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After entering the off-season with pessimism for the future, I enter the final month before the regular season with a shifted optimism surrounding this Rangers ball club. I’ll be spending almost the entire month of March in Arizona for Spring Training and will offer audio/video and other updates throughout, but for now, here’s my Starting Nine in advance of the coming year.

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1. Reasons for optimism:
It can’t be worse than last year. Even if the record is somehow worse, it won’t be near the disappointment after the shock of last year.

The Rangers might not have had the league’s worst record, but they were certainly the laughing stock. The shock was a wake up call and has led to a rejuvenated focus and urgency to right the ship.

I believe in the competitiveness of these athletes. Four key players enter the season with a major edge to prove something and, just like a contract year, this intangible doesn’t prove prophetic all the time, but it sure as heck exists. Give me three of the below four and good things will result from it:

Prince Fielder – Entering the year, Major League Baseball fans wondered if he’s on a steep decline, a continued trend from a few years back. Before he left Detroit, Tigers fans wondered if he really cared. Evan Grant’s profile on the sluggersuggests that the latter might be a diagnosed and cured issue and if that is the case, the answer to the first question could prove to be a resounding, “No.” Prince does care and his grand entrance to Arlington will simply be one year delayed.

Elvis Andrus – He knows the narrative that has developed about him and he’s also aware the Rangers were shopping his services. It was like his career was daydreaming, complacent with where he stood, and baseball slapped him in the face. Andrus rededicated himself this off-season (and used some new fitness technology) and that work, combined with less responsibility offensively, perhaps, will help him bounce back and help this team like his contract suggests he should.

Shin-Soo Choo – Had last season not been such a disaster on the field and in the training room, there’s no way Choo would have played as long as he did on his bum ankle. Even watching him walk–no, hobble–around the clubhouse after games was painful. But he toughed it out because he felt a responsibility because of the team’s struggles and his newly established price tag. Wanting to shed the “bust” label and pay back his orgnaization, expect a big bounce back from Choo, too.

Leonys Martin – His case has different origins, but will hopefully produce a similar result. At times last year it seemed like the organization was so frustrated with his stalled development that his time might be running thin (which would have been a drastic measure because of his contract). But, he turned things around the last two months of the season, hitting .295 versus .262 before that. But, it was not just statistically. As a matter of fact, the statistics are a small part because it was mainly about his approach. Before, he was a swinger. After, he became a hitter, with a much cleaner approach, making it at least appear as if he had a clue as to what he was doing. A bad year might mean the end of the Martin experiment, but after tasting some success at the end of the year, my guess is he will parlay it into the coming season.

The addition of Yovani Gallardo adds great depth to their starting rotation. Texas’ five isn’t the most talented in baseball (Here’s Buster Olney’s top-10 prior to the Rangers addition of Gallardo and the Padres’ addition of Shields) but they regain form as a “tough” rotation to get through and one that is more than capable of anchoring a long winning streak, something that just wasn’t really possible last year. With plenty of competition and legitimate options for their fifth spot, I think the Rangers pitching will return as a strength of this team. And if injuries hit them yet again, at least they’ll be drawing from options with MLB experience and not an empty well like last year.

The AL West is a very confusing division to forecast, probably thanks in large part to the enigmatic Rangers. Oakland and Houston don’t scare me too much as playoff teams, though neither will win fewer than 72 games. The Angels are my pick entering Spring but the Mariners have the chance to be really special, their potential is just far more unrealized. No one in this division is dominant, by my estimation, which leaves room for the Rangers to make a play. It will be fun, if nothing else, as I think this grouping might be the most competitive, internally, in baseball, even if it doesn’t have the best teams.

2. Reasons for pessimism
The AL West is a very confusing division to forecast…You get it. But if some of the questions for their divisional foes are answered with positive responses, the Rangers might be stuck in a gauntlet of a group.

Plus, the Rangers have a ton of “Ifs.” They could be good IF Colby Lewis’ second-half is a more accurate depiction of who he can still be and IF Derek Holland can demonstrate consistency and carry over his September showcase and IF the same can be said for Neftali Feliz and IF Prince and Andrus and Choo turn things around and IF…I’ll stop. Every team faces these, but I worry that the Rangers batch are more worrisome and impactful than typical.

