Gil LeBreton

Rangers are bound to be better this time around

The Cactus League season was only one week old when, gathered on the dusty gravel between Surprise practice fields, we realized that we had just spent 10 minutes debating the roster merits of the Dominican Winter League’s 2015 batting champion.

Infielder Hanser Alberto is that, and then some.

Ryan Rua, on the other hand, thrust himself back into the Texas Rangers conversation with trumpets and a spring training batting average that hovered in the .400s.

If there were trees at the Rangers’ Arizona complex — OK, I think I did count two — you could have shaken them this spring, and a wait’ll-you-see-this-guy prospect would have fallen out.

Nomar Mazara. Joey Gallo. Lewis Brinson. Jurickson Profar.

Their time is fast coming.

But you heard no whining this time from the blog gentlemen who fixate on the organization’s prospects. There are no controversies this year about force-feeding the major league lineup with Hickory Crawdads.

No, all seats in Arlington are taken. The Rangers’ major league lineup is loaded.

A few national pundits don’t agree — Baseball Prospectus, notably, which has the 2016 Rangers pegged at 80-82, third place. Let me save you $16: They don’t like the pitching.

Of course, I don’t know about your fantasy or sim league, but in ours there are two kinds of managers. There are the ones who breathlessly await Baseball Prospectus every year and swear by its projections at the annual draft. And there are the other ones, the ones who win the league.

I get it. The Rangers’ starting pitching could hit a few potholes, especially in the weeks before Yu Darvish gets back.

If spring training should have opened the organization’s eyes on anything, it’s that the Rangers have no crop of almost-ready starting pitching reserves, knocking the major league door down.

Chi Chi Gonzalez’s and Nick Martinez’s inabilities to seize the one available rotation slot have to be considered a disappointment.

But third place, behind Houston and Seattle?

How can the Rangers not be markedly better on the pitching mound this year, when they will have Cole Hamels for an entire season, Darvish likely for 25 starts and Martin Perez and Derek Holland likely for the full year?

A year ago, the likes of Martinez, Gonzalez, Wandy Rodriguez , Ross Detwiler and Matt Harrison combined to make 56 of the season’s 162 starts.

And what about the Texas bullpen upgrade? Twelve months ago the Rangers were staring at a bullpen group that included Logan Verrett, Jon Edwards, Stolmy Pimentel, Tanner Scheppers and Neftali Feliz.

This year’s relief corps, with midseason additions Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman and bolstered by newcomers Tony Barnette and Tom Wilhelmsen, has a chance to be one of the best in the American League.

The lineup is better and deeper, as well. A year ago the club broke camp with Carlos Peguero, Kyle Blanks, Jake Smolinski and Adam Rosales all expected to get major league playing time.

This year card-carrying big leaguers Justin Ruggiano and Pedro Ciriaco found themselves on the roster bubble, and Josh Hamilton, recovering from a knee procedure, projects as a fourth outfielder.

As the Rangers began the final week of spring training, they were batting .310 as a team and scoring 6.2 runs a game. Granted, the Cactus League can inflate batting numbers.

But with the addition of outfielder Ian Desmond, the unofficial MVP of spring training camp, manager Jeff Banister not only has nine capable bats to fill his lineup card, but also flexibility to move several of those names around.

A year ago Leonys Martin was the club’s Opening Day center fielder. Two seasons ago, catcher J.P. Arencibia and second baseman Josh Wilson were in the starting lineup. Scheppers was the starting pitcher.

Some of us enjoy baseball’s new math, even the algorithms that we don’t completely understand. And we understand projections.

But what’s the old line about computers? Garbage in, garbage out?

Third place? I don’t see it.

The Rangers won the American League West last season, and by all spring training eyeball accounts, they are going to be better.


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