When making my pre-season picks for SI.com during the final week of Spring Training, the easiest call for me to make was choosing the Rangers to win the American League West. That has something to do with their competition, I'm not on the A's bandwagon and don't think the Angels improved enough to get back in the race, but it also has to do with my enthusiasm for this Rangers team.
The Rangers have a fairly obvious flaw in that their starting rotation lacks both an ace up top and depth below, but the list of American League teams that have both assets is written in invisible ink. Over the course of 162 games, I fully expect the Rangers' to get enough out of their rotation to allow their lineup and strong bullpen to lead them back into the playoffs. I do not, however, expect them to do well once they're there without a major breakout or addition to that rotation. Remember, the Rangers had the biggest division lead in baseball last year before they traded for Cliff Lee, but it took Lee's dominance to get them to the World Series.
Even without without defending AL MVP Josh Hamilton, who fractured his left humerus on a questionable play at home plate on Sunday, the Rangers can rake. They still have a legitimate early-season MVP candidate in Nelson Cruz, who like Hamilton is a late bloomer who struggles to stay healthy but is a monster when he is. Ian Kinsler's power is back and his improved walk rate from last year seems to have carried over. Adrian Beltre should have another big season another hitting-friendly environment (though he was even better on the road than at home with Boston last year). Mitch Moreland has been a minor revelation at first base, a position that was a black hole for the team last year until Moreland took it over in August, and Mike Napoli stands to be a nice asset coming off the bench to spell Moreland against lefties and spot in for Yorvit Torrealba behind the plate. Even Torrealba could be a nice upgrade as the Rangers' catchers hit just .212/.288/.317 last year (PECOTA projects Torrealba to hit .256/.318/.366 as a Ranger).
What got the Rangers out to their nifty 9-1 start, however, was pitching and defense. The latter could be the key to their season. Beltre replacing Michael Young at third base is about as large a defensive improvement as a team could make at a single position, and the effects are already apparent. The Rangers have the second-best defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs) in baseball, behind only the division rival Angels (who greatly tightened up their outfield defense), and that defense has helped the Rangers pitching staff become the stingiest in baseball in the early going. Yes, the Rangers, who have played half of their games in Arlington thus far this season, have allowed fewer runs than any team in baseball, fewer than the A's, fewer than the Padres, far fewer than the Phillies and the Giants. That's an unadjusted, raw figure. By the park-adjusted ERA+, they've nearly lapped the field, posting a 171 mark as a team to the second-place A's 147.
Like most eye-popping early-season statistics, that won't last, but that doesn't mean that the Rangers won't continue to exceed expectations in preventing runs, in large part thanks to their glove work, and if they do, and Hamilton makes a healthy return sometime in June, they should cruise to the AL West title.
Pitching matchups and Rangers roster below the jump . . .
Ivan Nova (1-0, 6.10) vs. Matt Harrison (2-0, 1.29), Friday, 4/15, 7:05, YES/MLBN
Harrison is a 25-year-old lefty who came over from the Braves in the Mark Teixeira deal as a top prospect with injury concerns and has since had a more impressive medical chart than pitching line. After closing out 2008 as a rookie in the Rangers' rotation, Harrison opened 2009 there only to have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome ended his season in June. Last year, he made six starts before biceps tendonitis pushed him to the disabled list, then the bullpen. This year, he's back in the rotation and coming off two very impressive starts, having allowed just one run in seven innings both times out, but one wonders how long he'll last.
Harrison is a big-bodied lefty with a low-90s fastball that he can add to, but he has been mostly a low-strikeout, command pitcher in his career. He did strike out eight Red Sox in his season debut, but added just three more Ks in his second start, against the Orioles. He faced the Yankees three times in relief last year, the first was for a single batter (Robinson Cano, who struck out), the other two didn't go nearly as well for the big lefty.
As for Nova, he impressed with a quality start in his first game of the year, but again struggled upon turning over the lineup, particularly for the third time, in his second start.
Freddy Garcia (12-6, 4.64)* vs. Derek Holland (2-0, 2.25), Saturday, 4/16, 1:05, YES
Another young lefty, the 24-year-old Holland was a mid-round draft-and-follow in 2006 who had a breakout season at the age of 21 in 2008, excelling across three levels and wrapping things up with four dominant outings in Double-A. In 2009, he bounced between the minors, majors, bullpen, and rotation, and struggled to deliver on the promise of his previous season, but last year, despite some injuries and more time in the bullpen, he seemed to find his feet. This year, he's back in the rotation, where he belongs, and off to a solid start with a pair of quality-start wins and 11 Ks in 12 innings against just three walks. Of course, he did manage to give up three runs to the Mariners in his first start, which is close to a disaster outing. Holland brings real heat from the left side with a sharp slider and a developing curve and change. He didn't face the Yankees during the regular season last year, but threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings of relief against them in the ALCS and picked up the win in Game Four.
Garcia is making his first start of the season having been skipped the first two times through the rotation due to a convenient off-day and a rain-out. He threw one inning of relief against the Red Sox last Saturday and gave up a run on a walk and a double to his first two batters, but was gifted with a sac bunt by the third man up and stranded the runner at third by striking out Jason Varitek. Incidentally, the double, by David Ortiz, was perhaps the longest in-play hit I've ever seen. It hit off the top of the wall at the back of the triangle in deepest center field, 420 feet from home plate and roughly 18 feet high. You literally cannot hit a fair ball further in Fenway Park and not get a home run.
