Last spring I introduced something I called the Hastily Assembled Previews series, which basically meant I stepped away from the intense glare of the Rockies beat for a couple of weeks to check in on what some of the other baseball teams were doing. The name was wishful thinking; what were conceived as capsules ended up being as time-consuming as any writing project I've ever undertaken and I barely tackled a third of the teams. But on the other hand something great came out of last year's HAPs: the Bad Altitude-Jim Leyland feud. For the whole 2006 postseason I was rejoicing that I'd been so completely wrong in March about the Tigers' chances.
I don't mind being wrong. If I did, I wouldn't make nearly as many completely unsubtantiated insane claims. And my grip on reality isn't so firm that I can't creatively interpret the Tigers' reaching the World Series only to not play at all well and lose in five games as vindicating my preseason claim that they would be stuck in 70-win limbo for a decade. It amounts to the same thing, right? You either win the championship or you don't. If you look at it that way, the Rockies are on the exact same footing as 28 of the 29 other teams. And hey, the team that did win the hardware only won seven more regular season games than Colorado last year!
Anyway, there wasn't any particular team I really wanted to write about, I just felt a sudden urge to start looking at depth charts and home/road splits. This is a natural effect of the spring thaw, I believe. Not that we've quite thawed yet where I live, but you know what I mean. As I usually do when I need to make an arbitrary decision, I set up a little table and got out my polyhedral dice. I won't bore you with the methodology but the dice and I have decided to do the Rangers first. It's a bit of a funny coincidence, but my desktop wallpaper at the moment is this goofy photo of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash at the Ballpark in Arlington in full Rangers gear. I just happened to see it somewhere a few days ago, long before I'd even decided for certain I was going to do HAPs this spring, and certainly before I rolled the dice. The dice work in mysterious ways.
At 80-82, the Texas Rangers finished third in the AL West last year, spending about $78 million to do so. The biggest story of 2006 for Texas was probably the emergence of the foundations of a competitive pitching staff, after years of failure in that area. The tone last spring was that the Rangers had overpaid for Kevin Millwood, who had a career year in Cleveland, to anchor a rotation completely turned over from April 2005. Millwood didn't pitch quite as well for Texas as he did for the Indians, but he got more run support and won 16 games. What's more, he stayed healthy all year, making 34 starts and consuming 215 innings. That's just what the Rangers were looking for from Millwood. On the other hand, they had to be pleasantly surprised by the work they got from Vicente Padilla, whose season stats were almost identical to Millwood's except for his salary, which was halved. The team also boasted a much-improved bullpen led by Akinori Otsuka.
On offense, the Rangers got a spectacular season from Gary Matthews, Jr., one he has little chance to repeat, but that's now the Angels' problem. Michael Young will remain a Ranger with the generous extension he's just signed, but as I've already reflected, Young's best years are most likely behind him. Shortstops who win batting titles are nice things to have, but Young is a lousy shortstop who's over 30, and the Rangers have too many other good infielders to move him easily to second or first. On the negative side in 2006, Hank Blalock didn't yet evidence the development all of the experts have long projected for him, and Brad Wilkerson was a stunning bust after every baseball blog on the Internet wrote that Wilkerson was the better player in his trade for Alfonso Soriano.
Rockies fans who have been paying attention the last few seasons might recognize, wistfully, what seems to be happening to the Rangers these days. Now that the pitching is finally coming around, the offense seems in decline. They've gone old to replace Matthews (Kenny Lofton) and young to fill Carlos Lee's spot (Nelson Cruz). They might miss Mark DeRosa (who was the Cubs' one good offseason signing) more than either of those fellows. Due diligence requires me to report that Sammy Sosa is in their camp, but I highly doubt that Sosa will be good enough to be worth the off-the-field headaches his presence will no doubt breed. I'm kind of surprised that the Panther managed to finagle a spring invitation at all. Could well be another example of ownership meddling with management, something with which the Rangers have had recurring problems over the years.
The most intriguing guy in Rangers camp has got to be Brandon McCarthy, subject of a curious show-me trade between Texas and the White Sox. Texas shipped out John Danks, one of the D's (the first one, I think) in their famed DVD trio of pitching prospects, for Chicago's McCarthy. McCarthy might be a little more ready to be in the big leagues right now than Danks, but Texas needs him to be a stalwart immediately. He can't go back to the minors, because "McVD" just sounds wrong. (Or wait, isn't that a character on "Grey's Anatomy?") Arlington will also be the staging ground for Eric Gagne's comeback, although everything about Gagne's career path makes it seem as if that amazing but fleeting period of dominance will be impossible to recapture. It won't hurt the Rangers any if Gagne pitches effectively as the closer, but with Otsuka still in the fold they really need starters much more than further relievers, particularly ones who will need their inning counts strictly monitored. In the mix to fill the spots behind Millwood, Padilla, and McCarthy are John Koronka, Bruce Chen, Kameron Loe, Robinson Tejeda, and our old buddy Jamey Wright. I like Tejeda and Chen best among that group, but the Rangers expect to see the "V" and the other "D," Edison Volquez and Thomas Diamond, in the rotation to stay some time in the very near future. You won't see him mentioned in a lot of other season previews, but I made a point of making sure that Joaquin Benoit was still in the Rangers' bullpen. Benoit isn't good exactly, but he does throw a ton of innings every year without complaint, and rubber-armed guys are worth their weight in gold in the launching-pad atmosphere of the Metroplex.
I don't want to write anything facetious like, "If all the guys who were good last year stay good and the guys who were bad last year get better, they can contend," but isn't that true of every team? Perhaps not every team. What we really want to get into is how likely it is that the above case will happen for each team. For the Rangers, the chances are solid that the offense will rebound a bit after what by Ballpark standards was an off-year. It doesn't seem like there's any reason for Blalock and Wilkerson not to recover, and Young's new contract won't go into the regret phase for another few years at least. Mark Teixeira is as sure a thing as there is in the game to rake reliably for the full 162. Frank Catalanotto seems a little miscast as a designated hitter, but given that the alternative would be a Sosa/Jason Botts platoon, Rangers fans know for a fact their team could do a lot worse. The starting catching job ought to have been Gerald Laird's three seasons ago; now that it's finally his he ought to motivated to become one of the better two-way backstops in the American League. With Ian Kinsler, Young, Teixeira, and Blalock the Rangers just have a nasty infield; you can live with Cruz, Wilkerson, and Lofton in the outfield.
As for the pitching, that's the question as always. Millwood seems like he's due for a bit of a trouble year, but I thought that last year and he sure showed me. Both he and Padilla seemed to accept the realities of pitching in Arlington (which is rapidly eclipsing Coors Field and its perfected humidor as the goofy hitters' park), living with the inflated ERAs and trying to stay in games rather than shut offenses down. The enigmatic Padilla got a big offseason contract extension, so if he doesn't start swiftly there will be murmurings about complacency. I'm pretty bullish on Brandon McCarthy, although I expect an adjustment period, but I just don't see how any combination of the other rotation candidates will give Texas enough depth to match up with the pitching in Oakland and Anaheim. Next year, after McCarthy, Volquez, and Diamond have all taken their lumps a little at the big league level, I think the Rangers make their move. This year they ought to be around .500 again, more likely a little above than a little below, and as a Rockies fan, let me tell you, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
For entertainment purposes only: Vegasinsider.com lists the Rangers as 50-1 shots to win the World Series. The Las Vegas Hilton line sets the over/under for their win total at 82.5.