Craig Calcaterra

Texas Rangers pitcher Cole Hamels throws during spring training baseball practice, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Surprise, Ariz. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Associated Press

2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

Did anyone see the 2015 Rangers coming? Even themselves? They lost 95 games the year before and then lost their ace to Tommy John surgery. After that and then a slow start, you have to wonder what they truly thought their chances were last April and May, even if they wouldn’t admit it publicly. But . . . that’s why they play the games.

Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo had nice bounceback years. Adrian Beltre may beginning his decline years, but he’s still a potent force. Mitch Moreland and Rougned Odor were solid contributors and a lineup without any significant holes ended up scoring the third most runs in the American League. That lineup, for the most part, is back for 2016. The biggest change is the addition of Ian Desmond. He’ll be playing left field which should be somewhat interesting. Given the late and relatively low-money deal he ended up having to accept you have to figure he’s motivated, however. Given Odor’s strong second half and his age — he just turned 22 — suggest that a breakout season is not out of the question.

The rotation will look a bit different this year. For one obvious thing, the Rangers will have Cole Hamels around all season, not just for a dozen starts. Yu Darvish is expected back in May sometime. Before Darvish comes back last season’s first-half surprise, Nick Martinez, should fill in and will be making a push to stay in the rotation. Old hands Derek Holland, who was limited to ten starts in 2015, and Colby Lewis, who improved somewhat from a disastrous 2014, are back as well. It’s hard to say what the Ranges will get from those two, but more Hamels, any amount of Darvish and a full season from the young Martin Perez give the Rangers a strong rotation by usual Texas Rangers standards.

There’s a lot to like about this Rangers team but the extent of its upside is sort of hard to see given then uncertainties involved in Darvish’s return and another year on the odometer of Prince Fielder and Beltre. At the same time, Texas could get some significant boosts from some of its prospects like Nomar Mazara or Joey Gallo, each of whom could see some time in Arlington this year. And heck, Jurickson Profar is still hanging around. The once top prospect is still only 23.

A solid base, not a ton of downside but some uncertainty at the top end is not idea, but it can play in the AL West. As I expect the Rangers to play. In the the thick of it all year long.

Prediction: Second place, AL West.


2016 Preview: Houston Astros

Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa awaits his turn to bat during the first full-squad workouts at the Astros spring training in Kissimmee, Fla., Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Associated Press

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 2016 season. Next up: The Houston Astros. 

The Astros came out of nowhere last year to win 86 games and a Wild Card spot. Everyone knew their ascension was coming eventually, but 2015 seemed way ahead of schedule. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why they broke through. They had a power-first lineup with a couple of table setters and centerpiece in Carlos Correa who should be in the MVP mix for, like, the next decade. They got strong seasons from Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers and one of the better corps of relievers in the game. Playing in a very weird AL West didn’t hurt either. One team — the Rangers — started slow, giving the Astros room, while everyone else was just mired in muck all year. Houston’s finish to the regular season was a bit bumpy but by the time things were over, the Astros felt less like some fluke and a lot more like they had truly and permanently arrived.

I believe they have, though it’s probably important not to conflate the strength of a rebuild and an overall organization with the quality of the current MLB product. At present there are a couple of flaws here which keep the Astros from being a no-brainer favorite in the AL West, not the least of which is a good Rangers club and the overall parity of the American League. Still, there’s an awful lot to like when it comes to the Astros.

The top three of the lineup might be the thing to like the most. Jose Altuve needs no introduction by now. Correa in the three spot is ready for a full season of dominance. Maybe the most critical hitter here, however, is George Springer, likely to bat second. He’s been fantastic when he has played but injuries have kept him on the sidelines for significant chunks of the past two years. A full season from Springer would go a long way toward propelling the Astros to the playoffs.

Beyond those three there are some uncertainties. Evan Gattis will probably not be ready to start the season and there’s always some concern about his all-or-nothing game even when he’s in the lineup. Chris Carter is no longer around to play first base but there’s no super strong suggestion that Jon Singleton can handle the job despite his reputation as a prospect. If he can’t, though, there’s a fella named A.J. Reed waiting in the wings. Reed hit .340/.432/.612 with 34 homers and 127 RBI last year across the High-A and Double-A levels. It would not be a surprise to see him bashing in Houston at some point this year. A major X-factor is Carlos Gomez. He fizzled after coming over in a deadline deal last year. Was that a sign of decline or was it simply a matter of nagging injuries? If the latter, the Astros lineup might be better this year than last.

Pitching-wise the Astros are OK at the top of the rotation. Keuchel is the real deal. Lance McCullers will open the season on the DL, but it’s not believed to be a serious injury. Doug Fister was an interesting pickup, though no one should bet much on him returning to 2014 form given how hit-lucky he was that year and given his loss of velocity. Mike Fiers was a nice pickup last year but pitched a bit above his head for Houston. Collin McHugh won a lot of games but actually pitched worse in 2015 than he did in 2014. The non-Keuchel parts of the rotation are interesting and should be solid, but not spectacular.

The bullpen does have a chance to be spectacular, though. Maybe not Royals/Yankees good, but a definite strength thanks to the pickup of Ken Giles from Philly. Putting him down for the ninth while Luke GregersonWill Harris and Tony Sipp set him up will make something that was already good– the Astros 2015 bullpen was second in WAR in the AL last year — into a clear strength.

Houston has youth and talent and a ton of organizational depth. There is every reason to think that they’re going to contend for a long time. While the Rangers will be tough to get past for the division crown, the playoffs are a totally reasonable expectation. I’m going to be a bit bullish on them, however, and say they win the West.

Prediction: First place, AL West.

Angry fan throws beer can into Rays’ dugout in Cuba protest

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Root Sports

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) A man apparently angered by the Tampa Bay Rays’ recent trip to Cuba made his way onto the field and threw a full can of beer into the team’s dugout Saturday night during a spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Nobody was hurt. A member of the Pirates’ grounds crew and Rays third base coach Charlie Montoyo restrained the protester until police arrived, briefly delaying the game.

The man was arrested and will be charged with causing a fray, trespassing and assault, Bradenton police Lt. John Affolter said. Police would not yet identify the man.

“I’ve worked games here for 23 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Affolter said. “I’ve seen a streaker, I’ve seen a lot. I thought I’d seen it all.”

During the seventh inning, the man moved toward the field from the seats behind third base, jumped a short fence and ran onto the grass in front of the Rays’ dugout at McKechnie Field.

According to players and Bradenton police, the man shouted obscenities about the Castro regime in Cuba. He threw a can of beer that smashed into the back wall of the Rays’ dugout.

“Nobody got hit,” Tampa Bay pitcher Jake Odorizzi said. “Maybe some guys got wet.”

Pittsburgh shortstop Jordy Mercer saw it all unfold from the Pirates’ dugout.

“I just heard a loud boom and I saw beer fly,” Mercer said. “You never know what’s going to happen. But law enforcement was on it, which was good. And the Rays players were too, so they helped out, too.”

Montoyo said he told the man to calm down.

“I realized he speaks Spanish, so I was telling him to relax,” the coach said. “I didn’t hear what he was yelling. He looked old, so I kind of felt bad for him. I was holding him and not trying to tackle him.”

The Rays played an exhibition game against the Cuban national team in Havana on Tuesday. President Barack Obama attended the game, part of the first visit to the Communist island nation by a sitting American president in 88 years.