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Springtime Storylines: Will the Rangers be able to survive the departure of Cliff Lee?

Mar 24, 2011, 9:10 AM EDT

World Series Giants Rangers Baseball

Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The defending AL Champs, the Texas Rangers

The Big Question: Will the Rangers survive the departure of Cliff Lee?

Well, sure, why wouldn’t they be able to? They only had him for 15 starts last year, and they were five and a half games up in the West on the day they traded for him.  Indeed, my asking this question isn’t because I’m truly concerned about the rotation sans Lee, but because I really wanted an excuse to note that Lee, while a wonderful addition, didn’t make the Rangers 2010 season as much as lot of people think he did. At least they think he did if the questions I’m asked about the Rangers prospects this year by readers and radio hosts and stuff is any indication.

The fact is that the Rangers rotation heading into 2011 looks to be just fine even without Lee.  C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis were major surprises last season, but I don’t believe they were flukes. Neither seemed to be the recipients of uncommon luck, and their peripheral stats looked strong.  I’m likewise high on Derrek Holland who, assuming he stays healthy, seems poised to come into his own as a starter.  And all of the Rangers’ pitchers will benefit by having Adrian Beltre take over at third base.

The key, though, is Neftali Feliz. Last year’s closer is being groomed to return to his roots as a starting pitcher, a role at which he excelled in the minor leagues (a final decision on whether he starts could come as soon as today).  Yes, there will be questions about his durability — he has never pitched more than 127 innings in a season, and that was three years ago — but if he is given ample rest and a sensible ramp-up, he could emerge as a front-end starter. Maybe even one that apes Cliff Lee’s half-season production in Texas.

The upshot: I think the rotation, while not the strongest in baseball, will be quite capable and won’t be a drag on the Rangers’ drive to repeat.

So what else is going on?

  • If the Rangers do put Feliz in the rotation, who closes? Ron Washington has said he wants an “experienced closer.” Which is kind of silly considering that he won a pennant with Feliz as his closer and he had never done it before.  Still, it wouldn’t shock me if Washington begins the year with some sort of closer-by-committee thing, shuffling in old hands Arthur Rhodes, Darren Oliver and God knows who else through the ninth inning role. The best bet, though, is that Alexi Ogando will move into the role eventually.  He went 4-1 with a 1.30 ERA and 39/16 K/BB ratio in 42 innings last season and throws fire. Looks like a closer to me.
  • Michael Young‘s dissatisfaction with being pushed into a 1B/DH/super utility role has taken up a lot of column inches this spring, but he’s apparently not going anywhere, trade demand notwithstanding. This may make life uncomfortable for everyone, but there are a lot of contending teams who would like to have the kind of depth the Rangers have on offense.  They’ll shuttle Young, Mike Napoli, Mitch Moreland and — if a space opens up due to injury or whatever — Chris Davis between DH first base, pinch hitting duties and wherever else a bat with some upside is needed.
  • And while offense is a clear strength for the Rangers, there is a big question when it comes to health. The big guns — Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler — have all had injury trouble in recent years. Not a lot that can be done about it — hamstrings are hamstrings — but it does make the Rangers vulnerable. A bad day or two for these fragile stars and the balance of power in the division could shift toward Oakland.
  • Of course, that’s where Adrian Beltre comes in.  He’s missed some time this spring with an owie or two, but aside from that freak injury in Seattle in 2009 of which we will say no more lest we cringe, he has been outrageously durable for most of the past decade. Fenway Park treated him well last year. The Ballpark in Arlington figures to do the same. One of the more underrated pickups of the offseason.

So how are they going to do?

Quite well, thanks.  Health is always a factor in division races so it goes without saying that the Rangers need to stay healthy (drat, I just said it).  But if they do, I don’t see anyone seriously challenging them for the AL West crown.  If they win it, then it will be time to talk more seriously about the loss of Cliff Lee who did make quite a difference in the playoffs last year.  But that’s a long time from now.  As we sit here on the eve of the 2011 season, the Rangers seem to be just fine.

  1. BC - Mar 24, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    As long as their offense doesn’t tank due to injuries or something inexplicable, they’ll be OK. Figure 87 wins takes the division. I don’t think the A’s are nearly as good as people have been saying, and unless the Angels somehow piece things together, I think Texas is a lock to win the division.

