HAPPY NEW YEAR

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

Christmas is past and the New Year is upon us. Most of the top end free agent pitchers have signed. The outfielders are the remaining position still available. For many teams, so much money has already been committed that there may not be a lot left to fill out the roster.

The Rangers have had a quiet winter so far. They did the big name shopping last summer when they traded for Cole Hamels, Jake Diekman, and Sam Dyson. Those trades were made with a view for the long run, as all three are contractually under control for years. Amazingly, they paid off with the West Division pennant last season.

This off season may seem quiet, but the Rangers have made the team better. By season’s end, the Rangers had four strong bullpen pitchers. Shawn Tolleson was the closer. Diekman and Dyson were the left- and right-handed setup men. Keone Kela was the seventh inning guy. This quartet could take a sixth inning lead and turn it into a win.

So far, GM Jon Daniels has added Tom Wilhelmsen and Tony Barnette, a righty and a lefty. Sam Freeman is another lefty that could complete a very strong bullpen. Daniels made the bullpen better at little cost. The key player traded for Wilhelmsen was disgruntled outfielder Leonys Martin. Barnette was a free agent that signed a two year deal with $3.5 million guaranteed.

Unlike last season, the bullpen should be good from the start. Daniels said he wanted to add a couple of starting pitchers. He finally announced one – a very familiar face. Colby Lewis is set to join the roster on a one year, $6.0 million deal. Lewis led the Rangers last season in wins (17), starts (33) and innings pitched (204.2). He faltered down the stretch and was the odd man out when the starting rotation was cut from five to four in the playoffs.

We now know that he suffered with knee problems late in the season and has undergone surgery to repair since season’s end. He has gotten better and better over the last two years, and there is every reason to believe that at the age of 36, he will be at least as good in 2016 as he was last year.

With Lewis in the fold, the Rangers’ starting rotation looks a lot like the one that finished the season. Hamels is the number one starter followed in some order by Lewis, Derek Holland and Martin Perez. That leaves a host of internal candidates for the fifth spot – Nick Martinez, Chi Chi Gonzalez, and Anthony Ranaudo for sure.

Texas also recently signed A. J. Griffin, a former All-Star caliber pitcher that underwent Tommy John surgery and was later released by Oakland when his recovery was coming along slowly. It’s a signing that doesn’t cost the Rangers much and could pay off big time. The odds aren’t good, but it’s in the realm of possibility.

The Rangers also took a page from the Dallas Cowboys philosophy when they signed Matt Bush. Bush was the number one pick in the draft in 2004, and was signed shortly after he was released from prison. He has served more than three years for intoxicated hit-and-run. He was originally a shortstop that converted to pitching in his fourth season. He’s strictly a reliever at this point in his career.

The other glaring need was to make the batting order more right-handed. There was talk of moving Mitch Moreland to clear a spot, but those talks did not come to fruition. Moreland, Fielder, Chu and Hamilton remain as a big part of the Rangers’ batting order, with only Adrian Beltre as a right-handed bat in the middle.

Texas has signed Justin Ruggiano, a former player at Texas A&M. Ruggiano has had spectacular numbers against left-handed pitching over the past four years. Ryan Rua and recently obtained Patrick Kivlehan will also contend for a seat on the Ranger bench to play against left-handers.

Daniels appeared with Norm Hitzges on his annual fund raiser marathon (the “Normathon”) to raise money for the Austin Street Homeless Shelter. Daniels said in no uncertain terms that the Rangers were not players for the remaining middle of the batting order free agent outfielders – namely Yoenus Cespedes and Justin Upton, though rumors persist that the Rangers continue to check in on this pair. Perhaps if a multi-year contract for one of these two doesn’t become a reality, the Rangers might be an attractive fall back position to sign for a year and try free agency again next winter.

This week, arbitration took the headlines. Seven Rangers filed. Texas has not had an arbitration case go to a hearing since 2000 when they lost to Lee Stevens. The odds are good it won’t happen this year, as four players have already come to terms. They are infielder Jurickson Profar, relievers Tom WIlhelmsen and Tanner Scheppers, and catcher Robinson Chirinos.

The remaining three are first baseman Mitch Moreland and relievers Jake Diekman and Shawn Tolleson. The club and players exchanged salary figures on Friday, and the difference is more than $1,000,000 for Tolleson and Moreland. The Rangers and Diekman are $575,000 apart.

It’s obvious that the Rangers are squeezed financially with six players that zap up $105 million in payroll. However, they managed to put together a team good enough to win the pennant in 2015. With Darvish coming back most likely in May, and a good bullpen from the start, the Rangers are still the team to beat in the American League West.

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