The team that won the American League West just more than two months ago will return largely intact when it starts preparations to defend its division title in just more than two months.
That’s a good thing, or at least it was better than four other teams in the West and figures to be worth contender status in 2016.
Yet, all season and even into the division series, manager Jeff Banister kept saying the Rangers weren’t perfect and had blemishes. Some were philosophical. Some related to personnel, and those holes — on the mound, behind the plate and in two outfield spots — haven’t been mended.
The biggest is in the rotation, where the Rangers need a fourth starter and someone to keep Yu Darvish’s spot warm until he’s healthy again. Colby Lewis isn’t a shoo-in for one of the spots, but is a heavy favorite with his right knee healing nicely.
Then, there’s left field, where the Rangers have a willing and talented player whose body doesn’t want to cooperate.
The hope is that Josh Hamilton can find a way to stay healthy and be a lineup regular. The reality is that the Rangers know that particular hope is fleeting, and they need a capable player to plug into left field when, not if, Hamilton is injured.
“Josh, when he’s healthy, we feel good about him, but, obviously, that’s a big question mark,” general manager Jon Daniels. “I think it is important that we add both some depth there and, from a platoon standpoint, a right-handed hitter who can play at first base.”
The Rangers have that kind of player on their roster, though Ryan Rua and the recently acquired Patrick Kivlehan don’t have the kind of experience and track record the Rangers would prefer.
The free-agent market has the veterans in that role, namely Steve Pearce and Sean Rodriguez. Ryan Raburn, Jeff Francoeur and Denton native Austin Jackson are among the righty-hitting outfielders who don’t dabble at first base, where the left-handed-hitting Mitch Moreland was often benched against lefty pitchers.
Mike Napoli is also a free agent, but the Rangers don’t view him as a left fielder after his trial run there in September and, thus, don’t see him as an ideal roster fit.
A move for the top tier of outfielders would seem unlikely. The Rangers have a fondness for Justin Upton, whom they tried to acquire three years ago during the winter meetings, and closely watched Yoenis Cespedes when he played for Oakland.
Nothing came out of a conversation with Cincinnati about third baseman Todd Frazier, who played left field in the minors.
One reason is cost. Rangers ownership is said to be comfortable with a payroll in the $145 million range, and Upton or Cespedes would bust that budget. Frazier would cost the Rangers top prospects in a year when they are trying to amass depth.
Another reason is the belief that Hamilton can still be an impact player when he’s healthy, and that a regular off-season and full spring training will have him as prepared as he can be for 2016.
Hamilton didn’t have that in 2015 after the Rangers freed him from exile with the Los Angeles Angels in April, rushed him into the lineup a month later and saw him injured after only a week. He had a knee injury later in the season that required surgery.
“We knew the landmines that were out there for us,” Banister said.
Hamilton gave the Rangers 170 at-bats, eight homers and 25 RBIs. He had nine go-ahead hits, six game-winning RBIs and two walk-off hits.
“I still believe that Josh Hamilton is a talented player,” Banister said. “I still believe that Josh Hamilton has the desire to play the game of baseball at a level that is conducive to winning baseball games and being a productive major-league player. Does he still have it? Yeah.”
But Hamilton also has the health issues, and those have the Rangers looking for help in left field this week at the winter meetings.