2013: A Detailed Retrospective

Hey guys (and gals); sorry I’ve been away of late. For what it’s worth, I assure you it has nothing to do with baseball depression, or, lack of baseball depression. As you know by now, the Rangers’ season is over, having been defeated 5-2 on Monday night to the Rays.

With 2013 in the books, and a pretty long fall and winter ahead of us, below is a not-so-brief retrospective of the season. I’ve divided it into various parts, as you will see in bold.

Lastly, before we get started, I want to thank you all for your contributions to Nolan Writin’ during the year. I truly appreciate every comment and page view you all have delivered. You, after all, bring my words to life, and make them real. And for that I am in your debt —

Now, the 2013 season from my eyes:

The offseason

Back in December of 2012, there came vague promises from the Rangers’ front office of potentially adding top-of-the-rotation pitcher Zack Greinke — who eventually signed with the Dodgers — or bringing back their own star-crossed slugger, Josh Hamilton, who later signed with the Angels. But, neither scenario materialized. After striking out on Greinke, and ostensibly letting Hamilton walk free to Texas’s intra-division rival for 5 years and $125 million, Plan C was apparently to acquire Justin Upton from the Diamondbacks. However, after balking at Arizona’s GM, Kevin Towers, and his supposed demand of starting shortstop Elvis Andrus or top prospect, Jurickson Profar, that option went to the wayside as well, and Upton was eventually shipped to the Atlanta Braves for Martin Prado and a collection of complementary prospects.

So in short, Jon Daniels did not acquire any impact talent. Should he be blamed for not going 6 years and $147 million for Zack Greinke? For not paying 5 years at $25 million AAV for Josh Hamilton? For not giving up one of his two franchise middle infielders for Justin Upton? This author vehemently says no, he should not. But since he didn’t get any of them, then what?

Sep 1, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers left fielder Jim Adduci (35) gets his first major league hit during the second inning against the Minnesota Twins at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 1, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers left fielder Jim Adduci (35) gets his first major league hit during the second inning against the Minnesota Twins at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The two biggest contracts of last offseason went to Lance Berkman, who cost $10 million and essentially provided nothing (0.0 fWAR), and to A.J. Pierzynski, who generated about what should have been expected (+1.6 fWAR) for $7.5 million. Aside the two of them, Daniels snatched up Jason Frasor (who acquitted himself quite nicely with a 2.57 ERA in 49.0 IP) for $1.5 million, Jeff Baker for $1.75 million — who smashed left-handed pitching in his platoon role, before various injuries hampered his progress — and issued a deft 3-year contract to Joakim Soria (coming off his 2nd Tommy John surgery), a move geared for 2014 and 2015.

Without Greinke, or Hamilton, or Upton, Jon Daniels showed he wasn’t desperate. He proved to have a plan, a plan not necessarily motivated by instant success. He wasn’t willing to overpay for one of the two highly-attractive, highly-expensive free agents, and wasn’t going to gut his farm system to ascertain a young, power-hitting corner outfielder of Justin Upton’s caliber. Instead, he saved money, saved his prospects, and kept his avenues open for the future.

Was it a successful strategy? That’s open to interpretation. Sure, the Rangers did not reach the playoff field, so to that end it’s hard to consider the plan a successful one. But in an alleged “transition year” — sans Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Michael Young, Koji Uehara and Mike Adams — it’s extremely hard to argue with 91 wins.

The Regular Season

Without any immediate, impact help from the free agent or trade markets, the Rangers rolled into 2013 with a team centered on pitching — and not offense — for perhaps the first time in franchise history. Looking at the roster in a macro sense, it was fairly evident, on paper, at least, that it was not of the same caliber as either of the three previous years. 2010 and 2011 were of course World Series years, and 2012 probably had the best 25-man crew in Major League Baseball, so the 2013 squad had some seriously high standards to compete with.

And compete with them they did.

Yet, from very early on, it was clear the season presented some intense challenges. Matt Harrison — the team’s #2 starter — made only two starts the entire year, and Colby Lewis, who was presumably going to assume the 5th starter role sometime in June or July, never fully recovered from injury. This forced rookies like Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm to take on critical innings in a rotation they otherwise would not have been a part of.

