Five Questions: Texas Rangers

I’ve never been good at intros (or conclusions), and this piece is long enough, so I’ll spare you any big lead-up, other than to say that Ian Kinsler (whom I mention just once, in passing) is going to be a star, real soon. Remember, you heard it here first.

1. Do the Rangers have enough starting pitching to compete in the A.L. West?

It doesn’t matter what year it is, what decade it is, what millennium anymore…whether the general manager is Tom Grieve or Doug Melvin, John Hart or Jon Daniels, whether the hot young up-and-coming future ace is Eric Hurley or Kurt Miller or Kevin Brown or Colby Lewis

This is always going to be the first question. Do the Rangers have the pitching—namely, the starting pitching—to compete?

And for the first time in quite some time, Rangers fans have some reason to feel good about the answer to that question.

Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla are both fairly well known commodities, and both are well paid for the next several years. Kevin Millwood’s deal, which looked so expensive when the Rangers signed him last offseason (crunching the numbers on the deferred money, it is basically a four-year, $42 million deal with a $12 million vesting option for the fifth year), suddenly looks like a steal given the dollars doled out to starting pitchers just a couple of months ago. Vicente Padilla got a three-year, $34 million deal with a $12 million team option, despite allegations that a career year in 2006 proved that he only pitches well when he’s pitching for a contract (ludicrous, of course, given that 2006 wasn’t a career year, and given that this three-year deal was the first multi-year deal of Padilla’s career). You have a pretty good idea what you are getting with these two…they’ll be solid if they are healthy.

It is in the #3 and #4 slots that the questions arise, although again, for the first time in a while, the answers provide some reason for optimism. Brandon McCarthy and Robinson Tejeda are pretty well locked in behind Millwood and Padilla, and give Ranger fans reason for hope since they are coming into the 2007 season with career ERAs as starters of 4.12 and 3.60, respectively, albeit in barely 200 innings combined.

Most baseball fans know the McCarthy story: phenom compared to Tom Seaver, made a splash in late 2005, was deemed untouchable in Chicago, disappointed in his 2006 bullpen apprenticeship, and was dealt to Texas amidst talk that he wasn’t really top-of-the-rotation material, that his tendency to feed his gopher would limit his utility and would doom him in the homer-friendly Ballpark in Arlington.

McCarthy’s splits from 2006 are a bit worrisome, particularly the homer total, but U.S. Cellular is even more friendly than Arlington, and his 69/33 K/BB ratio is made more palatable when you take into account the fact that nine of those walks were intentional. Dump the intentional walks, and McCarthy has a K/BB ratio of almost three to one in his major league career, a ratio that makes those homers not quite so disturbing. Plus, although a right hander, McCarthy’s changeup has been murder on lefties so far in his brief major league career, allowing them just a .201/.274/.356 line in 267 plate appearances. Given that the notorious right-center jetstream has made the Ballpark in Arlington a haven for lefty power hitters (and hell for right-handed flyball pitchers), the big reverse split McCarthy sports makes him a better fit in Texas than would first appear.

Tejeda, meanwhile, like McCarthy, is viewed as a guy with top-of-the-rotation stuff, if he can only harness it. Joining the rotation late in 2006, Tejeda put up a sterling ERA with middling peripherals, but the organization feels that if he can pound the zone consistently, he can have the kind of success he had in Philadelphia in 2005 and in the second half of last season.

The Rangers have a plethora of decent fifth-starter options behind the front four—Josh Rupe, Kameron Loe, John Koronka, Bruce Chen, and Jamey Wright are all duking it out for the final rotation slot—and the bullpen should be a strength. But the pitching staff will likely ultimately rise or fall based on the performances of McCarthy and Tejeda.

Yeah, they are a pair of unproven pitchers. But they are also guys with excellent stuff, strong minor league track records, and pretty decent performances in limited opportunities in major league rotations.

And for once, Ranger fans can feel pretty good about how the staff is situated. If McCarthy and Tejeda pan out, then the front four of the rotation will be under team control through 2010. It would be a pretty novel experience to head into an offseason and not read about the Rangers needing to acquire two or three solid starting pitchers…

2. Why do the Rangers have Sammy Sosa in camp?

There are several possible answers to this question, depending on how far back you want to go and how metaphysical you want to get. Why? Because of the focus the past several years on drafting pitching has meant a dearth of major league-ready hitting prospects. Because John Hart decided he HAD to bring his catcher from Cleveland over to Texas after the 2002 season, while not seeing much need to have Travis Hafner in a Ranger uniform. Because someone in the Ranger organization fell in love with Adam Eaton after the 2005 season, and felt Adrian Gonzalez was a small enough price to pay to get 65 Eaton innings. Because God hates me, and wants to mock me by making me watch Sammy Sosa spend two months as a black hole of suckage in the middle of the Rangers lineup before the team cuts bait and moves on.

