For some, 2016 Spring Training marks the start of a brand new Major League Baseball season. For others, this time of year marks the height of the presidential primary elections. While many pontificate over who is best suited to lead the country, The Sports Fan Journal fam decided to take a look at which player, manager, or front office member is the best candidate to lead their team to the top of the baseball mountain.
Someone on the Texas Rangers will plunk Jose Bautista on the back. Baseball’s banal rules of retribution require it. A bench-clearing shoving match will ensue, Goose Gossage will smile (and let’s be honest, so will Rangers president Nolan Ryan) and that will be that. It will be the second most talked about pitch of Texas’ early season.
The first will come from the surgically-repaired arm of Yu Darvish.
Darvish missed the bat flip. Well, no one missed the bat flip. It shook the baseball world to its core with tremors still emanating from Toronto to this day.
So let's rephrase. The Japanese flame-thrower could do nothing to prevent Joey Bats from giving us the indelible sports moment of 2015. Darvish sat out all of last season following Tommy John surgery. The Rangers trudged on without him to middling results. At the All-Star Break, the club carried a 42-46 record.
That they were even in the American League Divisional Series against the Blue Jays was a minor miracle in itself. Consider that the pitching staff's ERA ranked 13th out of 15 in the junior circuit. Without Darvish, Texas finished 14th in strikeouts. And yet, the Rangers surged in July and August to take the AL West.
They were also nine outs from heading to the League Championship Series until...you know. We don't remember the errors that preceded Bautista's blast. Nor the improbable run that Texas was on through September. The bat flip took on a singular life of its own and erased the prologue.
All of this to say, Texas has become a sneaky contender in the AL. Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci picked the Rangers to win the World Series in 2016. Why? In a word, Darvish.
Most of the lineup that reached the postseason remains intact with the understanding that the prospects, specifically second baseman Rougned Odor and the otherworldly talented outfielder Nomar Mazara, will take another step forward. If Darvish can approach the form that made him an All-Star in each of his first three seasons, Texas should once again challenge for the West crown.
But that's a pretty big if. Not all pitchers recover from Tommy John at the same rate—for every Chris Carpenter, there’s a Francisco Liriano.
It’s also Darvish’s first extended absence as a professional. He debuted for the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japan Pacific League as an 18-year-old in 2005. Darvish proceeded to toss more than 1800 innings over the next 10 seasons. His durability was as much a part of his arsenal as his mid-90’s fastball and assortment of breaking pitches that struck out 680 batters from 2012 to 2014.
The mental recovery, therefore, could be just as important to the Rangers as the physical one.
As of this writing, Darvish is expected to return in early June, which makes for a tricky timetable.
Although Texas has a reliable substitute ace in 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels, acquired from the Phillies at last year’s trade deadline, the southpaw falls just short of Darvish’s class. Besides, Hamels is a fly-ball pitcher in one of the best hitters’ ballparks in baseball. He pitched well enough down the stretch—a 116 ERA+, 78 strikeouts in 83.2 innings—but remains somewhat of a gamble. After all, Hamels has given up 20 or more home runs seven times in his career.
By June, the Rangers should know where they stand in a difficult division. Houston is another year older and the Angels still have Mike Trout. If Texas can hold off those clubs, it can afford to be patient with Darvish. If the Rangers fall behind as they did in 2015, they'll be placing their hopes on the arm of a pitcher who will have gone nearly two years without an appearance.
But that's a risk worth taking. At worst, Texas will use 2016 as a building block for 2017. At best, Darvish will resume where he left off two years ago, Hamels will keep the pitching staff afloat, and the Rangers will once again find themselves in the postseason with the best righty-lefty top of the rotation in the American League.
Then a team that was one out from a World Series in 2011 will have a chance to rewrite its October history, bat flips optional.
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