imagine. Moreover, Hicks and his front office were also responsible for spending huge amounts of money on ultimate pitching flameout Chan Ho Park, so the Rangers may be a bit gunshy about investing vast quantities of cash on big-time free agents in the future.

Even with the residue of Pay-Rod on their payroll (which will haunt them until the year 2025), Texas sported a modest payroll in 2005, a mere $61.21 million. A little under $15 million is departing via free agency, although it could have been over $6 million more had the Rangers not flipped the disappointing Park (in the final year of his horrible deal) to the Padres for a very expensive Phil Nevin in midseason. Like the Angels, a number of important players are eligible for arbitration this offseason, so Texas can expect to increase the salaries of such stars as Alfonso Soriano and Mark Teixeira.

Consequently, it is hard to see how much salary flexibility the new GM will have to improve the team from its middle-of-the-pack standings in 2005; adding that material limitation to the reluctance that Hicks will have to get burned again, and Texas may well watch the free agent meat market from the sidelines this year.

Front Office

Jon Daniels became the new GM for the next three seasons after John Hart stepped…up…to be Senior Advisor of Baseball Operations for the club for the next five years. Daniels is instantly the youngest GM in baseball (28), and brings a 1999 degree in applied economics and management from Cornell University, along with his experience over the last four years working in various capacities under Hart’s front office for the Rangers. Most recently, that included serving as Assistant GM from July 2004 until early October of this year.

Hart has earned plenty of criticism around baseball for his odd moves, and he reminds me quite a bit of Pat Gillick: Hart was the GM responsible for returning the Cleveland Indians to respectability in the 1990s, but his work with the Rangers suggests that perhaps the game has passed him by. If that comparison holds water, then Daniels might just wish that Hicks hadn’t retained Hart as the nebulous Overlord of Texas Baseball.

Manager

Buck Showalter (signed through 2009, with a club option for 2010). Yet another non-entity, but one who has some name-recognition just because he first managed for the Yankees (for four years in the early ‘90s, when they finished second or worse every year but 1994, when the playoffs were wiped out by strike), and then went on to pilot the Arizona Diamondbacks into existence. He actually saw his D-Backs team win 100 games in 1999, but they lost to the Mets in the Division Series, and Showalter was long gone by the time Arizona won a ring.

Coaches

Rudy Jaramillo (hitting coach), signed through 2007
Orel Hershiser (pitching coach)
Don Wakamatsu (bench coach)
DeMarlo Hale (first base coach)
Mark Connor (bullpen coach)
Steve Smith (third base coach)

Hershiser, you may have heard, has been at the heart of the post-DePodesta plans for the Dodgers; he’s been mentioned as anything from General Manager down to ball boy.

Ballpark

Ameriquest Field in Arlington is one of the new generation of ballparks designed to actually be pleasant for fans to attend. It opened in the 1994 strike season, and it has traditionally played as a serious hitters park. However, this open air, grass facility between Dallas and Fort Worth experienced a strange aberration in 2005, looking a great deal like Oakland’s park in terms of park effects on hitting and pitching. To wit, the last three years of general park factors (over 100 favors hitters) has been 110/111/104 for hitters, and 109/109/103 for pitchers. That’s a pretty big drop, but there is no particular reason for it, nor should we expect that all of a sudden the heat or the short right-field porch will disappear. I would guess that Arlington will continue to be a hitter-friendly field, and therefore death to many pitchers.

Defense

Texas’s defense only turned 68.2% of non-HR batted balls into outs, over a full percentage point below average for the American League. No regular fielders other than perhaps Mark Teixeira really stand out as above average, which might explain that rating. On the other hand, no Rangers fielders really stink, either. Even Alfonso Soriano, often criticized for his defense at second base, is not really that bad, although he is clearly below average at the position.

In any case, defense is not exactly one of Texas’s strengths.

Pitching

Come to think of it, neither is pitching. What a nightmare. This team actually reminds me a great deal of the late 1980s, Cecil-the-Vessel-led Detroit Tigers teams, which had the worst pitching in living memory, but which also belched forth runs in vast, Mr. Creosote-sized quantities. That team also had mediocre defense, and it pretty well demonstrated the truth of the old adage that pitching and defense win ballgames. Offense alone simply couldn’t do it. But boy could they put on a hitting show in batting practice!

