Texas entered the 2012 season as one of the odds-on favorites to represent the American League in the World Series, having done so in each of the past two seasons and coming within one strike - twice- of capturing the franchise's first championship the previous October.
Texas rolled into September among the AL elite as expected, with a division crown and another postseason berth, all but a given. A funny thing happened on the way to October however, as a month-long swoon and poor head-to-head play against Oakland in the final two weeks put Texas in the First Inaugural Bud Selig Coin Flip Game ™. You know the rest: Texas lost to Baltimore, and the offseason began much sooner than expected.
And what an offseason it turned out to be, as Texas lost out on every major free agent signing and will open the season without some of the big bats (Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli), bullpen cogs (Mike Adams, Koji Uehera) and big contracts (Michael Young) that were huge pieces for their success in recent years. They have gone from heavy favorites to advance to the World Series to a team that might be no better than a co-favorite within their own division in 12 short months.
Lost OF Josh Hamilton, C Mike Napoli, and Ps Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Mark Lowe, Scott Feldman, Roy Oswalt and Ryan Dempster to free agency.
The first four names represent a good chunk of the core of Texas' recent dominance (despite manager Ron Washington's best effort to bury Napoli in the batting order), and carve off several wins from Texas' expected 2013 total by their departure alone. Moves later in the winter attempted to address most of the departing production, though Texas was unable to land Justin Upton via trade to serve as a lineup replacement for Hamilton.
Traded Michael Young to Philadelphia for P Josh Lindblom and minor-league P Lisalverto Bonilla.
The front office made the determination that the only way that Ron Washington wasn't going to give Young, perhaps the worst lineup regular in baseball last season, 550 at-bats was to trade him elsewhere. The return wasn't great, though Lindblom could be a decent cost-controlled power reliever for a few years.
Signed C A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year, $7.5 million contract.
Pursuing a 36-year old-catcher, coming off a career year, rarely gets filed in the “Good Idea!” folder but this signing helped Texas avoid a catching tandem of Geovany Soto and Eli Whiteside. Operating under the idea of “There's no such thing as a bad one-year contract,” Texas will be looking to Pierzynski to retain some of the power he flashed last season in an attempt to cobble together some of the departing production that left over the winter.
Signed 1B/DH Lance Berkman to a one-year, $10 million contract.
Berkman battled injuries for the bulk of 2012, limiting him to just 81 at-bats after a nice rebound season in 2011. The hope is that a full-season at DH will limit the wear and tear on Berkman, allowing him the best chance of replicating 2011's solid line (.301/.412/.547).
Re-signed C Geovany Soto to a one-year, $3 million contract.
For a few weeks, Soto was the everyday catcher by default, a terrifying thought for a fan base used to Pudge Rodriguez and Mike Napoli in recent years. The Pierzynski signing later in the winter slides Soto back to the backup role, a role that isn't terrible given his skill set (some walks, some power and lots and lots (and lots) of variance from year-to-year).
Signed P Joakim Soria to a two-year, $8 million contract.
Soria missed the entire 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, but is expected to be back in late May or early June. He'll have more value in 2014 than 2013, where a return to a closing role could occur with Joe Nathan's contract set to expire following 2013, so those in keeper leagues that can get him cheap with an eye toward 2014 could do a lot worse.
Signed P Jason Frasor to a one-year, $1.5 million contract.
Texas took a reasonable gamble on Frasor, who has shown a decent late-inning skill set in the not-too-distant-past. There's opportunity in the early season, before Soria and Neftali Feliz return, for Frasor to emerge as a reliable setup reliever to closer Joe Nathan following the news that Alexi Ogando would rejoin the rotation.
Signed 1B Brandon Allen, Ps Evan Meek, Randy Wells, Kyle McClennan, and Nate Robertson, 2B Jeff Baker to minor-league contracts.
Of the lot, Wells and McClennan have the best chance of landing a semi-substantial role as the fifth starter.
1. Ian Kinsler, 2B
2. Elvis Andrus, SS
3. Lance Berkman, DH
4. Adrian Beltre, 3B
5. Nelson Cruz, RF
6. A.J. Pierzynski, C
7. David Murphy, LF
8. Mitch Moreland, 1B
9. Leonys Martin/Craig Gentry CF
The top four spots are pretty well locked down, and possible suspension for Cruz after he was associated with the recent Biogenesis PED scandal could open the door for prospect Mike Olt to see some time in the outfield this spring.
1. Yu Darvish
2. Matt Harrison
3. Derek Holland
4. Alexi Ogando
5. Martin Perez/Justin Grimm/Robbie Ross/Kyle McClellan (Colby Lewis eventually)
It's a pretty deep rotation, with upside from the third and fourth spots and a possible return at some point in early June from Colby Lewis. They'll likely be tasked with pitching deeper into games with the depleted bullpen from a year ago.
Closer: Joe Nathan - Nathan excelled as Texas' closer after two years of injury-plagued seasons. Texas will have Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz back at some point during the second half as internal fallback options of sort, but there's no danger of Nathan losing his grip on the closers' role as long as he stays healthy.
