This week the Rangers kick off the long road toward what appears to be an inevitable also-ran finish with the beginning of spring training in Surprise, Arizona. The team's pitchers and catchers showed up last Wednesday, as required, with position players trickling in over the rest of the week before Monday, their official reporting day. As the team gets ready for its first full-squad workout Tuesday and its first exhibition game on Saturday, let's take a look at the five things fans should pay the closest attention to ahead of the Rangers' regular season opener against the defending world champion Astros on March 29.
1. The starting rotation — As has been the case so many times during the Rangers' 46-year history, the team's biggest question mark heading into the season is its starting rotation. The team has one above-average starter (Cole Hamels), one league average starter with a little upside (Martin Perez) and a grab bag of reclamation projects (Mike Minor and Matt Moore), has-beens (Bartolo Colon) and never weres (Jonathan Niese). Stir in reliever-turned-maybe-starter Matt Bush, and there's a decent amount of upside along with a really low floor for the rotation. Moore and Bush, especially, could be great if they live up to the talent they flashed as top prospects. If everything goes right, the Rangers have enough live arms that they could remain competitive. If it doesn't there could be a lot of four hour games at Globe Life Park this summer.
2. Where does Willie play — Willie Calhoun, the prize of the Yu Darvish trade in July, can rake. He has the bat speed, strike zone recognition and power to immediately step in to the middle of the Rangers lineup, and he should. Calhoun's issue, the reason he ranks in the middle of the top 100 prospects in baseball rather than near the top, is that he doesn't have a defensive position, not because he's average in multiple spots, but because he's below-average at all of them. Last year, Calhoun looked capable of holding down his own in left field. The Rangers need him to show he can do so again during spring training, so they don't have to give him designated hitter at bats that could better be allocated to Shin-Soo Choo and other veterans needing a half-day off.
3. How will Jeff Banister manage the bullpen — Over the weekend, Banister responded to questions about who he anticipated would emerge from camp as the closer by suggesting that he might be open to a more non-traditional and analytics friendly method of bullpen management.
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"I think Jake [Diekman] put it best when I spoke to each of these guys when he said 'the unit is a closer'," Banister said. "The idea of putting together a group of guys is important. Ultimately, yes, you have to get the 27th out, but you also have to get there."
If Banister is willing to use his best arms in the Rangers' highest leverage situations, rather than sticking to rigid roles in the bullpen, something that teams have done in the playoffs, but not the regular season, his team could be an interesting science experiment all year.
4. Can Rougned Odor find it? — After taking a star turn in 2016, Odor played like one of Major League Baseball's worst players in 2017. Seduced by his own power — Odor hit 33 home runs in 2016 — Odor swung from his heels in nearly every at bat. While he managed to hit 30 home runs, Odor's on-base percentage dropped 44 points. He's not an asset defensively and isn't a huge threat on the base paths, so Odor needs to hit, and hit a lot, to hold down his second base job. He's a folk hero in Arlington thanks to his TKO of Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, but Odor's job is on the line this year.
5. What's next for Joey Gallo? — As he performed last year, Joey Gallo is player capable of starting for a first division team. He strikes out a ton, but hits for more than enough power to make up for it. Mix in his surprising speed, above-average base running and capable defensive, and Gallo is easily a 3 or 4 win player over a full season. If he can sew up the hole in his swing, or even half of it, Gallo is capable of being an All-Star. The first few months of the 2018 season could be telling for the hulking first baseman.