AL Preview: Lone Star State Edition
With Spring Training underway throughout baseball, we will take a look at the offseason moves made by the other American League teams. Two teams will be reviewed each Sunday until the beginning of the regular season.
By Bob Toth
A second Texas team joins the strong American League West as the Houston Astros move to the AL beginning with the 2013 season.
The new alignment finally ends an imbalance in the divisions within Major League Baseball. The Astros leave the NL Central behind, dropping its total number of teams to five like the rest of the league, and move to the AL West, where only four teams have existed since expansion and the move of the Milwaukee Brewers from the AL Central to the NL Central in 1998. Both leagues now feature 15 teams, which has forced interleague play to occur all season long.
When the Brewers switched divisions, it was thought to be a great financial benefit to the club as they established new rivals and fans with formerly unfamiliar teams. The proximity and interest of a rivalry with the nearby Chicago Cubs helped to fuel their cause. The Astros may find themselves in a similar position with the interstate Texas Rangers, but will find their path to success and the playoffs a much more difficult road to travel, regardless of the potential financial windfalls.
After leading the division for nearly the entire season, the Rangers (93-69) lost the AL West on the final day of the season in a 12-5 loss against the surprise Oakland Athletics. Despite the result, they were still playoff-bound, clinching a wild card spot versus the Baltimore Orioles in a one-game play-in series. A 5-1 defeat to the Orioles in Arlington ended their season prematurely. The Rangers were either in or tied for first in all but three games throughout the season, but the most important one, the final game, was not amongst them.
The Rangers will return to the field in 2013 with a notably different lineup, one that is light a five-time All-Star and former AL MVP.
The most significant moves that the Rangers made this offseason were the ones that the team did not make. Their free agent slugger, Josh Hamilton, bolted town for big money with the division-rival Los Angeles Angels. The 31-year-old, whose off-the-field problems are well-documented and cost him several years of opportunity in the major leagues, found himself in Texas after one season in Cincinnati. His offensive production continued to impress year after year, as he slugged a career-high 43 home runs last season and drove in 128 runs while batting .285, his lowest mark since 2009. His five-year, $133 million contract in Los Angeles will pay him $32 million a season in the final two years of his contract.
The team, looking for an upgrade in the rotation, was rumored to be interested in free agent starting pitcher Zack Greinke instead of Hamilton, but he too signed in Los Angeles with the Dodgers on a six-year, $147 million deal.
Longtime Rangers’ infielder Michael Young was dealt to the Phillies in exchange for pitchers Josh Lindblom and Lisalverto Bonilla. The seven-time AL All-Star ends his 13-year run in Texas and will become the Phillies’ new third baseman after waving his no-trade clause in December. He batted .277 last year with eight home runs and 67 RBI, his lightest offensive numbers since 2002. He served primarily as a DH last season, but saw some playing time at the four infield positions as well.
Catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli left Arlington for New England, signing a one-year contract in Boston after some injury concern delays. He initially came to terms on a three-year, $39 million contract with the Red Sox, but was later diagnosed with a hip condition that forced him and the team to come to terms on a new deal. He batted .227 last season, hitting 24 home runs and driving in 56 in 108 games. He made 69 starts behind the plate for the Rangers, 24 more at first base, and another 9 in the designated hitter role. He is expected to primarily play first base in Boston.
Berkman heads back to the state of Texas after two years in St. Louis, where he won a World Series with the Cardinals in 2011 over the same Rangers. His 2012 season was plagued by injuries (he played just 32 games) and there were debates as to whether Berkman would even return to baseball for 2013. At 37 years of age, he signed a one-year, $11 million contract with the Rangers with a team option for 2014. The Rangers may look to utilize Berkman as a DH while back in the AL. In his last full season in 2011, Berkman batted .301 with 31 home runs and drove in 94 runs, but last season he was limited to a .259 average with two home runs and seven RBI before succumbing to a knee injury. He returns to the state of Texas after spending his first 13 big league seasons in Houston.