The 2005 Rangers pitchers were led by the Gambler, Kenny Rogers. At age 41, he showed that he could still bring it, throwing over 195 innings of stellar 3.46 ERA ball, despite his modest strikeout rate and his propensity to beat the crap out of bystanding photographers. Until Rafael Palmeiro got Rogers off the hook by doing something even more stupid, this might have been the lowlight of the entire 2005 MLB season.

Despite Rogers’s presence, the Rangers pitching staff was ugly. Ugly. How about a team ERA of 4.96, in a season when the AL average ERA was down to 4.35. That’s bad. Throw in all of the errors contributed by the Texas defense, and the Rangers staff allowed 5.36 runs to score per game. Only Kansas City and Tampa Bay were worse at pitching, and those teams are pretty much the definition of incompetence at team construction, and both operate on half the payroll budget of the Rangers. Look out, Texas.

Hitting

Still, the Rangers finished ten full games ahead of the Mariners, so they must have done something right. How about scoring the third most runs in the American League, a full hundred runs more than LA, and almost a hundred more than Oakland. If only the pitching hadn’t been so completely awful, this team coulda been a contenda.

Where do we start? The big disappointment was 1-year contract gamble Richard Hidalgo, who hit only .221/.289/.416 (yes, that’s a sub-.300 OBP) in 334 plate appearances. But otherwise, the regulars on this team could rake. Leading the way were young Mark Teixeira, who at age 25 blasted 43 HR, drove in 144 runs, and hit .301/.379/.525. Solid shortstop Michael Young turned in a nice .331/.385/.513 season.

Other than Hidalgo, the only real weakness of the Ranger batters was in their lack of depth. The bench players generally had pretty miserable seasons; although Mark DeRosa was acceptable both in the field and at the plate, very few of the other players used off the bench (Laynce Nix, Adrian Gonzalez, Sandy Alomar, and midseason acquisition Phil Nevin) hit much at all. None of those guys is known for their defense, so the lack of depth on this club might also be a concern for Mr. Daniels in the offseason.

Aging

Like the Athletics, the Rangers do not need to worry too much about Father Time catching up with their key players. Kenny Rogers will certainly be allowed to leave the team as a free agent without so much as a “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out”, and the Hidalgo experience will end, leaving only Rod Barajas, Soriano, Gary Matthews, Jr., and David Dellucci as major position players over the age of 29 in 2006—none over 32. Closer Francisco Cordero and bullpen lefty Brian Shouse will be 31 and 37, respectively, in 2006, but the rest of the pitching staff should be pretty young.

Positions and Player Movement

Long-term Contracts
Texas long-term commitments for players that they can actually hope to field in 2006 are as follows:

3b Hank Blalock (2008, option for 2009)
RHP Francisco Cordero (2006, option for 2007)
OF David Dellucci (2006)
RHP Ron Mahay (2006, but unlikely to figure into the club’s major league plans)
1b Phil Nevin (2006)
RHP Chris Young (he’s tall, says the Mariners’ stellar broadcast crew) (2007, team option for 2008)
SS Michael Young (2007, team option for 2008)

Not yet eligible for arbitration

Jason Botts
Ryan Bukvich
R.A. Dickey
Juan Dominguez
Frank Francisco
Adrian Gonzalez
Gerald Laird
Kameron Loe
Marshall McDougall
Laynce Nix
Erasmo Ramirez
Nick Regilio
Ricardo Rodriguez
Josh Rupe
C.J. Wilson

Arbitration-Eligible

Rod Barajas
Joaquin Benoit
Mark DeRosa
Kevin Gryboski
Gary Matthews, Jr.
Kevin Mench
Brian Shouse
Alfonso Soriano
Mark Teixeira

Prospects

The Rangers farm system is pretty weak, so the 2006 team cannot expect a great deal of help from that direction. It is true that the minors have coughed up some pretty nice talent in the last few years for Texas, but the well might just be dry. Or there’s a snake in my boot. Of the top ten prospects as judged by John Sickels entering 2005, three (Juan Dominguez, Adrian Gonzalez, and Chris Young) got significant time in the Show during this last season, leaving the following important farmhands:

RHP Thomas Diamond
LHP John Danks
SS Ian Kinsler
OF Vince Sinisi
RHP John Hudgins
C Mike Nickeas
SS Joaquin Arias

