The Rangers were out of playoff contention early in 2007, again, finishing 19 games back. The club hasn't fielded a playoff contender since 2004, and the culprit has consistently been the team's pitching staff. Each year during that span the Rangers have finished in the upper half of the American League in runs scored, but the lower half in runs allowed.
Pitching is indeed the organization's traditional weakness, and that will again be the case in 2008. However, most of the offseason question marks concerned the lineup, and due to injuries and playing time battles, the dust has not yet settled. Trading Mark Teixeira to the Braves created a void at first base, while the departures of Brad Wilkerson, Sammy Sosa, and Victor Diaz left the club thin in the outfield and at designated hitter. The club traded for Mariners cast-off Ben Broussard to fill the hole at first base and surrendered pitching prospect Edinson Volquez to the Reds to land feel-good story Josh Hamilton. Unlikely 2007 hero Marlon Byrd will move to right field to make room for Hamilton in center, while Frank Catalanotto will patrol left field again. The club also signed free agent Milton Bradley, who will see time at designated hitter until he recovers fully from an ACL injury. When Bradley is ready, he'll occupy an outfield slot, likely at the expense of Byrd or Catalanotto. Jason Botts is the leading candidate to take over at designated hitter when Bradley takes the field. Mainstays Michael Young, Ian Kinsler and Hank Blalock should provide the infield with a stable core of everyday personnel.
As for the much-maligned pitching staff, the club seems committed to developing youngsters Brandon McCarthy and Kason Gabbard, and is sticking with veterans Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla despite rough performances all around in 2007. Jason Jennings, a free-agent acquisition from the Astros, is the only addition to the starting staff, replacing Robinson Tejeda and a handful of others who filled in the rotation last year. The bullpen is also in flux, although that was the case last year as well. Former closers Eric Gagne and Akinori Otsuka fell off the radar last year via trade and injury, respectively. C.J. Wilson and Joaquin Benoit filled in admirably in the late innings, and will compete for closing duties this year with newcomers Eddie Guardado and Kazuo Fukumori. The bullpen has solid talent, and the unit should be sound once the right combination of roles is settled. The rotation is again a weakness, with none of the starting five a sure bet to have much fantasy value.
If Hamilton and Bradley can stay mostly healthy, the offense should again be productive. Poor pitching will likely again doom the Rangers to also-ran status in 2008, but that could change before long. The major theme of the past eight months has been the organization's effort to restock the talent pool within the minor league system. Shortstop Elvis Andrus was the main prize in the Teixeira trade and is now the club's top prospect. However, no fewer than five other players on the organization's top-10 list (according to Baseball America's rankings) have arrived since June of 2007!
Ballpark: Rangers Ballpark has a reputation as a hitters' park. The Rangers have finished in the top 10 in home runs every year since the stadium opened in 1994. However, the club employed many of the game's top sluggers during that time, while pitching has been a traditional organizational weakness. The park is really only appreciably favorable to home runs by left-handed batters. In recent years, Rangers Ballpark has played close to the game's averages in terms of runs, batting average and homers by right-handers.
Top sleeper: Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the best known of the Rangers' young up-and-comers, but the immediate sleeper for 2008 might be 31-year-old left-hander Ben Broussard. Acquired in a December trade with the Mariners, Broussard spent the past two years with Seattle after breaking into the majors with Cleveland in 2002. Broussard is a consistent power hitter with enough plate skills to produce a respectable batting average. He's the favorite to start at first base, and could easily produce 20 home runs even if he accumulates fewer than 500 at-bats due to being platooned against better left-handed pitching.
Intriguing spring battles: The Rangers' lineup will remain a work in progress well into the season. Much depends on the health of Milton Bradley, and when Bradley is finally ready to play the field there could be a fierce battle for playing time among Byrd, Catalanotto and Botts, along with reserve outfielders David Murphy and Nelson Cruz. In the spring, however, Saltalamacchia will be a key figure in the jockeying for position. He will compete for time at catcher (with Gerald Laird) and first base (with Broussard.) The most likely outcome is that Salty spells Broussard at first base against some left-handers while also backing up Laird at catcher, gradually taking over the starting role from Laird as his immense potential develops.
At stake in the bullpen are ninth-inning duties. C.J. Wilson logged the majority of the saves after Gagne was trade, with Joaquin Benoit notching a handful as well. Wilson is the incumbent, but he'll face a challenge in the spring from Benoit as well as Guardado and Fukumori. Skills and youth are on Wilson's side, and the left-hander should be able to hold on to the job.
Trainer's room: Bradley is coming off September ACL surgery. While he's expected to be ready to hit by spring training, he'll be limited to designated hitter duties for the early part of the season. Blalock's fine September gives hope that he has finally overcome the shoulder issues that have plagued him for two years. Hamilton's track record is short, but recent wrist, knee and hamstring injuries mark him as an injury risk as well. McCarthy had a myriad of arm problems last year. While he's still a health risk, he did gain 15 pounds this offseason in an effort to make his lanky 6-7 body more durable. Jennings also is coming off a season marred by injury, adding health downside to his already troubling skills profile.
Platoons: Broussard may be platooned with Saltalamacchia at first base, but the left-handed Catalanotto will also lose time to a platoon-mate. He's received only 82 at-bats against left-handers in the past three years. Nelson Cruz and Jason Botts are the top candidates to replace Catalanotto in the lineup against left-handers.
Backup to watch: A gap hitter with moderate power and decent plate skills, David Murphy could be a productive force in the lineup with regular playing time. With health questions surrounding Bradley and Hamilton, opportunities for Murphy to emerge as a surprise contributor could definitely arise.
Prospect to watch for 2008: Velocity, movement and good command of a diverse arsenal mark Eric Hurley as one of the top pitching prospects in the minors. He could be the first to join the rotation as soon as there's an opening created by injury or ineffectiveness. Given the Rangers' dubious collection of starters, that scenario could occur sooner rather than later.
Prospect to watch for the future: With outstanding athleticism, speed, range and arm strength, Elvis Andrus is already one of the best defenders in the minors. Fortunately, he also has sound plate discipline and excellent bat speed. Andrus is unlikely ever to hit for power, but should become a big-time stolen base threat with good batting average and on-base skills. He may not debut until September of 2009, and full-time duty in Texas will require the club to trade either Young or Kinsler. However, Andrus' speed makes him a player to watch even if he first breaks into the majors in a backup role, which is likely given his fine defensive skills.
Baserunning philosophy: The Rangers are not known as a running team, and the club's stolen base attempts ranked in the bottom third in baseball last season. Newcomers Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley weren't stolen base threats last year, but both are athletic outfielders who have flashed double-digit speed in the past. Given the Rangers' reluctance to give their players the green light -- and both players coming off leg injuries -- don't expect even a modest stolen base contribution from either Hamilton or Bradley.
Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com.