Pressing Questions: The Texas Rangers

The Rangers missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009, finishing one game behind a wild card berth. Texas was a bit unlucky, as its run differential (+94) was the seventh-best in baseball, and the team enters 2014 with World Series aspirations once again. Manager Ron Washington will be in the final year of his contract, and his in-game management is typically a hurdle Texas has to overcome. The Rangers ranked inside the top-10 in MLB last year both in runs scored and ERA, although they came in a mediocre 16th in team WAR.

Texas lost Matt Garza and (likely) Nelson Cruz through free agency, but they countered by signing Shin-Soo Choo to a massive $130 million contract. Moreover, they made the league’s biggest offseason trade, dealing Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder (and cash considerations) in a rare one-for-one swap. Both Fielder and Kinsler are coming off disappointing seasons and are locked in expensive contracts, but it’s easy to see the reasoning behind this for Texas, who has super prospect Jurickson Profar waiting in the wings to overtake second base.

It helps having the Astros in the A.L. West, but with the A’s averaging 95.0 wins over the past two years and the Angels a safe bet to be much better in 2014 to go along with an improving Mariners team, the Rangers aren’t exactly in the easiest division. Still, this is a team with plenty of talent and should continue to be a contender.

Onto the pressing questions:

Q: How high should Yu Darvish be drafted?

A: Despite pitching through a back injury over the final two months of last season, Darvish easily led MLB in strikeouts (Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, but Darvish had 45 more Ks than him while throwing 26.1 fewer innings while pitching in the American League). There’s no question Darvish benefitted from five starts against the Astros, when he recorded 52 strikeouts over 35.0 innings with a 0.77 WHIP (and a .126 BAA!), but he’s going to get a handful of starts against this division opponent once again in 2014. Darvish’s 32.9 K% last season was the highest mark since 2001 (when Randy Johnson posted an insane 36.7%), and just to reiterate, he did so pitching in a tough home park in the A.L. and while dealing with an injury over the last two months.

He also led all of baseball with a 12.6 SwStr% (Matt Harvey was second at 12.5), and despite a solid average fastball velocity of 92.9 mph, that pitch actually graded as below average. But when that is offset by the best slider by far as well as a plus cutter and curveball, the results tended to be OK. Darvish’s modest 13 wins last year were unlucky, and coming from someone who’s recommending drafting starting pitchers early in mixed leagues this year, I consider him worthy of a top-10 pick (and realize I’m definitely in the minority).

Q: What do we make of the Prince Fielder trade?

A: Fielder is coming off a down year, as his 25 homers, .457 slugging percentage and .819 OPS were all career lows. It’s tough to truly measure how much such a thing matters, but he was reportedly dealing with some messy off the field issues. Still, he was a top fantasy pick who barely produced top-50 value despite playing in every single game in 2013.

But the trade to Texas should be viewed as a boost to his fantasy value, as over the last three years, the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington has the highest Park Index rating when it comes to runs scored in the American League (and second highest in all of baseball behind only Coors Field), according to The Bill James Handbook. Over that span, only Yankee Stadium has boosted home runs in the AL more for left-handed batters (Comerica Park was neutral over that stretch). Fielder is one of the most durable players in the league, averaging 160.4 games played over the past eight seasons, and still just 29 years old, so it was safe to expect a bounce back even before the upgrade in environments. He’s reportedly set to bat third in Texas’ lineup and deserves to once again be a top fantasy pick in 2014.

Meanwhile, the trade also opened up second base for Jurickson Profar, who entered last year as arguably baseball’s No. 1 prospect. He didn’t exactly live up to expectations, posting a .234/.308/.336 line while getting caught stealing twice as many times (four) as he was successful, but he’ll be a regular with a steady position this year unlike last, and we are talking about a 20-year-old with a strong pedigree. The biggest beneficiary of this blockbuster trade is Profar, who likely won’t come cheap at fantasy draft tables despite last year’s struggles. The upside remains immense.

