After the final out of the fifth game of the World Series last season, it was hard to imagine that the 2011 version of the Texas Rangers could possibly repeat the miraculous run that saw them reach baseball's promised land for the first time in franchise history.
Texas figured to be competitive and still the popular pick to win the American League West, but another run through baseball's powerhouse teams in the playoffs seemed unlikely.
The Rangers lost their public courtship of star pitcher Cliff Lee; he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. They failed to retain Vladimir Guerrero; he signed with the Baltimore Orioles. Long-time Ranger Michael Young publicly asked for a trade following the signing of Adrian Beltre.
There were just too many questions surrounding the team, and the competition in the division had improved and closed the talent gap.
Ten games into the regular season and all doubts are out the window. The Rangers have come roaring out of the gate and currently boast a Major League-best 9-1 record to start the season.
On their way to the best start in baseball, the Rangers have swept the early AL favorite Boston Red Sox and taken two out of three games from the current AL East leader, the Baltimore Orioles. Texas also swept the AL West division rival Seattle Mariners.
Critics of the team will be quick to claim that the Rangers will fall back to earth and are not capable of maintaining this hot streak throughout the season. To a degree, they are right, there is not a team in the Majors capable of maintaining a .900 winning percentage. The Rangers, however, are out to prove that last season was no fluke.
Is it possible though that this year's team is better than last season's World Series team?
The Rangers lost Vladimir Guerrero during the offseason, but gained Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli. The Beltre signing essentially matches Guerrero's production if he can come close to matching his season totals from 2010 while playing with Boston.
Napoli, who is being used in a utility role, should produce better than the Rangers' 2010 backstop combination of Taylor Teagarden, Benji Molina and Jarrod Saltalamachia while Yorvit Torrealba handles the bulk of the catching responsibilities.
Through the first ten games of the season, reigning American League MVP Josh Hamilton is batting .316 with six RBI. He has yet to hit a home run, but there is little doubt that those will come with increasing frequency as the season progresses.
Nelson Cruz currently leads the Rangers with five home runs, one more than the entire team total of the division rival Oakland Athletics. Ian Kinsler has collected four long balls, and Napoli and Beltre each have three as well.
Young, who the Rangers decided not to trade, is currently hitting .293 for Texas in the designated hitter's role.
The Rangers currently lead the American League in home runs, triples, slugging percentage and on-base-plus-slugging (OPS). They rank second in runs scored and total bases, and are fifth in team batting average.
The Rangers actually quietly put together a more balanced offense in 2011 than they possessed last season.
It's easy to see why the pitching was subject to questions entering the season. They lost Cliff Lee. The man signed to replace Lee, Brandon Webb, has a recent history of injuries and did not make it through spring training healthy. The remainder of last season's rotation was unproven before their surprising 2010 effort, and it was uncertain if they could repeat their stellar performance again.
So far, all those concerns have been answered and erased.
Among the Rangers starters, only Colby Lewis has an ERA above 3.00. Lewis has split his two decisions this season for a 1-1 record with a 5.25 ERA.
Matt Harrison has a 1.29 ERA and 11 strikeouts to back up his 2-0 record. Alexi Ogando has a perfect 0.00 ERA and eight strikeouts on the way to his 2-0 record. CJ Wilson is 1-0 with a 2.84 ERA, and Derek Holland has a 2.25 ERA to go along with his 2-0 record and 11 strikeouts.
Neftali Feliz has converted all four of his save opportunities without allowing a run so far this season.
Prior to Monday's shutout of the Detroit Tigers, the Texas Rangers already had an AL-best 2.48 team ERA. The Rangers also lead the AL in hits and runs allowed.
Strength of division
Coming into the regular season, the AL West looked like it was shaping up to be a three-team race. While this could still end up being the situation, early on the Rangers look like they have the clear edge on their opponents.
The Oakland Athletics have put together impressive pitching in practically every game but have failed to score runs consistently.
The Los Angeles Angels have had better success than Oakland with the bat, but have seen less than consistent pitching performances.
The Seattle Mariners... well, we knew this was only supposed to be a three-team race, anyway.
Only the Rangers have put together every aspect of their game to translate it into wins.
Can the Rangers go back-to-back as American League Champions?
One-hundred and 62 games is a long stretch to maintain this high-level of play, but there has not appeared to be another team in the American League capable of putting together the complete game that the Rangers have proven they are capable of putting together.
The Red Sox? They have the offense, but lack the pitching dominance the Rangers have exhibited.
The Yankees? Same answer as the Red Sox, but with worse pitching.
A's or Angels? Both teams have the pitching, and you can make an argument that Oakland actually has better pitching over the long haul, but neither team has the offense to match up with Texas.
The Rangers have put together a balanced roster that barring any major injuries matches up well against any opponent they will face throughout the regular season and in the postseason.
I realize there are still 152 games left and anything can happen, but this 2011 version of the Rangers has already changed my early season picks of which American League team has the best chance of playing in the 2011 World Series.
Brandon McClintock covers Major League Baseball for BleacherReport.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @BMcClintock_BR.
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