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October 31, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Texas Rangers

by Ben Lindbergh, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the league division series, league championship series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm-system overview.

Today we say so long to the Texas Rangers.

Projected 2012 Lineup
Don't expect a lot of changes in this lineup, which was one of the best in baseball this year. First base is a weak spot, so don't be surprised if the Rangers make a play for Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols. We'll assume C.J. Wilson returns, for now.

Batting order
2B: Ian Kinsler
SS: Elvis Andrus
LF: Josh Hamilton
RF: Nelson Cruz
3B: Adrian Beltre
C: Mike Napoli
DH: Michael Young
1B: Mitch Moreland
CF: Leonys Martin

SP: C.J. Wilson
SP: Colby Lewis
SP: Derek Holland
SP: Matt Harrison
SP: Alexi Ogando

Signs of hope: The Rangers won two more game in the World Series than they had the previous season; if that pattern continues, they might finally take home their first title in 2012. They’re as well-positioned to do so as any team, having honed a well-rounded roster that excelled in almost every facet of the game. The Rangers tied the Red Sox as the best offensive team in baseball with a .288 True Average (TAv), converted the second-highest percentage (72.2) of balls in play into outs in the field, and boasted the American League’s best collection of baserunners, adding a full win on the basepaths alone. Winter trade target Mike Napoli was the team’s most productive player on a per-game basis, free agent acquisition Adrian Beltre came close to replicating his superb 2010 Red Sox season, and shortstop Elvis Andrus took a step forward offensively while preserving his fine play in the field. On the pitching side, the picture wasn’t quite as rosy, but the Rangers still featured one of the better staffs in the league. C.J. Wilson improved in his second season as a starter, Alexi Ogando followed in his footsteps by departing the pen for a successful season in the rotation, and homegrown Derek Holland and Matt Harrison became dependable arms. The Rangers can also look forward to more sizeable payrolls, thanks to the $80 million in annual revenue they’ll earn from a lucrative broadcast deal that will kick in after the 2014 season.

Signs of disaster:
“Disaster” didn’t strike the Rangers until Game Seven of the World Series, but there were a few hiccups along the way, one of which ultimately came back to haunt them. Texas went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position in their elimination-game loss, continuing a trend of not coming through in the clutch that plagued the team all season. The Rangers’ healthy 805 overall OPS disguised an 821 OPS with the bases empty and a significantly lower 774 OPS with men on. Largely as a result of that disparity, the Rangers fell short of their expected third-order winning percentage by eight wins, an underperformance second only to that of the Red Sox in size. Despite their difficulties in favorable scoring situations, the Rangers won 96 games (the second-most in the AL), but they should have been even better.

Signs you can ignore:
The Rangers’ struggles in the clutch prevented them from reaching their full potential, but in a sense, that should make us more optimistic about their chances for a repeat appearance next October. Since clutch performance is not persistent from year to year, we shouldn’t expect the Rangers to continue to suffer from the same problem, so the team can expect to benefit from better timing in 2012. Of course, not everything can be expected to improve: .270 career hitters don’t often discover the secret to hitting well after age 30, so it’s unlikely that Endy Chavez will top .300 again. Fortunately for the Rangers, promising outfield prospect Leonys Martin is primed to replace him. Ben Lindbergh, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Rangers should begin the offseason by allowing Wilson to depart via free agency. With a rotation of Alexi Ogando, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, and Scott Feldman (with Martin Perez on the way), the Rangers should be the favorites to win the AL West again. If Perez progresses the way the Rangers believe he will, or Feldman returns to being the 17-game winner he was two years ago, the Rangers will have a young, solid staff once again. This would allow Neftali Feliz to remain the closer, which has been one of the most important reasons for the Rangers making it to the World Series the last two years.

If the Rangers are going to spend big, they should sign free agent Prince Fielder to play first base. Mitch Moreland is a nice player, but he is not a good enough hitter to be considered the long-term solution at first. It's been a while since we've been able to use the word "dynasty" in association with a major league club, but a Fielder signing might just allow the Rangers to make their third consecutive World Series in 2012. Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 97-65

A lot went right for the Rangers in 2011, but it's hardly surprising that a lot goes right for a team that gets to the World Series. The 2011 team is nearly the upside for this edition of the Rangers, though it'll be easier to hit these numbers if they can retain Wilson. The Rangers have some good prospects and the ability to replace some pitchers, but Wilson is very hard to replace. Even if they do lose Wilson, the Rangers can make up for at least some of it by squeezing more offense out of first and a relief corps that's more dependable for the season.

Worst-case scenario: 82-80
A Wilson loss won't decimate the team, which is still deep and solid enough to put together a viable squad, even if they hit some really bad luck. It's possible the team has trouble winning the division, but a lot of bad stuff would have to happen: a not particularly young offense turning bad like milk left out on the kitchen counter, for example, or a couple of unfortunate pitching injuries. It probably won't come to this, as the Rangers have a farm system with enough good prospects that they can fill any serious holes that arise. Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The Rangers are a model franchise when it comes to scouting and player development, but the system is just starting to have an impact at the major league level. Of the most-used position players in the 2011 lineup, only Ian Kinsler and Moreland are homegrown, with Wilson and Holland the only members of the pitching staff to be career-long Rangers.

Still, the team is in win mode, meaning many of their prospects have been used to acquire important big league parts. And with the most aggressive international scouting department in the game, the lower levels are loaded with the kind of high-ceiling prospects that are the envy of other organizations, many of whom, like catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Ronald Guzman, are still far from household names. The Rangers aren't just designed to win, they're designed to do so for years to come, thanks to a burgeoning pipeline of young talent. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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