Texas is looking for a new main course at the plate with Josh Hamilton gone. (Getty)
This week, we begin our usual series of MLB fantasy previews, wherein we consider 5-6 key questions surrounding each team. Baseball is coming, gamers. Pitchers and catchers report next month. Fantasy owners report immediately...
For the past several years, the Rangers have been the embodiment of the old adage that “Everything is bigger in Texas.” But this season, that may skew more to the ERA side than the run production side. With Josh Hamilton now sipping Arnold Palmers with Albert Pujols at Club 33, and Mike Napoli, who has finished in the top 6 in HR/AB in each of the past two season, likely headed to Boston, Texas enters the preseason with questions about the offense for the first time in many years. Ok, maybe it doesn’t have questions like Seattle and Houston have questions, but for a team that has finished top 5 in runs scored in each of the past three seasons, fantasy owners have become accustomed to a certain lifestyle when it comes to the Rangers offensive commodities.
So, as we dive into the Pressing Questions of Texas, we have to start with the main course and ask, …
Q: Where's the super-sized beef?
A: As mentioned above, the departures of Hamilton and Napoli leaves a mark, a gaping 67 home run hole in the middle of the lineup kind of mark. Sure, Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre remain, but there's some concern with the direction Cruz took last season. In his healthiest season since becoming a Rangers regular (159 games), he set a five-year low in SLG% (.460) and OPS (.779). Beltre, on the other hand, was a beast last season, belting 36 home runs and finishing with the second-best OPS mark (.921) of what is starting to look like a possible HOF career. But Beltre will turn 34 in the opening week of the upcoming season and you have to fear at least a little regression, especially without Josh Hamilton next to him in the middle of the order.
If the Rangers have any hope of maintaining their recent level of run production, they'll need big rebound efforts from Cruz (at least in the power department), Ian Kinsler (who dropped from 32 HRs in '11 to 19 last season) and the newly-acquired Lance Berkman, not to mention some help from their pool of talented youngsters. There's a lot of question marks in that group, so let's keep to it.
Q: Who's on first, what's on second?
A: There's been talk this offseason of Kinsler moving to first base to make room for uber-prospect Jurickson Profar. But the most recent comments from GM Jon Daniels are that Profar will start the season in the minors and Kinsler will be the same as he ever was. But don't even think about setting that sentiment in stone. Kinsler's defense was brutal last season – second-most errors at 2B in the AL, and worst fielding percentage (.970). Also, Mitch Moreland hasn't exactly taken the 1B job and run with it. His struggles against lefties moved him to hire a left-handed batting practice pitcher during the offseason. Daniels and Co. are paying lip service that they still believe in Moreland, but he's likely to be on a shorter leash this season, especially if Profar is forcing the issue early on.
Even if Moreland rakes out of the gate, if Profar is deemed ready to return to the majors for good, Kinsler still is a candidate to move, in which case, it could be an outfield proposition. For Kinsler, this (1B or OF) would only help his fantasy value as he'll maintain his second base eligibility while not having to actually endure the rigors of playing the position, something that has led to many DL days in the past. In fact, there's some thought that a mid-season ankle injury helped contribute to his '12 decline.
A: Profar, Olt and Leonys Martin could be regular fixtures in the offense out of the gate if they play up to their potential, or even remotely close to it. Profar, deemed the team's top prospect by Baseball America and most other prospect pundits, made his MLB debut last season at age 19, homering in his first at-bat – the second-youngest player to do so. There's little that Profar is not expected to do eventually. He doesn't have huge power or speed upside, but there is reason to believe both will ultimately be above average skills. And given his plate discipline and solid K/BB ratio track record in the minors, not to mention excellent bat speed from both sides of the plate, Profar should ultimately deliver a better than serviceable batting average. But we're talking about a soon-to-be 20-year old, and it's best not to future trip about Profar's potential on draft day. Take a watch-and-see approach with Profar, especially if what you see initially is him going down to Triple-A to start the season.
As for Olt, the Rangers' consensus No. 2 prospect, he offers the promise of the type of big power bat that has been associated with Texas lineups of recent years. In his past 584 minor league ABs, Olt has tallied 42 home runs, 28 of those coming last season at Double-A Frisco in only 354 ABs. But the ghost of Chris Davis haunts Olt, as he whiffed 101 times for Frisco, and 13 times in his 33-AB late-season Rangers debut. But, typically, Olt takes a good plan to the plate, working counts and drawing walks. And, although he's blocked at 3B by Adrian Beltre, he has a solid glove that would travel across the diamond to 1B should Texas opt for some kind of platoon with Moreland, or an even bigger role there. And, of course, he could figure into a platoon mix with newly acquired Lance Berkman. Figure that if his bat clicks in spring, he'll be somewhere in the lineup. Whether he's in your fantasy lineup should depend entirely on his spring progress reports and the size of your league.
Finally, Cuban Leonys Martin offers at least a little bit of intrigue. He owns a .323/.388/.503 slash line in 533 minor league at bats, all but 15 ABs at or above the Double-A level. He makes consistently solid contact and has plus speed, so he profiles as a future top of the order type, one that could ultimately turn out 15/25-ish seasons with a solid batting average to go with. If Martin has a decent spring, he's in line to get the first regular opportunity in centerfield. In deeper leagues, he'd be an intriguing late-round flyer if he has the gig on opening day.
Q:Back to Berkman for a moment. Does he have anything left in the tank?
A: Well, he's fooled us on this question before, following up a miserable split season (Houston/Yankees) in '10 with one of the better seasons of his illustrious career with the Cardinals the following year. Of course, a knee injury sunk his '12 campaign as he played just 32 games in St. Louis. It seems reckless to bank on another comeback from Berkman at age 37 (on Feb. 10) given his declining health. But he does have the DH luxury in the AL, and he's a Texas boy through-and-through, having been born in Waco and playing his college ball at Rice, followed by 12-plus seasons for the Astros. Returning home and not having to play the field are at least reasons for optimism. If the Rangers are willing to give him $10 million, the least a fantasy owner can do is spend a late-round pick on him, assuming there's at least some positive vibes surrounding his physical well being this spring.
Q: Alright, that's enough talk about the offense. What say you about Yu's debut?
A: Yu Darvish is the obvious headliner of the Rangers rotation, as he arrived last season from Japan with much fanfare. A couple Yahoo! experts saw Darvish as worthy of a top 20 SP pick, but wildness issues (89 walks was sixth-most in MLB) led to a finish outside the top 30 starters when the dust settled on Yu's inaugural MLB campaign. But he did leave us something to believe in, that being a month of September in which he was one of the most dominant pitchers in the league, fanning 39 in 36.2 IP, along with a 2.21 ERA and 0.74 WHIP (just seven walks). Fangraphs' Jeff Zimmerman nicely illustrates how Darvish started finding the strike zone in September, and also notes that Darvish was able to maintain his fastball velocity throughout the season. Considering that Darvish finished seventh in Ks (221) and produced a FIP (3.29) that, based on his ERA (3.90), suggests a bit of bad luck, there's reason to believe Darvish just might crack the top 20 starters this time around. You probably don't want to pay that expectant price, but if you can get him somewhere in the mid-to-late 20s among SPs, you've done well.