Pressing Questions: The Texas Rangers

Brandon Funston
Roto Arcade

The Rangers won the third-most games and scored the third-most runs in 2011. They finished one win shy of a World Series title. So, let's be real, the Rangers don't have Pressing Questions on the same level as, say, the Houston Astros have Pressing Questions.

The Rangers batting order is perhaps the deepest in the league. Looking at the OPS derived from the bottom half of the batting order compared to the rest of the teams in the league, the Rangers delivered a top 5 OPS from each spot in the order from No. 5 through No. 9. On the mound, Texas turned in a 3.79 ERA, the best mark for a Rangers pitching staff in the past 28 years. And with only one projected regular (position player or starting pitcher) older than 32 years of age (Michael Young), this isn't a team that had many serious issues to address this offseason.

For these reasons, the Rangers weren't overly active in free agency. Sure, they went big with Yu Darvish, but that was out of necessity given that C.J. Wilson bolted for the Angels - if Darvish can at least come close to replacing Wilson's '11 numbers, the Rangers will be happy. The team also added veteran closer Joe Nathan to cover for Neftali Feliz's move to the rotation. These two pitching moves (Darvish and Feliz) seem like the obvious place to start this edition of Pressing Questions …

Yu Darvish was an ace in Japan. How much will be lost in translation?
FanGraphs crowdsourced 560 Darvish projections from its readers, and this was the average 5x5 line: 14 Wins, 3.21 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 174 K, 0 Saves. As noted in the FanGraphs article, these numbers compare Darvish favorably with the '11 outputs of Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, Madison Bumgarner and Josh Beckett. Andy Behrens provided us a Scout's Take on Darvish, where Darvish was compared to Zack Greinke and Matt Garza. In either case, it's lofty company, for sure. Darvish is ranked as a top 20 starter by three of the four Yahoo! experts in the initial 2012 SP rankings, although he drops to No. 25 overall in the aggregate thanks to a bearish No. 52 designation by Scott Pianowski. The Pianowman offers his defense:

"It's entirely possible I'm far too low on Darvish (who's No. 44 in my most recent starting pitcher update), but I'm rarely going to take the lead on trendy rookies and high-priced imports. I want to see something first. I'm not going to assume Darvish makes a quick adjustment to major league play, Western life, or the best hitting environment in the AL. Darvish has the best credentials of any Japanese starter that's come over, but we've seen other decorated candidates disappoint in the past. I refuse to grade him as a sure thing. "

"My general strategy isn't about winning the wrestling match (and paying the premium) for a popular player - I'll take the leftovers and the guys that slip. But hey, any strategy can work if you pick the right players."

According to MockDraftCentral, Darvish, at No. 119 overall, is one of 10 starting pitchers going on average between picks 97 and 120. No matter what your personal opinion of arguably the best pitching product the Japanese Leagues has ever delivered to MLB, that's the range you need to be targeting him if you hope to land him.

How valuable is Neftali Feliz as a starter?
After three seasons in the Rangers pen, two as the team's closer, Feliz is expected to join the rotation in '12. He is not starter-eligible in the Yahoo! game yet, so he was ranked only among relief pitchers in the initial Yahoo! 2012 position rankings, where he clocks in at No. 26. San Diego's Cory Luebke is SP/RP eligible, so he offers a benchmark for where Feliz would rank among starters, as Luebke is listed at No. 19 at RP and No. 34 among starters. That means Feliz would likely fall somewhere in the late 30s or early 40s at the SP spot if he was eligible there right now, rubbing elbows with the likes of Brandon Morrow (No. 39), Johnny Cueto (No. 40) and Ubaldo Jimenez (No. 41). And that seems like a reasonable placement.

Although he hasn't pitched more than 2.2 innings in an outing during his stint with the Rangers, Feliz did make 54 minor league starts. That said, not one of those starts went longer than 6.2 innings. Moving back into the starter role, it's hard to imagine Feliz getting more than 150-160 innings as the Rangers work to stretch him out. Typically, relievers-turned-starters lose a couple MPH off their fastball and see a 15-20% fall in K/9 rate. In that scenario for Feliz, FanGraph's Mike Podhorzer projects Feliz to deliver roughly a 8.0 K/9 rate, down from his career rate of 9.07. At 160 innings, that would project Feliz for about 140 strikeouts. And, looking at his xFIP, which was 3.50 in '10 and 4.27 in '11, it's reasonable to assume an ERA in the mid- to upper-3s as his fly ball tendencies and the expected decreased velocity as a starter likely pushes his HR/FB rate a few percentage points higher than where he has netted out as a reliever (5.6% for his career).

