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5 questions facing Rangers going into 2018

Rotation the big unknown as club looks to return to postseason
MLB.com @Sullivan_Ranger

ARLINGTON -- The Rangers lost 95 games in 2014 and rebounded to win two straight division titles. So overcoming a 78-84 record from 2017 shouldn't be considered too daunting, or at least wouldn't be if the Rangers weren't in the same division as the Astros.

But they are, so the Rangers are facing quite a challenge if they hope to contend for another American League West title. That appears to be the goal since the Rangers are adamant about avoiding the use of the word "rebuild."

ARLINGTON -- The Rangers lost 95 games in 2014 and rebounded to win two straight division titles. So overcoming a 78-84 record from 2017 shouldn't be considered too daunting, or at least wouldn't be if the Rangers weren't in the same division as the Astros.

But they are, so the Rangers are facing quite a challenge if they hope to contend for another American League West title. That appears to be the goal since the Rangers are adamant about avoiding the use of the word "rebuild."

Retooling seems to be a much more palatable word.

"I think retooling, there's always that element every year," Rangers manager Jeff Banister said. "The reality is until you get out and play it on the field, you don't really get to see exactly how that works out for you."

There are still some questions to be answered about the "retooling" as the Rangers go into the New Year.

Video: Rangers trade for pitcher Matt Moore

What is the state of the rotation?
There is no way to sugarcoat this. The Rangers' rotation has some serious question marks at this point. Cole Hamels, Martin Perez, Doug Fister and Matt Moore made a combined 102 starts and four relief appearances last season for a 4.88 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP.

Mike Minor, the fifth guy, hasn't pitched as a starter since 2014. He missed all of 2015-16 because of shoulder surgery and pitched in relief last season with the Royals. Matt Bush, who may switch from the bullpen to the rotation, has never started. The depth beyond that group is thin as the Rangers' top Minor League starting pitching prospects need at least another year of development.

It's doubtful the Rangers are done acquiring starting pitching, and another front-line starter would allow them to use Minor out of the bullpen. If not, they definitely need more depth.

What's the surest path to postseason?
The possibility exists the Rangers could bludgeon their way to October with a powerful lineup. The talent is there if Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara and Delino DeShields continue to development their potent offensive skills and Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo and Robinson Chirinos stay healthy.

Elvis Andrus is solid and dependable at shortstop. That hardly describes second baseman Rougned Odor, but the physical talent is still there for a big offensive year. Beyond that it comes down to what the Rangers can get out of Willie Calhoun, Drew Robinson, Ronald Guzman, Ryan Rua or Jurickson Profar to round out the lineup/bench.

Video: Gallo's defensive flexibility gives Rangers options

Who closes?
The Rangers are constitutionally opposed to paying a lot of money to a closer so the job appears open. Alex Claudio, the soft-tossing left-hander, finished last season in the role and that would have been fine 30 years ago when closers weren't required to throw 95-100 mph.

That seems to be the prerequisite today, so the best internal candidates are Bush and Keone Kela. They both have the stuff and the makeup if they can stay healthy and adapt to the role. Minor is also considered a possibility because of his stuff and his success as a reliever for the Royals last year.

Video: Banister on importance of adding a veteran reliever

What two players are being overlooked?
Pitcher Jose Leclerc and catcher Brett Nicholas.

Leclerc's control problems are well-known and obviously frustrating. But there is still much to like about the 24-year-old. If he can gain command with experience and maturity, he could be a dominating reliever.

Nicholas is a left-handed hitter with power who has spent the past four years refining his defensive talents. He is 28, but catchers are often the latest bloomers because of the time it takes to learn the craft. Chirinos is a good example.

If the Rangers are open-minded and see Nicholas as more than an organizational player, he could be a guy to watch in Spring Training.

Video: SEA@TEX: Leclerc freezes Zunino to end threat in 8th

What is Beltre's next milestone?
He has 1,475 runs scored, so getting to 1,500 is a nice round number for a Hall of Fame candidate. But everybody loves home runs so …

The 38-year-old Beltre has 462, leaving him 38 shy of 500 for his career. But since he has only reached that plateau once in his career (48 in 2004), that might be a little out of reach.

There is still a stellar group who could be passed this year including Dave Winfield (465), Chipper Jones (468), Willie Stargell and Stan Musial (475) and Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff (493).

What Beltre really wants is a World Series title. That's the biggest question of them all.

Video: Banister on handling Beltre's 2018 playing time

T.R. Sullivan has covered the Rangers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast.

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