The simple answer is, the Rangers have half of a nice DH platoon in Frank Catalanotto, but don’t trust Jason Botts or Victor Diaz to handle the other half of the platoon. Marcus Thames or Craig Monroe would fit in nicely in that role, of course, but John Hart ran them out of Texas some time ago, and after Jon Daniels was unable to entice Frank Thomas or Mike Piazza to come to town, the Rangers are stuck with Sammy, hoping that the year off, the fresh perspective, being re-united with his old minor league manager Rudy Jaramillo (the Rangers hitting coach, and a big proponent of bringing Sammy back), and a whole bushel basket full of positive thinking will give the Rangers the big right-handed bat they want hitting behind Teixeira.

The Rangers appear to desperately want a veteran in the #5 slot in the order behind Teixeira, and with Hank Blalock descending into Randa-monium, Brad Wilkerson recovering from shoulder surgery, and Ian Kinsler still wet behind the ears, Sosa appears to be the organization’s answer by default. Nevermind that he hasn’t been good since the Iraq War appeared to be a good idea, he’s a veteran, and he used to be really good, so he’s going to have to do.

The fascinating thing about this is that, since Hafner was traded, the Rangers DH slot has been probably as much of a weak spot as their starting pitching—not a situation you would expect from a team with a reputation for developing hitters, a pretty decent-sized payroll, and a home park that is great to hit in. Phil Nevin was supposed to be the answer in 2006, but he washed out early, and a cast of thousands posted a .238/.309/.410 line on the season. This was after a .244/.330/.427 line from the Rangers’ 2005 designated hitters, a .253/.335/.441 line from the 2004 crew (with Brad Fullmer and Brian Jordan doing the heavy lifting there), and a .252/.335/.476 line in 2003. The Curse of Pronk, perhaps?

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So the Rangers are crossing their fingers and hoping that Sammy can hit like he did in 2003, or at least 2004, while not causing too many waves over being relegated to semi-platoon duty. Neither seems likely, particularly with reports out of Arizona indicating that his 11-for-25 spring start is fueled by a tendency to cheat to catch up to fast balls, leaving him unable to adjust to breaking balls. That’s the sort of thing that pitchers getting in work in their first or second spring outings aren’t going to worry about, but that will be exploited when the lights come on.

The better option would appear to these outsider’s eyes to be the switch-hitting Botts, having him split time at DH with Catalanotto, particularly given Botts’ history of mashing lefty pitching. Alas, reading the tea leaves suggests that Jaramillo—widely touted as the Leo Mazzone of hitting coaches—doesn’t think Botts’ long swing and ultra-patient approach can cut it.

So that makes Botts Plan J or so, in case Sosa doesn’t hit, Matt Kata doesn’t become this season’s Mark DeRosa, Juan Gonzalez doesn’t come out of retirement, and Tom Grieve refuses to step down from the broadcast booth and back into uniform, and it means that Sosa is going to get a long leash while the Rangers cross their fingers and hope that, finally, they’re going to get something from the DH slots.

I wouldn’t count on it, but then, I also thought Marshall McDougall was a better option for the utility role in 2006 than Mark DeRosa…

3. Will the Buck Showalter reverse-curse strike a third time?

Twice previously, teams have let Buck Showalter go as manager, and both times, those teams won the World Series in their first year under the new manager. Are we going to see a three-peat?

Well, no, probably not. But still, there’s reason to believe that this Ranger team could be more of a playoff threat than folks expect.

First, start with Pythagoras. While the team finished 80-82 in 2006, the Rangers’ expected win-loss record last year was 86-76, with a +51 run differential that was the best in the AL West. The 2006 Rangers were a stronger team than their record indicated—the strongest team, in fact, in their division, if you believe Pythagoras.

Second, despite all the talk of the Rangers’ offseason losses, the damage didn’t end up being that bad. Adam Eaton walked, but he gave the Rangers almost nothing in 2006 anyway. Mark DeRosa left, but despite all the hype about his breakout season, he had an 813 OPS in a very hitter-friendly park while mostly playing right field. That’s not irreplaceable production. Rod Barajas left, but that just means that Gerald Laird will finally re-claim the starting catching job he won back in 2004, and he could end up being a net positive. Gary Matthews Jr. and Carlos Lee took a lot of offense with them, but Lee was only a third-of-a-season rental anyway, and there was little expectation GMJ was going to repeat his 2006 campaign. Kenny Lofton, Frank Catalanotto, and a healthy (after early September shoulder surgery) and productive Brad Wilkerson should be able to help replace the missing offense, while the Rangers expect Brandon McCarthy to more than make up for the missing Adam Eaton. While the offense isn’t the sort of top-heavy, homering machine that fans have associated with the Rangers over the past decade, they could well be average to above-average offensively at almost every position.

