2013 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 2013 season. Up next: The Texas Rangers.

The Big Question: Can the Rangers overcome the loss of Josh Hamilton to free agency?

Hamilton was, by most accounts, the Rangers’ best hitter last season as the lefty finished the 2012 campaign with 43 home runs and 128 RBI, threatening to derail Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown campaign to the very end. The Rangers weren’t willing to commit to Hamilton long-term, which allowed him to sign with the L.A. Angels.

Hamilton spent most of his time in center field last season and will be replaced by Craig Gentry, a 29-year-old with 476 career plate appearances in the big leagues. He is matched by few defensively, but leaves a lot to be desired with the bat as he has no power and is heavily reliant on posting a high batting average (it was .304 last year in 269 PA).

The other big change the Rangers made was handing the everyday job at first base to Mitch Moreland after trading Michael Young to the Phillies. Young had started 40 games at first base while also taking on DH responsibilities. Moreland, 27 years old, hit 15 home runs in 327 plate appearances last year. Their hope is that Moreland is able to consistently hit for power (around 30 home runs in a full season) while continuing to improve his pitch selection, which would help his on-base percentage.

Otherwise, the Rangers are opening up 2013 with more or less the same crew that won 93 games last year.

What else is going on?  

  • Third baseman Adrian Beltre will attempt to defy the aging process once again in 2013. 34 years old in April, has posted an aggregate .912 OPS over the last three seasons. Only  Miguel Cabrera (1.025) beats that mark, but only if you count him despite playing exclusively at first base in 2010-11. Beltre finished third in AL MVP voting last year.
  • The Rangers have been linked to starter Kyle Lohse (yep, still a free agent) for a while, but nothing has happened yet. Colby Lewis (elbow) and prospect Martin Perez (forearm) are both on the disabled list, opening up the door for Robbie Ross, Justin Grimm, Randy Wells, or Nick Tepesch to win the #5 spot in the rotation.
  • A.J. Pierzynski, coming off of the best offensive season of his career at the age of 35, is moving from one hitter-friendly park in the south side of Chicago to another one in Arlington. Pierzynski hit 27 home runs last year, joining Carlton Fisk (1983, ’85) as the only two catchers in baseball history to hit at least 25 home runs as a catcher at the age of 35 or older.
  • Mike Olt and Jurickson Profar are two of the more highly-anticipated prospects in baseball, but both are road-blocked at the moment. Olt is waiting patiently behind Beltre at third base, while Profar is behind shortstop Elvis Andrus and second baseman Ian Kinsler. This has led to their inclusion in many trade rumors, but the Rangers have steadfastly chosen to hold onto their prized prospects. 

Prediction: Second place, American League West.

Zack Cozart thinks the way the Rays have been using Sergio Romo is bad for baseball

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The Rays started Sergio Romo on back-to-back days and if that sounds weird to you, you’re not alone. Romo, of course, was the star closer for the Giants for a while, helping them win the World Series in 2012 and ’14. He’s been a full-time reliever dating back to 2006, when he was at Single-A.

In an effort to prevent lefty Ryan Yarbrough from facing the righty-heavy top of the Angels’ lineup (Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, Justin Upton), Romo started Saturday’s game, pitching the first inning before giving way to Yarbrough in the second. Romo struck out the side, in fact. The Rays went on to win 5-3.

The Rays did it again on Sunday afternoon, starting Romo. This time, he got four outs before giving way to Matt Andriese. Romo walked two without giving up a hit while striking out three. The Angels managed to win 5-2 however.

Despite Sunday’s win, Cozart wasn’t a happy camper with the way the Rays used Romo. Via Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic, Cozart said, “It was weird … It’s bad for baseball, in my opinion … It’s spring training. That’s the best way to explain it.”

It’s difficult to see merit in Cozart’s argument. It’s not like the Rays were making excessive amounts of pitching changes; they used five on Saturday and four on Sunday. The games lasted three hours and three hours, 15 minutes, respectively. The average game time is exactly three hours so far this season. I’m having trouble wondering how else Cozart might mean the strategy is bad for baseball.

It seems like the real issue is that Cozart is afraid of the sport changing around him. The Rays, like most small market teams, have to find their edges in slight ways. The Rays aren’t doing this blindly; the strategy makes sense based on their opponents’ starting lineup. The idea of valuing on-base percentage was scoffed at. Shifting was scoffed at and now every team employs them to some degree. Who knows if starting a reliever for the first three or four outs will become a trend, but it’s shortsighted to write it off at first glance.