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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.
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.
"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.
While the first baseman's power numbers from his first (almost) full season as a big leaguer look impressive (21 homers, 59 RBI), some of his other overall offensive statistics look simply offensive: that .238 batting average; that .284 OBP; those 150 strikeouts in 113 games. It was, however, a tale of two halves for the 23-year-old Davis. Prior to the All-Star break, he hit .202 with a .278 OBP, and struck out once every 2.4 plate appearances. After it? .308, .338, and a strikeout every 3.9 PA's.
The difference, Davis says, sprang from a change in his swing he made immediately upon being belatedly sent down last July 5 to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he stayed for seven weeks. "My bat path was horrible, real quick in and out of the zone," he says. "If the pitcher threw it in a perfect spot and I happened to swing right there, I was going to hit it, but other than that I didn't have a shot. I had to shorten my swing up and make it a lot flatter, to give myself a better chance. We started doing drills that I had done in the minor leagues that I had gotten away from, and I went 3-for-4 that first night and I didn't stop hitting after that."
"Sometimes you gain your experience through failure, and sometimes through adversity," says Washington. "He's had failure, and he's had adversity. He's gonna strike out. He's gonna reach that 150, 160. But he's not a .202 hitter." Davis, with a new-and-improved shorter and flatter swing, is another reason why the Rangers' offense should rebound to its 2008 form.
Guerrero is 35 now, and no longer the base stealing, cannon-armed slugger who received at least one MVP vote for eleven consecutive years, from 1998 to 2008. Last season, his sixth as an Angel, was the fourth straight in which both his games played and home run totals declined. But Daniels signed Guerrero to a one-year, $6.5 million free agent deal in January because he saw a driven and fit player when he visited him in California late last year, and because, as Daniels says, "This guy's a likely Hall of Famer. We think he's got more in him. This guy's a presence."
Daniels was also inspired by the strategies of John Hart, the GM of the Indians from 1991 to 2001 (during which time Cleveland made the playoffs six times and the World Series twice) and of the Rangers from '01 to '05, and the man who initially hired Daniels as Texas's assistant director of baseball operations. "Those Indians teams, although they had those huge offenses -- they had Manny [Ramirez] and [Jim] Thome batting 7th and 8th or something -- each year they'd add an Eddie Murray, the right veteran in the middle of the lineup. The reason those offenses were successful was because they had [Roberto] Alomar and [Kenny] Lofton and [Albert] Belle and Thome and Manny. But those other guys added something to it. We think Vlad can do the same thing."
The Rangers could become the first club since the 2007 Mets -- and the 10th since 1990 -- to steal 200 bases. Washington says that Nelson Cruz and Hamilton have the wherewithal to steal 20 bases apiece, and that Borbon, Andrus and Kinsler should all easily swipe 30, and potentially many more, even though Kinsler, who hit mainly leadoff last year, will now bat fifth. "I will not slow him down," says Washington. "He is a threat. I will not take away that threat. I'm not stopping Kins.".... Lewis has only one regret from his otherwise very productive two years in Japan. "I wish I would have tried to learn the language a little more," he says. "[Our team] had three translators, so it wasn't a priority, but I wish it had been."... Daniels, a 1999 graduate of Cornell, is delighted by the success of the 25-4 Big Red men's basketball team, which on Feb. 1 achieved its first Top-25 ranking since 1951 (it was No. 25 in the ESPN/USA Today poll), and was the next week ranked No. 22 before losing at Penn. To win an NCAA tournament game, though, Daniels says, "They need to have one of those days where they shoot 60 percent from the floor."