It’s the first week of April and all is about to be right with the world yet again. You can smell baseball in the air, it’s almost here, and it’s almost real. Teams across the league have returned from spring training and fans are cleaning their coolers out, buying bags of charcoal and trying to decide whether to cook ribs or just stick with burgers at their respective tailgates. In addition to all these wonderful things, every baseball writer in America has released their season predictions, and much like years past, the Rangers aren’t necessarily getting a lot of love.
Most people have their money on the Astros taking the AL West and on paper that isn’t necessarily a stretch. There is no doubt the Astros got better this off-season and it’s hard to imagine the Rangers asserting the same level of dominance over the Astros they enjoyed last year. The Rangers however, don’t play games on paper and they often have a habit of playing above the expectations of even the experts. It would be no surprise if the Rangers find a way to win the AL West. It would always be no surprise if they don’t.
If the Rangers do win the AL West, it will be because of these three things:
Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner will contribute to the rotation in a big way.
Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner may be the two biggest question marks for the Rangers as they head into the 2017 season. Ross is coming off surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and is not expected to play until sometime in early May. When healthy, Ross can be a top of the rotation pitcher, and that is exactly what the Rangers are banking on. In the two years prior to his injury, Ross averaged 195.6 innings pitched with a 2.96 ERA and a WHIP of 1.26. Add in the fact that Ross strikes out almost a batter an inning over his career, there is no doubt that a healthy Ross could pay huge dividends for the Rangers in 2017.
Cashner meanwhile had a spring training set back with biceps tendinitis and is continuing to rehab with hopes of returning to the rotation sometime later this month. While Cashner, doesn’t have upside of Tyson Ross, he can still be a steadying force in the back end of the rotation which is why the Rangers gave him 10 million dollars this off-season. In 2016, the Rangers used 11 starting pitchers and only had two pitchers recorded 30 starts. The next closest to that number was A.J. Griffin with 23. The back end of the rotation was a revolving door in 2016 and Cashner was brought in to help solve that problem. If he can stay healthy and eat up innings, that bodes well for the Rangers this season.
The bullpen will have to be better than last year.
The Rangers bullpen in 2016 was an enigma to say the least. On one hand, they boasted the second highest ERA in the American League at 4.46. On the other hand, they recorded 36 wins and were money in one run games, going 27-6 with a 1.69 ERA in those contests. Clearly the bullpen stepped up in big moments, but they also faltered far too often and that has to improve in 2017 in order for the Rangers to be successful.
The Rangers will open the season with a 4 man rotation and if A.J. Griffin or Martin Perez struggles, relief pitchers like Alex Claudio and Mike Hauschild will be counted on to keep the Rangers in games. The key for the bullpen will be consistency from top to bottom. If they can achieve that and star relievers like Sam Dyson and Matt Bush can maintain their form from 2016, the Rangers will be successful in 2017.
The young players on Rangers will have to continue their upward climb.
In 2016 several young Rangers made an impact at the big league level. Nomar Mazara came up early in the season when Shin Soo Choo went down with an injury and he was never sent back down to the minors. Although Mazara encountered his share of rookie struggles, he still hit .266 with 20 home runs and 64 runs batted in while adding solid defense in the field. Mazara will need to continue to improve in 2017 if the Rangers are to be successful. Consistency at the plate will be the biggest key for Mazara and if he can show he has improved in that area for the Rangers, their chances for success will significantly increase.
Rougned Odor also had a breakout campaign in 2016 and it wasn’t all related to the fantastic form he displayed punching out Jose Baustista. Odor batted .271 with 33 home runs and 84 runs batted in. Odor struggled however with his overall on base percentage which was .296 and had 135 strikeouts to just 19 walks on the year. Odor also struggled defensively committing 22 errors which was the most for second baseman basemen in the American League. These things must improve for Odor in 2017. Odor has shown the ability at times to work at bats and get on base but has been far too inconsistent in doing so. He has also shown the ability to make the impossible play at 2nd base only to boot a routine grounder in the same game. The Rangers obviously believe Odor will continue to improve in all areas of his game which is why they signed him to a six-year extension during spring training. If the Rangers are right, they should be in contention for the AL West title at the end of the year.
