HAPPY NEW YEAR!

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

ARLINGTON, Texas – The 46th edition of the Texas Rangers will begin their season tonight. Texas faces the defending American League champions – Cleveland Indians at 6:05 PM, part of ESPN’s quadruple game opening day coverage. For many Ranger fans, this is a bigger date on the calendar than January 1! Happy New Year!

Spring training this year was elongated for the World Baseball Classic. The WBC is modeled after the FIFA World Cup in soccer. It was created after baseball was removed as an olympic sport. Team Japan won the first two in 2006 and 2009, while the Dominican Republic won the third one in 2013.

For sure this was the most successful one. Attendance had already set a WBC record before the tournament boiled down to the final four. Team USA won, which undoubtedly had a big hand in the attendance success. Two Rangers figured prominently in the team’s accomplishments – catcher Jonathan Lucroy and reliever Sam Dyson.

For Major League teams, the WBC poses problems and opportunities. Spring training was surely disjointed with players reporting to camp and then departing to play for their countries soon thereafter. Players were coming and going throughout spring training. There is always the risk of injury too.

However, with so many players gone, teams got to look at players farther down the line in their systems. The Rangers ended up using more than 100 players in spring games this year. The WBC also presented opportunities for players. Rougned Odor played for team Venezuela, as did Astros All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve. Venezuela needed both bats in the lineup, but only one could play second base. Odor got playing time at third base. Hmm! This might be a good idea for the Rangers long run. Jurickson Profar is regarded as a middle infielder, but with Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor, he is not in the middle infield Ranger picture other than as a back-up. He played in the outfield for Team Netherlands, and mostly in center field. Great preparation for this Ranger season.

The WBC was expecially beneficial for relievers. Finding meaningful innings for late inning relievers is always a problem in spring training, especially in the early games. The regulars start the exhibition games by playing four or five innings with just two and perhaps three at bats. Teams that bring in their late inning relievers in the late innings find them facing reserves at the low end of the sytem, players that likely won’t see the light of day in the Majors. Teams can insert relievers early in games to face real Major League hitters, but those inniings don’t have the pressure of late inning situations.

The WBC solved the problem for Sam Dyson. He was magnificent for Team USA facing quality hitters in late game situations that really mattered. He made five appearances, pitching six perfect innings. He was the winning pitcher in the semi-final game with Japan, and recorded five key outs in a win or go home game against the Dominican Republic that put Team USA in the final four. It was great preparation for the season.

THE ROSTER

One of the givens of spring training is that there will be at least one roster surprise. Some player inevitably comes out of nowhere to claim a job. Robbie Ross in 2012 was one. He was a starter that wasn’t even scheduled for AAA, but he won a job as a lefty in the Rangers’ bullpen. He went on to post a 6-0 record with a 2.22 ERA in 2012.

So this year’s surprise is that there are really no surprises. The roster shook out largely as expected. With off days in each of the first two weeks, the Rangers will not need a fifth starter until April 14 in Seattle; so the team opens with four starters, eight relievers and 13 position players.

POSITION PLAYERS

The position players are pretty much as projected, except for a calf injury to Adrian Beltre. He starts the year on the disabled list, and Joey Gallo starts Monday night at third base. The rest of the position players are catchers Jonathan Lucroy and Robinson Chirinos, first baseman Mike Napoli, second baseman Rougned Odor, shortstop Elvis Andrus, Ryan Rua and Jurickson Profar platooning in left field, center fielder Carlos Gomez, right fielder Nomar Mazara, designated hitter Shin-Soo Choo, and backups Delino DeShields, Jr. and Drew Robinson.

Beltre misses his first opening day since 2001. He was placed on the disabled list retroactive to last Thursday such that he will be eiligible to be activated on April 9. (The minimum disabled list stay has been shortened from 15 to 10 days this year.) He actually reported to Ranger camp with a hamstring issue in one leg, and now has a calf injury to the other.

He played for Team Dominican Republic in the WBC going 1-15 and was hitless in 12 at-bats after returning to the Rangers. Back-up infielder Hanser Alberto also goes on the disabled list, which limited the Rangers’ options at third base.

Gallo was the choice to start the season at third base. He hit four home runs this spring, but hit for just a .208 average in 53 at-bats. However Ranger manager Jeff Banister has been impressed with an improved approach at the plate. Gallo and the coaches have put in a lot of extra work to prepare him for the opportunity.

STARTING ROTATION

The two significant starting pitcher acquisitions this winter – Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross – start the season on the disabled list as expected. The first three spots in the rotation are Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels and Martin Perez. Perez will actually start game two in order to keep Hamels on his normal throwing schedule. A. J. Griffin claimed the fourth starter spot.

