It's been a long time since I've been able to truly raise my expectations for the Texas Rangers. In fact, it's been exactly 10 years. Maybe I'm just tired of writing about a rebuilding program, but frankly the Rangers were in such bad shape it made an excruciating rebuilding program necessary.
This spring has been different, though, for one simple reason. They're ready.
Will the Rangers win 100 games this year? Probably not, but they could win 90 and that could be enough to win the AL West, or a wild card berth. I'm not going to cover myself by saying the usual things like, "Maybe I'm just drinking the Kool-Aid."
They're ready to win, and win now.
A healthy Kevin Millwood and Vincente Padilla are essential to the Rangers this year, but it's the performance of the young pitchers in the bottom of the rotation that hold the keys to the postseason.
After the first offseason under Nolan Ryan's new conditioning program, including throwing batting practice, the kids are attacking hitters and pitching to contact. Give Mike Maddux credit for this; he's got the Rangers' young pitchers throwing with an attitude.
Brandon McCarthy and Matt Harrison have been dominant after starting off rough, while Scott Feldman is perfecting a slider as an out pitch.
The bullpen competition is fierce, and not between a group of lackluster arms, either. When a healthy Brendan Donnelly needs help to make the team, it's clear the Rangers have some talent in the bullpen.
Frank Francisco as a closer was literally perfect in a small sample last season and veteran lefties Eddie Guardado and C.J. Wilson can each take an inning to set up Francisco. With Ryan's decree that all starters should pitch into the seventh inning, the bullpen might actually make it through a season without being worn out.
Now, for the one thing Texas always has...hitting. These Rangers are young and hit the cover off the baseball—literally. Just ask Chris Davis.
The projected batting order is stacked:
1) Ian Kinsler—2B
2) Michael Young—3B
3) Josh Hamilton—CF
4) Nelson Cruz—RF
5) Hank Blalock—DH
6) Chris Davis—1B
7) David Murphy—LF
8) Jarrod Saltalamacchia—C
9) Elvis Andrus—SS
We all know what the top three in the order can do, but big springs from Cruz and Blalock have the Rangers believing they can top the 901 runs scored last season.
The only "weak" spot in the order will be rookie Andrus, but he's also had a good spring at the plate. Davis and Murphy could provide some power entering the bottom of the lineup and start quite a few big innings for the Rangers this season.
Defensively, the Rangers are much better going into the season than at this time last year. Young should keep the Rangers from having the most errors at third base in the majors again, and the addition of Andrus up the middle should save the Rangers a few runs. The range of Andrus in addition to Kinsler could prove to be the difference in close games, especially when the infield is baking under 100-degree heat.
The outfield defense was phenomenal last year, and should be even better this year. Hamilton and Cruz have strong arms to provide outfield assists. Clearly defined roles each night will help the regulars get into a routine covering the outfield.
With blue-chip prospects Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland pushing their way to the majors, this September could be a big month for the Rangers. If they're fortunate in the injury department, the Rangers should not only be in contention, but also add two fireballers to the pitching staff in the final month of the season.
All of this adds up to one simple conclusion: They're ready to win, and win now.