Five Questions: Texas Rangers

In 2001, everything was supposed to change. Tom Hicks fell victim to the host of big contracts being signed, falling harder and faster than any opposing owner. Chan Ho Park signed the worst deal in recent memory, and while Alex Rodriguez was great in a Rangers uniform, the team managed to overpay him. Texas has run itself into a hole, and in the AL West, it will be difficult to get out.

A-Rod’s first season with Texas was much better for his old team than his new one. The Ballpark in Arlington was filled early in the season, as Rangers fans lined up to see the game’s best player in a Texas uniform. The mystique of it all wore off quickly, as the Rangers walked into the dark alley known as last place.

In 2002, the AL West took two teams to the playoffs, but neither was Texas. Oakland’s historic winning streak, coupled with an Angels championship, brought the division great press, but the best Dallas saw was the Rodriguez v. Tejada MVP debate. And even then, the Rangers lost.

Without pitching, a team can’t win. Texas had none last year, which was hardly a new story. The team did change that this offseason, as Hicks started bringing the payroll back to the league’s median. Rodriguez may have finally won a MVP, but the fans have stopped caring more than ever. This led to the A-Rod rumors, which looked to bring Manny Ramirez to Texas. The deal fell through, and instead the Rangers were left with All-Star second basemen Alfonso Soriano. Expectations have lowered for a team that seems willing to accept their last place fate.

But, if you squint your eyes, there is some hope for the future. The Rangers have made two fantastic moves in the last three years: 1) drafting Mark Teixeira, and 2) swiping executive Grady Fuson from the A’s. Fuson, formerly a Billy Beane understudy, is expected to take over the reigns as Rangers GM at year’s end. His minor league emphasis will be important to the team, as neither Teixeira or Hank Blalock could win with this pitching-less team. Hicks has little reason to open his pocketbook again soon, but the Rangers can’t win in this division without it.

1) What kind of loss is it to go from Alex Rodriguez to Alfonso Soriano?

I know the A-Rod deal was purely economical and that John Hart didn’t expect full value back for Rodriguez. Soriano is hardly the game’s best player, but he also only costs $5.4 million this season. Dollars and cents can’t always justify a trade; sometimes it’s quantifying who won the trade that provides the most clarity.

As I said earlier, Rodriguez won his first MVP trophy last year, following a solid season in which he hit .298/.396/.600. Soriano’s third year produced an OPS .133 worse than A-Rod’s, and a GPA of .283 compared to Alex’s .328. Yikes. It’s apparent that Soriano will not walk consistently in the Major Leagues, swinging at the first pitch more frequently than waiting for the right ball.

The outlook improves for Texas when looking at splits, as Soriano was dynamite away from Yankee Stadium last year, posting a .299 GPA. Rodriguez has always had an affinity with hitting in Dallas, posting a GPA .044 higher there than at the rest of the league combined. While on-base percentage should prevent Soriano from ever matching A-Rod’s performance, Arlington should help bring him close. Alfonso could possibly duplicate the high OPS numbers that fellow Caribbean player Juan Gonzalez had while in Texas.

Defensively, this deal hurts considerably. Alfonso Soriano had a –3UZR at second base last year, while Rodriguez was in the black at +10 while playing SS. The acquisition will force Michael Young, who posted a –11 UZR at 2B, to move to his more natural position of SS. It’s doubtful that the middle infield will have a positive total UZR this year, although it shouldn’t be the step down that everyone is expecting.

Finally, for a true look at the impacts of this deal, let’s use Win Shares. Studes and Pete had A-Rod’s Win Share total at 32 last year (just under 11 contributed wins) to Soriano’s 27 (or nine wins). Expect Soriano’s hitting WS total to rise a bit from 20, although his 7 Win Shares from fielding just don’t add up. That number should drop. Soriano is not and will never be the player that he was traded for, but it should just cost the team two wins, and the Rangers improving economic state brings this deal to light.

2) Can Colby Lewis turn his career around after one of baseball’s worst seasons ever?

