Spring Postcard: Complete Rangers poised for playoff push
Better health for Josh Hamilton, better luck for Ian Kinsler will aid the offense
Texas signed Rich Harden to be ace of a staff that includes Neftali Feliz
Julio Borbon is expected to take over as the leadoff hitter and center fielder
This spring, SI.com's baseball writers will be filing postcards from all 30 camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. The offense should again be among baseball's elite
Rangers hitters were by no means impotent in 2009: their 784 runs scored ranked 10th in the major leagues. But that represented a significant decline from 2008, when Texas's 901 runs easily led the majors. The offense will receive a significant boost from a return to health by slugger Josh Hamilton, who was limited by an assortment of maladies last season to 89 games, 10 home runs and 54 RBI, after he hit 32 homers and drove in 132 runs in 156 games in 2008, his first as a Ranger. But it will also benefit from the development of fifth-year second baseman Ian Kinsler.
Kinsler, 27, hit 31 homers and stole 31 bases last season, but the fact that he became the 34th player in the 30/30 club obscured that in a number of ways he regressed as a hitter. His batting average plummeted from .319 to .253 and his OBP sank from .375 to .327. That decline was partly attributable to bad luck: he ranked last in the big leagues, by a good margin, in batting average on balls in play (BABIP) at .241, and that is a statistic that generally levels out year-to-year. His low BABIP, however, was in part due to the fact that he was hitting too many lazy fly balls. His fly ball rate of 54 percent was the majors' second highest, behind Carlos Pena's. (It's no coincidence that Pena's .250 BABIP was better than only Kinsler's).
"Of the 29 other second baseman, probably about 25 of them would love to have had his year," says GM Jon Daniels. "But he holds himself to a higher standard, and so do we, just because we've seen what he's capable of. And he's capable of being an MVP candidate. He and [new hitting coach] Clint Hurdle have clicked, and he's really working on driving the ball and staying on top of the ball." Kinsler, for his part, says that his goal is to "combine my last two seasons." It seems likely that he will, and that he will help Texas' offense to once again be not just very good, but exceptional.
2) It will be supported by a talented and deep pitching staff
Pitching and Texas have traditionally gone together about as well as Texas and tofu. Rangers' pitching bottomed out in 2007 and '08, when the Rangers' team ERA ranked 24th (4.75) and then dead last (5.37). Things started to turn around last season under new pitching coach Mike Maddux and an edict from team president Nolan Ryan that starters should be both physically and mentally prepared to work deeper into games. The Rangers' cumulative ERA of 4.38 was a respectable eighth in the American League.
Now, the Rangers' staff seems primed to improve upon that, perhaps significantly. It features, for the first time in recent memory, a potential ace in former Cub Rich Harden, whom Daniels signed to a one-year, $7.5 million deal on Dec. 10, a signing encouraged by (among others) Kinsler, who played with Harden in 2001 at Central Arizona College. But it is also deeper than ever before. Projected fourth starter Tommy Hunter should improve upon his promising first full season (9-6, 4.10 ERA in '09), and the Rangers have two very good options vying to be their fifth starter in C.J. Wilson and Neftali Feliz.
Wilson, 29, had a 2.81 ERA as a reliever last season, and lobbied for the chance to start. If he wins the job, Daniels says he will be under no innings limit. "You look at guys like [Ryan] Dempster, guys like [Adam] Wainwright, that went from 65 appearance in the bullpen to 200 innings in the rotation, with no problems," says Daniels. Feliz, a 21 year-old fireballer who was simply dominant in two months in the majors after being called up last August -- he had a 1.74 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 30 innings out of the pen -- has a higher upside, but his innings will be limited to perhaps 160 or 170. The Rangers have still more options behind Wilson and Feliz, including Derek Holland, Brandon McCarthy and Matt Harrison, each of whom could bolster the bullpen if they don't start. In other words, the days in which the Rangers' hopes were consistently dashed by a poor and shallow pitching staff now seem to be behind them.
3) This is the AL West's most complete team
The Rangers, after years of building and re-building, finally appear to possess no glaring weakness. They will hit. They will pitch. And they will field, as their defense -- which ranked last in Ultimate Zone Rating (-51.7) in '08 but sixth (32.5) in '09 -- should only continue to improve. "I think our biggest weakness is probably just a lack of track record, and of consistency," says Daniels.
For a while last season, it appeared as if the Rangers might win the AL West for the first time since 1999 -- they led the division by 5.5 games on May 30th, and were in first as late of July 10th -- but injuries to Hamilton, Kinsler and Michael Young (who combined to miss 118 games) only hastened the falling back to earth of a club that wasn't quite ready to overtake the Angels. "[The Angels are] a great team," says manager Ron Washington. "It was just a matter of time before their talent took over. That's what happened. If we'd stayed healthy, I'd like to have seen what would've happened, but that's not an excuse."
Texas is now better-protected against injuries, due to their rotational depth and to a farm system that remains arguably the majors' best, even though it has recently graduated several key contributors, and features three of Baseball America's top 17 prospects (Feliz is No. 9, first baseman Justin Smoak is No. 13 and 18-year-old southpaw Martin Perez is No. 17). The Rangers are now well positioned to end L.A.'s run at the top of the AL West. In fact, they look like nothing less than the favorite within the division.
Prospect To Watch
The speedy, left-handed hitting Borbon, the 35th pick in the 2007 draft out of the University of Tennessee, excelled during his two month call-up at the end of last season, during which he played mostly against right-handed pitchers. In 46 games, he batted .312 and stole 19 bases in 23 attempts. That audition was enough for the Rangers to plan to make him their everyday, leadoff-hitting center fielder in 2010, and he expects to keep running. "I think I can get somewhere around 30 to 50 [stolen bases]," he says. "Just depends on the opportunity. But there's a good chance I'll be running a lot." Borbon will often follow the equally quick second-year shortstop Elvis Andrus (who was 33-for-39 on stolen base attempts as a rookie), who will likely bat ninth in the order.
New Face, New Place
"Usually when you go over there," the thirty-year-old Lewis says, "you don't come back." "There" is Japan, where the Rangers' 1999 first round pick signed before the 2008 season after an ineffective and injury-riddled big league career -- one in which the power pitcher went 12-15 with a 6.71 ERA between 2002 and 2007 -- ended when he suffered the indignity of being cut by the Royals.
In truth, Lewis only thought that his major league career was over. In each of his two seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, the 6'4" Lewis led the league in strikeouts, and that occasioned a bidding war between at least a dozen major league teams for his services. The Twins, A's and Rangers were all willing to give him a two-year deal, and the Rangers eventually signed him in January, to a $5 million contract. "The contract was market-driven -- we thought we wouldn't get him otherwise," Daniels says. "He went over there and he learned how to be a professional. He first made the big league rotation [in 2002] before he was ready. He had a big fastball and a big curveball, but really scattershot command, a long arm action, an inconsistent delivery. Now he's got a much more compact, traditional power delivery, and he pounds the strike zone. Strikes translate, league to league."
Lewis is set to begin the season as the Rangers' No. 3 starter. This time, he is ready.
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