Conflating the pitching staff issue, Alexi Ogando threw only 104.0 innings in 2013 (18 starts). Because of his bullpen dominance in the past, it’s easy to overlook Alexi, but missing almost a half-year’s worth of starts was a formidable complication the Rangers dealt with. It contributed to journeymen pitchers Ross Wolf, Josh Lindblom, and Travis Blackley making 11 starts, which was exacerbated by the fact that Tepesch and Grimm started 34 games themselves.

Consider that: The Rangers got 45 starts out of 5 pitchers who ideally wouldn’t have seen a single inning on a major league mound in 2013. At least not for Texas.

That said, attrition is part of the game. The show must go on. And since it did, we can acknowledge the Rangers pitching staff was one of the very best in baseball — +23.7 fWAR, 3rd in MLB — and had many bright spots.

547408_425320790824386_778325_nMost notably, Yu Darvish is the TORP Ranger fans have hoped for in their dreams. He finished the year with a 2.83 ERA in 209.2 innings on the bump, leading the majors in strikeouts by a significant margin, with 277; second-best was the Cy Young Award favorite, Max Scherzer, with 240. To put Darvish’s strikeout figure into perspective, the difference between Darvish and Scherzer (37 Ks) is about identical to Scherzer and the two pitchers tied for the 11th-most in baseball — Anibal Sanchez and Cole Hamels — at 202.

In the era of pitching, and of the strikeout, Yu Darvish was the king of them all. And it wasn’t close.

Along with Darvish, the Rangers got a brilliant bounce-back campaign from Derek Holland, who proved himself to be everything that was promised after his solid 2011 season. In spite of a terrible 6-start stretch towards the end of the season, Holland finished as the team leader in innings pitched (213.0), and his 3.42 ERA truly doesn’t do his year justice. He concluded 2013 with a career-best +4.8 fWAR, a mark worthy of TORP status in a one-year vacuum. His job now is to build on this success, and show he rightfully belongs as one of the stronger #2 starters in baseball.

If Darvish and Holland were the two anchors of the rotation, then we’ll call Martin Perez (+1.6 fWAR, 3.62 ERA in 124.1 IP) their First Mate, and Matt Garza (4.38 ERA in 84.1 IP) The Flounder. Perez turned himself into a legitimate middle-of-the-rotation pitcher moving forward, and Garza, well, he represents perhaps Jon Daniels’s worst trade acquisition since dealing Alfonso Soriano and Armando Galarraga to the Nationals for Brad Wilkerson some 6 years ago.

The Rangers’ bullpen was its true strong point. It was the glue that held the roster intact, and may very well have been the difference between a 91-win season and a run-of-the-mill .500 ball club. Joe Nathan (+2.5 fWAR) was as elite as elite can get, posting a 1.39 ERA in 64.2 IP; Neal Cotts (Neal Cotts!) didn’t make his first appearance until the beginning of June, and gave the club a 1.11 ERA in 57.0 innings, and an almost unheard of +1.8 fWAR, at least for a middle-reliever pitching for only 4 months.

Tanner Scheppers (1.88 ERA in 76.2 IP), Robbie Ross (3.03 ERA in 62.1 IP), and the aforementioned Jason Frasor were each solid as well. With a not-so-good manager at deploying his bullpen options, Jon Daniels provided Ron Washington with a basically Ron-proof cast of arms. There was really no wrong answer, even though I could probably write 10 separate articles about how poorly Washington indeed chose to use them.

Away from the pitching, the Rangers offense really doesn’t deserve much space.

Sure, Adrian Beltre did his typical great thing, playing on one leg for the majority of the season and still putting up top-10 MVP numbers — hitting .315/.371/.509 (135 wRC+) with 30 HRs and 88 RBI — to lead an offensive charge that was mainly non-existent in 2013.

Thanks to a putrid first half offensively, Elvis Andrus hit only .271/.328/.331 (78 wRC+). Ian Kinsler, poised to bust out of a lackluster 2012 season (99 wRC+), performed roughly the same (105 wRC+). And Leonys Martin, who provided some big hits at various stages of the year, finished at .260/.313/.385. His minor league numbers suggested he would hit a little more than that.

