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The Rangers Could Really Be a Contender

Believe it or not, the AL West could actually be a race this year. Finally.

With the litany of injury problems in Anaheim's rotation, and the ever present threat of an injury to any one of the team's aging outfield sluggers, the Angels really are susceptible to a strong run from a surprise team. Heading into the season, analysts seemed to have that team pegged as the A's.

Some 38 games into the season, it looks like they picked the wrong challenger. While Oakland still has the pop at the plate and young pitching to put together a charge late in the season, the team that has surprised with its balanced success plays in the Lone Star State, in 90-degree heat and with a pitching rotation that may finally be figuring itself out.

Despite a 4-0 loss in Detroit last night, the Rangers have started the season on a tear, weathering an injury to the team's signature slugger, putting a bitter offseason feud with its reigning Gold Glove shortstop behind en route to a 23-15 record and early division advantage over the field.

How are the Rangers doing it? With offensive depth and a vastly improved defense, milking every extra bit of range and athleticism out of rookie Elvis Andrus -- the man who displaced longtime shortstop Michael Young -- and a surprisingly comfortable Young at third base.

Some of that depth is a product of institutional progress -- Andrus has exceeded lofty expectations and guys like Frank Francisco (despite his current bout of right biceps tendinitis) have risen to lofty heights for the team's oft-beleaguered bullpen -- but much of it comes due to a surprisingly successful crop of bargain basement signings by Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels. He added Andruw Jones when his outfield was already loaded, and Jones has responded with a .297 batting average and .439 on base percentage, complete with four homers. He kept aging shortstop Omar Vizquel around to be more of a coach to Andrus than a player, and the 42-year-old Vizquel has already played in 14 games, racking up a preposterous .378 average.

As for the team's rotation, as one might expect, it's the lone area where significant concern and doubt may remain. Kevin Milwood looks like he's pitching in retro mode early on, but one has to wonder whether he can keep that pace up. Young lefty starter Matt Harrison already has four wins, and has shown sparks of becoming more consistent. Add in Scott Feldman's surprising 2-0 record, and Texas's starters look a lot more solid than they did on paper.

The concern really starts when you examine how hard they're working to get those wins. Only two of the Rangers' five starters has a WHIP ratio low enough to suggest 18-20 wins, with Milwood's 1.131 and Feldman's 1.178 both on track to be in that area. For the record, Milwood's two 18-win seasons have both come when he hosted a WHIP dangerously close to the 1.131 he's putting up right now (he had a career best 0.996 with Atlanta in 1999).

So, with questionable stats behind three of Texas's five starters, how could they possibly be considered contenders for the duration? Well, one of the other three starters, Vicente Padilla, has the talent to turn around his start (if anything, you'd probably bet on Padilla's numbers improving while Feldman's dip going forward). There's also a very real chance that Texas could add another bona fide ace just after the trading deadline, with former Brewers starter Ben Sheets working out in Arlington following his elbow surgery, all with the covert intention (neither Texas nor Sheets will admit that a subtle agreement may have already been reached) of joining the team's rotation for a playoff push in the second half.

Realistically, that's how a Texas playoff charge happens. If the Rangers head into July with a rotation of Milwood-Sheets-Padilla-one of Feldman/Brandon McCarthy and another trade acquisition (they could conceivably deal one of their surplus outfielders and a prospect for some middle-of-the-rotation pitcher at the deadline), that's a rotation that can absolutely compete with what the Angels are like to throw out there, particularly if the team's lineup improves (despite its successes, it currently features three hitters below .240 who almost certainly will hit better as the season wears on ... or lose their spots to guys on the bench).

Put it all together, and the really is every reason to believe that Texas could be in the hunt for once as the season comes down the stretch, at least if they can find a way to weather the, well, weather.

By Cameron Smith  |  May 20, 2009; 3:15 PM ET
Categories:  Rangers  
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Comments

Cameron - In terms of pitching upgrades, you might also want to mention that the Rangers have two of the top prospect / rookies in baseball in Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz. Holland is up already and being used in middle relief. He's only been hit hard once so far. It looks like they have depth and options.

Harrison had a rough year last year once called up, but had a good track record in the minors. It may be the case that he took his lumps last year and is now giving them his real level. Also, I have a bit respect for Feldman. he had been an effective reliever who they switche dto starting in the middle of the year. I wonder if it was just a case of getting tired. Washington (Ron not the Natinals) I think is high on him. He's not elite like Feliz or Holland (or a healthy Sheets), but he's a nice swing man / 5th starter.

Perhaps the best was to deal with the Texas heat is to have multiple options.

W - I know you used to own these guys, but if you are reading this, give us your thoughts.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | May 21, 2009 8:10 AM | Report abuse

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