USA TODAY Sports Weekly
Can Rangers be even better in 2016?
Stronger pitching adds fuel to fire after surprise playoff run
The Texas Rangers pulled off the improbable and went from worst to first in 2015, getting within one game of the American League Championship Series.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Rangers were the fifth team in major league history — and second in the AL — to make the postseason after having their league’s worst record the previous year.
First-year manager Jeff Banister inherited a club that had the third-most losses (95) in the majors in 2014 and was missing star pitcher Yu Darvish (Tommy John elbow surgery) all season. But the Rangers did the unthinkable and won the AL West on the final day of the season.
Banister won AL manager of the year honors. Now, what can he do for an encore? For starters, the Rangers rotation is vastly improved. The rotation, under new pitching coach Doug Brocail, will have a full season of left-hander Cole Hamels.
Hamels, 32, was acquired at midseason from the Philadelphia Phillies and will assume the No. 1 spot in the rotation. He went 7-1 with a 3.66 ERA with the Rangers in 2015.
The trade for the three-time All-Star helped fuel the Rangers’ turnaround as they rallied from an eight-game deficit in the division Aug. 2.
With Darvish on the verge of returning, there’s renewed enthusiasm for the team that nearly won the World Series in 2011. Darvish is expected to return in mid-May.
The Rangers didn’t make significant moves to improve their offense, but don’t expect the aging lineup to go silent. Third baseman Adrian Belte, who turns 37 in April, is playing at an All-Star level; left fielder Josh Hamilton, 34, is nearly painfree in his knee, and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, 33, rebounded from a rocky start.
And Prince Fielder, 31, came back from neck surgery.
Fielder, now the full-time designated hitter, hit 23 home runs last season but led the club with 98 RBI.
General manager Jon Daniels isn’t concerned about Fielder’s loss of power and said he would welcome it if Fielder put up the same numbers in 2016.
“I’m a glass half-full kind of guy,” Daniels told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Having put that behind him, now knowing that he can go, I’m excited to see what he can do this year. If he does the same thing, there’s a lot of value in that. The thought that he might be able to take it to another level, that would be an added bonus.”
The Rangers’ outlook for 2016 is completely different from 2015, when the club started 8-16 and had little hope.
“In the beginning, everybody wrote us off,” center fielder Delino DeShields said Jan. 15 during the team’s annual caravan to San Antonio. “We took it upon ourselves to prove people wrong. We knew the guys we had in the locker room. We knew the chemistry we had. We knew we had the pieces. It was just a matter of going out there meshing and playing together.”
Where the Rangers stand at each position (*prospect):
uCatcher: Durability is the major question for Robinson Chirinos, the opening-day starter in 2015. While he has proved himself as a valuable backstop, there are concerns about whether he can handle the everyday physical duties of the job for a full season. Last year, a shoulder injury limited him to 78 games and kept him out for 52 of 56 games during one stretch in the second half. In two seasons, his high for games caught is 87. Chirinos, 31, hit .232 with 10 homers and 34 RBI last season. Look for playing time from Chris Gimenez, a reliable backup and Hamels’ personal catcher in 2015.
Depth chart: Chirinos, Gimenez, Michael McKenry, *Jose Trevino.
uFirst base: Mitch Moreland had his most productive season in 2015, establishing career highs in many statistical categories. He batted .278, drove in 85 runs and tied his best with 23 home runs. He also became the primary defensive option at first base, allowing the Rangers to hand Fielder the designated hitter’s spot. Lefthanded power hitter Moreland could have a breakout season as he becomes a free agent after 2016.
Depth chart: Moreland, Fielder, *Ronald Guzman.
uSecond base: Rougned Odor got off to a miserable start last season, batting .144 in May before he was demoted. When he was recalled in June, he went on a tear, batting .292 with 15 home runs, 52 RBI and 46 runs over his remaining 91 games. At 22, he led all second basemen in slugging percentage (.465). “Roogie” hopes to improve on his defense in 2016; he led AL second basemen with 17 errors.
Depth chart: Odor, Hanser Alberto, *Jurickson Profar, *Travis Demeritte.
uThird base: Beltre, who becomes a free agent after the season, remains among the game’s elite third basemen. He dealt with a lingering thumb injury most of last season yet drove in 83 runs in 143 games and finished seventh in AL MVP voting. And despite the reduction in power numbers, he has driven in more than 75 runs in