Pierzynski heads to the Lone Star State after his best professional season offensively last year with the White Sox. He signed a one-year deal worth $7.5 million to join his fourth major league ball club after eight seasons in Chicago. He set or tied career-highs in several offensive categories last season, including home runs (27), runs batted in (77), walks (28), runs scored (68), slugging percentage (.501) and on-base plus slugging (.827).
Even with the loss of some significant offensive production, the Rangers still return several key contributors from the last several seasons.
Third baseman Adrian Beltre is coming off of an MVP-caliber season. He was amongst the league leaders in most offensive categories and won the AL Gold Glove Award at third base. He has hit more than 30 home runs and over 100 RBI in both of his seasons with the Rangers.
Ian Kinsler has played 155 games or more each of the last two seasons. While his power dropped last season (32 home runs in 2011; 19 in 2012), his doubles total increased by eight. He is a three-time All-Star second baseman who has twice hit more than 30 home runs in a season.
Nelson Cruz played in all but three games for the Rangers last season and continued to put up the power numbers becoming the expectation of the Texas right fielder. He set new career-high totals last season in hits, runs, at bats, plate appearances, runs batted in, and strikeouts. He has great value for the team’s lineup, but his name has been linked to the recent Miami Biogenesis performance enhancing drugs scandal.
The Rangers have two top young prospects to keep an eye on as well. Jurickson Profar, a shortstop who hit his first major league home run against the Indians last season, is currently blocked at shortstop by Elvis Andrus. Mike Olt, a third baseman, is suffering from the same situation with Beltre slugging in front of him. Olt was called up to the majors late in the season after hitting 28 home runs and driving in 82 runs at Double-A Frisco.
The Rangers’ pitching staff returns largely unchanged. Midseason acquisition Ryan Dempster is gone, as are bullpen arms Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. Joakim Soria will join Joe Nathan and Alexi Ogando in the back end of the bullpen. Matt Harrison will lead the rotation again, coming off of an 18-11 season. Yu Darvish will look to improve upon a 16-9 “rookie” season last year.
The Rangers won the season series last year against the Indians, taking it 5-4. They outscored Cleveland 41-33 in the nine games. Former Indians’ starter Jeanmar Gomez appeared in all three series; he was a successful 2-1 in those appearances.
The final matchup of the season between the two teams was one of the more exciting ones of the season. Trailing 4-2 in Arlington in the top of the ninth against Rangers’ closer Nathan, Ezequiel Carrera led off the inning with a home run. After Russ Canzler followed with a pinch-hit single, Jason Kipnis drove a 1-0 pitch over the wall in right field to give the Indians a 5-4 lead. Chris Perez would give up a two-out triple to Andrus in the bottom of the ninth, but was able to strike out David Murphy on three pitches to end it.
Former Indians’ outfielder Aaron Cunningham is also in camp with the team as a non-roster invitee.
The AL West will be a hotly contested division, as has been the case for the last several years, but the Rangers are primed and poised to make another run, even without Hamilton or any major upgrade to the present roster.
The Astros (55-107) head to the American League and get to endure the struggles of essentially playing an interleague schedule for an entire season. They will play teams they saw no more than a handful of times each season and play in ballparks generally unfamiliar to the bulk of the players on the roster.
Compounding the problem in Houston is the barebones payroll implemented by the organization. The payroll of the team after the trade deadline in 2012 was just a little over $21 million. It has been in steady decline each of the last several seasons. Last year, the team dumped new Indians’ pitcher Brett Myers, in addition to Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez, and J.A. Happ, to save money. It was undoubtedly a contributing factor to the team losing over 100 games for the second straight year, the only times in franchise history.
With their fresh start in the American League, the Astros have a new manager and a new look to their uniforms. Bo Porter, former third base coach for the Washington Nationals, replaced current Cleveland Indians’ third base coach Brad Mills, who was fired from the skipper position last season.
