Quiet Winter Hasn’t Slowed Texas

If there was a commonly perceived “loser” of the 2012-13 baseball offseason, other than perhaps the suddenly budget-conscious New York Yankees, it was almost certainly seen to be the Texas Rangers.

General manager Jon Daniels watched Mike AdamsRyan DempsterJosh HamiltonMike Napoli and Koji Uehara all leave as free agents while failing to land either Zack Greinke orJustin Upton, two big-ticket names the team was connected to for months. The only real additions the Rangers made were one-year deals to past-their-prime veterans like Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski, all while dealing with the increasingly visible off-the-field distraction surrounding team icon Nolan Ryan‘s future with the club.

Championships aren’t often won in December, but even when the games got rolling, Texas faced an additional concern. Opening Day starter Matt Harrison, who received a $55 million extension in January, dropped his first two starts before being lost to back surgery. He has since undergone a second procedure, and his return date remains uncertain.

After all that, where do the Rangers stand now? With the best record in baseball and the only team with more than a 1½-game lead in its division. In what was expected by many to be the most competitive division race in the game, Texas is a surprising 6½ games ahead of the Seattle Mariners, and they’re doing it with a well-rounded team. They have the third-best wOBA and the fourth-stingiest FIP on the mound. They are, according to ESPN’s Playoff Odds, the team with the best chances of reaching the postseason with a percentage of 88.2.

So much for a lousy winter, apparently.

Balanced offense

Although Texas didn’t bring in many new faces, all the departures meant that only four of the 10 men penciled into manager Ron Washington‘s 2012 Opening Day lineup were there again when this season kicked off. Despite the turnover, the offense in particular really hasn’t missed a beat.

This year’s Rangers are getting contributions in some amount from nearly every part of the lineup, and that’s not something that could be said about last year’s group, which gave more than 1,100 plate appearances to players who didn’t even manage 0.0 WAR (more than half of which were to Michael Young, who was one of the worst players in baseball last season). As we complete the first quarter of 2013, only struggling left fielder David Murphyand backup catcher Geovany Soto fit that description, and that’s a big reason this club has yet to lose more than two consecutive games.

It’s that kind of offensewide production that has allowed the Rangers to weather the losses of Hamilton and Napoli and slower-than-usual starts from core stars Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre. Beyond that, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the team is getting star-level production from a few places that weren’t quite providing it last season.

At second base, Ian Kinsler struggled through a down year in 2012, ending the season with a career-worst .327 wOBA and fueling rumors he might be asked to move to first base or the outfield to make room for top prospect Jurickson Profar. All Kinsler has done in response is put up a stellar line of .302/.369/.500, good for a .378 wOBA that currently makes him the most productive offensive second baseman in baseball.

Kinsler remains at second in part because the previously inconsistent Mitch Moreland has come into his own to establish himself as the team’s regular first baseman. Moreland’s nine homers are already more than halfway to his previous season high of 16, and his success isn’t even due to the small-sample-size batted-ball luck that we often see at this point in the season — his .311 BABIP is barely off the .307 mark he had last year. Perhaps as importantly, he’s finally begun to show some amount of success on the road and against lefty pitching, problems that had plagued him for most of his career.

Moreland’s secure hold on first base continues a domino effect that allows Berkman to take the majority of playing time at designated hitter, where his .377 wOBA is a massive improvement over the poor .297 mark Young provided last year. In right field, Nelson Cruz — finally healthy, though that always seems to be a temporary condition — already has 11 homers and a robust .356 wOBA.

Defense and Darvish

While we all like to focus on offense, run prevention is just as important in terms of winning games, and the Rangers have found improvement with the gloves as well. When we looked at the Rangers in this space in January, there was cause for optimism that no matter what losing Hamilton, Napoli and Young might do to the offense, subtracting the three poorly regarded defenders should help support the team’s pitching.

That’s exactly what’s happened. Less of Napoli and Young at first has allowed more time for the defensively solid Moreland; losing Hamilton in center field has opened up playing time for superior defendersCraig Gentry and Leonys Martin, who can add value even if they’re not hitting. The 2012 Rangers were a decent fielding team, but the 2013 edition is a better one.

As you might expect on a team that’s turning more balls into outs, a rotation that had depth concerns even before losing Harrison is performing better. As a group, last year’s Texas rotation had a 4.30 ERA. That number is down to 3.56 this season, even though the Rangers have had to replace Harrison and the injuredColby Lewis with rookies Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch.

Of course, the way Yu Darvish is pitching, it might not matter if he had a defense behind him at all. No starting pitcher in baseball tops his 12.76 K/9 mark; in fact, no pitcher even comes within a full strikeout of that, with Max Scherzer trailing at 11.57. Darvish’s ascension into a full-fledged ace has somewhat masked the rebound of Derek Holland, who has managed to limit the homers and walks that had hurt him in the past to put up a 2.36 FIP.

Can they keep this pace up in the face of more bad news? Starter Alexi Ogando, who had already been struggling with decreased velocity this season, went on the disabled list on Thursday with right biceps tendinitis. He’ll be replaced by 25-year-old Josh Lindblom, the return from Philadelphia in the Young deal, who will make his starting debut after more than 100 games of major league experience in the bullpen.

That makes for a trio of inexperienced starters behind Darvish and Holland, but for once, good news is on the way. Lewis has been making rehab starts as he returns from elbow surgery and could be ready by June; he’ll be followed by former Kansas City Royals starJoakim Soria in July and ex-closer Neftali Feliz later in the season, as each recuperates from Tommy John surgery. If Daniels decides that he needs to add a starter like David Price or bat like Giancarlo Stanton before the deadline, few teams can match the strength of a farm system that boasts talent like Profar and third baseman Mike Olt.

Although the Rangers have done more than erase the memories of a seemingly subpar winter, they need only to look back at 2012 to know that the only day when being in first place matters is the final day of the season. So far, they’re doing a great job of making everyone who wrote them off in December look foolish.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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