CC Sabathia (0-1, 1.45) vs. Alexi Ogando (2-0, 0.00), Sunday 4/17, 8:05, ESPN
Sabathia wasn't sharp his last time out, but still limited the Red Sox to one run over 5 2/3 innings, largely by repeatedly pitching out of jams, stranding nine runners and bequeathing three more to Joba Chamberlain, who stranded all three. CC was sharp in his first two starts, striking out a man per inning and allowing just two earned runs in 13 innings. However, he's winless on the season because the Yankees rallied late on Opening Day, the bullpen blew a 4-0 lead in the eighth in his second start, and Josh Beckett was untouchable last Sunday.
Ogando has had an odd journey to this point. Originally signed out of his native Dominican Republic by the A's back in 2002, Ogando began his pro career as an outfielder, but the story of his conversion the mound pales next to what came in between. In 2005, Ogando was one of roughly 30 players caught up in a human trafficking ring in which players were paid to marry women in order to get them work visas to enter the United States, where the women were often forced into prostitution or other demeaning, underpaid jobs. Ogando and others, including fellow Rangers prospect Omar Beltre, were banned from the United States for five years after pleading guilty to involvement in the scheme. As a result, Ogando, who was taken by the Rangers in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft in December '05, didn't make his U.S. debut as a pitcher until last April, at which point the then-26-year-old righty needed just 18 games to work his way from Double-A to the majors, and quickly became one of the Rangers' top relief arms (though they inexplicably buried him in the postseason, to their detriment in the World Series).
This spring, Ogando was in the running to replace Neftali Feliz as the Rangers closer if Feliz moved to the rotation, but in a wild change of course, not only did Feliz return to his old rule, but when Tommy Hunter hurt his groin the day after Feliz's new/old role was announced, the Rangers tabbed Ogando to fill the vacant rotation spot. That despite the fact that Ogando had made just three starts as a professional, all coming early last year in Double-A (his three seasons in the Dominican Summer League were spent entirely in relief). Amazingly, Ogando has excelled in the new role, having twirled 13 shutout innings while allowing just four hits across two starts. In his last start, he needed just 79 pitches to hand seven scoreless on the Tigers. Who knows what to expect from him going forward, but he has filthy stuff (high-90s heat, plus slider, diving changeup), and has been through enough off the field to be able to keep things in perspective on it (he and Beltre now lecture younger players in the D.R. about avoiding the traps they fell into).
Ogando impressed in four regular season relief appearances against the Bombers last year, though he did give up a home run to Curtis Granderson in Game Five of the ALCS.
Incidentally, the last time through the rotation, the three Rangers starters the Yankees will see in this series combined to allow a total of just one run to the Orioles and Tigers.
2010 Record: 90-72 (.556)
2010 Third-Order Record: 88-74 (.543)
Manager: Ron Washington
General Manager: Jon Daniels
Home Ballpark: Rangers Ballpark in Arlington
Bill James Park Indexes (2008-2010):
LH Avg-103; LH HR-124
RH Avg-107; RH HR-114
Who's replacing whom:
• Adrian Beltre replaces Vladimir Guerrero
• Mitch Moreland takes over Justin Smoak's playing time
• Yorvit Torrealba replaces Matt Treanor, Max Ramirez, and Taylor Teagarden
• Mike Napoli replaces Bengie Molina and Jorge Cantu
• Andres Blanco takes over Joaquin Arias's playing time
• Derek Holland takes over Scott Feldman's starts
• Matt Harrison takes over Tommy Hunter's starts
• Alexi Ogando takes over the starts of Rich Harden and Cliff Lee
• Arthur Rhodes replaces Frank Francisco
• Mark Lowe, David Bush, and Mason Tobin replace Dustin Nippert, Chris Ray, Doug Mathis, and Michael Kirkman (mL)
• Pedro Strop takes over Ogando's relief innings
1B - Mitch Moreland (L)
2B - Ian Kinsler (R)
SS - Elvis Andrus (R)
3B - Adrian Beltre (R)
C - Yorvit Torrealba (R)
RF - Nelson Cruz (R)
CF - Julio Borbon (L)
LF - David Murphy (L)
DH - Michael Young (R)
R - Mike Napoli (C/1B)
L - Chris Davis (1B)
S - Andres Blanco (IF)
L - C.J. Wilson
R - Colby Lewis
L - Matt Harrison
L - Derek Holland
R - Alexi Ogando
R - Neftali Feliz
L - Darren Oliver
L - Arthur Rhodes
R - Darren O'Day
R - Mark Lowe
R - David Bush
R - Pedro Strop
R - Mason Tobin
OF - Josh Hamilton (fractured right humerus)
RHP - Tommy Hunter (strained right groin)
RHP - Scott Feldman (right knee surgery)
RHP - Brandon Webb (right shoulder surgery)
RHP - Omar Beltre (back surgery)
R - Ian Kinsler (2B)
R - Elvis Andrus (SS)
R - Andre Beltre (3B)
R - Michael Young (DH)
R - Nelson Cruz (RF)
L - Mitch Moreland (1B)
L - David Murphy (LF)
R - Yorvit Torrealba (C)
L - Julio Borbon (CF)