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Thursday, March 31, 2011
Reasons for Ranger fans to avoid panic

By Richard Durrett

I sense a little panic going on within the Rangers' fan base. Emails keep popping up with doomsday scenarios. And I'm not saying that aren't unfounded. The Rangers' pitching staff didn't instill a bunch of confidence this spring.

The rotation has question marks on the back end with Matt Harrison and Derek Holland needing to show they can go out and pitch consistently every five days. The injury to Tommy Hunter (that darn groin) means that the primary eighth-inning setup man is now in the rotation, causing the club to try to figure out who will nail down the late innings to get the game to closer Neftali Feliz.

Meanwhile, everyone has read stories about how excited the A's are about their rotation and the fact that the Angels are motivated (and more healthy than last year) to return to their familiar perch on top of the AL West. With a World Series appearance come higher expectations and so the slightest signs of struggles can cause more angst than normal. But with Opening Day just a little more than 24 hours away, some reasons to hold off on a full-blown panic:

* C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis went about their business this spring and are ready. Don't worry about Wilson's left hamstring tightness. He's fine. He was working out at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Tuesday and said he felt fine and is ready to go. I believe him. Lewis quietly got his work in all spring and looked good in a final tuneup. Both pitched more than 200 innings for the first time in their careers. But both believe strongly in their offseason workouts and pitching coach Mike Maddux plans on getting them extra days thanks to off days and no plans to skip the fifth starter.

* Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz are hitting the ball at just the right time. Cruz started the spring all over the place at the plate. He conceded he was behind because he didn't play winter ball, something he normally does. Hamilton was inconsistent too and admitted he wasn't going deep enough in counts at times. Both have figured it out. Cruz's averaged soared in the final few weeks of the spring and Hamilton's timing started to click. That had manager Ron Washington very pleased just before the team departed Arizona.

* Adrian Beltre put on a show when he got in the lineup in spring training. He hit well and showed why he's won two Gold Gloves at third. Beltre is important not only for his defensive skill (he and Elvis Andrus might be the best left side of the infield in baseball), but because he hits cleanup and must protect Josh Hamilton. Beltre looks to be ready to do all of that. His teammates like him and he's ready to show that he can have a nice encore to a solid 2010 season.

* Versatility. When it comes to the ability to move players around and the various ways in which this offense can score runs, the Rangers have plenty of versatility. That's an important trait of championship clubs. There's no better DH/super-utility guy in the majors than Michael Young. And we all know that infield won't stay healthy the whole year. So Young is ready to slip in where needed -- short- or long-term. Mitch Moreland could play the corner outfield if needed. Mike Napoli can play first base besides being the backup catcher. Besides the players, 2010 showed this offense wasn't just a bunch of mashers. The Rangers can move runners over, they can make productive outs to score runs and they can still hit the long ball.

* There's been much discussion about Julio Borbon and rightfully so. He has struggled this spring. But it's not as if the backup plan is a bad one. Let's see if Borbon can figure it out. If he can, the Rangers can protect Hamilton's body a little bit better in left field. But if Borbon doesn't get it done, the club can just revert back to Hamilton in center with David Murphy in left. (Nelson Cruz is staple in right field no matter what). Certainly the hope is Borbon seizes his chance, but the season doesn't hang on it.

* Just because Neftali Feliz isn't starting doesn't mean he's wasted. Like many of you, I wanted Feliz to start. The idea of seeing the guy go out there every day is intriguing. But I understand why the club wants to leave him in the bullpen. And so you've got a guy with 40 saves in 2010 in that same role in 2011. That's not a bad deal. If the Rangers have the lead in the ninth, they are confident Feliz can shut it down (yes, they still have that pesky problem of getting through the eighth...don't panic yet on that).

* Experience matters. The Rangers learned a lot about themselves during the stretch drive in 2010. They can draw on that experience in what will likely be an even closer race in 2011.

* AL West. Overall, this is still one of the weakest divisions in baseball. So the Rangers do have some time to figure the bullpen out and what combinations work. I'll remind you that they started last season with Scott Feldman and Rich Harden at the top of the rotation, Frank Francisco as the closer, Julio Borbon as the leadoff hitter, Jarrod Saltalamacchia the starting catcher and Chris Davis at first base.

Saltalamacchia played in the opener (had the walkoff single) and was never a factor again after a DL stay and an eventual trade. Francisco was moved to setup after blowing some early ninth-inning chances and an untested rookie, Feliz, was put in his place. Borbon was moved to ninth in the order by the end of the month and eventually lost some playing time to David Murphy. Davis was sent down the third week of April and replaced by Justin Smoak. And Feldman and Harden didn't find any consistency.

So remember this is still much of the same squad the went to the World Series last year. Salute them this weekend and then give them a chance before hitting the panic button.