They say “everything’s bigger in Texas,” and nothing exemplifies that more than the expectations surrounding the Texas Rangers. After an incredible season in which they won the AL Pennant, the pressure will be on the Rangers to repeat last year’s success. Due to the departure of Cliff Lee during the offseason, much of that pressure will once again fall on the rotation. The offense may be built around some extremely talented players, but those players come with significant injury concerns. Despite last season’s success, there are many questions surrounding the Rangers this season. Do they have what it takes to live up to their lofty expectations?
The Starting Line-Up (*indicates left-handed batter)
1 2B Ian Kinsler
2 SS Elvis Andrus
3 LF Josh Hamilton*
4 3B Adrian Beltre
5 RF Nelson Cruz
6 DH Michael Young/Mike Napoli (vs lefties)
7 1B Mitch Moreland*/Michael Young (vs lefties)
8 C Yorvit Torrealba
9 CF Julio Borbon*
The big offseason acquisition of Adrian Beltre should help the team in a multitude of ways. Although he has yet to play this Spring, his durability should give the Rangers a consistent presence in the lineup if (when?) Hamilton, Cruz, and Kinsler miss time. Over the last nine seasons, Beltre has averaged 149 games played each season. Defensively, Beltre’s acquisition puts less pressure on a pitching staff that has to cope with larger roles following the departure of Lee.
Finally freed from the grasp of Mike Scioscia, Mike Napoli should get a shot at increased playing time. Napoli is expected to play first base and DH depending on the handedness of the opposing pitcher. Ron Washington also seems willing to allow Napoli to catch when Yorvit Torrealba needs a day off. Napoli has always shown a propensity for power, so he should find his new ballpark favorable when it comes to putting balls in the stands. Given more playing time, Napoli could post his strongest season yet.
The acquisitions of Beltre and Napoli have pushed Michael Young to the other side of the diamond. Young voiced his complaints over switching positions, and, while it appeared the Rangers would hang on to Young, trade rumors popped up again recently. Young’s bat isn’t ideal for first or DH, but he should prove a more effective fielder than Napoli due to his experience across the diamond.
The Rangers’ offense will once again be led by Hamilton, Cruz, and Kinsler. While all of them have star potential, they also have dealt with some significant injury issues in the past. Hamilton did manage to play in 133 games last season, but he played through injuries most of the season before finally succumbing to a rib injury. Hamilton is one of the most talented players in all of baseball when healthy, but it would be foolish to expect him to post a .390 BABIP again. Cruz and Kinsler missed even more time than Hamilton last season, but were effective when they played. Despite only playing in 108 games last season, Cruz was worth 5.1 WAR. Kinsler, while still effective when he played, was clearly restricted by his injuries. He stopped hitting for power, lost more than half of his stolen bases and his defense suffered as a result of leg injuries. The health of all three players is integral to the Rangers’ success in 2011.
The Pitching Staff
C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis both experienced huge breakouts last season, and are now slotted atop the Rangers’ rotation. Their peripherals indicate that their gains were legitimate last season, but both must prove they are more than one-year wonders. No one on the staff will benefit from the Adrian Beltre acquisition more than Tommy Hunter. Hunter’s performance will rely heavily on the defense behind him, and the Beltre for Young swap at third works in his favor. Derek Holland may be this year’s Lewis/Wilson. Although injuries held him to only 57.1 major league innings, his strikeout rate was strong and his home run rate fell to acceptable levels. Neftali Feliz is the most interesting name of the bunch. The Rangers are giving Feliz a legitimate shot at breaking the rotation this Spring, and he has responded well thus far. Even though he prefers to remain the closer, Feliz has the potential to blossom into the Rangers’ best starter if left in the rotation. Feliz’s conversion has been one of the biggest stories of the Spring, and the Rangers’ decision will be a situation worth watching.
Even with the loss of Feliz, the Rangers should have a strong bullpen in 2011. The Rangers bullpen finished second in the AL in WAR last season, and a similar cast of characters return to the pen this year. With Feliz in the rotation, the closer role is up for grabs this Spring. In an article over at RotoGraphs, I speculated Mark Lowe had the best chance to close due to his perceived “veteran experience,” velocity and handedness. Alexi Ogando shot through the minors last season, culminating in a dominant postseason performance during the Rangers’ World Series run. Like most of his bullpen mates, however, Ogando flashed an extreme platoon split in his first season. Arthur Rhodes neutralized lefties last season, but can be exposed when facing right-handers. He should be the Rangers designated LOOGY again in 2011. Darren Oliver is absolute hell on lefties, and doesn’t struggle against right-handers as much as people think. With Feliz gone, Oliver has a chance to be the Rangers’ best relief pitcher this season.
Given a chance to start every five days, Neftali Feliz could become the best starting pitcher on the team. A big part of Feliz’s development will depend on his ability to refine his changeup. The last two seasons, Feliz has predominantly used a fastball/slider combination out of the pen, only throwing his changeup 3.5% of the time last season. The value that Feliz gets from his fastball and slider are so valuable, however, that his changeup merely has to be average for him to succeed as a starter. The Rangers should also be concerned about his workload after Feliz only threw 71.0 innings last season. But C.J. Wilson’s success after making the same transition last season makes Feliz’s transition one the Rangers are familiar with.
Replacing Cliff Lee will be nearly impossible, but the expected emergence of Feliz and Holland should soften the blow. If the Rangers can keep their stars healthy, the offense has the potential for greatness. Despite the expected loss of Feliz, the bullpen remains strong. Neither the Mariners nor the Angels are expected to contend this season, leaving the revamped Oakland Athletics as the only threat to the Rangers this season. The A’s may have improved this offseason, but this is still the Rangers’ division to lose. Expectations may be higher than ever in Texas, but the Rangers appear poised to reward their fans with another “big” season.