There is a faint hope that Cashner will start on April 14 when the fifth starter is needed. He threw three impressive innings in Friday night’s exhibition game agains the Royals, but he has seen very limited action this spring. That start likely goes to Nick Martinez, who was optioned to AAA Round Rock. He will be on a schedule to start that night, and he hopes he’ll be wearing a Rangers uniform instead of the Express when April 14 arrives.

Veteran starting pitcher Dillon Gee came to camp as a non-roster invitee to spring training. He had an opt-out if he wasn’t added to the roster in late March, which he exercised. However, he worked out a deal with the Rangers, was added to the 40-man roster, and starts the season in Round Rock as “depth” for the starting rotation.

BULLPEN

If there was a surprise, it was in the bullpen where Keone Kela is NOT on the opening day roster. He has been a top late inning reliever for the Rangers for the past two seasons and was very good in spring training. He pitched five innings in A games, giving up three hits and no runs, while recording a save. He is going to the minor leagues for behavioral issues. There are indications that he will be back soon.

Closer Sam Dyson recorded 38 saves last year, despite being a set-up man for the first seven weeks of the season. Matt Bush will be the top late inning set-up man. He’ll be joined by Jeremy Jeffress, who joined the team with Jonathan Lucroy in last July’s trade with Milwaukee. Tony Barnette and Alex Claudio also return. Claudio pitched extremely well in the WBC, pitching 3-1/3rd innings and giving up zero runs on four hits for Team Puerto Rico. Jake Diekman and Tanner Scheppers start the season on the disabled list, so two bullpen spots went to right-hander Jose LeClerc and lefty Dario Alvarez.

Rule 5 pick Mike Hauschild is the final pitcher. The Rangers must keep him on the active roster this year, or offer him back to Houston from where he was selected before sending him to the minors. Hauschild’s role is undefined, but he showed enough in spring training that the Rangers put him on the roster to keep him, at least for now.

The Rangers thus start the season with nine players on the disabled list. They include pitchers Diekman, Ross, Cashner, Scheppers, and Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez. Diekman and Gonzalez are on the 60-day disabled list. Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, catcher Brett Nicholas and infielder Hanser Alberto are the four position players on the DL. Fielder is on the 60-day disabled list, as he must be kept on the roster in order for the Rangers to receive disability insurance proceeds.

CONTRACTS

Off the field, there were three contract extensions of interest. This week, the Rangers announced they had signed Rougned Odor to a six year extension valued at $49.5 million. Texas has a team option for a seventh year, which could bring the total over $60 million. Odor is only 23 years old, but hit 33 home runs last year, an astounding total for a middle infielder.

The immediate reaction was that Odor had sold out too cheap. It is likely if he continues to put up numbers akin to 2016 that he would have done much better financially in arbitration and free agency in the next six years. Then again, almost $50 million guaranteed is nothing to dismiss lightly. There are many tales of players turning down lucrative contracts for hopes of even bigger bucks through the ensuing process, bigger bucks that never materialized because of injuries and other circumstances.

The other two contracts of interest are contracts that didn’t materialize. Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy are in the “walk year” of their current contract. I. E., they both can become free agents after this season. Darvish indicated early that he was interested in discussing an extension. Apparently very little has happened on that front. It is thought that Darvish will command a contract of at least five years with an average annual value of around $30 million per year. It would seem doubtful that the Rangers will be players in that salary range.

Lucroy announced late in spring training that contract talks with the Rangers had been tabled. He was apparently waiting for the Cardinals to reach agreement with Yadier Molina, considered one of the top two catchers in baseball. Molina and the Cardinals finally agreed on a deal this week. He signed a three year extension at $60 million. That $20 million average annual value is a record for a catcher, eclipsing Buster Posey’s deal with the Giants at an $18.5 million average annual value. The extension will go into effect next year, so the 34 year-old backstop is signed through the 2020 season.

That comp is not good news for Texas. Lucroy is three years younger than Molina. Undoubtedly, Molina’s contract is somewhat inflated for his past contributions to the team, but still, this comparable computes to at least a $15 million average annual value for perhaps four or even five years for Lucroy. Again it’s questionable as to whether the Rangers will be players in that economic range.

Opening day in the Major Leagues took place yesterday as ESPN televised three games. The Yankees, Giants and Cubs all took over last place in their respective divisions as they lost to division foes Tampa Bay, Arizona and St. Louis. The other 24 teams open today.

The Rangers’ defense of the American League West starts tonight. Yu Darvish starts for the Rangers, their ninth opening day starting pitcher in the last nine years. Cleveland opposes with Corey Kluber, a Coppell High School grad. Carlos Carrasco faces Martin Perez on Tuesday night, and Danny Salazar goes against Cole Hamels Wednesday night in the series finale.

The Rangers will host Oakland this weekend to finish the six game home stand that opens the decision. A. J. Griffin, Darvish and Perez will be the starting pitchers Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Happy New Year!

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