Here are the top performers for the Rangers in 2013 according to fWAR:

  1. Adrian Beltre: +5.2
  2. Craig Gentry: +3.4
  3. Elvis Andrus: +2.8
  4. Leonys Martin: +2.7
  5. Ian Kinsler: +2.5

We knew heading into the year it was going to be a team driven by its pitching staff, so it’s saying something that the Rangers managed to come away with 91 wins without a real offense to speak of. Due to some adjustments to The Ballpark in Arlington (it’s always going to be TBiA to me), there was no jet-stream in 2013.

At home the Rangers hit .268/.333/.412 (95 wRC+), which is only marginally better than the .257/.314/.412 (99 wRC+) figure they posted on the road. If you are curious why the wRC+ total is 4 points higher on the road despite a lower batting average and on-base percentage, it’s because The Ballpark in Arlington has historically been a hitter’s paradise, and the park adjustment hasn’t been, umm, adjusted yet.

To wrap this up in a neat little bow, this is all you need to know —

Ranger pitching: Really good.

Ranger hitting: Not so good.

Looking ahead to 2014

628x471-1With almost the entire starting rotation — other than Matt Garza — likely to return next year, the Rangers are set up nicely to have one of the deeper, more talented pitching staffs in MLB in 2014. Assuming Matt Harrison returns from injury, Texas should feature a 1-4 including Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Harrison, and Martin Perez, with the 5th spot as an open competition featuring Nick Tepesch as the favorite, depending on whether or not Colby Lewis is healthy and whether or not the Rangers front office decides to bring him back on a minor league deal, which I assume they will.

That’s a helluva start.

The bullpen will likely lose Joe Nathan — who is expected to opt out of his $9 million option and sign elsewhere for more money — but will still include the likes of Neal Cotts, Tanner Scheppers, Joakim Soria, Robbie Ross, Neftali Feliz, and Alexi Ogando, given the latter two are no longer looked at as viable rotation candidates.

Much like this year, that collection of pitchers in not only serviceable, but rather elite. You will not find many pitching staffs in baseball with so few holes as the Rangers have moving forward.

The lineup, meanwhile, provides the bulk of the question marks. Lance Berkman will no longer be with the team, and neither will David Murphy. They need to go.

In what will be arguably the biggest question of the offseason, it’s tough for me to picture a scenario where Jon Daniels offers Nelson Cruz the $14 million qualifying offer, because he would almost surely take it. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to have Nellie back, because I would, but $14 million is a ton of money for a guy who is basically an overly glorified designated hitter. He can’t play defense anymore. He doesn’t offer any value on the bases. And once you get past all the moonshot home runs, you are left with a .266/.327/.506 (122 wRC+) hitter in 2013 who is in decline, and will be 34 next year. I think that money would be better spent in other areas.

Other coin-flip decisions revolve around players like A.J. Pierzynski, who, if I had to guess, will not be back, and what to do with Mitch Moreland, who quite obviously does not deserve a starting role moving forward. He’s a platoon player at best, and easily replaceable. Pierzynski is a more interesting case, because if the Rangers could get him back at one year and $5.5 million, or thereabouts, it’s worth consideration. But with Brian McCann becoming a free agent — I believe he will be Texas’s #1 free agent target — A.J. doesn’t seem like the type of dude quite willing to accept a backup role.

Jurickson Profar is not getting traded, so let’s move on.

The infield also has an interesting predicament that needs handling, which is really to ask which of these two doors will the Rangers decide on: (1) Most obviously, does Profar take over at 2nd base with Kinsler moving to 1st, or (2) does Adrian Beltre become the team’s primary DH, with Profar taking over at 3rd?

If you go with option (1), it means Mitch Moreland will enter into a new, limited role, or be outside of the organization. If you go with option (2), then Moreland will either need a platoon parter, or JD will have to acquire an everyday 1st baseman. (1) seems a bit more reasonable, but we’ll have to see.

These are the questions that need to be answered before 2014 gets underway, but as the division series’ have yet to even begin, these topics already feel way, way too premature to be talking about.

But since we’re here, why not?

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