2016 Texas Rangers: How the AL West came back to Texas

On deck: The Rangers signed Ian Desmond to play left field for 2016, and despite Michael Young’s enthusiasm, it’s a curious move. Forget about Josh Hamilton, who’s mostly being paid by the Angels and played like it in the playoffs, or the first-round draft pick the Rangers forfeited. The Rangers have not one, but two, cheaper options in the minors, who will be available after their arbitration date has been delayed. Number one is soon-to-be-21-year-old Dominican Nomar Mazara, who slashed .286/.366./.443 and had 16 outfield assists at AA/AAA last year. Number two, barely, is Lewis Brinson, a 21-year-old 2012 No. 1 pick, who slashed .332/.403/.601 and stole 18 bases at A/AA/AAA last year and can play center field. Including Nick Williams in the Cole Hamels deal last summer might have seemed generous. When you consider Williams was the Rangers’ third-best outfield prospect, by a Texas-sized distance, you realize it wasn’t.

2015 Stat: Colby Lewis led the Rangers in wins with 17 (losing nine) despite a 4.66 ERA. The last Rangers pitcher to win as many with as high an ERA was Kenny Rogers, who bettered Lewis by a game with an 18-9 record and a 4.76 ERA in 2004.

What he said: Rangers special assistant to the GM Michael Young on Ian Desmond: “Twenty-nine other teams missed the boat on this dude. Twenty-nine teams missed the boat. He’s a Ranger now, and we’re going to reap the benefits.” What he meant: “We’re going to put a defensively challenged shortstop with a .674 OPS in left field and give up our first-round draft pick. What could go wrong? Could 28 other teams have been right?”

Outlook: The Texas Rangers were so good the last six weeks of 2015, it’s easy to forget how bad they were for the first four-and-a-half months. And it’s still a borderline call on whether the Rangers won the AL West or Houston lost it as if the latter was turning a lead over to its simmering bullpen.

The Rangers didn’t peek above .500 for good until Aug. 15, and didn’t rise to first place for good until exactly a month later, after the 144th game of the season. In all, the Rangers spent just 20 days in first place, and one of those was in April with a 3-3 record. But they beat the Astros 13 out of 19 and swept them three times: in May after starting 8-16, in early August when they were still under .500, and in a four-game series in September with the division title at stake.

The Rangers won 88 games, fewer than any other division winner, and 39 of those came after Cole Hamels joined them on July 31. It’s not even that Hamels was that good but that the Rangers’ pitching had been that bad. In 20 starts for the Phillies, Hamels had a 3.64 ERA and a 6-7 record; in 12 starts with the Rangers, Hamels had a 3.66 ERA and a 7-1 record.

The Rangers finished 23rd in MLB in team  ERA and last in the AL West even while winning it. Remember that next summer when you hear one of the many cliches about how pitching is more important than hitting.

Hamels’ acquisition gave the Rangers a better pitcher  — this is a team that started Wandy Rodriguez for nearly half the season — but he and Derek Holland also bestowed on them status.

Having Hamels and Holland at season’s end was like the difference between buying the best seats in the stadium and sneaking down when the ushers weren’t looking. With Hamels and Holland, the Rangers belonged there.

Their postseason failure was disappointing, if only because they have a history of them and because their defense got stage fright and approached the baseball as if expecting it to bounce like a fumbled football. That and they’re paying Elvis Andrus $15 million; for that kind of money he should make routine plays even in extraordinary circumstances. Especially in them.

But the Rangers’ return to the playoffs last year should have been a footnote that  no AL team has been consistently better this decade. Since 2010, the Rangers have had four 90-win seasons, two pennants, and three division titles in the last six. They haven’t won a Workd Series as the Royals and Red Sox have, but they had one in the tip of Nelson Cruz’s glove.

They may not win one this year, either, and it won’t be easy to win the AL West again as the Astros get older and better. But the Rangers have survived free-agent defections and serious injuries and  they’ll probably win 85-90 more games again this year.

But even more than 2015, they’ll need to be on the high end of that setting in 2016.

Team Song: Bowling for Soup: Ohio (Come back to Texas)

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