The 2016 Texas Rangers: The First Month
Heading into 2016, the Texas Rangers had many question marks. Despite winning American League West in 2015, last season had been a little fluky. They'd outperformed their advanced metrics and wrung the most they'd could out of a team that was beset with injury and, consequentially, occasionally haphazardly assembled. As March turned into April, one wondered how the starting rotation would hold up until the return of Yu Darvish, the team's ace, whether Prince Fielder and Shin Soo Choo — the Rangers aging, expensive former stars — could get anywhere near holding up their end of the bargain and finally, whether the bullpen could keep up the torrid pace it'd set behind a ragtag bunch of castoffs who happened to throw really hard.
Now, a month into the season, the way the 2016 Rangers are going to succeed is coming into focus, even if some of the preseason questions remain unanswered. Here are the storylines to watch as the season creeps toward its midway point with the Rangers sitting just behind the Mariners in the AL West standings.
Yu's back. — Darvish made his second rehab start coming back from elbow reconstruction Friday night for the Rangers' Triple A team in Round Rock. He threw 30 of 50 pitches for strikes and had good velocity on his fastball, topping out at 96 mph. He still probably needs two more minor league starts before returning to the big club later this month, but looks to be well on his way to returning to his 2013 form. All he did that year was lead the American League in strikeouts and finish second in voting for the Cy Young Award. On arrival, he may struggle with his command, especially on breaking pitches, but that's par for the course for pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery. He'll be ready when it counts in September and beyond.
What's that Odor? — Rougned Odor, the Rangers' blossoming star at second base, is well on his way to racking up a winning season. So far in 2016, he's made contact consistently, hit for power and played decent defense at the keystone, all of which adds up to a player a club can build around. Add in the sheer aggravation he causes opposing teams, and Odor might be one of the five most fun players in baseball. He's going to be in Arlington for most of the next decade, and that's something for which Rangers fans should be grateful.
Prince isn't right. — After missing the majority of 2014 with a neck injury, the Rangers' hulking first baseman returned for a somewhat productive 2015. So far in 2016, he's fallen of a cliff. Fielder has two home runs and his batting average, before Sunday's game against the Tigers, was below .200. Fielder is a terrible base runner and can no longer play in the field. He makes more than $20 million a season. In order to even remotely justify his cost, Fielder needs to hit a ton and he's not even coming close. Guys of his body type tend to decline all at once, and that's exactly what's happened to the former National League MVP. The Rangers might get enough production at other spots to carry him, but they might be better off just eating the rest of his contract if he doesn't show signs of life by the end of June.
Riding the bullpen — The Rangers still have one of the hardest throwing bullpens in the league, but the start of 2016 has been bumpy. Shawn Tolleson, the team's closer, has seen a decreased strikeout rate and increased batting average on balls in play against, leading to his ERA ballooning all the way to 5.56. The underlying numbers hint that he's been getting a little unlucky, but it feels like it might be time for Rangers manager Jeff Banister to make a change at the back end of the bullpen. Sam Dyson is the Rangers' most talented relief pitcher, and should be handled as such.
The kid is all right — Thanks to an injury to right fielder Shin Soo Choo, one of the Rangers' best prospects, Nomar Mazara got called up to the majors way earlier than anybody expected. Since arriving in mid-April, he's excelled for the big club, already hitting four home runs, getting on base more than 37 percent of the time and playing sparkling defense in right. He's been so good that he might force the Rangers to find a spot for him in the lineup once Choo returns, which is a happy problem to have.