For four straight seasons, Baseball America had Colby Lewis listed as one of the Rangers top six prospects, peaking at #2 before last year. Lewis had been nestled under the wings of Nolan Ryan and Orel Hershiser, and he was looking to take a big jump forward.

That didn’t happen. Sure, he won ten games, but like wins often are, the number is very clouded. Lewis had an insanely high ERA of 7.30, due to a H/9 at 11.55 and a K/BB at only 1.26. And as much as Arlington Stadium increases runs, Lewis had a disastrously bad road ERA of 7.78. The former first round choice has left the Rangers quite unfulfilled, as 2003 was one of the worst seasons in recent memory.

No starter in history has ever combined ten wins with an ERA above 7.00 before Lewis this season, not exactly an achievement to be proud of. In fact, only 19 pitchers have ever won 10 games with an ERA above six, much less seven. Lewis is one of 12 men to start 20 games with an ERA above seven, a group that Scott Elarton, Darren Oliver, and Jeff Fassero have all joined recently.

Lewis appears to be very similar to Elarton, as a big right-hander stuck in a hitter’s park. After modest success in the Astrodome, Houston traded Elarton for Pedro Astacio, one of the more lose-lose deals in recent memory. Elarton finished his disastrously bad 2001 in Colorado, finished the year with an embarassing ERA+ of 66. Lewis managed an ERA+ of 68 last year, but was worse than Elarton in both H/9 and K/BB, while almost identical in K/9.

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Luckily for Colby, he escaped arm problems early. Elarton sat out the 2002 season following arm surgery, a problem that Lewis dealt with before entering professional baseball. His Tommy John surgery is five years removed, so that excuse no longer holds water. Elarton is expected to be back in the Rockie rotation this year, further establishing the career trend that Lewis is destined to follow. Remember, mid-90s fastballs and big win totals might be impressive on the outside, but when you’re Colby Lewis, the inside is too embarrassing to show.

3) What is on the horizon for former top prospect Mark Teixeira?

Unlike many teams, Rangers owner Tom Hicks was not scared at the prospect of drafting Mark Teixeira in 2001. After a stellar 18 home run Senior season at Georgia Tech, Teixeira was considered the most polished hitter in the draft. He hired Scott Boras to be his agent, a move that had most teams quickly retreat. But not the Rangers, they had just paid $252 million to maintain good Boras relations.

The Rangers would come around in negotiations, giving Teixeira a $4.5 million bonus, second highest in the draft. But since Mark’s entrance into the farm system coincided with Hank Blalock’s breakout, Teixeira was asked to move from third base. In 2002, Teixeira experimented with all the corner positions, eventually landing at first base.

While Teixeira’s name didn’t come up much in Rookie of the Year discussions, he was very impressive. His .269 GPA was in between Jody Gerut’s .275 and winner Angel Berroa’s .265. His 26 home runs led the pack, and the Rangers looked to be breeding the league’s next great power hitter. Only seventeen other first basemen have ever had sixty extra-base hits at or before 23 years of age, including Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mark McGwire, and Eddie Murray.

With that being said, only three first basemen coupled sixty extra-base hits with an average below .275, one of them being Mr. Teixeira. The other two, Jason Thompson and Hal Trosky, don’t belong in the first group I mentioned, but were respectable ballplayers.

With Alex Rodriguez leaving, Mark Teixeira will become an important element to the future success of the Texas Rangers. He’s offered to move to the outfield when 1B prospect Adrian Gonzalez is ready, yet I would disagree with that move. A 3-4-5 of Blalock, Soriano and Teixeira could be a lot worse, and more than anything else on this team, gives hope for the future. If Mark ends up a mix of Murray and Trosky, will the bang be worth the buck?

4) Did the Rangers find a Rafael Palmiero replacement for only one million dollars?

Brad Fullmer has never gotten a lot of credit. He was never good at defense, couldn’t hit left-handers, and didn’t walk like a first basemen should. But oh, he’s always been able to hit. Fullmer hits with power, and for average. And a funny thing has happened the last two years, his BB rates have been improving.

