HAPPY NEW YEAR

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

ARLINGTON, Texas – The Arizona and Arlington exhibition games are complete. The roster has been set. The 2018 season opening game is on tap for Thursday afternoon. Happy New Year!

As the roster was finalized over the past few days, there were no notable injuries that created opportunities for a relative unknown to make the roster, much like Joey Gallo did last year when Adrian Beltre was injured. There are usually a surprise or two, and this spring there is one name that was not even prominently mentioned as grabbing an opening day roster spot when spring training began – outfielder Carlos Tocci.

The position player portion of the roster was pretty well set from the beginning, barring injury. Eight players were fixed – catcher Robinson Chirinos, first baseman Joey Gallo, second baseman Rougned Odor, shortstop Elvis Andrus, third baseman Adrian Beltre, center fielder Delino DeShields, right fielder Nomar Mazara and designated hitter Shin-Soo Choo.

Jurickson Profar was also pretty well set as the back-up infielder. He was out of minor league options and undoubtedly would get claimed on waivers, which the Rangers had to do to shuttle him to the minors. It was either use him or lose him.

So that left the following questions. Who would play left field? Who would be the back-up catcher? Would the Rangers have a three or four man bench?

The leading left field candidates were Ryan Rua, Drew Robinson and Willie Calhoun. Calhoun was the best prospect the Rangers received last summer in the Yu Darvish trade. He is a very good hitter – Major League ready right now. With the Dodgers, he was primarily a second baseman, and he wasn’t very good.

Second base didn’t hold much promise in Texas with at least Odor and Profar in front of him. The Rangers have moved him to left field. He worked hard in spring training to improve. He hit well early, but then tailed off at the plate. Texas sent him to AAA midway through training camp. It was speculated that the Rangers were sending him to the minor leagues to start the season to buy an extra year of control before free agency, but there is no doubt that he needs work defensively in left field, where he has played fewer than 50 games professionally.

The general thought is that he will arrive in Arlington for good by June.

In the mean time, the Rangers announced that Rua would get the nod as the regular left fielder. He has been a platoon player in the past, but since he is a right-handed batter, he got the short end of playing time. This year, he gets the shot as the full time left fielder. For his sake, he hopes he can play well enough to keep the position when Calhoun is deemed ready defensively.

The back-up catcher was thought to be Brett Nicholas when spring training began. Surprisingly, the Rangers waived him midway through training camp. He cleared waivers and re-signed a minor league contract, so he’s still in the system.

Juan Centeno became the heir apparent. It was no secret the Rangers were scouring the waiver wire and talking trade with other clubs to find a better back-up catcher. It didn’t happen, so Centeno is the man.

That leaves Tocci and Greg Robinson to finalize the bench. Tocci is a speedster that is very good defensively, but not very good at the plate. He is a Rule 5 draft pick, so the Rangers must keep him on the active roster this season or offer him back to Philadelphia if he clears waivers. He likely will be a pinch runner and see late inning action as a defensive replacement.

It’s a good offensive club. DeShields has claimed the lead-off spot in the batting order and has had a very good spring. He continues to improve defensively as far as tracking down fly balls. His defensive drawback is his weak throwing arm. Since joining the Rangers, he has often sparked the offense with his speed.

Joey Gallo looks to be even more selective at the plate and is showing a better two-strike approach at the plate. He looks poised to improve on last season when he hit 41 home runs and clocked in with an .869 OPS. Bannister has looked at Gallo at the number two spot in the batting order. On the surface it looks like a waste of his power, as a position lower in the batting order likely would bring him to the plate more often with runners on base; but he likely gets better pitches to hit at two with the heart of the Rangers’ batting order following him to the plate. He’s also a very good base runner and walks enough to have a good on base percentage.

One area that might be worth watching is second base. Unquestionably, Rougned Odor’s play declined in all aspects last year. He is below average defensively, and hit just .204. He still reached the 30 home run plateau.

After one particular bad game this spring, a local beat writer asked Jeff Banister if Odor and Profar might switch roles, with Odor becoming the untility infielder and Profar taking over at second base. Banister said no, but admitted it was a fair question. I.E., if Odor’s 2018 looks like 2017, the switch might come a month or so down the line.

The question when spring training began was whether the Rangers would have an eight man bullpen or a four man bench. For opening day, they have both! The wizardry comes because the team will begin with just four starters – Cole Hamels, Doug Fister, Matt Moore and Mike Minor.

Bartolo Colon was with the team in the spring, was released and re-signed to a minor league contract. He’s slated to start game five, precipitating a roster move by Monday both on the 25 man active roster and the 40 man roster.

It is unclear what Colon’s status will be after Monday. It may be just a one start stint as a Ranger or he may be part of the rotation going forward.

There was talk of a six man rotation of some sort when spring training began. Hamels especially was vocal in his opposition of getting off the schedule of pitching every fifth day. It appears at this point that the goal is to pitch Minor every sixth day to limit his innings pitched as he transitions from the bullpen to the rotation after surgery. It will be interesting to see how this works out.

Hamels is not the ace he once was, but he is still a very good pitcher. He gets the nod for opening day. Fister looked sharp last Monday in his final tune-up against the Reds. He works fast, so fans will enjoy the game pace when he starts. Moore, quite frankly hasn’t been good.

Martin Perez starts the season on the disabled list after breaking a bone in his right (non-throwing) arm this winter. The plan is for him to make a minor league rehab start this Friday and join the team next week starting game eight.

The pen surely must be better this year than last. The law of averages says so doesn’t it? The signing during spring training that caused the biggest stir was Tim Lincecum. The two time Cy Young Award winner was thought to be a contender for the closer job, but he simply isn’t ready. He conveniently has developed a blister, so will start the season on the disabled list, as will Tony Barnette.

The eight man pen that will begin the season then include Keone Kela, Jesse Chavez, Chris Martin, Matt Bush, Kevin Jepson and Jose Leclerc as the righties. Jake Diekman and Alex Claudio are the lefties.

Bannister has said that he will not name a closer. He will be looking at matchups. Kela, Diekman and Bush appear to be the leading candidates. Claudio finished last season as the closer with 11 saves, but Banister prefers to have him available earlier in games because he has the ability to go multiple innings. Lincecum might figure into the mix when he is ready to join the team; but at this point, Kela is the favorite.

After last season, GM Jon Daniels said he expected the team to contend for the playoffs this year. However, it’s become obvious that the team is in rebuild mode. Just recently free agent starter Lance Lynn finally signed a one-year team friendly deal. He would have been an upgrade to the starting rotation. Daniels passed on Lynn as well as other free agents that would have been upgrades after their prices became reasonable in the slow moving market this winter.

The Astros are the biggest reason to rebuild. They are the reigning World Series champions and look better on paper now. Catching Houston seems out of the question, so sneaking into a Wild Card berth is the Rangers only realistic chance of reaching the playoffs.

In any event, it’s a roster that will be in flux. The announced starters for games five and eight – Colon and Perez – will cause two roster moves. Relievers Lincecum and Barnette are expected to be ready in April causing two more moves. With the team rebuilding, it promises to be a roster that will be in flux all season.

As for the races in general, there are six super teams on paper that are projected to win the divisions – Houston, New York and Cleveland in the American League; Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles in the National League. If those projections hold, the other 24 teams will be scrambling for the four Wild Card spots.

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