The Rangers begin their 2017 regular season Monday night. That's a good thing. After bowing out of the 2016 playoffs in the minimum three games to the Blue Jays, the 2016-17 offseason, thanks in no small part to the World Baseball Classic, has been interminable. Now, finally, after nearly six weeks of spring training games, the Rangers start six months of games that count against the defending American League Champion Cleveland Indians. Here are a few of the things you should be watching as the long road to October begins.
1. Starting rotation depth. — As 2017 gets underway, the Rangers have as good of a top of the rotation combo as exists in the American League. Yu Darvish, starting the season's first game for the first time in his career, is among the favorites to win the AL Cy Young, poised to have his best season in a Rangers uniform now that he's fully recovered from his 2015 Tommy John surgery. Cole Hamels, who's being held back until the third game of the year by Rangers manager Jeff Banister, would be the No. 1 starter on almost any other team in the AL.
The back end of the Rangers rotation isn't as promising. Beyond Martin Perez, the Rangers' mercurial No. 3 starter, Bannister will be stuck holding things together with spit, chewing gum and AJ Griffin until the two oft-injured former Padres — Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross — the team picked up this winter are ready to go. If he can stay healthy, Ross could be a capable starter on a championship level team, but he's coming off surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and has never pitched more than 196 innings in a season. Ross pitched two innings in a simulated game Sunday, but will start the season on the disabled list. Cashner, who profiles as a fourth or fifth starter in the best of circumstances, will also start the year on the DL thanks to bicep tendinitis, but is likely to be back before Ross.
Thanks to couple of off days, the Rangers will begin the season with just four starters on the roster. When the fifth spot in the rotation finally comes up on April 15 against the Mariners, the Rangers will likely run out Dillon Gee or Nick Martinez, neither of whom is a long-term solution. If the team is going to compete with the Astros over the course of the long season, the Rangers have to get production from the back end of the rotation, whether it comes via Ross, Cashner or trade.
2. Left field. — The Rangers don't have a clear cut starter in left field as the season begins, but that actually bodes well for the team's production. Bannister seems set to rely on a three-headed monster cobbled together from Ryan Rua, Jurickson Profar and Delino Deshields. All three had excellent springs — Deshields and Rua were two of the stars of Rangers camp and Profar was terrific for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic — and all three bring a complementary skill set to the Rangers club house. Rua can hit left-handed pitchers for power. Deshields has shown the patience at the plate to hit at the top of the order when called upon and Profar has shown an aptitude for playing in both left and center field despite primarily being a short stop. All three give the Rangers flexibility at multiple positions and should combine for better than league average production in left. That's extremely valuable.
3. Adrian Beltre's quest for history. — Since signing with the Rangers before the 2011 season, Adrian Beltre has been remarkable. He's hit at least 30 home runs three times, played impeccable defense at third base and never been worth less than 5.6 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Chugging through his 14-19th big league seasons, he's been impervious to time. This year, despite kicking off the season a little late due to a balky calf, Beltre will get his 3,000th hit sometime this spring, cementing his place in the Hall of Fame and Rangers history. With so many of the Rangers' stars likely gone after this season — Darvish and star catcher Jonathan Lucroy are both set to be free agents after the season — 2017 may be Beltre's last best shot at winning a World Series ring.
4. The saga of Keone Kela. — If the Rangers are good this season, the bullpen will be a big reason why. It's stocked with power arms, fully capable of shutting down games if the Rangers' starters can finish as few as five innings a night. That being said, one of the big expected pieces of that bullpen, flame-throwing righty Keone Kela will start the season in Triple A, rather than in Arlington, after being demoted late last week. Kela, according to a vague report from Fox's Ken Rosenthal, lost his spot on the opening day roster for disrespectful behavior during a spring training split-squad game last Wednesday. If Kela's punishment isn't just a temporary blip, Rangers' pitching coach Doug Brocail will be missing one of his best arms.
5. Regression. — Last year, the Rangers won 95 games, the most in the American League. They didn't play nearly that well. Thanks to an incredible 36-11 record in one-run games, the Rangers outperformed their Pythagorean expected record — which is calculated using runs scored and runs against over the whole season, rather than individual game outcomes which are highly influenced by luck — by 13 games. It is reasonable to expect that some regression, whether in the team's luck or in the offensive performances of Elvis Andrus or Rougned Odor, both of whom had career years last season, is likely to happen. That means that the Rangers will have to be better than they were last season, as a whole, just to put up a similar record and challenge the up-and-coming Astros for the division title.
Full seasons from new additions Carlos Gomez — who actually signed with Rangers last August — and Mike Napoli will help, as will right fielder Nomar Mazara's continued development. Shin Soo Choo, oft-injured but still a great hitter, will play more designated hitter this year, which should mean fewer injuries. The Rangers will hit. If things fall correctly, that could have a decent pitching staff, too. If that happens, they'll get another shot at ending the team's 45-year championship drought in October.