The Texas Rangers had a peculiar season. Their new manager, Ron Washington, seemed to be in jeopardy of not making it through the first half of the season, only to get a contract extension at the end of the year. His team was horrible in the first part of the season (23-42), only to rebound in mid-June and play good baseball the rest of the way (52-45).
There were injuries, bad pitching, and good hitting, which has become the norm for this franchise. They've been struck by injuries the last few years, which has contributed to three straight losing seasons. And the Rangers continue to be a good-hitting, poor-pitching franchise, with no end in sight.
Two members of the rotation (Vicente Padilla and Brandon McCarthy) both missed a third of the season, while the bullpen lost a key part (Akinori Otsuka) for half the season. And the loss of third baseman Hank Blalock did not help the lineup at all.
But the pitching remains a huge concern for this franchise. While they play in a hitters' park, the Rangers need to concentrate on improving the pitching staff. Kevin Millwood is a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, but there's no doubt he must lower his ERA from this past season (5.16). And Padilla and McCarthy must recover from their partial seasons to give the Rangers more innings next season.
Kason Gabbard came over from Boston in the Eric Gagne deal and made eight starts. He will get a leg-up on one of the rotation spots next spring. Kameron Loe (who should return after having his elbow cleaned up in a procedure this past week) made 23 starts, but the Rangers don't seem committed to keeping him in the rotation. And Robinson Tejeda made 19 starts last season, but the 6.61 ERA may force them to look for better options.
And they need to do just that – look for better options for the rotation. After a couple of lackluster cups of coffee in the bigs (a 9.20 ERA in 14 games, 11 starts coming into this season), right-hander Edison Volquez fared much better in 2007 (2-1, 4.50 ERA in six games started). Volquez had 166 strikeouts in 144.2 innings pitched in the minor leagues this season, so the Rangers must consider him a serious candidate for next season's rotation.
Eric Hurley split the season between AA and AAA, so he might need a bit more time in the minors. He and Volquez are the Rangers' top pitching prospects.
The Rangers' bullpen was terrific for most of the season (3.69 ERA in American League), even after Otsuka was lost to injuries and Gagne and Ron Mahay were traded. C.J. Wilson, whom the Braves really wanted in the Mark Teixeira trade, is now the closer after saving 12 games and posting a 3.03 ERA in 66 games. He'll be helped by right-hander Joaquin Benoit, who had a terrific season with a 2.85 ERA in 70 games.
There is hope Otsuka will be back healthy, and he could be joined by Wes Littleton, Bill White, Willie Eyre, John Rheinecker, and Scott Feldman. Frank Francisco and Josh Rupe are two other possibilities for the bullpen next season.
Again, getting Blalock back will help the lineup tremendously. He played in only 39 games, as he had to have a rib removed to alleviate discomfort in his shoulder. Blalock did come back late in the season, which was a good sign for next season.
Blalock's old cohort across the diamond is now in Atlanta, and one of the players acquired for Mark Teixeira will be one player the Rangers must decide on this winter. Do they put Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate as the starter and trade Gerald Laird, or does ‘Salty' continue to split time between first base and behind the dish?
Saltalamacchia hit .251 with Texas and 7 home runs and 21 RBI in 167 at bats. He hit much, much better when he was catching (.325, 8 home runs) compared to when he played first base (.203, 3 home runs).
Laird threw out a better percentage of base runners (almost 40%) than Salty (only 15%), but there is no doubt not catching everyday at the position made it a bit tougher for the young receiver. Laird's problem is he can't hit; only a .224 average and a .278 OBP this season.
It sounds similar to the situation two years ago before the Braves made room for Brian McCann by trading Johnny Estrada, and look for the Rangers to do the same with Laird this winter.
If Salty does return behind the plate, the Rangers will have to decide on first base. Frank Catalanotto played thirteen games there, so he's an option. Brad Wilkerson is a free agent, but Texas could try to bring him back.
The middle infield is set, with Ian Kinsler (.263 BA, 20 home runs, 61 RBI, .355 OBP, and 23 stolen bases) at second and Michael Young (.315, 9, 94, .366, 13 SB).
The outfield has ton of questions. Catalanotto and Wilkerson started 93 combined games in left field, but Jason Botts and Nelson Cruz might fight for playing time next season. Cruz is also in the mix in right field, where he started 65 games. Victor Diaz hit 9 home runs in 104 at bats and will also be considered.
After the Rangers traded Kenny Lofton to Cleveland, Marlon Byrd took over and did well. Byrd hit .307 overall with 10 home runs and 70 RBI in 414 at bats and had a .355 OBP. Byrd may be penciled in at either center or right.
The Rangers will have to decide on Sammy Sosa, who did pretty well considering he took the 2006 season off and went home. Sosa hit .252 with 21 home runs and 92 RBI and even played 16 games in right field.
While pitching needs to be the priority, there is no doubt the Rangers need another outfielder. That's why we're hearing rumors about Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones possibly being linked with Texas this winter. The Rangers also need to improve their defense. They had the most errors in the AL with 124 in 2007.
The Braves made the huge deal with Texas back in late July, so it's unlikely the two teams will hook up again for a deal this winter (unless the Rangers want to give the Braves back Elvis Andrus!). Texas really doesn't have any starting pitching available, despite the Braves' excess in outfielders.
While the Braves have had interest in Brad Wilkerson before, he doesn't really fit a need for the team now. So it's unlikely the Braves will have interest in him or any other free agent for the Rangers this winter.
Eligible for Free Agency: Bruce Chen, Jamey Wright, Jerry Hairston, Desi Relaford, Brad Wilkerson, Sammy Sosa
Eligible for Arbitration: Joaquin Benoit, Frank Francisco, Akinori Otsuka, Mike Wood, Gerald Laird, Ramon Vazquez
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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