Third, there’s the post-hardass-pop that we often see when a dictatorial manager is replaced by a “player’s” manager, now that Buck Showalter is gone and Ron Washington is in. After four years of Buck’s controlling ways, the atmosphere in the clubhouse had supposedly gotten so toxic that Jon Daniels had to either get a new manager or get a whole clubhouse of new players. Washington has been the anti-Buck, all positive, hands-off, and letting the players run things…and more tangibly, for a guy with no prior managerial experience, he brought in the experienced and well-respected Art Howe to be his bench coach. Howe should help provide a tactically steady hand in-game.

And in terms of getting into the postseason, this isn’t the AL West of five years ago. Anaheim is having rotation injury issues and once again failed to add a legit bat to join Vlad Guerrero in the lineup this offseason, while Oakland sustained losses and is perpetually at the mercy of Rich Prior…I mean, Harden’s fragile health. 90-92 wins should be enough in the AL West this year. And the Rangers can do that.

This team is flawed, of course. There’s no true #1 starter, although the organization feels Millwood has the mindset of a #1, and that McCarthy could develop into a #1 down the road. The outfield is underwhelming offensively, although a bounceback year from Brad Wilkerson—healthy now for the first time since the middle of 2005—would go a long way towards curing that problem. And outside of Laird, the team isn’t real strong defensively up the middle.

So I wouldn’t pick them to go all the way this year. But at this point, I also don’t see much reason to believe that the Angels or A’s are really that much more likely than Texas to win the A.L. West.

And if they do…well, I guess we’ll get to see if Jon Daniels’ spit works in the playoffs, and if the post-Buck lightning can strike again.

4. What happened to Hank Blalock?

I wish I knew. The guy who was being compared to George Brett at age 20, who was a (deserving) two-time All-Star after two full seasons in the majors, has spiraled over the last two seasons down to replacement-level performance. Entering his age-26 season, you have to ask about Blalock—is he washed up?

Ron Washington doesn’t seem to think so. From the time Washington was hired as the new Ranger manager, he declared Hank Blalock his personal project, vowing to turn Hank back into the player Washington saw in 2003 and 2004, working with Hank on his defense and getting his confidence back. Washington says that the shoulder surgery that Blalock had at season’s end has gotten him back to full strength, health-wise. And Hank claims to have turned over a new leaf, saying that he’s turning himself back over to Rudy Jaramillo, working on fixing the bad habits and mechanical flaws he’s picked up the past couple of seasons.

The quick and dirty assessment of Blalock’s swing problem is that he’s gotten too pull-conscious—particularly after participating in the All-Star Game home run contest in 2004—which has left him vulnerable to off-speed pitches and gotten him away from his natural ability to use all fields. Blalock came up as a spray hitter with line drive power, and the short right field porch and the acclaim for the bombs may have gotten into his head. To fix this, Blalock has been working intensively on his swing with Jaramillo this spring, although it may be a while before we find out if it really takes, since even last year’s disastrous .266/.325/.401 line was sitting at .344/.411/.542 at the end of April, and his 896 career April OPS is his best of any month.

The feeling seems to be that Blalock is the one player who will most benefit from the managerial change. Buck and Blalock were, by most accounts, not each other’s biggest fans, and Buck’s controlling ways and passive-aggressive mindgames may have impacted Blalock more than most of the other players.

On the other hand, there are those who think Blalock was never all that good to begin with, that he was overhyped due to a great age-20 season in a couple of very hitter-friendly parks, and that even his solid major league numbers were largely the product of his ballpark, rather than any preternatural ability. It may be that Blalock, a not-real-athletic product of a coaching family, excelled at an early age because he was more fully baseball developed than most 20 year olds, and as a result, his ceiling is much lower than many expected at the time.

As a Ranger fan, it has been frustrating to see Blalock’s stagnation and regression. I watch David Wright in New York, and I think, that’s the player Blalock was supposed to be. The Rangers should be talking about negotiating a long-term deal with him as a linchpin of their team, rather than wondering if he’s going to hit enough to even justify his contract ($4.75 million this year, $5.95 million in 2008, $6.2 million team option in 2009).