…And that doesn’t even consider my two favorite players to watch last year, Adrian Beltre and Rougned Odor, who worry me, even if it is only a precaution. Beltre is not getting younger and demonstrated a noticeable drop in power last year, even if his batting average shined. Odor is facing the ominous “sophomore slump” and for the free-swinger that he is, the “book” on him might allow pitchers to feast on his tendencies. If you subscribe to the importance of a batting order, this team must fascinate you. They are going to try and make a few square pegs join the round pegs in fitting into the round holes. The biggest problem is that this team doesn’t have a perfect third hitter, while they have two good candidates to lead off and zero good candidates to hit second. Some people will tell you that this is all an overrated conversation, but they might have an awkwardly fitting lineup that creates inconsistency.

I didn’t think Dave Magadan would be back. Heck, Dave Magadan didn’t think he would be back according to a source. The Rangers used to get better because of their hitting coach when Rudy Jaramillo was in the role. With some young hitters who will need some guidance, can Magadan be the guy he really wasn’t last year?

3. What are we going to get from Jeff Bannister?
After talking to a few coaches in the organization, the word on Bannister so far is very encouraging. It should be noted that one coach in particular was loyal to Bogar and was initially hesitant. It appears as if Bannister’s soldiers are buying in so far.

One area the club has really lacked over the last few years is development at the Major League level. The development shouldn’t end when players get called up, it should continue. With his minor league background, where development is king, Bannister has a reputation of being a strong talent developer at the top level. With promising prospects on the horizon, someone who can help continue their growth could be huge.

The guy is undoubtedly a fountain of positivity. Is it real? Is it an act? All that matters is that the players buy in. But these players are men, not kids (for the most part) so if it isn’t real, they’ll see through it. I’m very interested to see how this team responds the first time it goes on a four or five-game losing streak. Does everyone remain on board and in tune to a first-time manager? Are they buying in to his positivity then? I’m not suggesting they won’t, but this is a concern for any manager in his first go-around, not to mention one with an aggressive personality.

There are jobs to be won in Surprise and I think the Rangers have down a good job creating competition with the candidates they’ve brought to camp. The goal is obviously for someone to “win” the job and not get it because they sucked the least. There are three in particular I’m most interested in following:

Left Field–The best case for the organization would be for Ryan Rua to show that last year wasn’t a fluke and to go out and win this job. He would give the team an option for this year and a bright outlook for the future. It is most likely that two players will split the opportunities in a platoon and that one person won’t win this job. The other candidates are Ryan Ludwick, Nate Schierholtz, Jake Smolinski, Mitch Moreland, and Michael Choice. It will be the most interesting race.

Leadoff–I don’t live and die by lineups but I do think finding the right leadoff hitter is important. Choo is the on-base king but Martin has the tools that could make an exceptional leadoff man, allowing Choo to add depth to the lineup. Ultimately, though, if Martin of the beginning of last year is the player the Rangers have, this has to be Choo’s job again. However, if August/September Martin arrives, he’ll likely win the gig.

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Fifth starter–I remember when the Nationals nurtured Ross Detwiler with high hopes for his future. An injury and a role change later, his time there expired and I think their loss is Texas’ gain. Of the candidates for the fifth spot, I think he has the highest ceiling. It would be amazing if Chi-Chi Gonzalez won the job in the Spring but I don’t think that will happen.

5. The rest of the AL West

Welcome back to the AL West, Nelson Cruz…
LA Angels–Bullpen issues have plagued them in recent years, but they appear to enter this year with the best mix on paper than any other year in GM Jerry DiPoto’s tenure. Their lineup is so tough even without Josh Hamilton, especially because of Kole Calhoun’s emergence last year. Albert Pujols may no longer be a triple crown candidate, but he still has some hitting gas left in the tank. Their rotation is similar to Texas’ in that it might not have the top-end star-power 1-3, but its depth is impressive. If Andrew Heaney lives up to his prospect hype, or even approaches it, then we are talking about one of the five best rotations in baseball.

