MLB Coverage: Texas Rides High In The AL West

The Texas Rangers had a miserable end to 2012, a lousy offseason and an array of injuries to the pitching staff. Yet once they stepped onto the field for the fresh start that was 2013, everything turned out okay. After a three-game sweep over the previously sizzling Boston Red Sox, the Rangers are now 20-11 and atop the American League West. Today, we’ll look at how they’re getting it done and what this means for the 21 weeks of baseball still ahead.

In a nutshell, this is the story of the Rangers…

*The pitching, driven by previously unknown arms in both the rotation and the bullpen, is the best in the American League.
*Yu Darvish is looking like a pitcher ready to take the proverbial next step to elite level
*Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz are carrying an offense that continues to produce.

I may as well come clean up front and say that I dumped all over Texas in the lead-up to this season, both in my preseason MLB coverage and my Monday podcasts at Prime Sports Network. And you know what? I don’t regret anything that I wrote or said. This was a pitching staff where Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz were out until at least midseason, where an aging Joe Nathan had to hold up the bullpen, and while letting go of Josh Hamilton was perfectly defensible, with no short-term replacement.

But I also believe analysts should find a middle ground between completely repudiating their words or going to the other extreme and digging in their heels when an organization is clearly proving itself. I think this is just such a case and it’s built around the emergence of a number of high-quality young pitchers who are transforming this staff.

Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm got their opportunity to start due to the injuries—which, by the way, now include Matt Harrison. Tepesch has posted a 3.54 ERA in five starts, and Grimm’s been even better, with a 2.28 ERA in his four outings. They give depth to a rotation anchored by Darvish. We knew he could pitch, but his capacity to be a true #1 starter, along the lines of a Verlander, Sabathia or Price was in question. While I don’t want to get too carried away, Darvish is pitching like that kind of starter. His seven starts have produced a 5-1 record and 2.56 ERA. And keep in mind that all these spiffy ERAs are being compiled in a park that the ball is known to fly out of.

Youth is lifting the bullpen as well. While the veteran Joe Nathan remains the ninth-inning man—and doing a heckuva job at it, closing all eight of his save chances at a buck-64 ERA, it’s an array of young arms that’s doing the heavy lifting ahead of him. Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers have been unhittable in the early going, with ERAs under 1. And each is averaging better than an inning per outing, so this is not a case of a low ERA being built on facing one or two hitters in situational spots. 22-year-old Joe Ortiz is also getting the job done, at a respectable 3.77.

What’s scary is that this only scratches the surface of Texas’ pitching potential. They’re also getting excellent work from Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando in the rotation. Lewis is beginning his minor league rehab, and if he comes back, you can move Ogando to the bullpen where he’s a potent weapon who can go 2-3 innings at a crack. Then factor in if Harrison and Feliz make it back in August? I defy any other team to improve themselves around the trade deadline the same way Texas can just by getting its injured starters back.

We know the Rangers will hit, and they’re fifth in the American League in runs scored. Ian Kinsler, with a stat line of .401 on-base percentage/.545 slugging percentage has been the team’s best player and has to be in the “MVP-if-the-season-ended-today” discussion (a discussion we’ll start having in our MLB coverage here over the next couple weeks). Nelson Cruz, after a disappointing year in 2012, has got his power stroke back. His stat line of .362/.518 is keyed by seven home runs.

Mitch Moreland is an under-the-radar player at first base on this team, but his effectiveness at the plate is important to Texas’ long-term offensive success. In that light, his .336/.466 start is encouraging. It’s not lights-out but there’s every reason to consider it sustainable. And how do we not mention Lance Berkman? The man who broke Texas’ heart with a game-tying single in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, is now lifting its spirits, with a .441/.449 stat line just a year after his career was considered over.

Obviously some of these hot offensive starts are going to cool, but on the flip side, Elvis Andrus and David Murphy can hit a lot better than what they’ve shown, and Adrian Beltre is a little hot-and-cold right now, showing the home run power, but not being a consistent offensive threat.

And finally, at long last, can we give a little recognition to Ron Washington as one of the top managers in the game? He took over a team that never enjoyed notable success, promptly won two pennants, made another playoff appearance and now is overseeing a remarkable display of roster replenishment. If Mike Scoscia were doing this, do you think we’d overlook it? I generally don’t like when the race card gets played as the one-size-fits-all explanation for why a manager like Washington doesn’t get his due, but this one of a couple instances lately that have made me start to wonder.

There is still a long way to go in the AL West. Oakland won’t go anywhere quietly, and I’m sure we’re going to see a surge from Los Angeles when Jered Weaver comes back later this month. But what Texas has done is remarkable, and I’m ready to take my preseason words and eat them—and gladly so, because this is an organization, from Nolan Ryan to Washington, that I’d like to see get a chance to finally take that last step and win the World Series.


AL EAST: The New York Yankees have got to start publishing their injury report with a Cliff’s Notes version (I’ve got Cliff’s Notes on my mind, because I just cheated and read them for The Great Gatsby, in preparation for going to see the movie when it comes out this weekend). Kevin Youkilis was added at the end of April, and now its players like Ian Nova and Francisco Cervelli dropping. The Yanks are still 18-12, in the mix with the Boston and Baltimore atop the AL East and Tampa not far behind. But it still seems like just a matter of time before the Pinstripes run out of players.

AL CENTRAL: Detroit is playing some torrid baseball of late, winning nine of ten and pushing their record to 19-11, right up with Boston and Texas for the best in the league. But they aren’t getting any separation in the division. Kansas City, featured here in TheSportsNotebook a couple weeks ago, is right on their heels with a pitching staff built for the long haul. Also give some credit to Cleveland, who’s used a potent offense and an American League-best slugging percentage to keep playing .500 ball. But without pitching—the Tribe is ninth in ERA and there is no realistic expectation of improvement—they’re eventually going to fall hard.