Who will fill the void left by Joe Nathan?
Joe Nathan was acquired by the Rangers after the Twins thought that his better years were behind him and for 2014, after two seasons in Texas where he was statistically near his peak, Nathan will now be the closer in Detroit. This will leave a big gap in the Rangers bullpen and the team needs to fill that void to be competitive in the improving AL West. Fortunately for the Rangers, they have two pitchers in the bullpen with experience closing and two other young pitchers that have been pretty stellar since getting called up to the Rangers.
Neftali Feliz arrived in the majors in 2009 as a late season call-up looking for some opportunity to pitch in the big league level. He worked exclusively out of the bullpen and was very good, posting a 1.74 ERA, a WHIP of .67, and striking out 11.3 per nine innings. Coming into 2010, Feliz was not originally relied upon to be the closer but over 2010 and 2011, as the closer for the back to back AL Champions, he was one of the top closers in baseball. In 2010, Feliz was the Rookie of the Year, accumulating 40 saves and displaying good control leading to almost 4 strikeouts per walk. His walk rate rose over 2011 and rose even more in his 7 starts in 2012. In mid-2012, Feliz had elbow troubles that led to Tommy John surgery and, for now at least, led to him being the closer for the Rangers for the foreseeable future. Joe Nathan may have been great for the Rangers while in Texas, but Feliz was dominant for long periods of time with the Rangers and is only 26 years old. There should not be much of a drop off between the two and the team might even be better for letting Nathan go, as it opened up financial flexibility to trade for Prince Fielder and sign Shin-Soo Choo.
For Feliz the troubles of 2011 and 2012 may have been rooted in his attempt to develop more pitches. In 2010, he was almost exclusively using his fastball and curveball; remarkably successful with both pitches, he attempted to broaden his pitching scope for a return to the rotation, adding a changeup and slider. The slider and changeup were both average pitches, nothing more than changing the eye level for batters, and actually ended up lessening the value of his strong fastball. A simple glance at pitch tendencies would show that Feliz went from throwing 83% fastballs in his dominant 2010 to only 65% fastballs in his average 2012 season before the surgery. As he transitions back to closing, he will move closer to the fastball-curveball combination of 2010 and the results should be very good again. There may be a bit of a drop off in performance between Nathan and Feliz, but not as much as is expected. Feliz is a 26 year old with a lively arm and 72 career saves; the Rangers should still be one of the better teams in finishing off games in the ninth inning.
When will Jurickson Profar break through and what will it look like?
Jurickson Profar was one of the top prospects coming up through the system and the Rangers were aggressive with him, calling him up last year without a position to play in at only 20 years old. The Rangers fixed the issue of Profar not having a position by trading away second baseman Ian Kinsler to give that job to Profar. Coming up Profar was a shortstop, but the team had already committed to the future of Elvis Andrus and Profar had displayed that there would not be much of a drop off if he moved to second base.
Evaluating young players can be very rough and very unfair; it is rare that a hitter comes up and is successful at the rate of Mike Trout. Considering the success of Trout and the fact that he was the top prospect coming into the season, people assumed that Jurickson Profar would have the same impact on the Rangers in 2013. In his minor league career, Profar has done everything that he can do; he has hit for good power for a middle infielder, stole enough of bases to be a threat but has also stole them at an 80% rate over the past two seasons, and has nearly had as many walks (180) as strikeouts (212). All of this for a player that is only 21 and has been through all of the levels of minor league baseball.
Profar has had two stints in the major leagues thus far but both have not been as successful as one would think from a top prospect; he is only hitting .231 in 341 PA with a much higher disparity between strikeouts and walks. A big issue was that he did not play every day, since Kinsler and Andrus were set in the middle infield positions and Profar was even asked to play outfield a bit. Kinsler is now in Detroit and second base is all Profar’s and he should be able to produce without playing limitations. Profar is also an elite defensive prospect and that should be able to be expanded on while moving over to second base in the majors. He should be relied upon to hit about 15 home runs per season with 20-25 steals, an average in the high-.290s, and superb fielding. Combined with Elvis Andrus, the Rangers should have the best defensive middle infield for years to come.
If you would like a sample of what people should expect from Profar, look no further than his spring training effort thus far. Spring training statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, but Profar has a .858 OPS with 10 RBIs and 6 runs scored over his 32 PA in Arizona. This should be a good launching pad for the new Rangers second baseman.
How is the change of scenery going to affect Prince Fielder?
Prince Fielder never seemed to fit in Detroit and the massive contract that he signed seemed to always weigh heavily on him. This led to Fielder having a seemingly subpar tenure with the Tigers; he was not actually that poor with the Tigers, it was just that he did not hit for the power that people expected. The aforementioned trade of Ian Kinsler brought Fielder to Texas and with that a new opportunity to show that his time in Detroit was an outlier and that he still is an elite power hitter.
