Five questions: Texas Rangers

Will this be Josh Hamilton’s final season with the Rangers?

I’ll admit that I really didn’t want to address the recent relapse or the growing talk of “distractions,” since I figured Hamilton to be professional enough to make baseball his main focus once camp opened in Arizona. However, the timing of this event does put his future with the team in doubt.

Obviously, the Rangers are a little shy when it comes to passing out long-term contracts. The A-Rod contract debacle was awhile ago, but it’s something the current front office has learned from in its efforts to make this franchise healthy again. It’s a reason the team elected to let C.J. Wilson defect to the Angels and a huge reason why Prince Fielder was never seriously factored into any long-term plans in Arlington.

In many ways, Hamilton is one of the major driving forces for the Rangers’ success, but he is also a member of a team that prides itself on youth, versatility and depth. This is a fact that established stars like Michael Young, C.J. Wilson and Neftali Feliz had to learn, since prior roles can be either eliminated or redefined on this team.

From what I hear, Hamilton seems like a good clubhouse guy and he’s a great draw in Texas, but he can be a bit stubborn when it comes to organizational issues. For the past few seasons, Hamilton has been at odds with management over its preference to make him an everyday left-fielder. Hamilton prefers center and came to camp 15 pounds lighter for the sole purpose of reclaiming the position.

Hamilton has also been vocal about his insistence on batting third (his whole day seems to be blown if this doesn’t happen), his daytime struggles being associated with his eye color (blue eyes tend to be troubled by sunlight, or so Hamilton says) and his refusal to save his body from the occasional errant slide.

Since Hamilton’s incident with alcohol, contract extension talks have ceased. Both sides have been careful in what they say and I gather this shouldn’t become too much of an issue during the season, but it may have closed any possible window of extending Hamilton’s time as a Ranger.

If Hamilton can stay healthy in 2012, his value should rise, but he will be turning 31 in May. I can’t imagine the Rangers offering him more than a three-year contract and easily backing down if they are outbid.

How concerned should we be about the starting rotation?

As we saw with the Reds last season, putting a lot of faith in young pitching can backfire. As of this writing, Colby Lewis will be penciled in as the Opening Day starter with Derek Holland, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz following. Lewis is the elder statesman, beginning this season at the age of 32. He is good for another 200 innings, but his struggle to keep the ball in his home park isn’t something you want when matched up against an opponent’s ace.

Holland and Harrison look like promising front-end starters, but the team would like to keep a righty between them. Last season, Holland and Harrison saw a big increase in their innings, with Harrison seeing the biggest jump from 85.2 innings in 2010 to 185.2 last season. Harrison has battled shoulder issues in both 2009 and 2010 and his durability is not guaranteed.

But looking at Harrison’s 2011, there is a lot to like. His velocity has been trending upward and his repertoire is solid, especially his changeup against right-handed batters. I do expect his home run to fly ball rate to regress a bit back to normal, but if he can post another 180-plus innings this season, chances are we could be in store for further improvement. This spring, Harrison has gone back and forth working on his cutter and slider as a possible out pitch.

Holland finished strong last season despite the healthy jump in his innings. He had to battle through shoulder inflammation in 2010, but his ability to get through 32 starts last season was promising.

Last season Holland saw an increase in his velocity while also improving his command. I’ve always been a fan of Holland and watching him overcome his struggles as a rookie in 2009 to become a 16-game winner last season has been fun. He is a favorite to struggle in Tom Verducci’s annual “year-after effect” list, which is always a concern. My hope is that he works to improve upon his secondary pitches, which will be key if he is to improve in 2012.

We round out the rotation with two pitchers already grabbing the attention of Rangers fans this spring. Brian Cartwright recently broke down all the many reasons why Oliver projects Yu Darvish to absolutely dominate in his first major league season. I understand that Darvish will be expected to work through some adjustments, especially going from the Japanese custom of six days to our standard five days of rest. It’s also been observed that Darvish comes from the Nippon Professional Baseball League, which is currently going through a dead-ball era since changes were made to its baseball making it a bit heavier and thereby resulting in a suppressed flight path.

