Choo Fielder

2014 Preview: Texas Rangers

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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 2014 season. First up: The Texas Rangers.

The Big Question: Were the bold moves bold enough?

The past two offseasons seasons saw the division rival Angels make huge additions in Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. Those moves didn’t work and, indeed, those moves are cited as part of the reason the Angels have fizzled. Too much star power, not enough depth, they’ve said. It takes more than the big moves to make a contender. So why should the Rangers’ big offseason moves — trading for Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo be any different?

Because they fit a heck of a lot better with the Rangers than those other guys fit with the Angels, that’s why. The Rangers needed on-base ability at the top of the lineup. They needed someone with pop from the left side who can take advantage of the short porch in right down in Arlington. Choo and Fielder supply that in spades. Indeed, Choo is one of baseball’s true on-base machines, and the fact that Jon Daniels and Ron Washington have committed to batting him leadoff is going to mean good things for the lineup. Getting Prince Fielder out of Detroit — and getting him in shape — will do wonders as well. It’ll be hard to find anyone the baseball punditry says will have a better bounceback year than Fielder.

Yes, the Rangers had to give up Ian Kinsler to snag Fielder, but havung Jurickson Profar move into a regular, everyday role at second base is a nice fallback option. If he plays to his potential, the Rangers could have another star on their hands. If he falters, at least his glove should be solid.

Unlike the Angels, the Rangers were not a team trying to patch over several holes with a couple of high-profile signings. They were a strong team who needed a push over the top after falling a couple games short for the AL West title the past two seasons. With Choo and Fielder they should get it.

What else is going on?

  • Injuries to the rotation are going to go a long way towards determining the Rangers’ fate.  Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Martin Perez make a nice 1-2-3, but Harrison’s early-spring back issues are worth watching and not having Derek Holland around for the first half of the season due to knee surgery is a big problem. If Harrison is OK and Holland can step in when he’s healthy, the rotation should be OK. If both of those guys are gimpy much of the year Ron Washington is going to lean heavily on Alexi Ogando, Nick Tepesch and Tommy Hanson, and all of those guys are question marks. There’s a lot of depth here, but there’s also a chance that Texas is sporting a rotation with way too many 4-5 guys as the season wears on.
  • The closer spot could be an all-or-nothing proposition. With Joe Nathan gone we have Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria vying for ninth inning duties. Both are not too far-removed from dominant pitching and even less far-removed from Tommy John surgery. If one bounces back to his old form, the Rangers have a closer. If both do, they have a two-headed monster in the late innings which could shorten games.
  • A.J. Pierzynski is in Boston, leaving catching duties to Geovany Soto, who has been a backup the past couple of seasons, and J.P. Arencibia, who was one of the worst offensive players in all of baseball last year. Each is capable of so much more than they’ve done recently. It’ll be interesting to see if either of them can regain lost form.
  • Ron Washington’s contract was just extended through 2015. Seems like a late and somewhat short vote of confidence compared to how these things usually go for guys with a couple of pennants under their belt. If the Rangers, after taking on Fielder and signing Choo, underachieve this season, it wouldn’t be at all shocking to see Wash on the hot seat.

Prediction: That seat shouldn’t be too hot, though. The lineup is stacked. If the rotation doesn’t implode, this is one of the best teams in the AL. First place, AL West.

Video: Minor leaguer dives over the wall to rob a home run

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Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Zach Welz of the visiting Arkansas Travelers made a spectacular catch. It was the catch Torii Hunter tried to make on that famous David Ortiz homer in the playoffs a few years back except Welz made it.

Watch as he topples over the wall to come up with the would-be dinger off the bat of Tulsa Drillers first baseman Cody Bellinger:

MLB, MLBPA move to help baseball in Puerto Rico. After hurting baseball in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 30:  A Puerto Rican flag flies from a building a day after the speech Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave regarding the government's $72 billion debt on June 30, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Governor said in his speech that the people will have to sacrifice and share in the responsibilities for pulling the island out of debt.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Yesterday Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union announced that they will play games in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to develop and support baseball on the island. They likewise pledged $5 million for the creation of development programs in Puerto Rico and plan to stage special events there.

