SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers are coming out of the other side of the rebuild after back-to-back last place finishes in the American League West.
General manager Chris Young has consistently said that Texas won’t go from 100 losses to 100 wins in one season. This wasn’t a one-year fix, and the club might still be a year away from true contention, but the front office made tremendous strides to surround Corey Seager and Marcus Semien with talent.
“That's a hard one to answer,” Semien said about the ceiling for this team. “If you're clicking on all cylinders, it doesn't matter who's in the bill. You're going to win a lot of games. The fact that we do have the talent to do it and the coaches, everybody's on the same page. Why not? You know, nobody's gonna sit there and set a goal of less than 100 wins. Everybody wants to win the 100.”
Here are a few things to keep an eye on as Opening Day is less than a week out:
What needs to go right?
The Rangers need to show that spending half a billion dollars in the middle of the infield was the right decision, and both Seager and Semien will need to live up to those contracts if the Rangers want to get anywhere close to contending. Texas’ success hinges on the two of them putting up MVP-like numbers, and while that’s not the only measure, it may be the most important. The lineup is equipped with Mitch Garver, Adolis García and Nathaniel Lowe behind the two middle infielders and should be able to score a lot of runs.
Offensive coordinator Donnie Ecker and hitting coach Tim Hyers have worked to turn around a Rangers offense that finished last season ranked last in MLB in OPS (.669) and on-base percentage (.294) and 29th in batting average (.232). Offensive production from Seager and Semien will be vital to this club taking the next step to competing in the American League West.
How will the rotation hold up?
If the Spring Training numbers carry over even a fraction into the regular season, the Rangers will rake. But will it be enough to win games if the rotation doesn’t take a step forward?
Jon Gray, the Rangers’ big pitching acquisition this offseason, was named the Opening Day starter. He’ll be followed by Taylor Hearn, Martín Pérez and Dane Dunning in no particular order, and Spencer Howard was named the fifth starter Sunday. So can the veterans Gray and Pérez elevate themselves in Texas and provide quality innings at the top of the rotation? The Rangers hope so. But the key will ultimately be if Howard, Dunning and Hearn can take the next step and reach their potential. If just one of the young starters pan out, the Rangers will be in a good place in 2022.
Team MVP will be ... Semien
It would be easy to pick the $325 million dollar man on the other side of the field in Seager, but Semien finished third in American League MVP voting in 2021 and shows no signs of slowing down. He added both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award to his hardware last season, when he also logged his first All-Star appearance. After a down 2020 season, Semien has shown he has staying power. And while he likely won’t hit 45 homers in the Rangers’ more neutral park at Globe Life Field, he’s still capable of 20-plus home runs and a lot of opportunities to hit with runners on base.
Team Cy Young will be ... Hearn
Gray would be the easy choice, and he’s primed for a breakout season, but Hearn has the stuff to be the Rangers’ best pitcher this season. At 6-foot-6, the lefty has a fastball that tops out in the upper-90s and the secondary pitches to complement it. Now in a more secure and familiar role in the rotation, Hearn's execution and consistency will determine how far he’ll go.
Hearn tossed 104 1/3 innings in 2021, split between the bullpen and the rotation. Though he had a 5.82 ERA over 11 starts, he posted a 3.54 ERA as a reliever. Manager Chris Woodward said that despite the numbers, he believes Hearn is more comfortable in a starting role and will thrive following a spring of preparation.
“He loves to start,” Woodward said. “He loves the routine of starting. And he obviously fell into that role and adjusted nicely. … The bullpen was never his comfort zone. And I'm not saying he's gonna be a starter for the rest of his career because he may end up going back there with that kind of arm, but right now that’s it.”
Predicting the Rangers to make the playoffs feels too bold, but the Rangers will be miles ahead of where they were last year. The additions of Seager, Semien and Gray no doubt add much needed star power, but it won’t be enough to overtake the Astros for the American League West or even the Mariners, who won 90 games in 2021. I will predict that Texas will improve by 20 games and finish the season hovering around .500. With consistent production from the top of the lineup and development from the young group of pitchers, getting to 80 wins should be an achievable goal.