USA TODAY Sports Weekly

Can Rangers be even bet­ter in 2016?

Stronger pitch­ing adds fuel to fire af­ter sur­prise play­off run

- Scott Boeck @scot­t_boeck USA TO­DAY Sports Sports · College Sports · MLB Baseball · Baseball · Texas Rangers · American League · Championship · Tommy John · American League West · Philadelphia Phillies · Fort Worth · San Antonio · Rougned Odor · Jeff Banister · Yu Darvish · Cole Hamels · Josh Hamilton · Shin-Soo Choo · Prince Fielder · Fort Worth Star-Telegram · Delino DeShields Jr. · Mitch Moreland

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

 ?? KEVIN JAIRAJ, USA TO­DAY SPORTS ?? Jeff Banis­ter guided the Rangers to the AL West ti­tle in his first sea­son.
KEVIN JAIRAJ, USA TO­DAY SPORTS Jeff Banis­ter guided the Rangers to the AL West ti­tle in his first sea­son.

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