NEXT YEAR IS ALMOST HERE

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

The start of Spring Training is just a couple of weeks away. The counting down of days until “pitchers and catchers report” has begun. It’s been almost four months since the Rangers last took the field in Toronto. Four months for the Ranger front office to re-formulate the roster for the 2017 season. Quite frankly, the two time American League West champions have been disappointing so far.

The initial goals were to upgrade the starting rotation, and find players for center field and first base. National writers expected the Rangers to be one of the most active teams in the off season. They have a good farm system with lots to offer in trades. They had as much as $40 million in payroll wiped off the books from free agents and disability insurance payments to offset Prince Fielder’s remaining salaries. It looked like a perfect storm for the Rangers to make a big off season splash.

However very little has happened. The big name pitcher available for trade – Chris Sale – has changed uniforms, but his new one doesn’t say “Texas” on the front. The Rangers were strongly linked to Juan Encarnacion for first base/designated hitter, who was generally considered the second best hitter on the free agent market. In the end, the Rangers never came close to landing either one of them or anyone of their ilk.

The truth of the matter is the Ranger farm system is no longer one of the top five in the game. Or even the top 10. So many prospects have been moved to land talent that could help the Rangers win the last two A. L. West pennants – players like Cole Hamels, Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Beltran, just to mention three. The trades have taken a toll. At least two other prospects – Rougned Odor and Jurickson Profar – have graduated to the Major leagues with the big club. The bottom line is the farm system is not what it once was.

Texas has had a good record in drafting and developing players. The farm system will be back, but at this point, the best prospects are at the lower levels of the system.

On the other front – the money, the Rangers have acted like they are strapped for cash. Jon Daniels assures the Rangers’ 2017 payroll will be the highest ever, but the Rangers were never close on the money for Encarnacion. Here’s a look at the roster in the areas Daniels identified last fall:

STARTING ROTATION: Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels and Martin Perez return as the top three in the rotation. Derek Holland’s 2017 team option was not exercised, and he has signed with the White Sox. Keeping Holland would have cost the Rangers a net of about $9.5 million, as the option called for an $11 million salary this year, but cost $1.5 million to buy out. Even after the Rangers failed to exercise the option, Holland let it be known that he wanted to stay. He ended up with a salary of $6.5 million with the White Sox and probably would have accepted the same deal with Texas.

Instead, the Rangers signed free agent Andrew Cashner for $10 million this year. Cashner was 5-11 last year with a 5.25 ERA. Holland was recovering from Tommy John surgery last year. His velocity improved as the season wore on and he finished at 7-9, 4.95. He’s left-handed while Cashner is right. The bottom line is that the Rangers simply did not want Holland back.

Cashner is penciled in as the fourth starter at this point, but he is iffy to earn the spot. He was once highly regarded, but arm troubles have set him back.

The Rangers also signed Tyson Ross. Ross was also highly regarded once, but his career has been sidetracked by injuries. Included was an operation for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, which he underwent in October. He won’t be ready when the season starts though.

The projected rotation then is Darvish, Hamels, Perez, Cashmer and Ross. However, with Ross’s situation, at least one rotation spot is up for grabs. The candidates at this point are A. J. Griffin, Chi Chi Gonzalez, Nick Martinez, Dillon Gee, who recently signed a minor league contract with an invite to spring training, and Rule 5 draftee Mike Hauschild.

BULLPEN: The returning bullpen looked solid with Matt Bush, Sam Dyson, and Jeremy Jeffress, Tony Barnette, Keone Kela and Tanner Scheppers coming back. However, the pen took a shot when Jake Diekman underwent surgery to remove his colon. He’s out until at least mid-season and may not play at all this year. Alex Claudio is the leading bullpen lefty after Diekman. The injury could open the door for Andrew Faulkner or Dario Alvarez. The bottom line is that the pen looks real good from the right side, but not so much from the left.

OFFENSE: The gold plated offense that finished the season had four free agents. Carlos Gonzalez was the only one resigned. Gone are Ian Desmond, Carlos Beltran and Mitch Moreland, who collectively hit 65 home runs last year. That’s a hole! The hopeful return of Shin-Soo Choo for more than 48 games will take one of those spots. One of or perhaps a combination of Jurickson Profar, Ryan Rua and Joey Gallo will take up one spot.

That leaves one opening preferably for a veteran. The rumor mill around Christmas time had fan favorite Mike Napoli coming back; but February is here, and it hasn’t happened yet. The hang up is thought to be the term of the contract. The Rangers only want to go one year, while Napoli wants more. There are many though that think the Napoli deal will still happen, though there have been rumors that the Rangers have checked into Chris Carter, who led the National League with 41 home runs last season. Carter strikes out often, so amazingly is having difficulty finding a contract. He may even play in Japan.

Veteran first baseman James Loney was recently signed to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. So was Josh Hamilton, who is campaigning for a look at first base. One of those two could be the bat the Rangers are looking for. However, the Rangers really prefer a right handed bat and both Loney and Hamilton bat left.

THE DIVISION: While the Rangers have seemingly done little to improve their team, the division has gotten better. MLB.com’s Richard Justice wrote recently about the six most improved teams this off season. West Division foes Seattle and Houston are on the list. The L. A. Angels look better too. The A. L. West could be the most competitive division in baseball this season.

Another article in Bleacher Report gave an off season letter grade for each team. The Rangers’ was “C”. However, there is still time to make moves. Ian Desmond was the Rangers’ MVP for the first half of the season last year, and he didn’t sign until late February after spring training was well under way. Jon Daniels definitely needs to pull some rabbits from the hat for the Rangers to win the West for the third straight year.

NOTABLE:

* The Rangers have announced that they will retire Ivan Rodriguez’s uniform number seven. He’ll be in Cooperstown, New York to be inducted into the Hall of Fame over the final weekend in July. The Rangers will then schedule a ceremony to retire his number in August. The team has not announced a date yet, but the two Saturday home games are on August 12 against Houston and August 19 against the White Sox.

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