2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Big Question: Will this get worse before it gets better?

After five consecutive winning seasons, including back-to-back trips to the World Series, the Rangers’ run of success came to screeching halt last season as injuries decimated the roster. Texas players combined to spend 2,116 days on the disabled list, which is the highest total by any team since DL data started being tracked in 2002. And just one other team during that time, the Diamondbacks in 2004, was above 2,000 days lost.

It was a horror show and not surprisingly the Rangers fell from 91-72 in 2013 to an AL-worst 67-95. Ron Washington stepped down after eight seasons as manager and the Rangers fired interim manager Tim Bogar despite his success down the stretch, giving the job to Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister. When a consistent contender suffers a ridiculous number of injuries and loses 95 games the easy assumption is that they’ll bounce back in a huge way the next season. Sadly, that doesn’t seem likely for the Rangers.

They couldn’t even get out of spring training unscathed by the injury bug, as ace Yu Darvish was lost for the season before it began with Tommy John elbow surgery and former stud prospect Jurickson Profar was ruled out for a second straight season with shoulder problems. Left-hander Martin Perez isn’t unexpected back from Tommy John surgery until midseason and left-hander Matt Harrison is a question mark after spinal fusion surgery. It’s safe to assume the Rangers won’t have another 2,000-plus days of DL time, because it’s safe to assume that about any team, but this is hardly a healthy bunch and losing Darvish is a massive blow.

The good news on the health front is that Prince Fielder looks recovered from the neck injury that ended his season in May and Shin-Soo Choo is one season removed from being good enough that the Rangers gave him $130 million, so if they can get back on track and should-be Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre can continue to hold off father time at age 36 the middle of the lineup can definitely do some damage. Their supporting cast (Ryan Rua, Robinson Chirinos, Elvis Andrus, Mitch Moreland) looks iffy in a lot of spots, though, especially without the promise of Profar emerging as a building block player.

As for the Darvish-less pitching staff … well, FanGraphs projects the Rangers to allow more runs than every MLB team but the Rockies this season and Baseball Prospectus is only slightly less pessimistic in projecting they’ll rank 24th in runs allowed. Derek Holland was injured for most of last season and offseason trade pickup Yovani Gallardo has seen his strikeout rate plummet–and they’re the two best bets in a rotation that’s also home to Colby Lewis, Ross Detwiler, and Nick Tepesch. And the bullpen is relying an awful lot on a post-surgery Neftali Feliz returning to form.

What else is going on?

  • Allow me to double-back on the “should-be Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre” thing. Most people may not think of him as bound for Cooperstown, but Beltre is a four-time Gold Glove-winning third baseman with a .285 career batting average, 395 homers, and 2,604 hits. And he’s still an elite player, batting .324 with an .879 OPS last season to put 450 homers and 3,000 hits within reach. Among all third basemen in MLB history Beltre ranks seventh in Wins Above Replacement, behind only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Chipper Jones, and Brooks Robinson. All of those guys are in the Hall of Fame or will be very soon. As if the third baseman one spot behind Adrian in eighth place, Ron Santo. Adrian Beltre should be a Hall of Famer.
  • Profar was the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball two years ago, so having to wait until 2016 to see what remains of his upside is sad. Texas still has a really good, really young middle infielder with tons of upside in Rougned Odor, who debuted last season at age 20 and held his own with a .700 OPS in 114 games as the youngest regular in the entire league. Odor’s approach at the plate is very raw and his K/BB ratios aren’t pretty, but he was one of just eight 20-year-old middle infielders in MLB history to play 100-plus games and post an adjusted OPS+ of at least 95. The last four to do so? Starlin Castro in 2010, Alex Rodriguez in 1996, Roberto Alomar in 1988, and Bill Mazeroski in 1957.
  • Gallardo was a really good, durable, and generally underrated starter for the Brewers, but his annual strikeout rate has dipped from 9.0 to 7.2 to 6.8 and his average fastball now clocks in at 91 miles per hour. He induces enough ground balls to avoid being totally wrecked by calling the Rangers’ power-inflating ballpark home, but switching from the NL to the AL may shine a light on the 29-year-old impending free agent’s deteriorating skills.
  • Fielder is owed $24 million per season through 2020, Choo is owed $20 million per season through 2020, and Andrus is owed $15 million per season through 2022. Those are the three players around which general manager Jon Daniels has decided to build and if they don’t start making good on those long-term investments it’s going to be extremely difficult to turn things around quickly.

Prediction: Fewer disabled list stints and slightly fewer losses, but another last-place finish in the AL West.

Major League Baseball threatens to walk away from Minor League Baseball entirely

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The war between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball escalated significantly last night, with Minor League Baseball releasing a memo accusing Major League Baseball of “repeatedly and inaccurately” describing the former’s stance in negotiations and Major League Baseball responding by threatening to cut ties with Minor League Baseball entirely.

As you’re no doubt aware, negotiations of the next, 10-year Professional Baseball Agreement, which governs the relationship between the big leagues and the minors — and which is set to expire following the 2020 season — have turned acrimonious. Whereas past negotiations have been quick and uncontroversial, this time Major League Baseball presented Minor League Baseball with a plan to essentially contract 42 minor league baseball teams by eliminating their major league affiliation while demanding that Minor League Baseball undertake far more of the financial burden of player development which is normally the responsibility of the majors.

That plan became public in October when Baseball America reported on it, after which elected officials such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren began weighing in on the side of Minor League Baseball. Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball were not happy with all of that and, on Wednesday, Manfred bashed Minor League Baseball for taking the negotiations public and accused Minor League Baseball of intransigence, saying the minors had assumed a “take it or leave it” negotiating stance.

Last night Minor League Baseball bashed back in the form of a four-page public memo countering Manfred’s claims, with point-point-by-point rebuttals of Major League Baseball’s talking points on various matters ranging from stadium facilities, team travel, and player health and welfare. You can read the memo in this Twitter thread from Josh Norris of Baseball America.

Major League Baseball responded with its own public statement last night. But rather than publicly rebut Minor League Baseball’s claims, it threatened to simply drop any agreement with Minor League Baseball and, presumably start its own minor league system bypassing MiLB entirely:

“If the National Association [of Minor League Clubs] has an interest in an agreement with Major League Baseball, it must address the very significant issues with the current system at the bargaining table. Otherwise, MLB clubs will be free to affiliate with any minor league team or potential team in the United States, including independent league teams and cities which are not permitted to compete for an affiliate under the current agreement.”

So, in the space of about 48 hours, Manfred has gone from being angry at the existence of public negotiations to negotiating in public, angrily.

As for Minor League Baseball going public itself, one Minor League Baseball owner’s comments to the Los Angeles Times seems to sum up the thinking pretty well:

“Rob is attempting to decimate the industry, destroy baseball in communities and eliminate thousands of jobs, and he’s upset that the owners of the teams have gone public with that information in an effort to save their teams. That’s rich.”

Things, it seems, are going to get far worse before they get better. If, in fact, they do get better.