Status: Developing nuclear stockpile
Surprise! The Rangers have a solid lineup that's going to produce. Once again you're probably looking at your odds-on favorite to lead the division in runs scored, and while that may not be the highest compliment in the world, it's not like LA and Oakland are total slouches. This is a good offense that, for the two-hundredth year in a row, isn't going to give opposing pitchers many chances to breathe easy.
While it's a good offense, though, it's not necessarily a great offense. People always assume that Texas is just going to try to clobber its enemies into submission but I'm pretty sure that's not their intent, and this is a lineup with a lot of question marks. Leaving aside Hamilton and Young, since they seem pretty stable for predictive purposes, let's go down the list position by position.
- Saltalamacchia: terrific offensive promise, but he has yet to deliver in the bigs
- Davis: remarkable minor league track record but made infrequent contact in the Majors and rode an unsustainably high line drive rate
- Kinsler: also saw his LD% jump to a presumably unsustainable level
- Andrus: he's not here to hit, at least not in 2009, but just how much not-hitting is he going to do?
- Murphy: will Murphy regress to the fourth-outfielder level of production many have projected? How many at bats against lefties will he lose to Byrd?
- Cruz: Cruz looked lost in 471 Major League PAs between 2006-2007, but he flipped out over a small sample last year, and owns a career 1.004 OPS in AAA. Will he be able to carry that over and establish himself as a legitimate starter at the age of 28?
- Jones: is his fat ass going to justify stealing time from Hank Blalock? Blalock's laughable .656 career OPS against lefties is still 151 points better than what Jones just did with the Dodgers
It's an interesting lineup. At first glance, I liked it. At second glance, I was more bearish. Now I like it again, if only because Hamilton, Cruz, and Davis have the potential to form an absolutely lethal core. Last year, San Francisco hit 94 home runs as a team. These three have a pretty good shot of doing that on their own, with an outside chance at catching Minnesota's 111.
That said, a lineup is more than its three ~best hitters, so the Rangers are going to need some things to go their way if they want to come close to matching last year's offensive overwhelmitude, and the math is against them. Limiting Andrus' at bats in high-leverage situations would help, since he's far and away the biggest weakness in the order, but still, this unit's true talent on paper seems far closer to 775 or 800 than 901, and while that's still pretty good, it's not exceptional. The Diamond Mind Projection Blowout put them at an average of 776 - down from last year's 846 - and though they have enough young upside in there to do better, I think the number tells the story. Expect runs. Don't expect an onslaught.
Projected Pitching Staff:
It's probably not the worst rotation ever. Millwood may have a combined tRA+ of 90 over the past two seasons, but what dragged him down in 2008 was a nasty LD% spike that's unlikely to recur. At least he was throwing strikes again. Padilla was hurt by a high HR/FB%. McCarthy seems healthy again and um. Matt Harrison is young..holy shit Kris Benson? Really?
I get that every arm in the rotation has points in his favor. I really do. They wouldn't be in this position if they didn't. But I think it says something that I wouldn't want to bet even money on any one of them finishing with a tRA+ of 100 or above. Millwood doesn't have the same stuff that he used to. Padilla's always had interesting stuff but he doesn't know how to use it. Nobody's quite sure what to expect from McCarthy after the missed time, and he gives up a ton of fly balls. Matt Harrison is wholly unremarkable and didn't strike anyone out in the Majors last year. And Kris Benson couldn't even miss bats in AAA.
You can try to convince me that it's not that bad. I might even listen to you. There's always a chance that they catch a few breaks and get Millwood to be more consistent while McCarthy rediscovers some of his lost promise, in which case they'd be somewhat better off. But at the end of the day, this is a team that, were it so inclined, could phone up the Tigers, trade for Nate Robertson, and call him the staff ace. That's bad. That's bad. This rotation is bad.
There's help on the way. Aside from the assorted crap floating around like Scott Feldman and Jason Jennings, there are some guys in and approaching the high minors with a good bit of talent. Neftali Feliz is the biggest star among them, as he's a legitimate phenom. Derek Holland has some more polishing to do on his repertoire than Feliz, but he's also getting close. Thomas Diamond was a hotshot prospect before surgery and has a chance to recover a lot of his lost stock. And so on and so forth. It's not a system that's devoid of talented starting pitchers. It's just that the five in the big leagues are a lousy reprentation of the system's promise. No matter when some of that talent graduates the minors, it won't be a moment too soon. The Rangers are going to need it.
Frank Francisco's the obvious ace of the bullpen, as he's both electric and oftentimes untouchable. Behind him, though, it gets really ugly really fast. If Warner Madrigal doesn't blossom, innings 5-8 (1-8?) could be a real nightmare. CJ Wilson is quirky and Eddie Guardado has the personality of a pleasant Carlos Silva, but I wouldn't want to rely on either one to throw so much as a single important inning.
This team could seriously allow 900 runs.
The positives: Cruz, Murphy, Byrd, and (presumably) Andrus. The negatives: Kinsler, Young, Hamilton, and Davis. Moving Young to third was a good idea, as it addressed what had for so long been the team's most visible defensive problem, but now I wonder if Hamilton is going to step into that role, since he doesn't seem like a natural CF. Nevertheless, this defensive unit isn't as bad as the one the Rangers threw out there a year ago, and while I'll stop short of calling it average, it's getting there. The majority of the runs you'll see this team allow? Those'll be the fault of the pitchers.
Were the Rangers in any other division in baseball, I'd say something like "2009 will probably be the last time you see these guys in the cellar for a good many years." The run prevention half of this ballclub is miserable, and while there are a few guys with a little upside, and while the offense is good from top to second-to-bottom, it's still an overall negative. That said, you couldn't pick a better situation for a team like this to surprise, because the AL West sucks, and every additional ulcer only makes it even worse. The Rangers aren't good, but considering they're probably only like ten or twelve wins behind the Angels in terms of true talent, who the hell knows? True talent evaluation comes with broad error bars.
Anyway, here's what matters:
(A) Texas, right now, is likely the worst team in the division by a few games
(B) they're going to give up a lot of runs
(C) there's enough upside in the batting order to potentially keep the team afloat longer than you'd think
(D) the Rangers are about to get scary
Texas probably has the best farm system in baseball, and we're going to see those players start to arrive in 2009. So while the team is bad with a shot at mediocre right now, you should enjoy their struggles while you can, because they aren't going to last that much longer.