The Texas Rangers were an out from winning the World Series last year not once but twice and came up short. Can the two-time defending AL champs put that devastation from last October in St. Louis behind them and effectively make another run when division rival Los Angeles raided them for pitcher C.J. Wilson and then tacked on Albert Pujols? TheSportsNotebook sizes up the Rangers based on our regular quartet of measuring sticks—the ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.
THE ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Elvis Andrus the one best suited to be the instigator for the offense, having stolen 30-plus bases in all three of his major league seasons. The 23-year-old shortstop does a nice job getting on base with a .340 OBP, although if he’s to become a top leadoff hitter, he should realistically add 10-15 points to that number. Michael Young hit .338 last year and even if he doesn’ t hit for that average again the veteran DH has always had a good batting eye that ensures he’ll help keep flow moving on the basepaths. Ian Kinsler is consistent for a .350-plus OBP and left fielder David Murphy hovers close to that number as well. You can pick nits with each player individually if you want, but collectively there is no denying that Texas can keep the basepaths active for the big guns in its lineup.
POWER: Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz are the proverbial straw that stirs the drink for this offense, to borrow a phrase once used by Reggie Jackson. Hamilton had his offseason problems with the booze, but he’s still coming off a year where he had a .346/.536 OBP/Slugging line, including 25 home runs. That’s with missing a month on the DL and that’s coming off an even better year in 2010 when he won the MVP. Is it safe to say Hamilton’s a stud and the only question is how great he’ll be? I think it’s safe to say. Cruz has the power, slugging over .500 consistently. His ability to hit for contact can fluctuate wildly, but even in a worst-case scenario you’ve got a good batting eye and a long ball threat. What you don’t have is a defensive rightfielder as his ill-fated attempts to corral the last out of Game 6 in St. Louis year demonstrate, but that’s another topic entirely. Ron Washington can also rely on catcher Mike Napoli, third baseman Adrian Beltre and get a little pop from Murphy as well. Napoli had a huge year in 2011, but if he doesn’t repeat his .414/.631 line, he’s still good for 20-plus home runs. Beltre’s hit sixty bombs over the last two seasons. The wild-card here is first baseman Mitch Moreland. He showed promise in limited duty in 2010 and the organization’s trade of Chris Davis to Baltimore has cleared out any competition at first base for 2012. But Moreland’s season last year was a disappointment. The Rangers believe it was mechanical, and given Moreland’s only 25 that sounds reasonable.
STARTING PITCHING: Free agency has taken its toll here. It was Cliff Lee leaving after 2010, now Wilson is gone for this season. Hence the hype over Texas winning the bidding for 25-year-old free agent Yu Darvish from Japan. If the Rangers are going to compete at the high level they’ve been at for the last two seasons, they need Darvish to be “all that”, because there’s no natural ace in this staff. Colby Lewis is a tough, likeable workhorse whose piled up 200 innings a year during the two pennant drives, but his ERA jumped from 3.72 to 4.40 last year. Which is fine if you can settle him in the middle of the rotation. Derek Holland shows a lot of promise at 25, and his first year as a regular starter last season saw him go 16-5 with a 3.95 ERA. Matt Harrison is another comer, going 14-9 with a 3.39 ERA in thirty starts. If Darvish is elite, Holland & Harrison would fit in well behind him, then Lewis is perfect as an innings-eater at #4. The final starter is the interesting one with Neftali Feliz coming from the bullpen. Feliz closed 72 of 81 chances over the last two seasons, and I don’t like this move to mess around with him as a starter. You know he can close, and you know he can close big games. Why are Nolan Ryan and Ron Washington doing this?
RELIEF PITCHING: The Feliz to the rotation move becomes even stranger when you consider what a big question mark the bullpen is. Joe Nathan was once one of the game’s best in Minnesota, but repeated elbow problems have left him a shadow of his former self. He closed 14 of 17 chances with the Twins last year, but the ERA was 4.84 and at age 37 I would be shocked if he’s up to the task of closing for a team with World Series aspirations. Mike Adams, acquired from San Diego at the trade deadline last year would be a better choice, and in fact may get the ninth-inning gig if Nathan stumbles early. For the past two years he’s made 70+ appearances with an ERA slightly over 2.70. Presuming this whole Feliz-to-the-rotation nonsense is going to persist, I’d just make Adams the closer right now. And the pitcher I’d move back to the rotation would be Alexi Ogando. He got off to a blazing start last year, hit some speed bumps, but finished with a 3.51 ERA in 29 starts while pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark. I just don’t get why Ryan and Washington are messing around with these rotation-bullpen shuttles. In this case, we at least know Ogando can pitch well in either role, and he joins Mark Lowe as a key part of the setup team. If Koji Uehara still has gas in the tank at 36, that can be a big difference , but I have my doubts. He fell apart after coming over from Baltimore at the trade deadline.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 92—This number makes sense. Since Washington has been the manager the team’s win totals have been 75-79-87-90-96. That’s as impressive a trajectory as there is anywhere in sports, much less just baseball. But it seems realistic to think they finally hit the ceiling a year ago, and then suffered the loss of Wilson and saw the Angels get better. If Darvish, Holland and Harrison all have good years, it’s certainly realistic to think about 97 wins and continued improvement, but that’s a lot to break right. I just have my doubts about where this team’s psyche is at right now after the heartbreak in St. Louis and as noted above, I have extreme doubts about the personnel decisions being made in the spring. I see an 88-90 win team here, so I’m taking the Under.