If the Rangers don’t win the AL West, it will be because of these three things:
The Astros will live up to their enormous potential.
The Astros are the sexy pick to win the American League west and for good reason. While they seemingly struggled in 2016, finishing 11 games back of the Rangers, they still won 84 games. The biggest reason for their struggles was their head to head record versus the rangers as they lost 15 of the 19 games played. If you take out their games against the rangers they were 17 games above .500 versus everyone else they played. In a nutshell, the Astros weren’t as bad as everyone thought they were and all they did this offseason was get a ton better.
The Astros signed Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick while also acquiring catcher Brian McCann from the Yankees in a trade. While they lost a few players, none of them were significant departures and Doug Fister and his gaudy 4.64 ERA is the only departure from the starting rotation. These moves are far from fool proof and in some ways the Astros seem to be jumping on the World Series or bust band wagon a bit too early.
They can afford to however with the wealth of young talent they have on their roster. Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Yuliesky Gurriel will likely be the starting infield for the Astros. Both Correa and Altuve have established themselves as stars while Bregman and Gurriel are loaded with talent and will only improve with more opportunities. Combine that infield with the steady veteran presence (something that was painfully missing in 2016) of McCann and Beltran and the Astros have a lot to like about their roster.
The pitching staff is probably the biggest question mark for the Astros yet they still have Dallas Keuchel who although he struggled last season, is just a year removed from a CY Young campaign. If Keuchel regains his 2015 form, their young stars continue to flourish and their acquisitions pan out, they will be too much to handle in the AL West.
Cole Hamels will continue to trend downward.
At one point last season, Cole Hamels was the front runner for the Cy Young award in the American League. Then he fell apart and never regained his form. In September and October, Hamels went just 1-1 with an ERA of 5.86 and a WHIP of 1.59. A good deal of his struggle was due to lack of control. Hamels would start fine in a game and then seem to lose control and when this happened he could not regain it. As fans we had become used to Hamels figuring things out in the middle of the game and going on to dominate despite an off inning or two. This did not happen at the end of the 2016 season and in his one start in the playoffs. When Hamels would lose control, he could not find it again.
His walks per nine innings also went up from 3.4 (April-August) to 3.97 (September/October). This resulted in shorter outings by almost an inning per start. Obviously every pitcher is going to struggle, even the best ones, what you don’t expect though is for a seasoned veteran to struggle over an extended period of time. Chances are that Hamels struggles last season will be nothing but an aberration and that he will regain his CY Young form. If he doesn’t though, the Rangers won’t have a chance in the AL West.
The Rangers success in one-run games will run out.
The Texas Rangers set a modern day record going 36-11 in one-run games in 2016. They will not repeat that feat in 2017. It just won’t happen. While I don’t believe the Rangers will repeat that success in 2017, I don’t attribute their success in those games to luck as several people have done. Sure in some ways, it was indeed a statistical outlier. One of those fluke things that happen and you just can’t explain how. While luck is almost certainly involved to a degree, the Rangers also possess certain intangibles that allow them to succeed when the stakes are the highest. They have an incredible culture, with clutch players who know how to make plays when it counts and their bullpen was simply unstoppable when the stakes were the highest as well.
Because of this the Rangers can certainly still have success in close ball games; they just won’t be able to duplicate what happened in 2016. If 36-11 is off the table then, the Rangers will have to find a way to win in other ways. Let’s say they go 25-22 in one run games in 2017. That’s still a successful measure in such ball games, but in this scenario 11 wins are taken off the board. 11 wins have to be made up either by the Rangers winning by a wider margin, or losing those games which would’ve been wins a year ago. Every year is a new year and each year a team reinvents itself. Last year the Rangers were defined in many ways by their close game success, they will have to be defined by something else this year or they won’t win the AL West.
The 2017 baseball season will be fun. The Texas Rangers will make things fun because they always do. Every baseball season is different and every year the unexpected happens and the teams that finish on top are sometimes the ones you would least expect. This year will be no different.