Year    AB/BB
1998    12.95
1999    15.77
2000    16.07
2001    13.74
2002    13.41
2003     7.92

If Fullmer can get to 500 AB with his 2003 walk rate, he’ll walk 63 times, or 24 times more than his previous high. That patience is also starting to improve his hitting numbers as well. Fullmer’s career can easily be broken into two parts: the pre-walk stage (1998-2000), and the more recent patient stage (2001-2003). In the latter, the big left-hander has hit .285/.349/.487, while hitting .282/.330/.491 in his first three full seasons. Fullmer has topped the .500 SLG mark each of the last two seasons, and had a career best GPA of .299 last year.

There are expectations with every new team, but is replacing a superstar like Rafael Palmiero too large a task for Fullmer? Absolutely not. Fullmer will be moving into Arlington Stadium, one of the AL’s best hitting parks, which should help propel Fullmer past even the numbers he posted with the Blue Jays. But no matter where he is playing, there is one thing a manager must understand with Brad: he doesn’t hit southpaws. Never has. In fact, look at his splits from the last five seasons:

Year           vs. RHP            vs. LHP
1999    .283/.330/.461     .240/.264/.480
2000    .311/.355/.589     .226/.279/.430
2001    .295/.354/.491     .202/.233/.286
2002    .301/.377/.560     .222/.231/.365
2003    .313/.398/.517     .267/.324/.400

Had Fullmer only played against right-handers, his numbers would have been increased dramatically in the last five years, with an average above .300 and a SLG above .500. It’s imperative for Buck Showalter to recognize this weakness, and to limit Fullmer to RH-only AB. A platoon with Herbert Perry may be in order, and that would make Fullmer’s numbers appealing for any fantasy owner. A more powerful version of John Lowenstein, Fullmer will be worth every cent of the $1M that Tom Hicks will pay him in 2004, and heck, he might even justify the $7.4M Rusty Greer salary. And yes, you can consider Rafael Palmiero replaced.

5) Will Chan Ho Park ever justify the contract he signed?

In December of 2001, the Rangers gave right-hander Chan Ho Park a five-year, $65 million contract. This was following two seasons in Los Angeles in which Park had thrown 460 innings with an ERA of 3.38. In Park, the Rangers thought they were getting an experienced innings-eater to anchor their rotation.

Park hasn’t exactly lived up to his end of the bargain, throwing just 175.1 innings in two years with Texas, including only 29.2 last year. That’s more than $430,000 for every inning pitched. Back injuries have limited Park’s playing time, and have equally affected his performance. Is an injury the only reason that Chan Ho has a 6.06 ERA as a Ranger?

Texas caught a lot of flak after signing Park, who had the advantage of throwing half of his previous starts in Dodger Stadium. During his two breakout seasons with Los Angeles, Park had a 2.35 home ERA against a 4.56 road ERA. Dodger Stadium is widely considered one of the best pitchers’ parks in the world, while Texas is home to won of the league’s best stadiums for hitters.

Prior to his big seasons in 2000 and 2001, Park had a career ERA of 4.10. While respectable, Park’s numbers had not been ace-worthy. His breakout years came during his age 27 and 28 seasons, considered the “prime” years for any player. But once again, Texas ownership ignored this fact, instead choosing to focus his career 80 wins and high strikeout numbers. These numbers tend to cloud the conscious, as the latter was one of the reasons for Darren Dreifort’s equally terrible deal.

From the second Texas considered this move it was a bad idea. They have already flushed more than twenty million dollars down the drain on Park, and with his age 31-33 seasons upcoming, I wouldn’t call his stock “bullish.”

In Closing…

Unlike many teams, there is no hope that Texas will be out of the basement in 2004. The Rangers must start to discover what they have in players like Kevin Mench, Colby Lewis, and Ricardo Rodriguez, and then act accordingly.

There is some talent in the minor leagues, what with Adrian Gonzalez, John Danks, Ramon Nivar, Juan Dominguez, and Vince Sinisi, all coming with high expectations. Texas should have enough to get out of the cellar in 2005 of 2006 (thank you, Bill Bavasi) but don’t expect a playoff appearance anytime in the near future.

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