This offseason, the Astros continued their trend of not contributing significant funds to their roster. The biggest addition was Carlos Peña, who should see time at designated hitter and first base. Peña played in 160 games last season with the Tampa Bay Rays. He spent the majority of his time at first base and batted .197 with 61 runs batted in. He has hit no higher than .227 in the last four seasons and has seen a drop in home runs from 39 in 2009 to 28 in 2010 and 2011 to last season’s 19. He set a new career-high with 182 strikeouts last season.
The biggest star-in-the-making is 5’5” second baseman Jose Altuve. The lone All-Star representative for the Astros last season in his first full season in the big leagues, he led the team in several offensive categories, including batting average (.290), runs (80), hits (167), and stolen bases (33). Porter’s hope is to move the 22-year-old Altuve out of the leadoff spot, where he spent last season, and get him into a spot in the lineup to see and take more pitches and to better benefit from his ability to get on base and become a threat.
Outfielder Justin Maxwell was one of just three players on the Houston roster to reach double-digits in home run production. He slugged a career- and team-high 18 in 124 games while playing all three outfield spots. His 53 runs batted in were second on the team to left fielder J.D. Martinez, who led the way with 11 home runs and 55 RBI.
One of the other significant offensive contributors of last season, shortstop Jed Lowrie, was dealt to Oakland on February 4th with Fernando Rodriguez for first baseman Chris Carter, pitcher Brad Peacock, and minor leaguer Max Stassi.
In 97 games with Houston in 2012, Lowrie batted .244 with 16 home runs and 42 runs batted in. He only appeared at shortstop for the Astros after playing a variety of infield positions for the Red Sox in each of his previous four years in Boston. He had been acquired prior to the 2012 season in exchange for reliever Mark Melancon.
Carter has bounced around from several teams, not yet able to latch on to a regular job in the majors. Drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 2005, he was traded to Arizona for Carlos Quentin, then flipped eleven days later by the Diamondbacks to Oakland as part of the Dan Haren trade. He has shown great power in the minor leagues – 25 home runs in 2007, 39 in 2008, 28 in 2009, 31 in 2010, 21 in a partial season in 2011 and 12 in half of a season in 2012 – but has not been able to translate the power to consistent major league production. He hit 16 last season with the A’s, but batted .239 (a career high) with 83 strikeouts in 67 games.
The pitching staff looks quite a bit different than that of the beginning of the 2012 season and appears to have several spots up for grabs. In addition to the trade deadline moves of Myers, Happ, and Rodriguez, the team dealt closer Wilton Lopez to the Colorado Rockies in the offseason for two pitchers. Lopez was 6-3 with ten saves and a 2.17 ERA out of the bullpen for the Astros and took over closer duties from Myers after he was dealt.
The team claimed Philip Humber, he of the perfect game last season, off of waivers in November from the Chicago White Sox. They also signed left-hander Erik Bedard to a minor league deal with a Spring Training invite.
Lucas Harrell, a 27-year-old right-hander, will lead the rotation into 2013 after an 11-11 season for Houston with a 3.76 ERA.
The Astros took two of three from the Indians last season in Houston, confusing the Indians’ heavily left-handed lineup with two unknown left-handed starters. After supplying Ubaldo Jimenez with a pair of runs in the series opening win for the Tribe, the team mustered just one run in each of the remaining games of the series against the left-handers Happ and Dallas Keuchel. The losses to end the series marked a turning point in the Indians’ campaign, as it knocked the team out of first place for the last time.
In 18 games all-time against the Astros, the Indians are 8-10. They are an even 3-3 at home and 5-7 on the road.
Several former Indians’ players will attempt to make the Houston roster out of spring, including two former top draft picks, pitcher Alex White and non-roster Spring Training invitee Trevor Crowe. Reliever Hector Ambriz will be in the mix for a spot in the Astros’ bullpen.
The Astros may take their licks in a tough AL West this year while they adapt to new teams, new ballparks, and the different style of play elicited by having nine solid hitters in the lineup, thanks to the AL’s designated hitter rule. If some of the younger players in the organization do not begin to develop, those bumps and bruises may continue well beyond this coming season.
Photo: Rick Yeatts/Getty Images