The press release about this made mention of Puerto Rico’s undeniably outstanding baseball tradition. What it did not mention is that, in the view of many, Major League Baseball itself harmed that tradition significantly when it decided to subject Puerto Rican players to the draft in 1990. A move that the MLBPA signed off on too, of course. Indeed, there’s a pretty strong argument that, if it were not for MLB and the MLBPA’s own acts, there would be no need to “develop and support” baseball in Puerto Rico like this at all.

An exploration of this can be read in this 2012 article from The New York Times. The article (and many, many others like it which have been written over the years) notes the sharp decline of Puerto Rico’s professional and amateur baseball leagues and observes that the once steady flow of players making their way from the island to the major leagues being reduced to a trickle.* (see update below) Why?

No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.

Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

Sandy Alderson is quoted in that article dismissing the notion that the draft was to blame, but even his dodge is couched in basic economic incentives. He claims that, hey, there is stuff that is more financially lucrative for people to do in Puerto Rico than play baseball now. Well, sure. I’d just like him to explain how radically reducing the amount of money a kid can get from playing baseball due to taking away his right to sign with the highest bidder and by utterly killing the incentives for clubs to invest in developing players doesn’t enter into that calculus. Alderson doesn’t explain that one.

No matter what Major League Baseball might say on the record about all of this now, the fact remains that no one spent the past 26 years building academies in Puerto Rico like they have in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. No one has an incentive to turn a 12-year-old with promise into a 16-year-old prospect like they do in those countries because there is no longer any way for a teenager to sign for life-changing money like they can elsewhere. The draft has saved Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to Puerto Rican players over the past 26 years and it has reduced the number of prospects who may push high-salaried MLBPA members out of work, but has done tremendous damage to the baseball tradition to which Major League Baseball and the MLBPA now pay lip service.

I’m glad that MLB and the MLBPA are doing something about baseball in Puerto Rico. But $5 million over the course of four or five years, which is what this plan involves, a couple of games (if they’re even played), doesn’t even represent a fraction of the damage that the league and the union inflicted when they imposed the draft.

UPDATE: A couple of people who know a hell of a lot about this stuff have pushed back against my post on Twitter:

Marcano has written a book about the excesses and abuses involved in the development of baseball talent in Latin America. He is 100% right about this and, to the extent my writing above made it sound like I was endorsing the model in place in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on its own terms, I want to be clear that I am not. There is a lot of bad stuff that goes on there and for every kids signing a million dollar bonus, there are hundreds who find themselves at a professional dead end or far, far worse.

That said: Major League Baseball has no problem exploiting that system in those countries and its move to impose the draft in Puerto Rico was not born of some principled stand against those excesses. It was to be a foothold for an international draft which is primarily about cost savings. It would be quite possible to have a system in place that both (a) protects kids from abuses; but (b) provides the sorts of financial incentives to make baseball a worthwhile pursuit for those with the talent to play it.

Also:

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, so he knows of what he speaks, notes that from 1987-1990, before the draft was imposed, 19 Puerto Ricans made their Major League debut. From 2000-03, 23 made their debuts. From 2013-16, 22 made their debuts.

That certainly blows my above comment about “reducing the flow of players to the majors to a trickle” out of the water. That said, Major League Baseball’s move yesterday was not just about the pipeline to the majors. It’s about baseball overall in Puerto Rico. Those numbers reflecting that the top eschelon of talent is still making it to the majors are undeniable, but the Times article from 2012 talks about the erosion of amateur leagues, Puerto Rico’s diminished standing in international tournaments and the reduction in size of the Puerto Rican winter league.

So, OK, I’ll walk back my comments about just how much the imposition of the draft in 1990 damaged baseball in Puerto Rico, but I maintain that it’s hard to argue that it did not do some damage.