Springtime Storylines: Can the Rangers win the AL once again?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers.

The Big Question: Can the Rangers win the AL again?

Why not? It’s oh so fashionable to pick the Angels at the moment thanks to their twin pickups in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson — the latter of which was a double blow to the Rangers as he leaves Texas — but it’s not like the Rangers are some team in decline. They were a better team than the Angels were to begin with and then they went and replaced Wilson with Yu Darvish (more on him below). Neftali Feliz is likely slated for the rotation and Alexi Ogando for the pen, but it remains a very deep staff. What the Rangers have in 2012 is a lot like what they had in 2011: a top five pitching staff, a top three lineup a lot of team depth and a lot of games against the Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s. That’s a recipe for a very respectable win total and, I suspect, another playoff birth.

But how deep can that run go? With the caveat that luck plays a big role in the postseason, I wonder if this will be a more tired Rangers club when October rolls around. While I give a slight edge to the Rangers in the division, the Angels are a better team than they were before and thus the Rangers may be in a race much longer this season than they were last. That added pressure, along with two straight years of long playoff runs, could mean a lot of tired arms and legs in Arlington. Nothing is guaranteed when you reach the playoffs, but it’s possible for the Rangers’ unmatched recent playoff experience to be offset by some fatigue.

That’s several months from now, of course. In the meantime, it’s worth watching the Rangers’ health. Because, really, that’s the biggest threat I see to this club.

What else is going on?

  • Yu Darvish is going on. Tons of hype to be sure — and a lot of money when you combine that posting fee with that contract — but Darvish seems like the real deal. Depending on who you believe, he is poised to be just as valuable as C.J. Wilson was and could be more valuable if things break right.
  • More broadly, the Rangers’ rotation is still pretty spiffy. In addition to Darvish, you have Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Colby Lewis, Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando. Two of them — Feldman and Ogando for now — will be in the pen, but Ron Washington has a lot of good starting pitching at his disposal. I mentioned the injury bug when talking about the Angels rotation yesterday. If it bites the Rangers, there’s a much bigger margin for error here.
  • The offense is basically the same and it was excellent last year. Figure some regression for Mike Napoli and Michael Young, both of whom are coming off fantastic seasons, but overall it remains extremely strong.
  • I believe in Joe Nathan. I know some people look at his age (37 this season) and his overall numbers from 2011 (bad) and wonder if he can handle the closer’s role, but he was better in the second half last year. It’s possible that he needed a few months to shake off the rust following a year off from Tommy John surgery. Even if he’s not as good as Neftali Feliz has been in the role, he’s not the only horse in that bullpen.
  • Apropos of nothing, but it’s worth mentioning that the Rangers have improved every single year since Ron Washington has been on the job. Texas won 75 games in 2007. Since then they’ve won 79, 87, 90 and then 96 games. Players come and go. Washington — and the front office who restocks the roster — keeps on keepin’ on.

How are they gonna do?

It’s going to be a close race with Anaheim. But I don’t think the Rangers got any worse since they were one strike away from winning the World Series. And they may be better.

The Nationals sign Kevin Jepsen

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Chris Cotillo of SB Nation reports the Nationals have agreed to terms with free agent reliever Kevin Jepsen.

Think of this as the latest in what will likely be a series of no-risk bullpen additions. The Nats, basically, collecting as many almost free arms they can find in an effort to fix their bullpen woes without having to give up anything valuable at the trade deadline. Just like the K-Rod signing earlier this week or the Edwin Jackson signing two weeks ago.

Jepsen pitched for Tampa Bay and Minnesota last year, posting a 5.68 ERA with the Rays and a 6.16 ERA with the Twins, appearing in 58 games in all. He went unsigned this past offseason.

Eh, it might work. It probably won’t, but it might.

Rival Executives Expect Justin Verlander To Hit The Trading Block

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About a month ago, a report circulated that if the Detroit Tigers weren’t above .500 by the end of June, they were going to chuck the season, look to trade off veterans and rebuild. It’s now June 29 and the Tigers are 34-42 and sit six games out of first place.

As such, we should not be too terribly surprised to see a report from Jeff Passan of Yahoo that multiple baseball executives expect Tigers ace Justin Verlander to hit the trade market sometime in the next two weeks. Passan notes that the Tigers haven’t formally offered him and that he’s just passing along speculation from rivals, but it’s pretty astute speculation.

The question is what the Tigers can get for Verlander. On the one hand, yes, Verlander is Verlander and has been one of the top starters in baseball for a decade. While he had struggled for a bit, last year featured a return to Cy Young form. He still has a blazing fastball and there is no reason to think he could not anchor the staff of a playoff caliber team.

On the other hand, as Passan notes, his 2017 has been . . . not so good. He looks amazing at times and very hittable at other times. Overall his walk rate is way up and his strikeout rate is down. There doesn’t appear to be anything physically wrong with him — various ailments contributed to his 2014-15 swoon — so it’s possible he’s just had a rough couple of months. Like I said, Verlander is Verlander, and it may not be a bad gamble to expect him to run off a string of dominant starts like he has so many times in the past.

The problem, though, is that anyone acquiring Verlander is not just gambling on a handful of starts down the stretch. They’re gambling on the $56 million he’s owed between 2018 and 2019 and the $22 million extra he’ll be guaranteed for 2020 if he finishes in the top five in Cy Young voting in 2019. Those would be his age 35, 36 and 37 seasons. There are certainly worse gambles in baseball, but it’s a gamble all the same.

If the Tigers don’t find any gamblers out there on the market, they’re going to have to make a gamble of their own: let Verlander go and get relatively little in return if another club picks up that $56 million commitment or eat it themselves and get prospects back in return to help kickstart a rebuild. Personally I’d go with the latter option, but I don’t work for the Illitch family.