The Texas Rangers have owned the American League West the last two years, winning back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1998-1999.
Of course, the Rangers have owned the rest of the American League too. They've gone to two straight World Series and were famously one strike away on two separate occasions from winning it all back in October.
Alas, they couldn't get it done.
The Rangers will be looking to make it back to the Series in 2012 and the good news for them is that they have all the pieces they need to do it.
Let's take a look at what the Rangers are working with this season.
2011 Record: 96-66
Key Arrivals (courtesy of Yahoo! Sports): RHP Joe Nathan (FA), 1B Brandon Snyder (from Baltimore), RHP Yu Darvish (FA, Japan), 1B/OF Brad Hawpe (FA), LHP Joe Beimel (FA), OF/1B Conor Jackson (minor league FA).
Key Departures: C Taylor Teagarden (to Baltimore), LHP C.J. Wilson (FA), INF Andres Blanco (FA), OF Endy Chavez (FA), C Matt Treanor (FA), LHP Darren Oliver (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Colby Lewis (14-10, 4.40 ERA, 1.21 WHIP)
- Yu Darvish (18-6, 1.44, 0.83 in Japan)
- Derek Holland (16-5, 3.95, 1.35)
- Neftali Feliz (2-3, 2.74, 1.16)
- Matt Harrison (14-9, 3.39, 1.28)
- Alexi Ogando (13-8, 3.51, 1.14)
C: Mike Napoli (.320/.414/.631)
1B: Mitch Moreland (.259/.320/.414)
2B: Ian Kinsler (.255/.355/.477)
3B: Adrian Beltre (.296/.331/.561)
SS: Elvis Andrus (.279/.347/.361)
LF: Josh Hamilton (.298/.346/.536)
CF: Craig Gentry (.271/.347/.346)
RF: Nelson Cruz (.263/.312/.509)
DH: Michael Young (.338/.380/.474)
Closer: Joe Nathan (R) (2-1, 14 SV, 3 BLSV, 4.84 ERA, 1.16 WHIP)
Mike Adams (R) (5-4, 32 HLD, 1.47, 0.79)
Koji Uehara (R) (2-3, 22 HLD, 2.35, 0.72)
Scott Feldman (R) (2-1, 3.94, 1.09)
Yoshinori Tateyama (R) (2-0, 4.50, 1.09)
Michael Kirkman (L) (1-1, 6.59, 1.39)
Mark Lowe (R) (2-3, 3.80, 1.44)
Mark Hamburger (R) (1-0, 4.50, 1.00)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Very quietly, the Rangers had one of the most effective starting rotations in the majors in 2011. The Rangers tied for the AL lead with 99 quality starts and their starting staff logged a grand total of 994.1 innings, fifth in the AL.
As you might expect from a Nolan Ryan-owned team, Rangers starters also struck hitters out at an impressive rate, posting a 7.22 K/9.
The group that posted these numbers is all back, save for one member—C.J. Wilson. He signed with the Los Angeles Angels over the offseason, leaving the Rangers without a true ace in their starting rotation.
Wilson's departure would be a killing blow for most other teams, but not the Rangers. They know they're going to get good work out of Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. They also have a couple of high-ceiling starters in Neftali Feliz and Yu Darvish.
If somebody gets hurt and/or struggles, the Rangers can always turn to Alexi Ogando, who made the All-Star team as a starter in 2011.
As a whole, this rotation is deep enough to cover for the loss of Wilson. Their pitching numbers are going to take a slight hit, but it must be kept in mind that the Rangers are going to score more than enough runs on a given night.
All they ask from their starters is that they keep the game from getting out of hand.
Scouting the Bullpen
The numbers suggest that the Rangers had issues with their bullpen in 2011. It posted a 4.11 ERA, third-worst in the American League.
This is why the Rangers went out and made a splash by acquiring both Mike Adams and Koji Uehara at the trade deadline. They were the two best relievers on the market and they definitely helped stabilize Texas' bullpen at the end of games.
You can't understate how good Adams and Uehara were in 2011. Adams posted a 0.79 WHIP and Uehara had a K/BB ratio of 9.44. Even if both of them come back to earth a little bit in 2012, the later innings are still going to be a tough nut to crack for opposing offenses.
The big unknown is how Joe Nathan will fare in place of Feliz. As expected, Nathan's fastball wasn't quite as fast in his first season removed from Tommy John surgery, so it's no surprise that hitters knocked him around, as his HR/9 ballooned to 1.41. He wasn't missing many bats.
On the bright side, Nathan was far better after the All-Star break than he was before it, a sign that he was able to shake off the rust that plagued him in the first half.
If Nathan pans out as the team's closer, the Rangers will be fine. If he doesn't, perhaps the team will consider moving Feliz back to ninth inning duties.
They definitely have options, and that's a good thing.
Scouting the Hitting
The Rangers were pretty good offensively in 2011. Like, really good.
All told, the Rangers finished third in the majors in runs scored with 855, second in home runs with 210, second in total bases with 2,603, first in team batting average at .283, and second in OPS at an even .800. The Rangers hit the ball a lot and they tended to hit it hard when they did.
There's no reason for things to change in 2012. The Rangers did not lose a single significant member of their starting lineup over the offseason. They're returning all their top players. Health permitting, the Rangers are going to mash just as well as they did in 2011.