Those are the negatives. But Darvish does have a lively fastball and healthy command of his secondary pitches and his ability to induce a high frequency of ground balls (even before the Nippon ball turned into a shot put) should help him adapt.

The last pitcher penciled into the rotation is Feliz. Every spring Feliz is brought in to work as a starter and every time an issue pops up either about his inability to command his pitches or refusal to make the mental adjustment needed to transition from reliever to starter. This spring, Feliz may not have much of a choice. With Joe Nathan signed as the new closer, Feliz won’t have the same fall-back option he had last spring.

Early reports have Feliz focusing on establishing a feel for his change-up and the feedback regarding his attitude has been positive. I know he’ll be under a constant media microscope and any signs of struggle will inevitably have Roy Oswalt’s name attached. But I’m expecting the Rangers to commit to Feliz as long as the attitude remains positive. This transition isn’t expected to be accomplished in a mere month and the Rangers management seems well aware of that.

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

What’s with the obsession to trade Koji Uehara?

Leading up to the opening of camp, many Rangers blogs and local reports seemed intent on finally shipping Uehara and the $4 million he’s owed this season off to anybody willing to take him. It was everywhere and, with reports having deals nearly reached with the Blue Jays, Orioles and Athletics, seemed to have an air of desperation not usually associated with the Rangers front office.

Before I get into the possible reasons for a trade, let me list Uehara’s stat line:

2009: 66.2 IP, 6.48 K/9, 1.62 BB/9, 0.95 HR/9, 4.05 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 4.42 xFIP
2010: 44 IP, 11.25 K/9, 1.02 BB/9, 1.02 HR/9, 2.86 ERA, 2.40 FIP, 2.70 xFIP
2011: 65 IP, 11.77 K/9, 1.25 BB/9, 1.52 HR/9, 2.35 ERA, 3.03, 2.33 xFIP

Separating his 2011 standard stats between his time in Baltimore and Texas:

2011 BAL: 47 IP, 11.9 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 1.72 ERA, 2.60 FIP, 2.50 xFIP
2011 TEX: 18 IP, 11.5 K/9, 0.5 BB/9, 2.5 HR/9, 4.00 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 2.02 xFIP

It’s obvious that Uehara’s struggles centered on his elevated home run rate during those 18 innings and that the rest of his stats were exceptional. Arlington is known to be a hitter-friendly park and his high fly ball rate (54 percent average) isn’t exactly optimal, but Uehara actually produced fewer fly balls during the time he was a Ranger (57 percent of his 2011 fly balls came during his time as an Oriole and only 43.4 percent as a Ranger, according to Baseball Info Solutions).

Another possibility for the Rangers to force a trade could be injury. Uehara suffered some elbow setbacks in 2009 that caused him to miss that season’s final month. This is always a possibility with pitchers, but with team physicals required to make a trade complete, this doesn’t seem likely and, besides, his peripheral stats show no red flags.

One motive for a potential trade is money. The Rangers extended themselves by signing Darvish this offseason and in order for them to acquire luxuries like an established left-handed reliever (read Mike Gonzalez) or a veteran pitcher (like, say, Oswalt), the team would like sell off one of its pricier relievers.

Another possibility is the manager’s lack of confidence, especially after Uehara’s sub-par postseason appearances. The Texas front office is known for its smarts, but it is also known to defer a lot of field decisions to its manager. Ron Washington is known to play favorites, especially in the ‘pen, but reports out of spring training have him praising Uehara’s split-finger fastball.

I suspect with the beginning of spring underway, the team will elect to stick with Uehara. The Rangers are a bit heavy in the right-handed reliever market, but Uehara is still a solid back-end option and could be due for a major home-run-to-flyball ratio correction in Arlington.

Besides Darvish, what other rookies could make an impact in 2012?

