Perhaps the biggest move of the offseason was the retention of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. Jaramillo, who has produced four AL MVP winners and 14 Silver Sluggers in his 10 seasons with the Rangers, was a finalist for the Mets’ managerial job. When that went to Willie Randolph, the Rangers retained Jaramillo on a three-year, $1.3 million contract. The Rangers' young hitting corps -- Hank Blalock, Michael Young and Mark Teixeira -- was vocal in its desire to see Jaramillo return.
Justin Thompson and Jeff Zimmerman continue courageous comeback attempts from career-threatening injuries. Thompson, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 1999 because of shoulder problems, moved to the bullpen and pitched at Class AA last year. He could be in the mix if the Rangers need an extra lefty sometime this season. Zimmerman, who saved 28 games in 2001, hasn’t pitched the past three seasons because of elbow problems. He underwent another Tommy John procedure last year and has a shot to pitch before the end of the season. Having Zimmerman in the bullpen could be a huge second-half addition.
The Rangers will retire No. 26 during the season in honor of former manager Johnny Oates, who lost a three-year battle with a brain tumor on Christmas Eve. Oates managed the Rangers from 1995-01, winning the only three AL West titles in the franchise’s history. The Rangers also will wear a patch with Oates' number. Oates and Nolan Ryan (No. 34) will be the only Rangers with their numbers retired.
The free-agent market offered the largest class of established starters in five years. So why did the club come away empty-handed? Blame Chan Ho Park. Park’s failure in Texas has only heightened the sensitivity to pitching in the hitter-friendly Ameriquest Field in Arlington. And Park’s five-year, $65 million contract only has made the Rangers more reluctant to pay the premium prices to get pitchers to come to Texas.
After trimming the payroll and trading MVP Alex Rodriguez on the cusp of spring training, the Rangers were baseball's biggest surprise by sticking in the thick of the AL West race until the final week of the 2004 season. Now, they face what could be a bigger obstacle in the quest for their first playoff berth since 1999: expectations. That’s the price for an 18-game turnaround. The club has a core of young position players who are up to any challenge. But as is usually the case, it will be pitching that determines the finish.
The ’04 Rangers proved they don't need to have a dominant rotation to be contenders. If they are solid offensively and deep in the bullpen, they simply need adequate production from their starters. Kenny Rogers, now 40, once again will head up the rotation. Rogers is the winningest pitcher at Ameriquest Field for a reason. He doesn’t get intimidated by the hitter-friendly dimensions. He induces ground balls, taking a dangerous jetstream out of play. Ryan Drese followed Rogers’ lead and remade himself into a quality starter by supplanting his penchant for high fastballs with a love for the sinker. While the Rangers hold out little hope that free-agent bust Chan Ho Park will grasp that notion, they will give Chris Young, Ricardo Rodriguez (providing he’s recovered from an elbow injury) and Juan Dominguez a chance to blossom.
A versatile bullpen anchored by power arms was the biggest reason the Rangers stayed in contention in 2004. The Rangers led the AL in relief winning percentage (.694), relief wins (34), relief ERA (3.46) and save percentage (78.8 percent). They also have one of the brightest young closers in the game in Francisco Cordero. If Frank Francisco can handle the negative publicity he’s going to get from the chair-throwing incident, the club will be set for the final two innings. Carlos Almanzar, who had his own breakout season, and veteran Doug Brocail should handle the seventh. Because of the questionable rotation, the Rangers need at least one solid long man, likely R.A. Dickey. The lefty complement of Brian Shouse and Ron Mahay is versatile and resilient enough to pitch multiple innings.
Michael Young set the tone for the entire '04 season by walking into manager Buck Showalter’s office the first week of spring training to volunteer to move into A-Rod's vacant shortstop spot, averting a potentially sticky situation. Young had his second consecutive .300 season and settled in extremely well defensively. Young’s move also made new second baseman Alfonso Soriano, who didn’t want to change positions after his trade from the Yankees, more comfortable. Soriano, who is likely to move to the leadoff spot, must stay fresh in order to avoid what is becoming a traditional second-half slide.
Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock complete what may be the best infield in baseball. Three of the four infielders made the All-Star team last year; Teixeira’s two-week DL stay in April likely kept it from being a foursome. Still, Teixeira hit 33 home runs after June 1 and quickly has established himself as a 40-homer threat. In addition, the former third baseman has adapted quite well defensively at first. Blalock, who is underrated as a defender, has a .300 season and a 30-homer season to his credit. The Rangers believe he can do both in the same season by focusing more on being a line-drive hitter. Together, they are capable of combining for 75 homers and 240 RBIs.
The Rangers hope the outfield can make the same kind of jump. Kevin Mench climbed out of the doghouse to hit 26 homers, 18 of them after July 1. If he remains healthy for a full season, he could be the fourth 30-homer guy in the lineup. Now it’s time for Laynce Nix to step up. He showed he can handle the defensive responsibilities of Arlington's huge center field, but the jury is out on his bat; he still needs protection against lefties. That protection likely will come from Gary Matthews Jr., who gives the Rangers great versatility as a switch-hitting fourth outfielder. The Rangers hope the one-year contract they gave Richard Hidalgo will pay off. Hidalgo is seeking to re-establish himself as a big hitter, and the Rangers need some stability in right.
Rod Barajas earned the staff’s trust with competent, well-thought-out game plans. Though he struggled in the second half, he did provide some big hits and showed more power than anybody expected. Because of that, Barajas retains the job, and the Rangers will send prospect Gerald Laird back to the minors. Veteran Sandy Alomar Jr. will be Barajas’ backup, provided Alomar’s body allows it.
The Rangers lost out on Jose Valentin and were unwilling to pay $10 million per season for Carlos Delgado, so the club will try to patch together the DH spot with Greg Colbrunn against lefties and David Dellucci against right-handers. Because they carry an extra pitcher, the Rangers have a shorter bench, placing more emphasis on versatility. They did not have a true backup shortstop on the roster last year and may take a similar risk this season.
After a tumultuous offseason, Showalter instilled confidence in the young club. The club’s 18-game improvement made him AL Manager of the Year. It is consistent with Showalter’s career record; he routinely has turned in big improvements after a year or two with a club. But his track record also suggests that Showalter’s ouster soon follows. If he can let off the gas pedal in dealing with players, he may stick around to see this team win a World Series.
The Rangers' extraordinarily talented hitters makes this an up-and-coming team. That said, they improved more than anyone expected in 2004 and did it with a thin starting rotation. They’ve done little to bolster that rotation and are counting on their bullpen to duplicate its success. That’s a risky proposition. Given the rest of the AL West’s aggressive posture over the winter, the Rangers’ decision to do little may push them backwards in 2005.