Texas Rangers: 3 Up and 3 Down

To call the Texas Rangers’ last two seasons bittersweet would be quite an understatement.  While each was among the most successful campaigns in franchise history, 2010 and 2011 ended in disappointment with failed World Series bids.  First came San Francisco’s overwhelming pitching.  On its heels, the power and determination of the St. Louis Cardinals.  In back-to-back years, the team that was arguably superior heading into the championship series but walked away with nothing more than pennants to show for its efforts.

World Series foes just a year ago, Wilson and Pujols have now teamed up to oppose the Rangers (Gay/ AP)

Getting to three consecutive World Series would be quite a feat.  It’s been done a handful of times since 1969 when MLB expanded its post-season; the last team to manage it was the Yankees, who went four straight times from 1998 through 2001.  But it’s not easy to pull off, and Texas has done well in fending off the A.L.’s traditional powers this long.

[2012 MLB Preview Central]

Perhaps more importantly, last year’s ostensible ace C.J. Wilson is now wearing Angels red and will be a rival instead of a teammate.  He, in turn, will be playing alongside Albert Pujols, who goes from being a World Series nemesis to a divisional stumbling block for the Rangers.  With its 2011 encore, Texas failed to reach its ultimate goal.  Will there be an Act III in 2012?

3 Up

Best case scenario for 2012

This is still an extremely talented team.  The major pieces are still in place, Wilson notwithstanding, and while the Angels obviously improved, the West is far from won.  Going around the horn, this team has few obvious weaknesses; Mike Napoli swings a hot bat for a catcher, Ian Kinsler and Evlis Andrus form a solid duo up the middle, Adrian Beltre is one of the game’s top third baseman, manning a very thin position.  Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton make the outfield plenty scary, and if uber-prospect Leonys Martin can overtake Craig Gentry in center, the Rangers’ lineup could be the best in baseball.  On the mound aging closer Joe Nathan was brought in for the fireman role as Neftali Feliz moves to the rotation.  These and a handful of other moves could well result in Texas capturing yet another pennant.  With the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees beating each other up all year, a third trip to the World Series is possible.

Most important Rangers

It’s tempting to slap this label on Josh Hamilton and be done with it, but the reality is that there are serious issues swirling around the All-Star left fielder.  Even if one is willing to overlook his recent alcohol relapse, concern remains over the state of contract negotiations and the impact they could have on the field.  Luckily, the lineup has plenty of other big bats.  Should any distractions befall Hamilton, other sluggers are capable of picking up the slack.  The most important Rangers are on the pitching side of things.  Neftali Feliz joins fellow youngster Alexi Ogando as candidates for the rotation.  While Ogando faded down the stretch last year and could be viewed as a long relief option initially, Feliz will be on an innings limit in 2012, likely topping out around 150.  That will necessitate a sixth starter, even assuming everyone stays healthy.  Colby Lewis takes over as the team’s veteran ace following Wilson’s departure.  He’s found new life in his second stint in Texas, but last year’s 4.40 ERA might be truer to form than 2010’s 3.72.

Potential breakout players

Will Darvish succeed where other Japanese arms have failed (AP)

Apparently, Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka debacle didn’t scare the Rangers.  After issuing a Dice-K-esque posting fee estimated to be more than $50 million, Texas inked former Japanese standout Yu Darvish to a 6-year deal worth $60 million.  At that overall price, the lanky right-hander had better bring more than just potential.  In 2011, Darvish had a 1.44 ERA and 276 strikeouts in 232 innings.  That’s ace stuff, but as we’ve learned time and time again, transitioning from Japan to MLB is anything but easy.

3 Down

Worst case scenario for 2012

With a possibly disgruntled Josh Hamilton, the potential for a six-man rotation, and a shaky Joe Nathan finishing the ninth, the Rangers do have some question marks.  Last year they won the A.L. West by ten games; that is unlikely to happen this season.  The Angels have closed the talent gap considerably.  2012’s worst case scenario for Texas would be to finish out of the playoffs and lose Hamilton to free agency all in one fell swoop.  Although the team does have other offensive talent, it would still be a tough blow to weather, and missing the post-season after coming so close (twice) to winning would be a real gut punch to the organization’s psyche.

Areas of concern

Hamilton won't give the Rangers any financial break (AP)

Start with Hamilton.  He has already stated publicly that he won’t give Texas a hometown discount when it comes time to sign a new contract.  The next deal he inks is likely to be the biggest and longest of his career, and for the Rangers to keep him, they might have to dish out more dollars than they’re willing to give.  If the two sides can’t agree and the season progresses without an agreement, what will that do to Hamilton’s production?  He’s not exactly the most stable player in the game.

Then there’s what to do with the rotation.  C.J. Wilson wasn’t always a model of ace-like consistency, but he was a strong pitcher.  Now he’s gone, and Lewis is left to fill the gap.  Lewis is certainly a decent option, but he probably peaked a couple of years ago.  If that’s true, then the Rangers will be relying very heavily on four young arms:  Darvish, Ogando, Feliz, and Derek Holland.  For the most part, the three MLB veterans of that group acquitted themselves well last year, but Texas will need a repeat performance.  Or better.  And the highly-touted Darvish will need to break the pattern of celebrated Japanese pitchers who come to the U.S. only to wallow in mediocrity.

Who needs to bounce back from a down 2011

Texas didn’t have any under-achievers last year.  That’s a big reason why the team went all the way to the World Series.  Despite some rocky stretches, each guy pulled his weight.  Colby Lewis needs to get his ERA down from last year’s 4.40, but he was also a bit unlucky as evidenced by his 1.21 WHIP and 3.02 K:BB ratio.  With those peripherals he deserved a better fate in terms of earned runs.  Frankly, Texas simply needs to continue producing at a level similar to what it’s enjoyed since 2010.

If it can, then this club could get a third shot at the brass ring.