The Texas Rangers started 2015 as an abomination. They went 7-14 in April and appeared set to wander as haplessly through the season as they had in 2014. They ended the season as a revelation, reversing what, at the end of July, had been an eight-game American League West deficit and winning the division for the first time since 2011. The team played with verve and a little bit of menace thanks to new manager Jeff Banister and benefited from an at least partially resurgent Prince Fielder and the trade deadline acquisition of Cole Hamels, one of the two best pitchers on the market. Last year's Rangers were a surprise, and maybe a little bit of fluke, but the 2016 Rangers aren't going to sneak up on anybody.
As spring training gets rolling, let's take a look at a few of the essential questions facing the club as it looks to return to the postseason.
When does Yu Darvish come back? Yu Darvish is the Rangers' most talented pitcher. When healthy, he's also the team's best, even with Hamels on the roster. He's expected back on the mound sometime in late May, but that doesn't answer the question of when Darvish, the hitter-befuddling, pitch speed-changing master, will be back. After tearing a ligament in his elbow during his first spring training start of 2015, Darvish went under the knife for season-ending Tommy John surgery. Pitchers undergoing the procedure often come back stronger than they were before the surgery, but regaining the feel for breaking pitches and varying speed can take much longer. Darvish could come back like Mets ace Matt Harvey did last year and be great almost immediately. He could also take a couple of months to regain consistency, as the Rangers witnessed Martin Perez do as he came back from his own Tommy John surgery last summer.
Even if he's not his old self immediately, if he and the Rangers can hang on until he gets all the way back, Darvish, Hamels, Perez and Derek Holland could provide the backbone for the best starting rotation in the American League.
How dominant is the bullpen going to be? The Rangers' bullpen is going to be really, really good. Shawn Tolleson had 35 saves and an ERA under 3.00 last year and he might only be the fourth-best pitcher sitting in the Rangers' pen on opening day. Sam Dyson, acquired from the Miami Marlins in July for minor-league catcher Tomas Telis, is the best of the bunch. Overlooked in Florida because his results never matched his arm, Dyson began to rely almost exclusively on his 98 mph bowling-ball sinker after being acquired by the Rangers. It's one of the most dominant pitches in baseball, and Dyson was absolutely dominant for the Rangers down the stretch, giving up only 4 runs in more than 31 innings pitched. Mix in the similarly live-armed Keone Kela and Jake Diekman and the Rangers have the starter kit for a bullpen that could carry the club should its starting pitchers struggle.
Can the old guys hang on? If the Rangers' pitching lives up to anything close to its potential, the offense won't have to do very much for the club to challenge for another pennant. To the extent that the offense will have to score runs, however, it will rely heavily on three aging stars; Fielder, Adrian Beltre and Shin Soo Choo. Fielder was OK last year. Following a disastrous, injury-riddled 2014, that was enough to win him the American League Comeback Player of the Year award. Still, he didn't hit for much power — he only managed 23 home runs — and struggled in September and the playoffs. Like Choo's, Fielder's contract is an albatross — he's making $24 million this year, $6 million of which is being paid by his old club, the Detroit Tigers — but he needs to be at least as productive as he was last year so as not to leave a big hole in the middle of the Rangers lineup. Given the typical fast decline of players with Fielder's skill set and body type, that seems unlikely.
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Beltre has proven himself to be more of an ageless wonder type, continuing to play to his hall of fame standard despite being on the wrong side of 35. If he stays healthy, there's no reason to think he won't continue to hit and play stellar defense, just like he's done for almost two decades. Choo was maybe the Rangers' worst offensive player before the All-Star break last year and maybe its best afterward. If the team gets second-half-of-2015 Choo all season, he'll be the straw that stirs a potent offensive cocktail. If they get bad Choo, he might need to be replaced near the top of the order. As long as he at least splits the difference, the team will be fine.
What about Elvis? Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus has become a pariah among fans for his seeming inability to live up to the $120 million contract extension he signed during the 2013 season. While he hasn't met expectations since the extension, the new contract hasn't been a disaster either. Because so much of Andrus' value is tied to things that are hard to see, like defensive range and base-running, it's easy to view him as expendable part. His two-error meltdown during the Rangers' playoff-ending loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in October doesn't help either.
Hopefully, he can come back from the heartbreak that he so clearly felt last fall and hit just enough to keep the haters off his back. If he can't, his fellow shortstop Jurickson Profar, the Rangers farmhand who was considered the best prospect in baseball less than five years ago, is finally back after injuries derailed his last two seasons. Rumor has it Profar's looked good so far during spring training, too.
Can Ian Desmond turn his career around? Two springs ago, Ian Desmond turned down a $107 million extension from the Washington Nationals. It wasn't a bad decision either — Desmond was a capable defensive shortstop who could hit for power, a rare and valuable thing. If Andrus was worth $120 million even though he'd never hit for power, surely Desmond was worth at least the same. Then the bottom fell out and Desmond had the worst two years of his career in 2014 and 2015. He looked lost at the plate, and developed a case of the yips at short. When he finally became a free agent after last season, he was practically unwanted before the Rangers scooped him up for one year and $8 million in February. He's going to play out of position in left field and try to make himself valuable again for his next go around.