Coming into the 2018-2019 offseason, it seemed almost sad that Globe Life Park in Arlington would go out like this – with a whimper of a team and nary a bang in sight with no shot at winning anything.
As moves became more defined and other teams started choosing the direction they wanted to go to, the Texas Rangers might…not be completely unwatchable or terrible?
Here, in the now, there’s a different kind of buzz in the air. Hope springs eternal, sure, but it's a geyser on a day like Opening Day for baseball.
The Rangers have played twenty-five seasons at The Ballpark. Twenty-Five years after the first, twenty-five men will step onto that field for the final 81 times that Globe Life Park exists as a baseball Temple. And before that happens, I give you twenty-five things to watch for this season.
Lance Lynn after a full Spring Training
After being signed early in the winter to a three-year, $30 million dollar contract, Lance Lynn was excited to have a full, normal offseason. After all, in the previous winter, Lynn signed in the middle of Spring Training with the Twins and had a rough time getting into the swing of things.
Lynn was later traded to the Yankees for the stretch run and pitched better but his full year wasn't quite what he was hoping for. This season, the hard-throwing righty is looking to get back to nearing the 200 inning mark, two full seasons after Tommy John surgery, and performing to around the mid-3.00 ERA level he's used to.
Mike Minor with no limitations
Towards the end of his first season with the Rangers last year, lefty Mike Minor expressed some dissatisfaction with the lack of communication in how he was going to be used as the season wound down.
A converted reliever, and injury-plagued starter before that, Minor knew that there were going to be some limitations, but now, going into 2019, such restrictions are not in place. Mike Minor is a starter without an innings threshold. He’s the Rangers’ Opening Day starter and with the chains coming off, he's looking to prove that he still has a lot in the tank to offer.
Edinson Volquez returns to Texas
Twelve years after being traded to Cincinnati for Josh Hamilton, Edinson Volquez comes back to Texas with few expectations after a 2018 lost to Tommy John surgery.
Volquez has impressed with his velocity this Spring, though, raising some eyebrows and providing the possibility of becoming a sleeper success in the ragtag rotation. Volquez is also being counted on to be a mentor to the younger and incoming pitching staff while providing innings until they're ready.
Drew Smyly can still pitch
The lefty Smyly was in the same situation with the Cubs that Volquez is in with the Rangers. He signed with Chicago before the 2018 season, knowing that he’d be rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and intending to pitch in 2019.
Smyly will be pitching in 2019, but not for the Rangers' Opening Day opponents; the Cubs, after Chicago traded Smyly to Texas as part of a move to secure Cole Hamels for the upcoming season.
With a full, healthy offseason under his belt, Smyly will reach his goal of taking a regular season mound for the first time in two seasons and then he hopes to show that all has not been lost during his time missed.
Shelby Miller can pitch too
After a couple of superlative seasons in St. Louis, Shelby Miller’s time with the Braves and Diamondbacks has been rife with bad luck and setbacks. He lost most of his 2017 season to Tommy John surgery and then suffered a season-ending injury that put a stop to his 2018 campaign.
Miller now joins the Rangers’ group of Tommy John starters with the hopes of reversing his bad fortunes and regaining some of that form from years gone by.
Hunter Pence returns home
Arlington native Hunter Pence is excited to join the team he used to root for as a kid. Is it just temporary magic, though? After a dismal 2018, his final season with the San Francisco Giants, Pence went to play winter ball and reformatted his swing.
That caught the eye of the Rangers and he then came to Spring Training with Texas on a non-roster invite and raked to a .315/.383/.574 slash. Now, going into his age 36 season, Pence is trying to show he’s not on his last high-socks adorned legs.
Willie Calhoun is the Rangers’ Sisyphus
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to continually roll a boulder up a hill and then watch it roll back down, never ever completing an unreachable goal. So it must seem for Willie Calhoun.
While you may not be watching his story at Globe Life Park to start the year, you’ll be paying attention to how he performs in Nashville with the Sounds, as his frustrations with not making the Major League team are well documented, as is his ability to hit. Calhoun’s job now is to force the issue of whether he can earn everyday at-bats at the big league level – again.
The continued momentum of Rougned Odor
Sometime in May of last year, it had to have been questioned as to whether Rougned Odor should be sent down to the minors. A switch went on in his head during that time and Odor worked his way into being what could have been labeled a team MVP season.
He worked his way into restoring the team’s confidence in him, practiced patience, and slowed his defensive game down, en route to a Gold Glove nomination. In 2019, Odor needs to prove that the lessons he learned in the trying first couple of months that brought him success in the last three-quarters of 2018 are indicative of future success.