What makes the Rangers' lineup scary is its depth. Everybody can hit and hit for power. The Rangers had eight players hit more than 10 homers in 2011, including five who hit 25 or more. Six players drove in 75 or more runs.
Now, it is indeed reasonable to expect some players to regress. It's hard to imagine Michael Young hitting .338 again and Mike Napoli probably isn't going to hit a home run every 12.3 at-bats.
However, it must be kept in mind that only three Rangers logged over 500 at-bats last season. They had more than a couple players miss time with injuries and they still ended up being one of the top run-scoring teams in the league.
One can only imagine what this lineup will do if everyone stays healthy.
I mentioned above that this Rangers team has no true ace and to that I hold.
Nevertheless, Matt Harrison ain't bad. On the contrary, he's better than advertised.
A lot of people realized last season that Harrison was having a good campaign, but his final numbers don't really do him justice. They were skewed by a horrible month of August in which Harrison posted an ERA over 6.00 in five starts while opponents hit .299 that month.
In every other month, Harrison's ERA never climbed higher than 3.69. Take August out of the equation, and Harrison finishes the year with a 2.88 ERA, which would have put him in the top five in the American League.
This was Harrison's first full year as a starter, so some struggles were to be expected. Now that he has a year of starting duty under his belt, I'm anticipating Harrison being even better.
Before you argue the point, just remember that it worked for C.J. Wilson.
There are more than enough candidates to choose from in Texas' lineup, but I'm going to single out Mike Napoli.
In just 369 at-bats, Napoli hit .320 with 30 home runs and 75 RBI in 2011. He posted a 1.046 OPS, which would have been the second-highest mark in the majors to Jose Bautista had Napoli finished with enough at-bats to qualify.
Napoli doesn't try to do anything too fancy at the dish. He's a pure power hitter, a reality that was reflected in his unreal .631 slugging percentage last season. When he hits the ball, it jumps off his bat.
I said above that Napoli can be expected to regress and I'll hold to that too. But if he gets 500 at-bats or more, he's going to end up with numbers very similar or better than the numbers he put up in 2011.
The Rangers will be just fine with that.
Honestly, who else could it be but Yu Darvish?
The Rangers have no idea what they're going to get out of Darvish any more than we do. They paid a lot of money to acquire him, but they have to know that they're rolling the dice. The track record for Japanese starting pitchers in the majors is not good.
But Darvish is supposed to be different and the numbers don't lie. A lifetime 93-38 record, a career ERA of 1.99 and a WHIP of 0.98 is enough to make any baseball fan start salivating.
The tape don't lie either. When you watch highlights of Darvish, you see a true ace with ace-like stuff.
If Darvish's stuff translates, the Rangers are going to have the true ace that they don't seem to have now. Even better, they're going to have the ace they haven't had since they rented Cliff Lee in 2010.
If Darvish doesn't pan out, well, there's always Ogando.
Prospect to Watch
The Rangers have some of the best prospects in baseball, but the one who could end up making an impact in 2012 is Martin Perez.
Fans of Keith Law will know that ESPN's esteemed baseball analyst placed Perez at No. 20 on his countdown of the Top 100 Prospects in baseball. He's a lefty who throws in the mid-90s with an excellent changeup and good control, so it's not hard to see why Law likes him so much.
Perez comes into 2012 with plenty to prove, though. He didn't perform well after he was promoted to Triple-A in 2011, posting a 6.43 ERA in 10 starts. If he improves and is able to be consistent, it may not be long before he finds his way to the majors.
When he does, he'll only be 21 years old. Perez reaches the drinking age on April 4th.
What the Rangers Will Do Well
We know the Rangers are going to hit. Theirs is one of the deepest lineups in baseball and almost everyone in it can hit for power. They're going to be a nightmare for opposing pitchers, and they have enough depth on their bench to withstand any injuries they may suffer along the way.
The Rangers won't wow anybody with their pitching totals, but top to bottom they have as much pitching as any team in the American League. They'll pitch with the best of them.
What the Rangers Won’t Do Well
Truth be told, this is where I have to start nitpicking.
On offense, the Rangers aren't going to take many walks. They only took 475 in 2011, probably because they were too busy knocking the ball all over the yard.
The Rangers also won't field the ball all that well. They made a lot of errors in 2011 and they're going to have the same team on the field.
Then again, the Rangers also finished fourth in the AL with a team UZR of 25.9.
So I guess I've really got nothing. This is a really solid team.
The Rangers are not a perfect baseball team. Perfect teams have at least one true ace and I also prefer perfect teams to have a leadoff guy with a high on-base percentage (i.e. someone better than Ian Kinsler).
As a total package, though, the Rangers are pretty damn close to being perfect. Barring a team-wide health collapse, the Rangers are poised to win a lot of games for a third straight season.
And yes, the Rangers are the strongest team in the American League West. The Angels have a better starting rotation, but the Rangers have a better bullpen and fewer holes in their lineup. It's going to be a close race between the two teams for the top spot in the division, but I foresee the Rangers taking it by a nose.
Projected Record: 97-65, first in AL West.
More AL West Previews
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge mancrush on Derek Jeter and he would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter:
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