For the first five full seasons of his career, Prince Fielder slashed .283/.382/.553 and 40 home runs and 111 RBI while in Milwaukee. Over the past four seasons, including two in Detroit, Fielder’s slash has rose to .288/.397 in batting average and OBP but his slugging percentage dropped to .504 and he has averaged 31 home runs and 104 RBI. Even last year, in what was widely considered a down year for Fielder, he still had a .819 OPS and 106 RBI. In moving to Texas, Fielder is moving into a ballpark that is both better for power statistics and for left handed hitters. Fielder may not be 50 home run hitters again as he was in 2007, but he may very soon make it back to 35-40 home runs.
The power statistics are what made everyone gasp at Fielder’s drop off but there were even bigger issues during the 2013 season than his sub-.500 slugging percentage. There may have been a bit of a drop off in power during the 2009-2012 seasons, but Fielder had also posted a 16% walk rate followed by two consecutive seasons where he had more walks than strikeouts. Also, in 2012, Fielder had a .300 average (.313) for the first time in his career. Fielder’s power may be impressive but, coming into 2013, there were great strides made in Fielder’s entire approach at the plate; he hit more line drives than in the past, was hitting the balls that he was swinging at outside of the zone, and was cutting down his swings and misses in total. Most of the good strides made from 2010-2012 disappeared in 2013; he saw the second fewest pitches in the strike zone (38.8 %) of any season of his career in 2013 and walked the fewest times in his career since he was a 22 year old in his first full season.
When analyzing Fielder’s 2013 season it from a percentage angle, the difference of Fielder’s strikeout and walk percentage was the second lowest (2008) of his career. Most of Fielder’s ratios were down in 2013, but a lot of that was rooted in the fact that he was not nearly as patient at plate as he had been in the past. If Fielder can get his walk rate at least back to 12-13% with a reduction in strikeouts, it should be much easier to regain his power numbers of the past. One other ratio to look at for Fielder, is that he had seen a decrease in HR/FB ratio while in Detroit and the change in dimensions in Arlington may also correct that, as Fielder is a fly ball hitter, but he does need to cut his infield fly ball rate.
What can the Rangers expect from Martin Perez?
Martin Perez was a top prospect coming up for the Rangers and since then has had a ton of different reasons for not making it up to Texas as an elite starting pitcher. Still only 22, Perez has an opportunity to fill in the void left by the injury to fellow starter Derek Holland and be a part of the team’s push back to the playoffs.
Martin Perez has been a top 100 prospect five times in his career and spent most of the 2013 season in the major leagues. The young lefty has had some success in the majors but never really put it all together during his rookie season. He walked a bit too many batters, especially considering his lack of strikeouts, and has allowed almost 10 hits per nine innings in his first 162 1/3 innings in the majors. In fact, neither his walk rate nor his hit rate have been good in the minors and his 7.6 K/9 is good but not as gaudy as those of his peers.
As for his pitches, his changeup is the calling card and, with a middle infield like the Rangers have, it would be wise if he continues to trend as a ground ball pitcher. Given his penchant for ground balls and the strength of the Rangers infield, the control is vital for Perez’s viability in the rotation. As his fastball is not particularly strong, it would be wise for Perez to employ a bit more of a cutter rather than a straight four seam fastball as he normally does. If Perez is able to work on his control and keep his ground ball rate, he has potential of being a left handed Doug Fister with a bit more strikeout potential. Fister has a much stronger curveball but Perez would be wise to follow Fister’s way to being successful without relying too much on strikeouts.
The 2014 will be huge for Perez as he has an opportunity near the top of the rotation with Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison with Derek Holland’s injury. There will be a lot learned very early in the season about Perez and his dealing with the pressure of no longer being a rookie that is not as heavily relied upon. A very good trait for Perez is that he has shown a willingness to go deep into the game, as evidenced by his seven starts of seven innings or longer and six starts of 100+ pitchers. Also, Perez threw 3% more strikes in his 20 starts of 2013 than his 6 starts of 2012. He has had a bit of a rough start to spring training, but his progress has been seen and the Rangers gave him a four year extension in November as a vote of confidence.
Why are the Rangers going to win 85 games?
In analyzing teams, the Rangers may be the most curious case along with the Yankees in that they may be a 95 win team or they could be slightly under .500. The issue with the Rangers is that they are relying on a lot of circumstantial situations to have them be very successful and there are not that many sure things. Shin Soo-Choo is a great player, but is he worth all of the money? Does Prince Fielder turn it around? What do the Rangers have in the rotation other than Yu Darvish? Do Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria shore up the back end of the bullpen? Most of these questions should edge on the side of the Rangers and the team should be fine, but it is unsettling to have a playoff team with so many huge questions on the onset of the season. This team should be a fun team to watch and they will score a lot of runs but the playoffs might not be in the cards this season.
5 You Know:
1. Shin Soo Choo
2. Prince Fielder
3. Adrian Beltre
4. Yu Darvish
5. Matt Harrison
5 You Will Know:
1. Jurickson Profar
2. Martin Perez
3. Rougned Odor
4. Michael Choice
5. Luis Sardinas
5 You Should Remember:
1. Jorge Alfaro
2. Nomar Mazara
3. Nick Williams
4. Joey Gallo
5. Alex Gonzalez