Can Nelson Cruz stay healthy? Can Josh Hamilton stay healthy?
On both accounts, avoiding the DL will be a long shot. Both players have averaged just 120 games played or less the past three seasons. It's too bad, because we're talking about top 15-level roto talent when healthy (see below):

Cruz's 162-game average, past three seasons: .278, 38 HR, 108 RBI, 90 R, 21 SB

Hamilton's 162-game avg, past three seasons:.314, 32 HR, 117 RBI, 103 R, 11 SB

Hamilton certainly will have motivational factors to stay on the field as he had a much-publicized alcohol relapse in late January. And he's slated to become a free agent at season's end if Texas doesn't work out a new contract with him before then. To cash in big, Hamilton will need to have a strong showing in '12, both physically and mentally.

As for Cruz, he just got paid to the tune of $16 million for two years. At 31 years old, he could still potentially see another fat contract in a couple years, but he's almost certainly feeling more comfortable right now than Hamilton. The problem for Cruz has been soft-tissue injuries, specifically to the hamstring and quad regions — he's missed 67 games over the past two seasons for those kinds of injuries alone. Cruz stole just nine bases last season, this after guaranteeing in February of last season that he would join the 30/30 club in '11. Said Cruz:

"In the minors [in 2008], I was going to do it, but got hurt and then got called up. Last year [in 2010], I had a good chance before I hurt my ankle. I just hope that I can stay healthy this year. If I stay healthy, I can do it."

This year, Cruz is no longer making 30/30 predictions. But he does feel like he's got the workout regimen figured out so that he'll have staying power in '12.

"I feel like I'm in a better situation and in better shape than in the past. I'm expecting a big performance from myself, and I'm not expecting anything less than to go back to the World Series."

Sorry, Nelson, but you've been tripped up one too many times for us fantasy owners to buy into that kind of optimism, unless you're Brad Evans, who happily consumes whatever flavor of Cruz Kool-Aid is going around each spring. With his injury history, it's hard to believe Cruz will steal more than 10-15 bases. Texas is likely to be looking at all the ways it can reduce Cruz's risk of DL time. And running him often from the middle of one of the best hitting lineups in the league doesn't make a lot of sense. Draft him for his 30 HR potential, but thoughts of 30/30 is a delusion of grandeur.

Any Texas greenhorns expected to make a splash for the Rangers this season?
The Rangers best prospect is SS Jurickson Profar, a player that could one day be a fantasy first-rounder. But he's still a few days shy of his 19th birthday and, unlike Bryce Harper, he has no shot of ascending to the big leagues at that age. He's one to watch in a couple years.

Martin Perez, who turns 21 in early April, is the team's top pitching prospect. And he's one to keep an eye on in '12. A top 25 overall prospect heading into the '11 season, according to Baseball America, Perez made it to Triple-A last season, although he produced a 6.34 ERA in 10 starts for Round Rock. His struggles there have likely earned him a return trip to Round Rock to open 2012. But, with the potential for three plus pitches (fastball, changeup, curve), Perez still ranks as one of the most promising arms in the minors. And an injury or Feliz failing in his conversion to a starter could mean an early recall to Texas for Perez. He had a rough year in '11, but he has the kind of upside that can help him turn that corner very quickly.

The 23-year-old Mike Olt is one of the better power-hitting 3B prospects in the minors. The UConn alum is considered to be viable both with the bat and glove, which should accelerate his journey to the majors. But it'll take an Adrian Beltre injury to give him any kind of chance at making his mark for the Rangers in '12.

Finally, 23-year-old Cuban centerfielder Leonys Martin could see plenty of at bats for Texas this season given the injury history of outfielders Hamilton and Cruz. Martin has shown an ability in his short minor-league tenure to hit for average (with gap power) and steal bases (19 steals in 302 minor league ABs). If he gets a shot and hits right away, he has the potential to stick as his defense is considered to be a plus skill.

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