I’d like to think that we’re going to see the old Blalock back, that the managerial change will rejuvenate him, that he’ll solidify the #5 spot in the lineup, that the past two years have been a development bump rather than a sign of things to come.

Blalock, Wilkerson, McCarthy, Tejeda—those are the four unknowns for this team, guys who could be All-Star-caliber players or who could be busts, guys on whom the Rangers’ fate is ultimately riding.

And if Ron Washington can work the magic he thinks he can, can bring back the Hank Blalock the Rangers thought they had a couple of years back, that alone would make him worthy of Manager of the Year.

5. Why did Texas give all that money to Michael Young?

No question, the Rangers gave Michael Young too much money for too long a period of time. Five years, $75 million (well, $80 million, but $75 million in true value after the deferred money is discounted), starting in 2009, taking Young through his age-36 season. It comes out to $15 million per year for an 800-850 OPS shortstop with questionable defensive skills right now, and who would reasonably be assumed to likely decline and have to move off shortstop for the last two or three years of the deal.

What were they thinking?

There are a couple of mitigating on-the-field factors here that might make Young a better risk than he’d appear at first glance. He is as durable as they come, playing at least 156 games every year since his first full season in the majors, and he keeps himself in the sort of physical condition that makes one unconcerned that he’s facing an imminent breakdown. He gets praise for his work ethic, something that may have contributed to his improvement last season from an awful defensive shortstop to, by most metrics, at least an average defensive shortstop. He’s someone who the organization, by all indications, believes will age well, retaining more value than the majority of players would as they enter their mid-30s.

Still…it isn’t a deal that makes sense in terms of production per dollar. In a cold-blooded, emotionless evaluation, this is not a smart move by the Rangers.

But it is also a move the Rangers had—or at least felt they had—to make.

To keep its credibility with the players, and with the fans, the Rangers had to get a contract done with Michael Young. The fans have watched the team produce one winning season in the last seven years, while repeated episodes seemed to paint the team as a laughingstock—the ARod contract, Chan Ho Park, the ARod trade, the Frankie Francisco incident, the Kenny Rogers incident. The organization came across as a joke. And at the same time, Ranger players became alienated from the organization, first turning on John Hart, and then on Buck Showalter. The Rangers desperately needed to rebuild their credibility.

With this franchise, that starts with Michael Young.

As a self-professed stathead, it seems like heresy to say this, but Michael Young (gulp) is the heart and soul of the Rangers. By all accounts, he is the most respected player in the clubhouse, someone admired by teammates and opponents alike, someone opposing teams have openly coveted. A guy who many (including me) long dismissed as a borderline player, a guy who John Hart originally wanted to replace, but a guy who has turned himself into a pretty damn good ballplayer and who has been embraced by Rangers fans. A guy who, to use a phrase Tom Hicks has used over and over again about Young, is the face of the franchise.

Not getting a deal done with Michael Young costs this team credibility. It costs the team credibility with its own players in the clubhouse. It costs this team credibility with other players around the league. And it tells the fans that this team isn’t interested in winning, isn’t interested in keeping its players around, isn’t interested in paying market value to keep its core players around. (And while we can argue about whether or not Young is worth $15 million a year, there’s little doubt that he would have gotten that much, if not more, on the open market.)

And that’s something that, ultimately, Tom Hicks and Jon Daniels couldn’t let happen, not if they wanted to pull themselves out of the Baltimore Orioles-type morass of malaise-ridden mediocrity that they’ve wallowed in through the 21st century. Which is why they made the leap of faith, and two years before he was eligible for free agency, gave Michael Young a deal that will come pretty close to making him a Ranger for life.

I’m not going to defend the deal. I’m not sure it was the right thing to do. And I bet, if you could look into their hearts, guys like Jon Daniels and Thad Levine, the decision-makers in the Rangers front office, would tell you that they overpaid, that Young isn’t going to be worth what he’ll be getting paid come 2012 and 2013.

But, at the risk of sounding like T.J. Simers, this deal was about more than just signing a shortstop. This was also about trying to rebuild the relationship between the organization and the fan base that has watched the team slide towards irrelevancy the past several years, and trying to show a clubhouse that has questioned the organization’s commitment to winning in the past that the team was willing to do what it needed to do to keep the nucleus of this team together. It was about the next couple of years, seasons Young was already under contract, seasons that the team identified as a window of opportunity, as much as it was about 2012 and 2013.

Like I said, I’m not going to defend the deal. It is too much money, for too long, and from a cold-blooded, purely financial and performance standpoint, I think it is a bad deal.

But at the same time, I understand why the organization did it, and I can’t say that, if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t have done the same thing.

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