AL West 2016: Rangers the team to beat

The Texas Rangers were the surprise champions of the AL West in 2015, and they’ve only gotten better.

After an 88-win season gave Texas its first division title since 2011, the chances for a repeat performance were only improved by an aggressive offseason. Suffering through minimal losses, the Rangers bolstered their lineup with the addition of a trio of potential significant contributors in hopes of returning to postseason play.

If the Oakland Athletics, or any other AL West team for that matter, hope to claim the division’s top spot they will need to topple the Rangers from that perch.

The Rangers, who boasted the AL’s third-best record a season ago, limited their losses. Starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo (Baltimore Orioles), who featured a 13-11 record with a team best 3.42 earned run average (ERA) in 33 starts (184.1 innings) appears to be the team’s greatest loss.

First baseman Mike Napoli (Cleveland Indians) may also prove to be noteworthy departure, however. Posting a .295/.396/.513 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/ slugging percentage) after his mid-season acquisition helped the Rangers overtake the Houston Astros in September.

Though Napoli added to the late-season production of the Texas offense, the offense was paced throughout the year by designated hitter (DH) Prince Fielder, who led the team in every major offensive category.

A .305 hitter, Fielder posted 23 home runs and 98 RBIs for a Texas offense that finished the season scoring 751 runs (No. 3 in the AL). He also led the team with a .378 on-base percentage (OBP) and 187 hits,

Leading the Rangers in runs was right fielder Shin-Soo Choo (94) whose team-high 76 walks set him up to finish just behind Fielder with a .375 OBP. By comparison, catcher Stephen Vogt led the A’s with a .341 OBP. Texas center fielder Delino DeShields also bested that total (.344) and, along with the other two, will be returning to the Texas clubhouse this season.

Overall, The Ballpark in Arlington was home to one of the AL’s top offensive teams. A team that finished fifth in the league in batting average (.257), seventh in home runs (172), third in RBIs (707) and sixth in extra-base hits (483).

Additions of 2012 NL All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond (a career .264 hitter averaging 19 home runs and 75 RBIs per 162 games played), presumably to fill in an outfield role, as well as outfielder Justin Ruggiano (.256-17-54) will further strengthen the division’s top lineup.

The only hit to the pitching staff, No. 13 in ERA (4.24) in the AL a season ago, came in Gallardo’s move to Baltimore. The biggest addition, on the other hand, comes in the form of a return rather than an acquisition.

An All-Star in each of his three previous seasons, staff ace Yu Darvish missed the entire 2015 campaign after Tommy John Surgery. He will likely miss the first month of this season, but with his return the Rangers will add one of the AL’s best starters – career 39-25 record and 3.27 ERA.

A master of the strikeout (league-high 277 in 2013), Darvish’s return will bring the K’s back to Arlington – second-worst in the league in 2015 with 1,095. His healthy return would also provide a co-ace to go along with 2015 trade deadline acquisition Cole Hamels (7-1, 3.66 ERA with the Rangers).

Perhaps the greatest individual surprise in the Rangers postseason run of a year ago was the emergence of closer Shawn Tolleson. In 73 appearances, Tolleson collected 35 saves (No. 7 in the AL) with a 2.99 ERA.

With the offseason addition of former Seattle Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen (67 saves, 2.97 ERA in five seasons), the Texas set-up role will be bolstered. Wilhelmsen will join team 2015 holds leader Keone Kela (22) in serving as a bridge to Tolleson.

With shortstop Elvis Andrus and DeShields (25 stolen bases apiece) heading up the offensive attack, and anchoring the defense up the middle, Texas has reason to remain confident. And with the veteran leadership of third baseman Adrian Beltre (413 home runs in 18 seasons), they will once again be prepared for a 162-game race to the postseason.

After a surprising AL West title a season ago, and seeing their offseason additions outweigh the subtraction, it will not be a surprise to see the Rangers up their win total to 91 en route to another division crown.