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September 22, 2010
Can the Rangers Become a Dynasty?
Now that the days of Oakland’s Big Three are over and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s dominant era has reached its twilight, the American League West is waiting for its next perennial pennant winner. The Rangers, with their fine core of offensive firepower and a surprisingly effective rotation, may be the heirs apparent to a role they’ve strived for since their dominant runs in the 1990s. Still, the question remains: will this Rangers team be just a flash in the pan or a dynasty in the making? Taking a look at the dominance of the current team and the contractual status of their nucleus of talent should make the answer a little clearer.
First, let’s take a look at how the Rangers are doing this season. With an eight-game lead in the division, there is little doubt that the Texas will be 2010’s AL West representative, as shown by 99.9% chance of advancing given by Clay Davenport’s Playoff Odds report. However, the thing we want to look for here is how convincing this lead “really” is. Borrowing from the BP Adjusted Standings page, we get the following data:
As we can see, the Rangers will most likely close 2010 with a comfortable lead atop the division. However, something not seen (at least on traditional division standings grids, that is) are the numbers below the W3 and L3 columns. Named third-order wins and losses, this measurement of “true record” takes into account versions of EQR and EQRA that are adjusted for strength of schedule to give a fairer picture of what a team’s record should be. As represented by the Difference column, we see that the Rangers won 1.3 more games than they were “deserving of.” Combine that with the 3.6 wins that the second-place Athletics were supposedly shortchanged and Nolan Ryan’s new investment has a much thinner lead than one might have initially thought. While the Rangers seem to be safe this season, signs seem suggest that sort of regression next season may result in a one-and-done playoff appearance scenario.
Let us keep in mind that there is no guarantee that this squad takes a step backward next season. After all, the Rangers have dealt with some significant injuries on both sides of the ledger. For instance, if Texas can get something closer to 140 games out of Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz in 2011, rather than the 100ish games they’ll receive this season, it will take more than some bad luck to get this team below 85 wins at this time next year. Take into account the lack of healthy contributions from the starting rotation as well as the relatively healthy (until recently) season Josh Hamilton has produced and the Rangers should be pretty happy with how they’ve performed in 2010, let alone how they look going forward.
Of course, a division dynasty indicates a pennant-clinching team over a span of a few years. Taking a page out of Rob Neyer’s book, we will define a dynasty as a team with “exceptional three-year runs,” or in this case, three consecutive AL West crowns. With that in mind, let’s take a peek at some of the significant offensive pieces that the Rangers will have through (at least) 2012.
The Rangers seem to have 66.6% of their outfield and 75% of their non-catcher infield taken care of over the next few years, barring any sort of permanent DH assignment. The potentially park-aided production Texas has gotten out of this core of offense over the years suggests that these Avengers of Arlington look poised to, at the very least, put some runs on the board through our prospective period. Yes, the catcher situation is a bit fuzzy, Michael Young is not getting any younger (or cheaper, for that matter) and Elvis Andrus may never be an above-average hitter in the eyes of TAv, but the stability of having as many pieces as the Rangers have in place, and for this long, will provide some sort of comfort for both fans and GM Jon Daniels. So, unlike that of many teams in the league, the key for the Rangers’ offense over the next few years is not how it is constructed (though, the loss of Justin Smoak will not go unmissed), but rather how healthy it can remain. Given the history of Cruz’s hamstrings, Kinsler’s groin and Hamilton’s entire body, however, there is no guarantee this offense will keep its legs under it.
Now that we’ve taken a look at the offense, let's look at what the Rangers have to offer with their pitching staff. Below we have a chart displaying some of the Arms of Arlington that Texas fans will get to enjoy over the next few seasons.
*Indicates Lewis has a club option for 2012
**Indicates Feliz worked primarily as a reliever in 2010
As much Rangers fans would have liked to see Cliff Lee’s and/or straight-edge starter and fellow southpaw C.J. Wilson’s name on this list, it is clear that, as per usual, the Texas pitching staff is lagging behind its offense considerably. While they aren’t close to what the once-touted DVD should have been, young guns such as Derek Holland and Tommy Hunter should be good for an improvement heading into next season, though Hunter’s SIERA/ ERA differential could result in some terrifying numbers in 2011. Colby Lewis, who, in his stint in Japan, learned Zen and the Art of Throwing Strikes, was a steal when Daniels signed the righty this past offseason and could be one of the more cost-effective rotation anchors in the league through 2012. Neftali Feliz is no lock to join the rotation if the Rangers feel a Tanner Scheppers / Feliz two-headed back-of-the-bullpen monster is too hard to resist. Regardless, if his SIERA and VORP have anything to say about him, Feliz will be a meaningful contributor with his arm no matter his role. And then we have Feldman—a man who seemed to earn a two-year, $11.5 million extension on nothing but 17 luck-aided wins and a killer chin growth. What you’re seeing from Feldman this season is about what you can expect from him going forward, though he could show some improvement if he can get his BABIP to dip near .300. File this one under “sunk cost” until further notice.
The Rangers, who Kevin Goldstein ranked the second-most talented organization in terms of prospects to enter the season, will also have some meaningful contributions coming from the farm over the next few years. A guy like Martin Perez, who has taken his lumps in his season with Double-A Frisco, has the stuff and potential to break into the Rangers rotation as soon as 2012. Mitch Moreland may contribute over the years as a first baseman and option to spell the Rangers' mainstay in right field. Trusted initially as a mere platoon partner with Jorge Cantu in 2010, Moreland looks poised to take over the first base job with the help of a good spring and some post-Smoak guilt on the part of Texas management. Finally, as previously mentioned, Scheppers, the Rangers fourth-ranked prospect heading into the season, will have his wild moments, but, like Perez, has the stuff that will play just about anywhere. Rookie reliever Alex Ogando will also be an interesting option of the bullpen next season.
So, loaded with offensive firepower, armed with some fairly promising pitchers and a farm that looks ready to harvest, are the Rangers ready to be the next AL West dynasty? While there are no guarantees in baseball, if the offense can just stay healthy, there seems to be little doubt that this team will at least be able to score enough runs to do so. However, the clear weakness for Texas is, as it always seems to be, the pitching staff. The presence of Lewis and Wilson (through 2011) is a good start, but the backend of the rotation is questionable at best. We can confidently say that the Rangers will be getting little-to-no value from Feldman. Tommy Hunter, who will never be confused with Tommy Hanson, is probably going to see an ERA closer his SIERA in 2011 rather than the results he managed this season. Folks in the industry feel that Feliz will probably stay in the bullpen. This leaves Holland as the one other truly serviceable arm in the rotation heading into next season. If Holland can stay healthy, the Rangers essentially have a three-man starting corps heading into next season. Ryan and Chuck Greenberg say their top off-season priority is re-signing Lee, though so many in the game believe he is headed to the Yankees. Until then, however, we will just have to wait and see what the Rangers do to fill the gaps in the pitching staff. If Texas stands pat, don’t be surprised if the Athletics catch them within the next two seasons. However, if they remain as aggressive as they have been this season in terms of acquisitions, the Rangers might very well be the next dynasty in the AL West.