What's Next? A Way Too Early Preview of the 2016 Rangers.
Let's not talk about the end of the 2015 Rangers season. We've dissected it too much already. The Rangers should not have made the playoffs. They had the American League's seventh best run differential. They were lucky, outperforming their Baseball Prospectus third-order record expectation by almost eight wins. The Blue Jays managed to finish five games ahead of the Rangers during the regular season despite being extremely unlucky — they finished nine games worse than their Baseball Prospectus expectation suggested they should. If the two teams played 100 times, the Blue Jays would probably win 60. The Rangers' 2015 goodbye feels like a disaster because of how it happened, not because of what happened. Let's take a look at what 2015 can tell us about 2016 because, same as it ever was, there's always next year.
What Went Right
Adrian Beltre — Despite four bad months at the plate to begin the year, Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre was, again, a six-win player in 2015. When he signed with the Rangers before the 2011 season, Beltre looked to be a player who would test how much baseball Hall of Fame voters valued defense. With the Rangers, his sterling glove work hasn't stopped and his tremendous offensive production has erased any doubt that he belongs in Cooperstown. Beltre's six-year, $96 million contract is the best free agent money the Rangers have ever spent.
Still, 2016 is the last year of Beltre's current deal. He'll turn 37 during the first week of the season and will continue battling the nagging injuries that he's gritted his way through throughout his time with the Rangers. It seems impossible that Beltre will continue to be as good as he's always been, but that could've been said before this year as well. Next year might not be Beltre's last year with the Rangers, but it might be his last best shot to pick up a résumé-completing World Series ring.
Sam Dyson — Acquired from the Miami Marlins in late July, Dyson was the Rangers' best relief pitcher throughout the team's run to the division title. He was great in the playoffs, too, until he gave up Jose Bautista's backbreaking Game 5 home run. Dyson's bowling ball sinker breaks bats and consistently creates weak contact. It's the type of pitch, like Yankee great Mariano Rivera's cutter, that a reliever can build a career on.
Shawn Tolleson acquitted himself admirably as the Rangers' closer in 2015, buy Dyson's the guy who has a chance to be the dominant reliever the back end of the Rangers' bullpen has missed since Neftali Feliz lost his mojo. Dyson will be back in 2016, and he'll be good.
Shin-Soo Choo — Choo was a disaster before July's All-Star break. He spent most of the first half hitting below .200, making his $130 million contract look even more like a debacle than it did during Choo's injury-marked 2014 season. Then, reportedly after a heart-to-heart with his wife, he was one of the American League's best players down the stretch, getting on base more than 40 percent of the time and playing defense that was merely bad rather than abysmal.
Choo's contract is still an albatross, but the back half of his 2015 provides hope that, at the very least, the Rangers will be able to trade him for something of value.
Cole Hamels — When they traded for Cole Hamels on July 29, the Rangers got a guy they'd targeted for years. He's got a team-friendly contract for a front-line starter and was largely as advertised after arriving from the Phillies. After dealing with major injuries to starters Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Martin Perez over the last two seasons, a healthy Rangers 2016 rotation could be the deepest in franchise history.
Rougned Odor — Odor was the straw that stirred the 2015 Rangers drink. Always feisty and seemingly always looking to piss someone off, the free-swinging second baseman became, by the end of the year, the most fun Rangers position player to watch since his predecessor at second, Ian Kinsler, was at the height of his powers. Odor fields his position with aplomb, runs the bases like a madman and hits for power. It's not crazy to think that Odor might have locked down the keystone for the next decade.
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What Went Wrong
Yu Darvish — Darvish, still the Rangers' best starter even with the addition of Hamels, blew out his elbow in spring training, had Tommy John surgery and missed the entire season. The Rangers beat the Blue Jays if he's healthy. Assuming he gets back to full-strength at some point in 2016, the Rangers will have the best rotation in the American League.
Prince Fielder — Despite a deceptively high batting average and RBI total, Fielder was not productive in 2015. The Rangers' first baseman, who still has more than $100 million left on a contract that runs through 2020, did not hit for significant power, doesn't play in the field and is a horrible base runner. Fielder's on the wrong side of the aging curve, and it's going to continue to hurt the Rangers moving forward.
Derek Holland — Putting Holland here requires a big caveat. He did hurt his shoulder in April and there's no telling how that injury might have affected his performance in the stretch and in his awful Game 4 ALDS start. At his best, Holland has number-two-starter stuff, but it might be time to accept that he's always going to be too inconsistent to be counted on in big games. That's sad to think about a guy who turned in the most important big game pitching performance ever by a Ranger in Game 4 of the 2011 World Series. If Holland can be a solid number three behind Darvish and Hamels in 2016, that'll be a huge win.
What Doesn't Matter As Much As Everyone Thinks It Does
Jeff Banister — The Rangers played hard for and seemed to like Ron Washington's replacement, former Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister. That was nice to see, and it's good that Banister has a good relationship with Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, but managers just don't really matter all that much. A skipper practicing optimal in-game strategy might be worth two wins over the course of a season, and Banister calls for sacrifice bunts far too often to be accused of using optimal strategy. Banister is fine. He might win manager of the year, but he's not a wizard.
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