    • scatterbrian - Mar 24, 2011 at 1:26 PM

      I think I see what you’re saying. When asked who this year’s Padres will be, most people are picking the A’s. But Oakland won 81 games last year with a crummy bullpen and a terrible offense, and they’ve improved both. 87 wins isn’t out of reach for that team.

  2. yankeesfanlen - Mar 24, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    The Rangers have been picking up momentum for at least the past couple of years- I had them as AL West leaders back in ’09 til a summer swoon befell them. And any team that keeps the pesky Angels off our back- good for them!

  3. cur68 - Mar 24, 2011 at 11:17 AM

    With Mike Young still in their back pocket to shore up the infield and that pitching staff coupled with the offense, they’ll be real good. Am I missing anything or is there not a single player of note down with a nagging injury coming out of ST on this team? Anyone afflicted with the New Black?

  4. apbaguy - Mar 24, 2011 at 1:10 PM

    Tough call predicting the Al West. But I’m surprised only 3 comments on Texas. I guess HBT doesn’t play well in Texas, for some reason. Maybe if they’d put Tiffany’s picture up more often…

    Anyway, any pre-season prediction is based on assumptions, some of which are widely shared some not. This year’s assumptions include Texas, with Feliz in the rotation, will have “enough” pitching. And Oakland, with the additions of DeJesus and Willingham will have “enough” offense to compete with Texas.

    Both of those assumptions, and the implicit ones that go with them (Texas offense will thump, Oakland’s starters will dominate) are in large part health related. And health is very difficult to predict, especially with an injury plagued team like the A’s, and with individual players like Josh Hamilton who have had significant injury histories.

    So I like to think of the West as wide open, with the Angels poised to step in if the other two teams do suffer significant injuries. Seattle will not be a factor, except on days when King Felix pitches. If the King gets roughly equal number of starts against the other three, then that will balance out, but if he pitches 2-3 times more against Texas, for example, that could alter the division standings by a game or two.

    It will definitely be fun to watch, at least until Josh or Bret Anderson goes on the 60 day DL.

    • nhuskerjj - Mar 24, 2011 at 4:44 PM

      There’s no doubt that Josh, Cruz and Kins will go on the DL this season. CF is a huge question this season. We have a bunch of DH/C/1st which could be a could thing come trade deadline time. I am optimistically cautious on this years team, it looks like the late 90’s rangers more than the ’10 rangers but its a long season so we’ll see.

      Been a Ranger fan since the days of radio only broadcasts so either way its always a fun season to me. Just some are better than others.

      P.S. I think one reason that you dont see more Ranger fans on the post is becuase down here we dont listen or have anything to do with the the liberal media. Anything with NBC, Peter King, Florio, or liberal media attatched to it, we usually dont follow.

      • apbaguy - Mar 24, 2011 at 5:18 PM

        Thanks for the input. I lived in SA for three years, so despite often different outlook I loved it there, and loved traveling around the state. Not sure who Florio and Peter King are, but too bad there aren’t more Texas fans on the site. I think there are like 3 of us A’s fans. There are a ton of guys from the Northeast. Not surprising considering population density, etc. But those of us outside the NE try to make up for lack of numbers with frequency of comments.

  5. scatterbrian - Mar 24, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    Good call on Cliff Lee’s impact on the Rangers getting to the post-season, Craig. They actually went 6-9 in Lee’s starts, and he pitched a few clunkers in August.

  6. gt929 - Mar 24, 2011 at 10:48 PM

    My biggest concerns about the Rangers are the bullpen and Tommy Hunter. The pen is almost the same one that finished second in the AL last year, but they seem to be getting hammered all spring. Hunter was injured today so he may open the season on the DL, but he is also getting hammered in ST. I feel like Kirkman has had a better spring than Hunter. If he steps in for Hunter now, the Rangers will have a 4 lefty rotation and I see nothing wrong with that. But that bridge between the starters and Feliz (who was delegated to the pen today) worries me.

  7. bandman50 - Mar 25, 2011 at 12:10 PM

    Tommy Hunter worries me. I hope his performance picks up after he returns from injury.

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