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The Long Hot Summer
FOR YEARS now the X factor for the Texas Rangers has not been on the 25-man roster. No, the key ingredient has been the Ballpark in Arlington. The cozy hitters' park—along with the heat and humidity of Texas summer nights—has helped make the Rangers one of the best hitting clubs in baseball year after year. The Rangers have finished in the top five in the American League in runs scored every year since 2001. Last year they led the league. They could again in 2009.
Unfortunately, when you play at the Ballpark, there is a top half of an inning in addition to a bottom half. And the Rangers, as usual, were not especially adept at getting through the top half of innings. They finished with a league-worst 5.37 ERA. One especially telling statistic: Texas scored almost six runs per game at home and still had a losing record there.
"We're going to hit," Rangers starter Kevin Millwood says. "There's no doubt about that. I think we're going to catch the ball better than we did last year. The question is, How well are we going to pitch?"
That's the question in Texas every year, but the answer this year could be slightly different. The Rangers, for the first time in forever, have some hot young arms who could make a huge impact on the team by the time the summer rolls around.
In the early months the Rangers will rely on their usual confusing jumble of average young starting pitchers and high-priced veterans, starting with the 34-year-old Millwood. The Rangers signed Millwood to a five-year, $60 million deal back before the '06 season, and so far he has given Texas 200-plus innings just once in three years. Last season was especially rough, as two DL stints with a strained right groin limited him to 168 2/3 innings, with a 5.07 ERA. "I pretty much sucked," says Millwood, who led the AL in ERA as recently as '05, with Cleveland. "I kept trying different things and nothing was working."
Sounds like the same old story. But now the Rangers have some of the best minor league pitching talent in baseball. And unlike in past years it looks as if they plan to use it. This is a team that traded away Edinson Volquez and John Danks, who combined for 29 wins and a 3.27 ERA last season with the Reds and the White Sox, respectively. The Rangers insist they plan to hold on to two of the best pitching prospects in the game—power righty Neftali Feliz, 20, and power lefty Derek Holland, 22. One, or maybe even both, could force his way into the rotation as early as June.
As for the offense, it will continue to score lots of runs, even with the loss of Milton Bradley, who led the American League with a .999 OPS last season before signing with the Cubs in the off-season. In the heart of the lineup is comeback kid Josh Hamilton, who had 32 homers and 130 RBIs, but there are plenty of other hitters surrounding him. Second baseman Ian Kinsler (.319 average, 41 doubles, .517 slugging percentage) had some injury problems, but he emerged as an offensive force in the mold of the Phillies' Chase Utley. Five-time All-Star Michael Young initially balked at moving to third base to make room at shortstop for young sensation Elvis Andrus—Young won the Gold Glove there last year—but he has settled into a mentoring role for the rookie. A career .300 hitter with an average of 94 RBIs the last five seasons, Young has the bat to be a corner infielder.
Because of all that offensive firepower, the Rangers have decided that they can sacrifice a little hitting in order to get better defensively and help support that pitching staff. Andrus may struggle offensively in the early going, but the Rangers say they can handle that. He's fast and has scouts and baseball executives happily babbling about his outstanding range. He'll learn a thing or two as well from his backup, 11-time Gold Glover Omar Vizquel.
The Rangers are really set up to make their move in 2010, when those gifted young pitchers will be ready and Andrus will be established at shortstop, but it has been 10 years or so since Texas has contended, and nobody wants to wait any longer.