After losing Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, are the Rangers still good enough to enter the season as favorites in a division that they didn't even win last year?
I've been fascinated with the recent Texas Rangers teams for a few reasons. If you want to psychoanalyze why, a lot of it probably has to do with being a Giants fan during the 2002 World Series. I know what it's like to take a folding chair over the head right while counting my Game 6 chickens. I also know what it's like to resent the other team for the next decade, so I have survivor's guilt and a need to be liked. This means I quietly follow the Rangers, hoping they'll do okay.
But what puts my fascination with the Rangers over the top is how the team is run. It's equal parts scouting and statistics, development and acquisition. It's a magnificently run team, but they don't act like they've figured out the Konami code for their payroll, which forces them to make tough decisions when it comes to keeping fan favorites around.
This offseason has been a bit of a test for the Rangers, then.
I wrote about it here. The thesis was that a team could be smart, make sound decisions, and get worse all at the same time. Avoiding a combined $40 million for Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli in 2015 was probably a good idea, but that doesn't mean those 67 home runs aren't going to be missed.
Their replacements in the lineup (though not exactly in the field) will be Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski. The former had 81 at-bats last year because his knees were a smoldering tire fire. The latter interrupted an amazing decade-long streak of healthy, 94 OPS+ seasons to have a career year at age 35. You can argue that both will still have some life left in their bats. You cannot argue that either one is an especially good bet to repeat his best, second-best or even fifth-best year. Them's the odds.
Which brings us to the titular question: Can the Rangers still be the favorites in the A.L. West? It's kind of a funny question to ask, seeing as they didn't win their own division last year. But for the last three years running, I've felt very comfortable anointing the Rangers as favorites or co-favorites in the West. And for the first part of last year, I was pretty sure they were the best team in baseball. I wrote a lot of laudatory things about them, and when I re-read them, a voice inside my head yells, "THEY LOST TO THE ORIOLES IN A ONE-GAME PLAYOFF" after every period. Heck, Jeff Sullivan wrote something about them taking a victory lap in April, probably because he's bad at his job.
There was a reason for this Rangers-related awe. Before the season, it looked like the Rangers were set at every position. Okay, maybe there was room to quibble with Mitch Moreland at first, but it was easy to be extremely impressed with 96 percent of the Rangers roster. So when they went on a tear in the first part of the season, it was easy to experience confirmation bias. They were supposed to be loaded, and they were playing like a loaded team.
Then there was unpleasantness, but you know how that ended.
The answer to the question for next year, though, is a solid "Maybe." Maybe they're the favorites, as is. Which isn't a surprise, considering that the "maybe" answer works for a dozen teams out there. But I can develop all sorts of permutations to get the Rangers back to a division title. If Yu Darvish improves on his 2012 season, pitching more like his FIP than his ERA, the Rangers will be improved. If Leonys Martin can bring some of his Triple-A success to a starting role, the Rangers will be improved. If Ian Kinsler can rebound, if Adrian Beltre can remain steady, if Berkman can get healthy, if Mike Olt or Jurickson Profar can break out, if, if, if, if … There are a lot of ways to get to another fantastic Rangers team.
But here's the difference: This is the first offseason in a while where those "ifs" aren't all a variation on the same theme, which is "If these players just do what they're supposed to do, the Rangers will be outstanding." This is the first offseason where the Rangers have question marks where you would normally expect exclamation points. And, again, they got there by being fiscally sound.
You know how baseball works. It'll be July and either a) Craig Gentry has 25 homers coming out of the All-Star break, and everything here will look stupid, or b) every one of their starting pitchers is throwing like Jonathan Sanchez (but without the control), and everything here will look stupid. Baseball lives to make offseason prognosticators look like fools.
From here, though, it looks like the A's have a questionable lineup after Yoenis Cespedes and the Angels have a questionable rotation after C.J. Wilson, but for the first time in three years, the Rangers don't have the kind of team that makes them instant favorites over good-but-flawed teams like those two. Can the Rangers be the favorites in the A.L. West? Nope. Unless there's another major move coming up, they're just part of a three-team race in which there aren't any wrong answers.
It's quite a change from the offseasons of the recent past. Welcome to the rest of the world, Rangers. This is kind of how the other half lives.