Since Jon Daniels took over as general manager before to the 2006 season, the Texas Rangers have prided themselves on scouting and player development. This strategy has been successful and entering the 2012 season, the Rangers have been recognized as having a deep pool of minor league talent.

The Rangers will be looking at how pitching prospects Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez perform this spring. Perez is a left-hander who has gained accolades since breaking out in Low-A in 2009 at the age of 18. He has had his share of bumps, which may have tempered expectations and down-graded him from being a “potential number one ace” to a “probable mid-rotation starter.” Most reports say he should be ready in 2012 and his ceiling could rise if he can harness his command.

Ramirez is a righty who gained a lot of press by flying through many levels at the age of 22. He is a bit lanky but he is expected to fill out his tall frame. He has struggled with his command, which could paint him as a future reliever, but he will be given a long look this spring and could in the mix as the fifth starter if an injury or a Neftali Feliz command-implosion occurs.

Tanner Scheppers will finally be given the developmental path as a reliever after struggles with his command and health made this inevitable. However, he is right-handed and, right now, the team has a bit of a surplus in that department.

One reliever who could make an impact is lefty Miguel De Los Santos. The team is still focused on developing him as a starter, but injuries have kept his innings from growing. De Los Santos can rack up some amazing strikeout numbers (434 Ks in 274 innings) since he was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2006. It’s likely that the team will order De Los Santos to return to Double-A before the season begins, but it would be nice to see what would happen if he were named as the lefty reliever.

On the field, Cuban-import Leonys Martin is expected to make an impact since center field is considered a wide-open position. Last season, Martin made his way to the big league club but seemed to run out of gas late in the year after a long layoff during his defection process. It’s expected that he’ll be in better “baseball shape” in 2012 and could be ready to become an impact top-of-the-order hitter.

One positional favorite of mine is Mike Olt, and his move to first base this season is promising. Mitch Moreland recently admited to being a bit miffed over the possibility of Prince Fielder joining the Rangers and will be motivated to improve this season. If Olt makes further strides to cut down on his strikeout rate, he will be knocking loudly on the big league door and thus providing Moreland with a bit more “motivational inspiration.”

Even with the Angels’ spending spree, are the Rangers still favorites to repeat as AL West champs?

The recent additions of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson make the Angels look formidable in 2012, but how worried should the Rangers be?

There are two keys to the Rangers repeating. First, the starting rotation needs to perform as expected. The rotation has a lot of promise and could become one of the more enviable staffs in baseball. If either Harrison or Holland can build upon last season’s success and Darvish can perform at a level near his Oliver projection, then the rotation will be fine.

The other key will be health. It’s probable that Nelson Cruz will fall to an injury, and Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre have seen their share of missed time. Another issue is Mike Napoli’s ankle and whether this becomes a concern as we approach the regular season. Last season was promising in terms of Kinsler’s ability to stay on the field for 155 games and this offseason has both Cruz and Hamilton reporting to camp noticeably slimmer, but it will be a tall order to expect this core to be on the field for a majority of the 2012 season.

The Angels have an advantage in terms of starting pitching but, offensively, the advantage falls on Texas’ side. The signing of Pujols will bring some life to the Angels’ offense but when you factor in Mark Trumbo and the ramifications he could face in trying to learn a new position, the sad probability that Vernon Wells will return as the everyday left fielder and the mountain of questions surrounding Kendrys Morales‘ return, it’s easy to see the Angels coming up short.

If pressed to choose, I would say the Rangers are concerned but I still lean toward Texas returning to the postseason as division champs. The advantage will fall on depth and the Rangers are a more complete team. That will also be advantageous if a deal needs to be made at the trade deadline.

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Ann Claps
Ann Claps

Why is it that the name of Alexi Ogando is not on the discussion list of Ranger’s Pitchers?  One minute someone is singing his praises – the next minute he is ignored in any intelligent review of team pitching talent!  And you don’t treat him very well, either.  As far as I can see – he is the lowest- paid pitcher on the team.
      Sincerely, Ann Claps (