Q: Who will close?

A: With Joe Nathan bolting to Detroit, Texas’ closer role is up for grabs, with Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz entering as co-favorites for the job. Soria was mostly dominant during his first five years in the league (while closing), but he had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He struck out 28 batters over 23.2 innings last year during his first action since 2011, but that also came with 14 walks. His average fastball velocity (90.8 mph) wasn’t too far below his career norm (91.4), and the same could be said about his slider (79.5 vs. 80.4), and the hope is both creep back up the further he’s removed from the surgeon’s table. It’s a small sample, but Soria’s 1.71 GB/FB ratio last season was easily a career high.

As for Feliz, his back story is similar, as he was absolutely dominant to start his career before TJ surgery derailed him. Plans to start Feliz have been dashed for now, and he’s a legitimate option to emerge as closer (he’s four years younger than Soria). But Soria is further removed from surgery and has a longer track record of success in the role. Playing on a team projected to win around 90 games, if either pitcher runs away with the job, there’s a lot of upside, especially considering the skill sets they’ve shown in the past. But there’s a job battle here with no clear front-runner.

Q: Who will emerge at the back end of the rotation?

A: Especially with Derek Holland’s knee injury that will sideline him for half the season, there are a lot of questions regarding the back half of this rotation. Matt Harrison is penciled in as the team’s SP2, but he threw just 10.2 innings last season and will be returning from shoulder/back surgery. Martin Perez held his own as a 22-year-old, and he’s a big part of the team’s future. Perez is a lefty who averaged 93.0 mph last year with a 1.54 GB/FB ratio and a 9.8 SwStr%, so there’s a lot of potential here. Alexi Ogando will be relied upon to be the team’s No. 4 starter, although he’s started just 19 games since 2011.

The No. 5 SP comes down to Nick Tepesch, Tanner Scheppers and Colby Lewis, with the latter possessing the most fantasy upside. Like many Texas pitchers, Lewis will also be recovering from injuries, with his being forearm and hip issues. He had to settle for a minor league deal in the offseason and hasn’t pitched in a major league game since July 2012, but Lewis shouldn’t totally be forgotten in fantasy leagues, at least in deeper formats. He gives up too many homers as an extreme fly ball pitcher, but that also comes with a WHIP of 1.18 over his last three years (2010-2012), which ranks in the top-20 among all starters in baseball over that span (better than CC Sabathia, Madison Bumgarner, James Shields, Chris Carpenter, Zack Greinke and Max Scherzer). Fantasy owners should be rooting for Lewis to win the job and be targeting him late in drafts. He’ll be dirt cheap.

Quick Hits: There’s a pretty strong debate about who should be drafted first, Shin-Soo Choo or Alex Rios? These two are being taken within 10 picks of each other according to the latest ADP in NFBC leagues, and colleague Scott Pianowski did a nice job weighing in on this debate here. Personally, I’m leaning toward Rios, who’s really only had one truly bad year over the past eight seasons, and any player who gets hit as often as Choo (his 26 last year led MLB and was the most in baseball in five years) seems like a bigger injury risk, but the right answer here probably is to take whoever comes cheaper in your draft…After a hot start last year, Mitch Moreland posted a .183/.273/.366 line after the All-Star Break, finishing with more walks (24) than RBI (23) over that span…Leonys Martin looks like a fantasy sleeper after hitting eight homers while stealing 36 bases over 457 at-bats last year, but that came with a .260/.313/.385 line and a 104:28 K:BB ratio. After trading for prospect Michael Choice from the A’s during the offseason, there’s no guarantee Martin has a regular job all of 2014…As a 21-year-old shortstop, Elvis Andrus stole 33 bases and posted a .702 OPS, looking like a future superstar, both in real life and fantasy terms. Since then, he’s recorded OPSs of .643, .708, .727 and .659, as the growth hasn’t exactly gone as planned. Andrus’ six homers his rookie year remain his career high.

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