MLB Coverage: Texas & Tampa Look To Bounce Back

The Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays are both coming off their own disappointments last year. The teams had met in the playoffs in both 2010 and 2011 and it seemed fair to think a Round Three might have taken place in the American League Championship Series. But the Rays missed the playoffs entirely, the Rangers blew the AL West and then the wild-card game and now both teams are somewhat under the radar as Opening Day 2013 approaches. The two teams even have the exact same expectations, as defined by the Over/Under win total posted in Las Vegas, of 86.5. Let’s check on both teams and see what the prospects for renewal are this season.

Texas: The Rangers have got problems. This is a franchise that seems almost in a sort of rebuilding mode—or at least a step back and re-tool mode. They let Josh Hamilton walk to the Angels. Texas is talking about trading Elvis Andrus if they can’t sign the shortstop to a long-term deal. There are problems in the pitching rotation and the front office made no effort to go after Zack Greinke, either last summer on the trade market or this winter via free agency.

It’s not as though Texas is a team without flaws. Nelson Cruz has been in decline offensively for two straight years. Ian Kinsler is coming off a down year. The signing of Lance Berkman to DH is not without risk, given Berkman’s knee problems last year. The same goes for adding A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate. Pierzynski is 35-years-old and I find it hard to believe he’ll repeat his out-of-character 27 home runs from last year.  David Murphy had a breakout year in left, but when your breakout year comes at age 31, how much of it is real and how much is a fluke?

When we look at the pitching rotation, the fifth spot is completely up in the air, Derek Holland is coming off a disappointing year and Ron Washington will have to rely on Alexi Ogando in the 3-spot. Ogando is a good pitcher in whatever role he’s been in, but he’s also not spent an entire season as a starter before. That leaves three-fifths of the starting pitching as a bona fide question mark, and in the bullpen the departures of Mike Adams and Koji Uehara make pretty much the entire setup team a question mark.

I’ve pointed out all the negatives with gusto, so let’s talk some positives. Yu Darvish showed he could pitch in the major leagues, winning 16 games with a 3.90 ERA and pitching well in the wild-card loss to Baltimore before the bullpen let the game get away. Matt Harrison has had two consecutive solid years. In the everyday lineup, Adrian Beltre has hit 67 home runs in his two years in Texas and done a pretty good job getting on base consistently. Joe Nathan resurrected his career as a closer and saved 37 games. Although he’s also 37 years old, so even this bright spot comes laden with a question mark.

It probably won’t come as a surprise that I think Texas is coming in “Under” its win projection.

Tampa Bay: It’s all going to be about starting pitching for the Rays. David Price won a well-deserved Cy Young Award last year, with 20 wins and a 2.56 ERA. Jeremy Hellickson, at age 26, has already established himself as a very good #2 pitcher in a tough division and it’s easy to see Hellickson winning a Cy of his own some day. Matt Moore had his first full season in the rotation, got better as the year went along and looks ready to make his own ascension to being an elite starter. Alex Cobb will get there too, posting a respectable 4.03 ERA last season in 23 starts.

These four arms can win you a World Series, especially when you add in closer Fernando Rodney, one of the best in baseball last year. They could use a little more depth in front of him, but Jake McGee and Joel Peralta are both solid arms and my guess is that Joe Maddon will find a way to get good innings out of at least a couple more arms.

But when we look at the offense, you realize how little margin of error the starting pitching has, or how hard the team could fall if there’s an injury of any length in the rotation. Tampa Bay has three spots in the lineup that you might as well write off as dead weight—catcher (38-year-old Jose Molina), first base (perpetually disappointing James Loney) and DH (over-the-hill Luke Scott). You can take two more spots—Yunel Escobar at short and Matt Joyce in left and assume you won’t get any more than just basic functional performance, nothing special.

The question marks are Desmond Jennings in center and Kelly Johnson at second base. Johnson used to be an up-and-down hitter, but now has had two straight bad years. Jennings disappointed a year ago with a poor .314 on-base percentage, but he’s still young and I’m a little more optimistic on his prospects.

There’s no getting around the huge burden that rests on the shoulders of Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. Longoria was gone much of the summer last year and the Rays fell too far off the pace in the AL East to come back. If nothing else, Longoria was his usual All-Star caliber self when he did play, and Zobrist has become one of the most underrated players in baseball, his offensive game strong in all phases and able to play rightfield or second base.

The expanded playoff format implemented last year works well for Tampa. They’re the kind of team that can excel in any one-game setting because of the starting pitching and if they get in the playoffs a team that’s heavily dependent on pitching and a couple offensive stars can go a long way, as the San Francisco Giants have shown us. It’s getting there that’s going to be the issue. I’m not sure where I stand on that yet—final predictions will come on Opening Day. I think that win number in Vegas sounds about right, but since a staple of TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage is that I have to make a pick, I give a slight lean to the Over. Pitching cures a lot of ills.