Rangers keys: 5 up, 5 down
These factors could determine whether another World Series run is in store
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Texas Rangers head into the 2012 season with high expectations and a belief that they not only can win the AL West for the third straight time but also return to the World Series and win it this time. But expectations don't always turn into reality. Here are five reasons the club will win the championship and five reasons they won't.
We call it our Five Up and Five Down:
1. Darvish delivers: Yu Darvish, the 25-year-old Japanese star, comes to the big leagues after the club made a major investment ($51.7 million posting fee plus $56 million guaranteed for six years) in his right arm. He must become a solid member of the rotation if the club is to get back to the World Series.
That doesn't mean Darvish must win the AL Rookie of the Year or make the All-Star squad. But he has to keep his team in games and help fill the void left by C.J. Wilson's departure.
What's considered a good season? Let's try 15 wins and an ERA around 3.50 or less.
2. Healthy Hamilton: Josh Hamilton missed nearly six weeks in 2011 with the hairline fracture in a bone in his upper arm and then played with groin issues (torn adductors) in the postseason. Hamilton was a warrior by going out there each game down the stretch, but he wasn't the same player.
For the Rangers to achieve their lofty goals, Hamilton must do something he's done only one time in his career (2008): Play at least 145 games.
If he can do that and continue to be the productive player we've seen when healthy, the entire Rangers lineup will likely follow suit -- and Hamilton will receive an even larger pot of gold in the offseason.
3. Sensational southpaws: We watched as Derek Holland and Matt Harrison took major steps forward in their careers in 2011. Holland won 16 games and was particularly impressive down the stretch, winning 10 of his last 11 decisions to finish the season. He had a 3.95 ERA and the club won all four of his postseason starts. The 25-year-old saved his best start for the brightest lights. With the Rangers down 2-1 in the World Series, Holland pitched 8 1/3 shutout innings and allowed just two hits in Texas' win over St. Louis.
Harrison, 26, spent the entire season in the rotation for the first time and won 14 games with a 3.39 ERA. He showed an ability to move on from rough innings and starts and became a better all-around pitcher. He credits an improvement in his mental game for that.
The question now is, can both pitchers back up their 2011 seasons? The Rangers are counting on it.
4. Spark plug: Ian Kinsler hit just .255 in 2011. But that stat doesn't mean much when you look at his contribution to the club. He was the club's leadoff hitter and his job was to get on base and score runs. He did that in abundance. Kinsler, 29, had a .355 on-base percentage and scored 121 runs. He also gave the club nice versatility in the leadoff spot with his power and speed. Kinsler returned to the 30-30 club in 2011, hitting 32 homers and stealing 30 bases.
He did it all at the top of the order, and the Rangers need that kind of spark again.
5. Closing time: Joe Nathan's signing did two things for the Rangers. First, it gave them an experienced closer and one who, while coming off Tommy John surgery, performed well in the second half of 2011 before joining Texas this offseason. Second, it allowed the Rangers to move Neftali Feliz to the rotation. How both do in their respective roles will go a long way toward determining where this team ends up.
Nathan had an inconsistent spring training from a command standpoint but said he felt good physically. He must show he's ready to go and can return to his previous form.
1. Injuries: We talk about it every season yet despite missing some extended time from three of the key members of the lineup in 2011, the Rangers returned to the World Series. They aren't likely to get that fortunate again. A major injury to one of the mainstays in the lineup could prove costly.
The three players who were banged up in 2011 -- Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Hamilton -- must stay healthy. The club has some insurance in the rotation, but it would prefer not to have to use it. On a team with so many weapons, injuries may be the biggest danger to derailing the season.
2. Bullpen: It was a mess to start the 2011 season and was a priority at the trade deadline as GM Jon Daniels and company traded big league players and prospects to acquire Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez. Uehara struggled in Texas, but Adams and Gonzalez had big innings and outs down the stretch. Adams concedes he ran out of gas but returns committed to nailing down the eighth-inning role. Uehara was the subject of trade talk (even vetoing a trade to Toronto earlier in the offseason) and struggled in spring training. Mark Lowe and Yoshinori Tateyama also were inconsistent in the desert.
That leaves questions. Can Nathan show he's a shutdown closer again? Are there enough consistent arms to get key outs in the sixth and seventh innings? Does manager Ron Washington have reliable options to get tough left-handed hitters out late in games?
If the answers to the questions aren't positive, close games could go the way of the opponent.
3. Feliz factor: Darvish got all the offseason press, but the other pitcher transitioning into the rotation may prove the most important. In moving closer Feliz to the rotation, the Rangers are banking that his secondary stuff will improve to the point where he becomes an effective, consistent starter. This is a guy scouts feel has a high ceiling as a starter, but no one knows for sure. It's time to find out.
What if Feliz's changeup and slider aren't good enough? A strong Feliz means a strong back end to the rotation. And that's even more critical with the Angels' deep rotation in the AL West.
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4. Angels' resurgence: We know the Angels improved, acquiring Wilson and Albert Pujols. But improved enough to beat up on Texas and take the division? The key may be Kendrys Morales. If he's healthy and productive -- and it seemed like he was in the spring -- that makes Pujols even more dangerous with protection in the lineup. The bullpen remains a question and the Rangers have the deeper lineup, but if the Angels surge, that could make things tough not only in the division, but in the playoffs for Texas.
5. History: The reality is that history is not on the Rangers' side when it comes to getting back to a third consecutive World Series and winning it. The last team to lose two consecutive World Series and get back to a third the following season and win it was the New York Yankees in the early 1920s.
It's tough enough to get back to the World Series three straight times, let alone win it. Will this team be able to buck the trend?