Closer, catcher among Rangers' questions in 2014
Despite big-name additions, offense could hinge on young hitters' development
ARLINGTON -- Manager Ron Washington was asked at the Winter Meetings what would happen if his general manager told him there were no more moves to be made and the Rangers were done for the winter.
"Then we're done," Washington said. "We'll take the team we have and we'll go to war with it, and we'll feel good about it when we do that."
The Rangers weren't done. They ended up being one of the big players in the free-agent market when they signed outfielder Shin-Soo Choo for seven years and $130 million. That is the third-largest contract handed out to a free agent this season behind Robinson Cano ($240 million) and Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million).
So now that the Rangers played at the top of the free-agent market, they can look back at a busy offseason that still has seven weeks to go. Along with Choo, the have picked up first baseman Prince Fielder from the Tigers for Ian Kinsler, acquired outfielder Michael Choice from the Athletics in a four-player trade, signed catchers J.P. Arencibia and Geovany Soto and re-signed pitchers Jason Frasor and Colby Lewis.
Whether or not they make any more moves, there are still some big questions facing the Rangers while everybody is toasting the New Year.
10. Who will be the closer?
Joe Nathan is now with the Tigers and the Rangers will have a new closer in 2014. They will likely settle the issue by going back to the old closer. Neftali Feliz had the job during the World Series years of 2010-11 before being derailed by Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
Feliz appears to be healthy again, which puts him in position to be the Rangers' closer coming out of Spring Training. If Feliz is not ready, the Rangers could turn to premier setup reliever Tanner Scheppers or former Royals All-Star closer Joakim Soria. All are potentially good options but right now the job is Feliz's to lose.
9. Look at me, I can be, center field
Leonys Martin had a good first full season in the Major Leagues as the Rangers' center fielder in 2013. They are expecting better. Martin is a tremendous talent but he is still learning to play the game under Washington's high standards. The Rangers are hoping he is more than just another Oddibe McDowell.
8. This may not be a classic quarterback controversy but ...
In Soto and Arencibia, the Rangers have two catchers who have been everyday players in their careers. Soto was signed first this offseason with the belief that he would be the No. 1 catcher. Arencibia, signed during the Winter Meetings, knows that going in but is used to being the No. 1 catcher while with the Blue Jays, so pardon him if he believes he can unseat Soto on the depth chart.
One thing needs to be made clear. Both catchers need to raise the level of their game before they have any right to claim clear title to the No. 1 job. Both have a chance to do just that.
7. Can the good get better?
Pitcher Derek Holland and shortstop Elvis Andrus have been a big part of the Rangers' success over the past four years. Both have shined in big moments on big stages. Both have the security of multi-year contracts that have made them a big part of the Rangers' future.
They have been good players. At times they have been very good players. The Rangers wouldn't mind seeing both really take off.
6. Is this rotation really set?
On the surface, yes. The rotation is led by Yu Darvish, followed by Holland, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando. But ...
Harrison missed almost all of last season because of back surgery and Ogando was limited to 18 starts and five relief appearances because of his ailments. Perez has yet to pitch a full season in the big leagues despite a new multi-year contract. So maybe it might not be set after all even though the Rangers say they are getting good health reports this winter.
The Rangers' depth right now includes Nick Tepesch and Lewis, who both have had their own injury problems the past two years. Left-hander Robbie Ross will be given another chance to start as well so there could be some competition for at least one spot. There could also be more signings this winter.
5. Left on left in left
The Rangers signed Choo because of his high on-base percentage and ability to score runs. They have no concerns about his defense, which doesn't rank high in the latest trendy defensive metrics, and he does not have good splits against left-handed pitching.
His arrival pushes aside Choice, the prodigy acquired from the Athletics. But there could still be a role for Choice as a right-handed-hitting complement to Choo in left or Mitch Moreland at designated hitter.
4. Little Big Man
After all the debate, Jurickson Profar is now the Rangers' second baseman. He still has to earn it but the Rangers have at least figured out a way to get Profar into the lineup at one spot as a potential everyday player.
3. The mega-deal. Who won?
This is a two-part answer as to who had the upper hand in the trade of Fielder for Kinsler. Kinsler is signed for four more years while Fielder has seven years left on his contract. So they go head-to-head for the next four years and then the Rangers see what Fielder has left for the final three. But they are both exceptional offensive players. Unless the Rangers have badly miscalculated, Fielder, who turns 30 on May 9, should still be a premium power hitter and run producer for several years to come.
2. Who is the next prodigy?
Catcher Jorge Alfaro, 20, is ranked No. 1 in the system by MLB.com but spent most of last season at low Class A Hickory in the South Atlantic League. He played well in 19 games in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .386, so the Rangers may try to push him to Double-A Frisco and get him ready by 2015. The Rangers also have two excellent middle-infield prospects in Luis Sardinas and Rougned Odor.
Beyond that, there are two things to watch in the Rangers' system. First of all, Luke Jackson leads a talented group of young pitchers who will have a chance to impress at Frisco. The other is how quickly will come the impressive list of young hitters in the lower levels of the system, a group that includes Joey Gallo, Ronald Guzman, Lewis Brinson, Nomar Mazara, Nick Williams and Jairo Beras.
The Rangers are loaded with offensive talent in their farm system but the big hitters have not yet made it to Double-A. It will be worth watching how fast those players come this season.
1. Are the Rangers still a playoff team?
Still too early to tell. They have the foundation for a terrific pitching staff if everybody stays healthy. Despite their high-priced additions, their offense will likely depend on how fast some of their young hitters develop, most notably Martin, Profar and Choice. A breakthrough year from Moreland would also be huge.
The Rangers are in the mix with the Athletics, Angels and Mariners but are no longer the clear-cut favorite in the division. Far from it.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.