Elvis Andrus is the clubhouse leader
With the departure of Adrian Beltre, “Daddy Shark” Elvis Andrus is now the tenured Ranger voice in the clubhouse. He sets the tone for the squad and he leads the players.
Not that it seems that this particular group of Rangers appear to have any bad apples, but Andrus off-field leadership may be just as important as his on-field performance.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa – catcher
Isiah Kiner-Falefa earned my non-existent vote as Rangers’ Rookie of the Year and actually won the real award the team gives out each winter. The Hawaiian Hustle, praised for his defensive versatility and offensive consistency, bounced all over the diamond in 2018 with stoic discipline and professionalism.
Kiner-Falefa's demeanor and plate approach earned him comparisons to Michael Young. Now, since he displayed a pretty good showing as a backstop, Kiner-Falefa will focus his efforts there. Can he be a steady hand behind the plate, even with limited full-time exposure?
“The Big Chill” looking to elevate
Nomar Mazara burst onto the scene in 2016 with Texas and earned a reputation for being calm, level-headed, and being able to adjust and adapt on his own. Entering his fourth season with the Rangers, Mazara is now needing to show that he truly can be the anchor at right field, despite his defensive limitations.
If he continues to hit at the .250-.265 range without consistent extra base pop, is that enough to warrant keeping him on the roster above, say, Willie Calhoun?
Joey Gallo – Outfielder
For most of Joey Gallo’s career, popular media has viewed him as a corner infielder and sometimes outfielder. Going into this past winter, the Rangers and Gallo made it known – the slugger is an outfielder. More specifically, he’s the left fielder for the 2019 Texas Rangers. The athleticism that he has displayed as an outfielder has also earned him the title of backup center fielder.
Without the questions of where he’ll play, Gallo can focus on his offensive game, which is where his other values lie. Gallo knows he probably needs to adjust, but he’s also been told by manager Chris Woodward that his strength is the power game and if he sticks to that, and doesn’t try to please the public, he’ll see his own results.
After a frustrating, injury-limited 2018, Delino Deshields is ready to take the ball and literally run. Having established himself as a more-than adequate, and perhaps just-below elite level center fielder, Deshields is now looking to contribute more offensively. For Deshields, that means running.
Manager Woodward told Deshields that as long as he puts in the work and research on opponents’ battery combos, he has a standing green light. The theory is, the pressure Deshields puts on pitchers while on the basepaths is as powerful as the pressure Texas' power hitters can put on a pitcher while wielding a bat.
Jose Leclerc given the reins as Closer
It took most of the year, but Jose Leclerc eventually emerged from under the radar as one of baseball’s elite relievers. After the departure of Keone Kela, Leclerc was as lockdown as they come, having overcome previous control issues while amplifying his already prodigious strikeout numbers.
Now, in a departure of sorts from recent Ranger teams, manager Woodward imparted the title of Closer with a capital C on Leclerc relatively early on in Spring Training. With Leclerc's identity in the 'pen fully established, the hope is that this mentality will reverse the reliever curse of inconsistency that plagued the late inning relief early in seasons in Texas over the last few seasons.
Can The Condor fly at first?
With Joey Gallo established as an outfielder, the position of first base belongs to Ronald Guzman. Guzman debuted last season with Texas almost as an emergency as early April injuries began to pile up along the infield. Guzman made such an impression, though, that he stayed up and on the main roster for the rest of the year.
Guzman has the ability to become more than he was in his first year with the bat, but it’s been his defense at first that has already wowed many across the league. Texas is hoping that in his second season, Guzman will take a stranglehold on the first base position and show that he can be the next key piece of a core that includes Gallo, Odor and Mazara.
Logan Forsythe – a viable utility infielder?
Defensively, Logan Forsythe didn't have the best of Spring Trainings. The use of Forsythe as the utility infielder is something of a departure from previous Rangers teams, as they relied more on homegrown products like Jurickson Profar and Hanser Alberto, who were defensively proficient at middle infield positions.
Forsythe has primarily been a second baseman and this spring, hasn’t shown much of an ability to adequately handle shortstop, typically a position required of a utility infielder. But Forsythe can hit, which could give the Rangers an edge in late-inning pinch hitting situations, and with a more strikeout-minded pitching staff, perhaps defense was considered less of a priority and therefore landed Forsythe on the team.
Last season, the Rangers’ pitching staff ranked dead last in all of Major League baseball in strikeouts. This season, along with new pitching coach Julio Rangel, the revamped staff, both in the rotation and in the bullpen, appear more geared towards striking out opponents rather than trying to induce weak contact and ground balls. As mentioned about with Forsythe, this mentality has an impact on the rest of the roster, as a potential weaker defensive lineup than previous years takes the field this season.
