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We Haven’t Seen the Last of October Baseball in Arlington

October 31, 2011

The Texas Rangers, American League Champions two years in a row, are a franchise stocked with young talent at both the major and minor league levels, guided by a savvy front office with an impressive track record of player evaluation and development, and backed by a financially stable ownership group. They are poised to return to the postseason for years to come, and they are my pick to emerge as World Champions in 2012.

The Rangers success begins on the field, where they excel in all four fundamental areas: offense, defense, baserunning, and pitching. In 2011 they were among the MLB leaders in a host of offensive categories, including runs (3rd), home runs (2nd), AVG (1st), and OPS (2nd). They boast a deep lineup, capable of withstanding injuries (of which they’ve had more than their share) thanks to reserves like David Murphy, who would be starting for most MLB teams. With sluggers Nelson Cruz (six home runs in this year’s ALCS) and Mike Napoli (30 home runs and a 1.046 OPS in the regular season) batting in the bottom half of the order, opposing pitchers get no easy outs against the Texas nine.

On the mound, C.J. Wilson is the closest thing the Rangers have to a true ace, but what they lack in front-end talent they more than make up for with quality depth. Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, and Alexi Ogando may not be household names to all, but they helped this staff tie for first in the American League in quality starts this season (matching Tampa Bay’s 99). The bullpen is a source of great strength for the Rangers. Neftali Feliz, acquired by GM Jon Daniels in the 2007 Mark Teixeira trade, anchors the group, while set-up men Mike Adams and Koji Uehara (both acquired by Daniels at this year’s trade deadline) would be above-average closers for many other teams. It’s a testament to the entire pitching staff that they held opposing batters to a .244 batting average this year, second-best in the American League, and did so while playing half their games at the offense-friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

Once a franchise known strictly for its prowess at the plate, this year’s Rangers squad was above-average with the glove and featured several elite defenders. Infield defense was a particular strength, with the newly-acquired Adrian Beltre (11.2 Ultimate Zone Rating) joining the dynamic double-play duo of Ian Kinsler (15.0) and Elvis Andrus (7.0).  In the World Series, fans’ eyes confirmed what the advanced metrics told us as Andrus and Kinsler teamed up to make several more impressive plays. In the regular season the pair led all MLB second base-shortstop duos in defensive runs saved with 29, and they added a few more in October.

Unfortunately for Texas fans, the World Series also included a memorable defensive gaffe, as right fielder Nelson Cruz misplayed David Freese’s line drive into a triple with two outs in the bottom of the 9th in game 6. Cruz was Texas’s weakest defensive regular in the outfield in 2011, while Josh Hamilton, David Murphy, and Endy Chavez were above-average, and Craig Gentry was exceptional. Collectively, Texas fielders held opposing hitters to a .278 BABIP (batting average on balls-in-play), the second-lowest mark in the majors.

Rangers’ baserunners stole 143 bases in 2011, fifth-best in baseball, while being caught stealing just 45 times for a 76% success rate.  They also excelled in two advanced baserunning metrics: Baseball Prospectus’s Equivalent Air Advancement Runs (basically sacrifice fly opportunities and similar), in which they finished with an MLB-best 3.88, and Equivalent Hit Advancement Runs (which measures extra bases taken by baserunners on singles and doubles) where they finished second in baseball at 7.27. Andrus and Kinsler also proved instrumental to Texas’s success on the bases, where Baseball Info Solutions rates them as the best (Andrus) and second-best (Kinsler) baserunners in all of baseball for 2011, based on their combined baserunning and stolen base gain.

The Rangers are well-positioned financially thanks to the team’s purchase in 2010 by the Nolan Ryan-Chuck Greenberg ownership group and their subsequent massive TV deal with Fox Sports Southwest. That 20-year contract will provide the team with roughly $80 million in annual revenue, giving the Rangers a large, guaranteed revenue stream to pour into their player development and free agent budgets. Both areas have been strengths under the leadership of Daniels, who after taking the helm in late 2005 has had a stellar track record in his trades while overhauling the club’s farm system to boot.

According to Baseball America’s rankings, the Rangers’ system was 28th in baseball going into the 2007 season yet rose all the way to first just two years later. They remain poised for success with a prospect group headlined by shortstop Jurickson Profar, a player so complete some talent evaluators rank him ahead of Bryce Harper, as well as future front-line starter Martin Perez. Texas’s front office has proven equally adept at scouting the competition, acquiring via trade Nelson Cruz in 2006, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, and Matt Harrison in 2007, Josh Hamilton in 2008, and Mike Napoli this past winter. Their free agent signings have also excelled, a group that includes both short-term (Vladimir Guerrero) and long-term deals (Adrian Beltre) as well as international finds like Colby Lewis from Japan.

On the whole, Texas has done a good job managing its contracts, and the few long-term commitments the club has made, such as Beltre, appear sound. 2012 will be the final year of team control of Josh Hamilton, and C.J. Wilson will test the free agent waters this off-season, but with many more players signed to affordable deals or in their early arbitration-eligible years, this appears to be a team that can keep its core intact for another several seasons. While there may be a handful of clubs in baseball with better pitching than the Rangers, there is no organization so well-positioned for extended future success.

Mike Cook  © 2011

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