Texas Rangers 2017 preview

This is the latest of our 2017 team previews. Each week during spring training, we’ll preview a division with a team each day (Monday-Friday). This week: The AL West, starting with the Texas Rangers. Up next: Seattle Mariners

LAST SEASON

95-67, first in AL West (lost to Blue Jays in ALDS)

WHAT’S NEW

Key additions: DH/1B Mike Napoli (free agent from Indians), SP Andrew Cashner (free agent from Marlins), SP Tyson Ross (free agent from Padres), 1B James Loney (free agent from Mets), OF Josh Hamilton (free agent), SP Dillon Gee (free agent from Royals)

Key subtractions: OF Ian Desmond (free agent to Rockies), 1B Mitch Moreland (free agent to Red Sox), OF/DH Carlos Beltran (free agent to Astros), SP Derek Holland (free agent to White Sox), SP Colby Lewis (unsigned free agent)

3 STRIKES

1. Can the luck continue?

The Rangers are in a position to win the American League West for a third straight year, despite entering the 2017 season without a full rotation and with some serious question marks in both the bullpen and batting order. But as long as a massive component of Texas’ 2016 regular-season success carries over into 2017, it should be in contention.

Last season, Texas had the second-worst bullpen in the American League (4.40 ERA, 4.38 FIP), a decidedly average rotation (4.38 ERA, 4.67 FIP), and an average offense (98 wRC+). With those numbers, the Rangers should have gone 82-80. Instead, they won 95 games. How? Call it luck, magic or a special bit of something, but Texas was historically good (36-11) in one-run games, and that was the main component behind the large delta between its expected wins and its actual 2016 record.

The Rangers’ 13-game differential over their expected record was by far the largest in baseball last year. Their difference was 14 games better than the second-place Mariners, who finished nine games behind the Rangers, and 12 games better than the third place Astros, who were 11 games back.

2. It’s all on Yu

The Rangers enter 2017 with a dangerously thin rotation. Yes, Texas boasts two of the best arms in baseball – Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish – but much like last season, there’s not much behind them. You could even make the case the Rangers have even less behind their dual aces this year than last.

The third starter is Martin Perez, who hasn’t lived up to his strong billing as a prospect. Last year, he threw nearly 200 innings, but was league-average, at best, posting a 4.50 FIP. The Rangers need Perez to show some of the flash from his 2013 rookie season, because after him, things are looking thin. The Rangers will enter the regular season without a viable No. 5 starter and their presumed No. 4, Andrew Cashner, is injured (biceps) and is coming off a disastrous second half in Miami, when he posted a 5.98 ERA and 1.75 WHIP. (Texas still handed him a $10 million contract for 2017.) The Rangers’ presumed No. 5 going into the season is A.J. Griffin, who is projected to have an ERA around 5 this season. Mike Hauschild or Chi Chi Gonzalez could steal that spot in spring training, and that tells you everything you need to know about how bare the cupboard is for starting pitchers in Texas.

One bright spot: Newcomer Tyson Ross might be able to rejoin the team in May and fill one of those rotation spots. Still, the Rangers are counting on Hamels and Darvish to be lights-out for them this season – they cannot afford for each to not provide 30 starts and All-Star statistics. It could be a bit of a last hurrah for Darvish as well because his contract is up at the end of the season.

3. Are the kids alright?

Gone are Ian Desmond and Carlos Beltran. In their place are Jurickson Profar and perhaps Joey Gallo. Both Profar and Gallo were considered uber-prospects just a few years ago – things haven’t worked out as planned, though.

Profar has only played 184 MLB games since 2012 because of injury, and Gallo’s Swiss-cheese swing has resulted in him striking out on just shy of 50 percent of his major-league plate appearances (he’s striking out 36 percent of the time at Triple-A). Profar is 24 and Gallo is 23. There’s still plenty of time for them to find their major-league form, but this is a critical year for both of them and the Rangers, who will need at least one of the now not-so prospects to break through.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO

Darvish and Hamels spearhead a rotation that finds a third starter, the bullpen shows its bad 2016 stats were inflated, and a balanced lineup is near the top of the American League in runs scored. As a result, the Rangers win 90-plus games again and contend for the division into the final week.

WORST-CASE SCENARIO

Darvish, who hasn’t thrown a qualifying number of innings since 2013, fails to do so again in 2017, the rest of the rotation and bullpen flounders. An average offense can’t make up the difference, and the Rangers are sellers at the trade deadline.

BEST BETS

Projected win total (via Atlantis Casino Resort): 86.5

World Series odds (via VegasInsider.com): 25/1

TOP FIVE FANTASY PLAYERS

1. Yu Darvish, SP: Darvish showed little rust in 17 starts after Tommy John surgery, posting an elite strikeout rate and improved control. You won’t get him cheap, as he’s being drafted among the top 10 fantasy pitchers.

2. Rougned Odor, 2B: Odor swings at everything, but nobody complained about it last season thanks to his 33 home runs. His power and speed make him a top-40 overall pick.

3. Adrian Beltre, 3B: Beltre will turn 38 in April, but he reversed a two-year decline with 32 homers and 104 RBI last season. He’ll be pretty good in 2017 – just don’t expect a repeat.

4. Cole Hamels, SP: Hamels is nothing if not dependable, having thrown more than 200 innings for seven consecutive seasons. His ERAs in Texas have just been OK, but he still whiffs a batter per inning.

5. Jonathan Lucroy, C: Lucroy hit 11 homers in two months after his trade to Texas, leading some to think he should be the top fantasy catcher off the board. His career .284 batting average gives him a big edge over others at his position.