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise
What can we expect from Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando?
Texas' success this season could well hinge on the success of Holland and Ogando. Holland's season was torpedoed by 32 homers allowed in just 175.1 innings, but he still managed some solid peripherals (145 K and nearly a 3.0 K/BB ratio) and was borderline dominant in the second half of 2011. There's still plenty to like here.
As for Ogando, he'll be asked to transition back to the rotation after making 57 appearances as a reliever last year. A repeat of his 2011 season, spent mostly as a starter, would give Texas a nice fourth starter and would provide nice value as a second or third-tier starter in fantasy formats.
Is this the year for Leonys Martin?
Texas inked Martin to a five-year, major-league contract back in 2011, and 2013 figures to be the first chance Martin has to seize the center field job. There's very little internal competition, with just Craig Gentry and Julio Borbon providing resistance, and Martin's season at Triple-A Round Rock (.359/.422/.610) shows plenty of promise. There's talk over the winter that Martin needs to work on base running and fielding fundamentals, which could bury him in Ron Washington's eyes if they linger too much into spring training, but there's a lot of upside here.
The rotation. A return by Colby Lewis anywhere close to his expected June 1 return gives Texas five solid starters for the bulk of the season, and a group that would likely be unmatched in both quality and depth in the AL West.
The bullpen, one of the best in baseball the past two years, saw a ton of quality innings leave via free agency and figures to be somewhat of a mixed bag prior to the expected midseason returns of Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz.
Rising: Leonys Martin. See above.
Declining: Nelson Cruz. On the surface, Cruz's .260-24-90-8 line looks decent. Under the covers however, you'll find that it came in an injury-free campaign which is far from guaranteed given Cruz's recent leg issues. He slugged .388 on the road as well, including just six homers. Guys that don't blossom until later in their careers (like Cruz) tend to not age as well when the decline phase begins. Couple that with a possible suspension resulting from Cruz's connection to PEDs over the winter, and there's lot of risk here.
Sleeper: Lance Berkman. It's not often that you'll see an established veteran in the “sleeper” category, but Berkman's lost 2012 season and the opportunity to DH full-time for health reasons gives him plenty of upside. A healthy Berkman is a productive one, and he'll likely come at a steep discount for 2013.
Supersleeper: Josh Lindblom. He struggled following the trade to Philly from the Dodgers, but his composite numbers the past two years with the Dodgers (77.1 innings, 63 hits, 28 walks, 71 K) were pretty decent, and there's opportunity in the Texas bullpen for him to emerge as a seventh or eighth-inning option along with Jason Frasor or Tanner Scheppers before Soria and Feliz return. He'll have more potential upside in leagues that count holds than he would in traditional 5x5 leagues, but there's some decent upside here as a staff filler for a minimal investment.
Jurickson Profar, SS - Profar backed up his 2011 breakout with a solid season at Double-A Frisco (26 doubles, seven triples, 14 homers in 480 at-bats) as a 19-year old. Toss in solid plate discipline (66:79 BB:K) and you've got the makings of baseball's next great shortstop. Therein lies the rub, as Texas already has Elvis Andrus under club control for another few years. Texas reportedly refused to include Profar in trade talks for Justin Upton and James Shields over the winter, but it's pretty likely that he'll start the year at Triple-A Round Rock given the current construction of the Texas roster.
Mike Olt, 3B - Olt ripped through the Texas League (.288/.398/.579) and saw some brief time in the majors before a heel injury effectively ended his season. Third base is blocked by Adrian Beltre, but there's been some talk that Olt would shift to the outfield temporarily if Nelson Cruz ends up getting suspended. Texas reportedly dangled his name in trade talks over the winter, and he'll likely begin the year at Triple-A Round Rock if Cruz begins the year on the active roster.
Leonys Martin, OF - Discussed above.
Martin Perez, P - Perez's star continues to fade, though it's easy to forget that he'll just be 22 years old when the season opens. A poor 69:56 K:BB rate in 127 innings at Triple-A Round Rock “earned” him a promotion (or necessitated a change of scenery) to the majors, where he proceeded to walk 15 against just 25 strikeouts in 38 innings. It's been three years now, and at High-A ball no less, since he's had a prolonged stretch of success. Needless to say, 2013 is a big year for him.
Jorge Alfaro, C - Alfaro made his full-season debut in 2012, showing some power (21 doubles, five triples, five homers) in 272 at-bats at Low-A Hickory. He also fanned 84 times against just 16 walks, an approach that will have to improve if he wants to develop into the catcher that Texas believes he can be. He could develop into Wilin Rosario, or he could stall out at the upper levels. For now, he's more project than prospect but the physical tools are there to be a top flight catcher.
Cody Buckel, P - Buckel could well surpass Martin Perez as Texas' best pitching prospect with a solid showing at Triple-A Round Rock. He fanned 68 hitters in 69 innings at Double-A Frisco after punching out 91 in 75.2 innings at High-A Myrtle Beach. Short-ish, right-handed starters don't carry the same stigma that they had a few years ago. Don't overlook the upside here.