There’s going to be one place in the Rangers’ lineup with a hitting gap, and that’s going to be wherever the catcher bats. It’s not that Jeff Mathis and Isiah Kiner-Falefa are bad hitters (okay, Mathis is, Kiner-Falefa can hold his own), but the Rangers’ philosophies are going more towards a stronger defensive profile behind the plate.
Mathis is widely regarded as an elite defensive catcher, and his tutelage is going to be counted on to groom the next generation of catchers in Arlington, while handling this veteran pitching staff.
Connor Sadzeck – fallen star?
There were big hopes for Connor Sadzeck, first as a starter and then as a reliever on the farm. The triple-digit fireballing right hander has identifiable promise and upside, especially as a late-innings fireman out of the bullpen, but has been dangerously inconsistent when given a chance in the big leagues and that bled into a poor camp at Spring Training this year.
The Rangers would probably love to keep giving him opportunities because he has a lot of talent in his arm, but the 27-year old is out of options and, as of today, has be designated for assignment.
It’s unlikely that Sadzeck passes through waivers, given his upside, but if he does, it'll be interesting to watch to see if he can work his way back and finally put it all together.
Random Rule 5 – Kyle Dowdy
Kyle Dowdy was claimed by the Mets as a Rule 5 Draft selection but failed to make the team. This wouldn't appear to have anything to do with the Rangers except Jon Daniels picked Dowdy up on waivers and now, barring a weird circumstance, Dowdy, the righty from the Cleveland organization by way of Detroit, will be on the Opening Day roster. There he must stay, or else be offered back to Cleveland, from where he originated.
Dowdy has the ability to pitch multiple innings which means he'll get his opportunities out of the bullpen. Dowdy also sports a decent mid-90s fastball and if last season taught us anything, after the Rangers held onto 2018 Rule 5 pick Carlos Tocci all year, Texas is patient.
Jeanmar Gomez – What are you?
After Jason Hammel unexpectedly retired following the news that he made the team, the roster spot went to journeyman pitcher Jeanmar Gomez. Over the past eight seasons, Gomez has functioned as a starter with Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and as a reliever with the Pirates, Phillies and White Sox.
In something of an anomalous season, Gomez racked up 37 saves with Philadelphia in 2016. Gomez will function as another long man with the potential to be a high-leverage reliever if he performs.
Shin-Soo Choo continuing to display value
It’s been a point of contention that Shin-Soo Choo's contract might have become an albatross. It’s not that far of a stretch – Choo is 36-years old and is making $20 million. But the lone All-Star Game rep for Texas last year also offers the on-base prowess, plate discipline, and increasing vocal leadership that makes his contract worth it going into the 2019 season.
Then again, he's also not in the Opening Day lineup. With Deshields, Gallo and Mazara taking up real estate in the outfield and Hunter Pence and Willie Calhoun infringing on the DH territory, one thing to watch going forward is whether Choo continues to prove his worth and value to the club, or whether it's time to move on.
Kyle Bird spreads his wings
As a lefty, Kyle Bird had something of an edge over others in the bullpen race. It would appear that he’s getting his shot as he got The Call on Opening Day. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays as part of the three-team trade that landed Jurickson Profar in Oakland, Bird consistently displayed a mid-2.00 ERA through his four-year minor league career.
Bird gives the Rangers a second high-leverage lefty to use out of the bullpen in addition to Jeffrey Springs. Maybe he’s the first one down if Texas needs another roster spot – he is the 8th reliever on the team – but for now, Bird gets to be a Major Leaguer.
Fingers Crossed for Health
If the Major League roster can stay healthy, this team isn’t going to be painfully awful. As an organization, however, the depth behind the starting nine isn’t something to behold. If anything happens up the middle defensively, the Rangers are ill-protected.
Additionally, if anything happens to the pitching staff, the Rangers have bodies, but there would be a noticeable drop off in talent and skill. After an offseason that brought many new looks and new approaches in many facets of the game in Texas; it’ll be interesting to see if these new approaches have any effect on the players’ health.
New Manager, New Staff, New Start
So far, it would appear that manager Chris Woodward is making all the right calls. From the first impressions at dinner with the core of the team, to his explanation of his moves, to letting certain players know exactly what’s expected of them because he understands their abilities, Woodward is stepping right into what was asked of him – improve communication to the players.
Consistent and strong communication is going to be the entire theme for this year for the rookie manager. The expectations are relatively low for Woodward, but the potential exists on the team for big things, and General Manager Jon Daniels is likely looking to see whether the new skipper can fulfill expectations or potential even in his debut season.
Happy Opening Day, everyone.
What are you most looking forward to seeing from the Rangers in 2019? Share your thoughts on Opening Day with Matt on Twitter @FisherWritesMLB.