BY: Richard W. Humphrey
Ranger Rap, much like the Rangers’ front office has been in hibernation this winter. However, with the 2015 season starting Monday for Texas, Ranger Rap is back. The team snatched a tie from the jaws of victory Saturday in their final spring game. They held a 4-0 lead with two outs in the ninth and no Mets on base. Then came a walk, a bloop single and another walk. That set the stage for a game tying grand slam home run, When the Rangers failed to score in the bottom of the ninth inning, the game went into the books as a 4-4 tie.
Saturday’s tie made the Rangers’ spring record 9-19-5 and ended a nine game losing streak, but that’s still 10 straight games without a win. Certainly, wins in spring training count for nothing in terms of making the playoffs; but you can bet that GM Jon Daniels wishes they had won a few games in the final third of training camp to build momentum for the regular season.
After the game, the Rangers departed for Oakland for Monday night’s season opener, with Sonny Gray starting for the Athletics and Yovani Gallardo for the Rangers. The Rangers’ roster was officially set Sunday. The normal batting order is Leonys Martin leading off as the centerfielder, followed by Elvis Andrus at shortstop, Prince Fielder at first base and Adrian Beltre at third base batting third and fourth in some order, Sin-Shoo Choo bats fifth and plays right field followed by designated hitter Mitch Moreland, left fielder Ryan Rua, catcher Robinson Chirinos, and second baseman Rougned Odor.
The four position player back-ups are catcher Carlos Corporan, infielder Adam Rosales, and outfielders Jake Smolinski and Delino DeShields.
The starting rotation was announced earlier in the week: Gallardo, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Ross Detwiler, and Nick Martinez. Lewis, Detwiler and Martinez are scheduled to start games two, three and four in Oakland, with Holland starting the home opener against the Astros next Friday.
The final seven for the bullpen are closer Neftali Feliiz, Shawn Tolleson, Roman Mendez, Phil Klein, Keone Kela, Logan Verrett, and Anthony Bass. Tanner Scheppers, Kyuji Fujikawa, Matt Harrison and Lisaverto Bonilla begin the season on the 15-day disabled list. Yu Darvish, Martin Perez, Jurickson Profar and Antoan Richardson start the season on the 60-day disabled list.
A roster usually ends up with a couple of surprises, and for this roster, one surprise is a bullpen of seven right-handed pitchers. No lefty reliever impressed enough to make the team. Sam Freeman was thought to be the chief left-handed specialist in the pen when he was acquired in a trade last weekend, but he didn’t show enough to stick, despite his record of 2-0 with a 2.61 ERA last year with the Cardinals. He’s out of options, so was designated for assignment.
Kela would have been thought of as a surprise when spring training began, but was all but assured a spot in the pen when the Rangers arrived from Arizona for the final two exhibition games at home against the Mets. He was unscored upon in nine appearances in Arizona.
Verrett was claimed on waivers from Baltimore this week. He’s a Rule 5 draftee and must stay on the active roster all year. If not, he goes through waivers and if he clears, must be offered back to the team from which he was drafted before he can be sent to the minor leagues. Verrett, a Texas native that pitched at Baylor, was attractive because he is stretched out to pitch multiple innings. He is the likely “long man” in the bullpen though Klein and Bass can also pitch more than an inning at a time.
At this point, the large concern is in two areas. Can the offense score enough runs, and can the bullpen hold a lead?
First, the offense. Last year, the team scored 637 runs, the second lowest total since moving to the ballpark; which is effectively the worst offensive performance over that span, as the fewest runs scored total was in 1994, a season that ended on August 12 when the players went on strike. They need to increase 2014′s total by approximately 150 runs to be competitive. It’s imperative that Fielder and Choo, who’s collective salaries represent about one-third of the Rangers’ payroll, perform to expectations. They need to combine for 50 home runs and 200 RBIs. If they don’t, this team is sunk.
The bullpen could be a disaster early. Feliz’s velocity is down, usually just in the 91-92 range; certainly nowhere near the 96-97 he routinely threw as the closer of the 2010 and 2011 teams that went to the World Series. He also did not perform well this spring on the second day when pitching back-to-back. He’s at least a concern. Scheppers was counted on to be the eighth inning set-up man in games with a late lead, but he’s on the disabled list, though he threw a nice outing at Frisco Sunday and could return sooner rather than later.
This roster has nine players that have not been on an opening day roster, three of which have not appeared in a Major League game. All told, there are six rookies.
The rotation appears to be serviceable, though it doesn’t stack up with the Mariners and Angels, each of which have three starters better than any in the Rangers’ rotation. There may be help on the way. Martin Perez was expected mid-season in his return from Tommy John surgery. His throwing program is progressing better than expected. Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez was impressive again Saturday with five shutout innings against the Mets. It almost makes you wonder if he’s being assigned to AAA solely to push his arbitration and free agent years out one additional year.
As for the division, Los Angeles and Seattle are the favorites. L. A. won 98 games last season, the most in the Majors. They have a better rotation than the Rangers, a better closer than Feliz with Huston Street, and Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the middle of their batting order, clearly an upgrade over Fielder and Beltre. Seattle has the best rotation in the division, led by Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton, and added Nelson Cruz for more pop in the batting order to go along with Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. They also brought in the fences at Safeco Field.
The Rangers then are hoping to escape the cellar and are playing for third place at best. Houston bested them by five games last year, and looks to be getting better by virtue of young players getting better. At Oakland, Billy Beane has made so many changes from the team that had the division championship well in hand last July 15, and then lost in the Wild Card play-in game; that it is difficult to predict where they will finish. They have been the class of the division since 2012, and may challenge the Mariners and Angels for the division championship. They may also fall behind the Rangers and Astros in the standings. Who knows?
Monday the game begin to count in the standings. The Rangers open with four in Oakland, then return home for three next weekend with the Astros and three more with the Angels. By the time most Ranger fans have filed their 2014 federal income tax return, we will have a much better fix on the Ranger team we have on the field this season.