Free Agents

Doug Brocail
Greg Colbrunn
Richard Hidalgo
Steve Karsay
Kenny Rogers

Roster Construction

My best guess as to the makeup of the 2006 Rangers (including their 2005 stats and Win Shares/Win Shares Above Bench data from THT):

Pos

Player

2005 Major League Stats

Age

PA

BAVG/OBP/SLG

WS

WSAB

Starters

C

Rod Barajas

29

436

254/306/466

11

3

1b

#Mark Teixeira

25

716

301/379/575

32

20

2b

Alfonso Soriano

29

670

268/309/512

16

4

3b

*Hank Blalock

24

698

263/318/431

14

2

SS

Michael Young

28

726

331/385/513

27

15

LF

Kevin Mench

27

607

264/328/469

13

2

CF

#Gary Matthews, Jr.

30

522

255/320/436

12

2

RF

*David Dellucci

31

511

251/367/513

14

7

DH

Phil Nevin

34

407

237/287/379

7

-1

Bench

C

Gerald Laird

25

42

225/262/350

0

0

IF

Mark DeRosa

30

164

243/325/439

3

0

IF

Marshall McDougall

26

18

167/167/222

0

-1

OF

*Laynce Nix

24

238

240/267/397

5

0

H

*Adrian Gonzalez

23

160

227/272/407

1

-2

(* = left handed hitter; # = switch hitter)

Starting Pitchers

Age

IP

ERA

WS

WSAB

RHP

Chris Young

26

164.7

4.26

11

6

RHP

Kameron Loe

23

92

3.42

9

5

RHP

Joaquin Benoit

27

87

3.72

7

3

RHP

Juan Dominguez

25

70.3

4.22

5

2

RHP

Ricardo Rodriguez

27

57

5.53

2

0

Bullpen

RHP

Francisco Cordero

30

69

3.39

10

5

LHP

Brian Shouse

36

53.3

5.23

2

0

LHP

Erasmo Ramirez

29

23

3.91

2

1

RHP

Nick Regilio

26

17.7

4.58

1

0

RHP

Josh Rupe

22

9.7

2.79

1

1

RHP

Kevin Gryboski

31

31

5.52

1

-1

Looking at this larger picture, Texas has major, major problems in their pitching staff. Mariners fans, I give you a shakier pitching staff than ours. No matter what. When Chris Young is your clear Opening Day starter, the GM for the last few seasons has pretty much failed in an utter and catastrophic fashion.

Nevin might be an albatross, but given the payroll level for the Rangers, they can’t afford to dip into the free agent market to replace him, sunk costs or no. I would like to see Adrian Gonzalez get an extended chance to show what he could do as an everyday hitter, but that seems unlikely in 2006. The entire offseason effort of the Rangers must be to obtain actual major league quality pitching, and there is precious little out there in terms of top-notch talent, so I expect to see Jon Daniels pursuing the gambles in the free agent market, while at the same time working the trade circuit to continue in Texas’s quest to deal away Soriano before he gets too expensive, or possibly Hank Blalock, and getting quality pitching in return. Still, it is hard to imagine a “package” that would make sense for Texas in anything other than a sports radio homer kind of way, so until such time as that unlikely deal materializes, there is little point in counting on it.

It is not really clear to me where the Rangers are in the larger scheme of things. If they intend to be in playoff contention, they simply cannot do so without better pitching. But they are not really in a rebuilding mode, given the long-term deals that they have Michael Young and Blalock signed to, and given the relatively young age and mighty prowess of their everyday hitters. Cordero is a solid closer in an otherwise questionable pen, but the starters are huge, huge question marks.

To sum up: The Rangers are something of a wildcard, given the GM situation, the odd financial situation, and their utter lack of pitching quality. Who knows: maybe the young staff penciled in above will coalesce in 2006 into a dominant set of young guns to rival the Braves studs of yore (Glavine, Smoltz, etc.). My guess is not. The result will be a familiar Ranger team, with high-powered hitting in both halves of every inning, as the Texas pitching staff allows opponents to hit like the Rangers every day. Very charitable. Consequently, there is no sense in which the Rangers are blocking the Mariners from progress, and they are simply waiting for the M’s to surpass them again so they may reclaim control of the AL West cellar.

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