2015 Texas Rangers: This year won’t be much better

Jeff Russell

Jeff Russell was born in Cincinnati and came up with the Reds, but most at home in his career with the Rangers. The Reds traded Russell in a package for Buddy Bell in 1985, a year after Russell led the NL with 18 losses. The Rangers converted him to a reliever by 1989, and Russell saved an AL-best 38 games, had a 1.98 ERA and finished ninth in the Cy Young voting. He never started again. He saved 30 games each in ’91 and ’92, the last two for Oakland after a deadline trade for Jose Canseco. Russell saved 33 for Boston in ’93 after signing as a free agent, was traded to Cleveland and then rejoined the Rangers as a free agent, saving 20 more games in 1995, his next-to-last season. Russell’s son James is a left-handed reliever who has three saves in five seasons; he trails his dad by 183. Career totals: 56-73, 3.75 ERA, 186 saves (134 for Texas), 1099.2 innings, 1,065 hits, 693 strikeouts, 112 ERA+, .700 OPS against, .255 batting average against, 14.9 WAR, no Hall of Fame votes in 2002, his only year of eligibility (Scott Sanderson, Robby Thompson and Mike Henneman also had none in 2002, one vote behind Lenny Dysktra and Tim Wallach).

On deck: A year ago a Grantland.com headline called Joey Gallo “the most interesting man in the minors,” and then gave us a few thousand words that made him less so. Like no few of his home runs, it was probably longer than it needed to be. The web site might be right, though — Gallo hit 42 home runs last year, struck out 179 times, is just 21 years old, stands as big as his stats at 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, and has the same name as a former New York mobster who once befriended Jerry Orbach, the actor who played Detective Lenny Briscoe on Law & Order. Talk about a strange batting order. Gallo has a career 1.004 OPS and .627 slugging percentage, but only .858 and .524 at a half season of AA last year. That’s an only the Rangers, led in home runs last year by Adrian Beltre with 19, could play everyday, if somewhere other than third base. The worry is Gallo’s strikeout rate: he’s fanned 429 times in 1,264 minor-league plate appearances, or once every 2.94 plate appearances. In AA it was more often — once every 2.53 plate appearances. The worst in the majors in 2014, according to the Dallas Morning News, was Chris Davis at 3.03. It seems a fair comparison: like Davis, Gallo has 50-homer and 200-strikeout potential. Gallo may well be the most interesting man in spring training this year; in the last two he’s had 11 at-bats, homering once and striking out seven times.

Trivia: Who was the Rangers’ Opening Day starter last year (hint: he’s still with the team even though they lost 14-10)? And who was the last Ranger starting pitcher to start consecutive opening days? Answers below.

What he said: New Rangers manager Jeff Bannister: “We shut the door on last year. I think this group of men is ready to shut that door and move on.” What he meant: “We shut the door on last year. Too bad we had our finger stuck in it.”

Outlook: The Rangers won 67 games last year, their fewest full-season total in 29 years and a drop of 24 wins from 2013, the second-biggest in baseball (the world chamnpion Red Six fell from 97 to 71).

It was a combination of bad luck, bad planning and bad play that ended a streak of four straight 90-win seasons, five straight winning ones. Some of all three remain for 2015.

The Rangers hit just 111 home runs last year, 14th in the major leagues and 27th in MLB, 65 fewer than they hit in 2013 (and 89 less than the 200 they hit in 2012). That’s not all Nelson Cruz — he hit just 27 in 2013 because he served his 50-game suspension and just 24 in 2012.

It’s less than half as many as the Rangers hit in 2005 (Mark Teixeira 43, Alfonso Soriano 36, David Delluci 29, Hank Blalock and Kevin Mench 25, Michael Young 24, Rod Barajas 21, Gary Matthews Jr. 17), when 260 home runs won them just 79 games. It’s 13 fewer home runs than they hit in 1994, when they only played 114 games because of a strike. It’s the fewest the Rangers have hit in 24 years, since the 1990 team hit 110 (and won 83 games).

The return of Prince Fielder should improve the Rangers’ home run total, and maybe the wins total, too, if not by much. The Rangers still won’t be a good team in 2015. The starting pitching is shallow and injury prone, the bullpen — full of mostly young, unproven relievers — might be the worst in MLB, and unless Shin Soo-Choo improves, the outfielder won’t be far ahead.

The Rangers don’t even look like the best team in Texas anymore, and in a difficult division like the AL West, that means a last-place team again.

Which makes their offseason trade of prospects to Milwaukee for starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo all the more curious. Gallardo is in the last year of his contract, and the Rangers already have enough bad contracts (Fielder at six more years for $144 million; Choo at six more years for $116 million; shortstop Elvis Andrus at eight more years for $118 million, with a vesting option for 2023 at $15 million more) without re-signing Gallardo.

That’s not all the Rangers’ faul. Would they have been so quick to deal second baseman Ian Kinsler if they had known Jurickson Profar would be hurt for two seasons in a row? And some of it is their fault. What possibly motivated them to extend Andrus, who had a .361 career slugging percentage in the minors, for $118 million? 2023 can’t get here soon enough.

The Rangers have never had a surplus — of talent or dollars — they couldn’t spend.

Their farm system is still good enough that they soon won’t need Gallardo. Alex Gonzalez (2.94 ERA in two years) and Luis Ortiz (1.77 ERA in 20.1 innings) are No. 1 picks who are pitching like it; Luke Jackson is a No. 1 pick who hasn’t always pitched like it (4.29 ERA, 224 walks and 484 strikeouts in 455.2 innings); and Jake Thompson (2.98 ERA, 252 strikeouts in 241.1 innings) was an astute pickup for Joakim Soria, as was former Tigers No. 1 Corey Knebel (104 strikeouts in 76.1 innings), who was not so astutely dealt for Gallardo.

In a year or two they might start to make a difference. But not yet.

Trivia answer: Tanner Scheppers was the Rangers’ Opening Day starter last year, and he gave up eight hits and seven runs in four innings. The last Ranger pitcher to be the Opening Day starter in consecutive years was Kevin Millwood, who did four in a row from 2006-09.

Team song: Bob Dylan: Joey

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