Over the winter, the Texas Rangers, coming off a loss in the first American League Wild Card play-in game, decided to let Josh Hamilton and his 43 home runs and 128 RBIs sign with division rival Anaheim. They also let slugging catcher Mike Napoli sign with Boston. For good measure, general manager Jon Daniels traded the franchise’s all-time leader in games played and hits, Michael Young, to the Phillies.
As we zero in on Memorial Day, the Rangers seemingly haven’t missed a beat and have the best record in baseball at 29-16. It’s still (very) early in the season, but Texas’ 5.5 game lead on second-place Oakland is the largest margin in either league.
Tonight, ace Yu Darvish (7-1, 2.97) pitches against the Athletics. In his second season since coming over from Japan, Darvish – 12.76 strikeouts per nine innings – looks like the legit, top of the rotation ace the Rangers have lacked for most of their existence. Sure Kevin Brown led the AL in wins back in 1992 and Nolan Ryan did some fine things with Texas during the twilight of his career, but for a long part of their history, the Rangers went into the playoffs relying on the likes of John Burkett and Aaron Sele to start a series. Even when the Rangers went to back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011, their No. 1 starter was C.J. Wilson both seasons, although they did have Cliff Lee during the 2010 run.
Pitching, or pitching depth, is as good a reason as any why Texas is in first place in the American League West. Neftali Feliz, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando are all on the disabled list, yet the Rangers keep plugging along. It helps to have Darvish locked into the front end of the rotation, but less heralded is the bullpen work from relative unknowns Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers, who are each pitching to a sub-1.00 ERA. Veteran closer Joe Nathan hasn’t blown a save either.
For the time being, Texas is relying a lot on rookie starts from Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch, but having Darvish every fifth day changes the entire way you look at the team. Spending the $51 million to meet Darvish’ posting fee from the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (plus signing him to a six-year $60 million deal) seems like a much savvier way to spend money than $123 million the Angels gave to Hamilton for five years in December. (Or the five-year, $77.5 million deal the Halos gave Wilson in 2011.)
Offensively the Rangers lineup doesn’t seem that imposing, especially with Ian Kinsler – Texas’ only player among the top 40 in WAR – now on the disabled list. Mitch Moreland is the club’s leader in OPS at .922 and he and Kinsler are the only Rangers in the Top 40 of runs created, as well. Even so, Texas is second in baseball in overall OPS.
Yes, Adrian Beltre – amazingly now in his 16th season in the majors – and Nelson Cruz are sluggers in the center of the order, but overall the Rangers’ lineup doesn’t scream “Murderers Row,” at least not with the ageless Lance Berkman batting in No. 3 hole. What the Rangers do have is a lot of tough outs and guys who’ll work pitch counts, looking to drive pitches for solid singles. Guys like Elvis Andrus, David Murphy and Leonys Martin are quick enough to take third on a single — playing much like the old Mike Scioscia Angels, who are now languishing 10 games under .500. The impact managers have on a team might be overrated, but Ron Washington’s enthusiasm in the dugout does appear to rub off on his club most nights.
Former NL Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto – picked up off the scrap heap from the Cubs last season – is starting to heat up a little bit, too, which gives Texas another potential threat in the lineup.
Double that for mega-prospect Jurickson Profar, called up this week when Kinsler went on the DL.
After taking 3-of-4 from the defending American League champion Tigers over the weekend, the Rangers look well on their way to positioning themselves as the team to beat this summer.
[Photo by Getty]