Seattle–I’m curious if Austin Jackson has a bounce-back year or not. He could be one of those guys that helps get this team over the hump. A lot of potential in their lineup, though I think they’ll be inconsistent and very streaky like new addition, Nelson Cruz. Their starting rotation is the best in the division and if the lineup clicks, I think they have the best chance to knock off the defending divisional kings, the Halos, from their throne.

Houston–They are maybe a year away, if they get there with their formula. With plenty of young talent, they’ll impress the heck out of you at times, making you want to give them a World Series in 2017, but then they’ll have stretches where you wonder what the eff is going on. That’s the way young people go, right, Wash?

Oakland–Somehow they’ll find a way to win 80 games.

6. Minor Leaguer who might make an impact:

Keone Kela. While you don’t want it to be as drastic as last year, the bullpen personnel carousel will exist again and if Kela, a 21-year old, hard-throwing righty who finished last year dominating AA, does his job at the beginning of this year, it won’t be long until he gets a crack at things in Arlington. Relief pitching is the easiest role for a rookie to enter and impact positively so I like his chances.

7. Both sides of the coin…
Guy most primed for a breakout: Leonys Martin. I’m hanging onto this because he’s got the tools to be a damn good hitter. He showed a flash of how good he can be in the last two months of last year when he started to have a more sound approach at the plate. I’m buying his stock in hopes that he carries that over to this year.

Guy most primed for a drop off: Adrian Beltre. I hate to say it because he’s my favorite Ranger, but let’s look at last year. His power dipped to 19 home runs, but we ignored it because he hit .324 and was one of the game’s best hitters. However, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was a uniquely high, .345, well above the league’s average of .300. For those who believe that statistic, it is telling us that he got pretty lucky last year. If that number comes back down to life which, for someone like Beltre who isn’t using speed to his advantage, it likely might, plus add in the age effect which is overdue for the Hall-of-Fame bound (if you ask me) third baseman, we might be talking about Joey Gallo at 3B in 2016.

8. If they are out of it come trade deadline time, they seriously need to consider trading…Yu Darvish.
To be clear, I’m talking about a season that is trending towards a sub-70 win season. If that is the case, due to whatever events, the front office would have to consider a quick reset and imagine what they could get for a top-line pitcher who has at least a year left on his contract. Remember the last time they had a star in that situation? Mark Teixeira. That trade helped change the course for this franchise and Darvish could bring in the same type of haul. Just like players have strengths and weaknesses, GMs do, too. Frankly, I think JD is as good as anyone in baseball selling stars for gold. Depending on the season Darvish was having individually, he could be working towards activating an opt-out clause that would make him a free agent after the 2016 season. He is going to command $30m/year and the Rangers have to honestly ask if he’s worth it. For the record, I’m in the camp of folks who think he’s a tremendous talent capable of winning multiple Cy Youngs, but he hasn’t yet shown me he can rise up and grab the game by the you-know-whats in big moments.

9. Random Thoughts
The worst thing that can happen to the team, even worse than a bad year record-wise, is for Derek Holland to pitch inconsistently, further advancing the concerns of whether he will ever be the top-line guy the organization hoped, Rougned Odor to take a step back, and Leonys Martin to show no signs of growth or maturity. What made this off-season so tough is the mystery that surrounded the value of the cards in the team’s hand. They can’t have that again with so many important players going into next off-season.

Joey Gallo shouldn’t see time in Arlington this year unless he has an unbelievable minor league campaign (like Chris Davis did the year he got called up). And even if he does, I’d be inclined to keep him down on the farm.

I hope to see Chi-Chi Gonzalez in Arlington and in the starting rotation this year, not because of injury to others, but because it clicks for him and he makes it impossible for them not to call him up.

Jake Thomspon is a promising talent and I’m excited to follow his season on the farm.

I hope he figures it out, but I have zero expectations for Mitch Moreland…unless he’s converted to a left-handed reliever.

In 2016, if Adrian Beltre is on the roster, he and Prince Fielder will split 1B/DH responsibilities.

Elvis Andrus will steal 40+ bases. And I hope he does it hitting ninth in the order.

If the Rangers are in it come July, I predict that they’ll trade for Cliff Lee.

Prince Fielder will hit at least go .280/38/110 with an OBP over .390.

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