Texas Rangers: 7 Reasons They Can Be Better Than Expected in 2011
Though the Texas Rangers entered 2011 fresh from their first ever World Series appearance, there are those that believe that it was some sort of mirage, and that we shouldn't expect them to be as successful this season.
Of course, while a massively talented squad, the Rangers did benefit from a weak AL West last season and a helping hand from the league when MLB took control of the franchise before handing over the reigns to the Greenberg/Nolan Ryan ownership group.
However, the 2010 Rangers were a juggernaut down the stretch, as well as through the first two rounds of the playoffs, before running into a pitching-laden San Francisco Giants team in the Fall Classic.
The 2011 version of the Rangers entered the season with its share of question marks, notably the loss of Cliff Lee, the Michael Young saga, a sudden departure of part-owner Chuck Greenberg, and a core of players who tend to get injured more frequently than most.
Despite those various concerns, the Rangers have stormed out to a strong start in 2011, utilizing their always potent offensive attack to support ace-like pitching performances out of some surprising arms so far in April.
Let's take a look at some of the reasons that the 2011 Texas Rangers may defy those that doubt them, and out-perform expectations as they cope with a host of issues early in the new season.
With all the preseason debate over whether Neftali Feliz should remain in the closer's role or transition to the starting rotation, thus far it appears that the Rangers made the right decision.
Only a part-time contributor in 2010, the lanky right-hander Alexi Ogando may have helped the 2011 Rangers in more ways than one.
Transitioning from a late-inning role to that of a starter, Ogando allowed the Rangers to fill a desperate need in their rotation, while keeping Feliz in the closing role where he was so dominant as a rookie in 2010.
Judging by Ogando's early returns as a starter, the Rangers may have a gem in the hard-throwing 27-year-old hurler.
In his three outings, two of which fit the criteria for quality starts, he has pitched at least six innings, while earning two victories.
His first two starts were dominant, allowing only seven base-runners and no runs over 13 innings. Ogando ran into trouble in his third start against the homer-happy Yankees, but he still pitched into the seventh inning while keeping the Rangers in a close ballgame.
Overall in three starts, Ogando has hurled 19.1 innings, allowing only 10 hits and four walks for a sterling 0.724 WHIP. His 2.33 ERA and 1.9 bases on balls per nine innings are both marks that the Rangers would be ecstatic to see him maintain.
Though three starts is obviously a small sample size, the results have the Rangers dreaming big for Ogando in the midst of their other talented starters. If he can even remotely replicate that success as the season unfolds, Texas may just have found the perfect solution to the Neftali Feliz question.
Perhaps easing the loss of Ogando's considerable talents to the rotation, the emergence of fellow Dominican hurler Pedro Strop could go a long way towards solidifying the back end of the Ranger bullpen.
While absolutely dominant in Triple-A Oklahoma City during 2010, Strop had been rather unimpressive in two small cups of coffee with the big league club in 2009 and 2010.
After only a handful of impressive relief outings so far this year, Strop has suddenly shot to the forefront of Ron Washington's mind and is being carefully considered for an expanded role in the Texas bullpen.
Over his six outings in 2011, the 25-year-old with the mid-90s heat and wicked slider has only allowed one hit and no runs, while striking out seven. In his five innings, he has walked four, so his control remains a potential concern that will bear watching as the season progresses.
If Strop can team with Darren Oliver to form a reliable righty/lefty tandem to set up Neftali Feliz, the Rangers will have a potent late-game combination to close out games for a talented starting rotation.
As one of the three new additions to Texas' starting rotation, Matt Harrison is thriving in April.
It will be interesting to see what the Rangers do once Tommy Hunter returns from his groin injury, as all three newcomers to the Ranger rotation have experienced similar success in the first month of the season.
Harrison has done his part to ensure that he's not going anywhere, as he has gone 3-1 in four starts, pitching into the seventh inning in each one of them.
Overall, in those starts, he has hurled 28.2 innings, only allowed 18 hits, and struck out 19. His stellar 1.88 ERA and 0.942 WHIP make him one of the top starters in the AL.
Even in his lone loss, Harrison pitched well, notching his fourth quality start while coming out on the losing end of a tough defeat at the hands of the Angels.
His first few years of baseball at the big league level did little to make anyone expect this type of performance from him, but he has slotted right into the rotation and pitched like an ace so far in 2011.
While Harrison may be hard pressed to continue his early dominance, his confidence appears to be growing with each start and he's doing his best to grab hold of the opportunity afforded him in the Texas rotation.
Without any doubt, the Texas Rangers miss the bat of oft-injured star Josh Hamilton. His presence in their lineup is nearly impossible to replace. With his predicted 6-8 week absence, the Rangers suddenly have a massive hole in the middle of their batting order.
Thankfully, they have the massively talented David Murphy to help ease the pain to some degree.
Though Murphy is not the MVP-caliber player that Hamilton is, he is certainly a professional hitter, a capable defender, and an overall athlete that would fit well into any team's lineup.
Always nearer to a regular outfielder than a reserve, Murphy has built a solid resume in his four plus years with Texas. With a career OPS of .803, the left-handed swinging Murphy has displayed a solid ability to reach base while also carrying a potent stick.
This season, his .325/.400/.425 triple slash line has slotted nicely into Ron Washington's lineup, filling Hamilton's void in left field, while also occasionally patrolling center. His current OPS of .825 is among the best of his career, and it may offer a glimpse of things to come with expanded playing time.
Additionally, the adept base-runner has stolen four bases already, making a multi-faceted threat in the Texas offensive attack.
Though he may never be an All-Star, David Murphy is an invaluable tool for Ron Washington, enabling him to mix and match lineups dependent upon circumstances and matchups.
With this type of talent lurking on your bench, you have to like your chances against any team in MLB.
Let's be frank.
Mike Napoli was not acquired by Texas to perform regular catching duties or guide their inexperienced pitching staff to glory.
The burly catcher/DH/first baseman was brought to Arlington to fill in at a variety of roles and to mash against left-handers like he has throughout his career. Throughout his career, Napoli has posted a .903 OPS against lefties while hitting .287 versus them.
Thankfully for the Rangers, Napoli has so far feasted off of all pitchers, hitting .296 with three home runs in limited action. His 1.145 OPS is mightily impressive, making him a powerful option when Ron Washington opts to rest regular catcher Yorvit Torrealba or any of the players in the mix at first or designated hitter.
With Mitch Moreland seeing time in right-field during the absence of Hamilton, that should afford Napoli more opportunities at first and DH, or whenever Michael Young is deployed elsewhere.
While the Ballpark at Arlington is generally regarded as a hitter's haven, Napoli has taken a significant liking to his new home, hitting .429 with a 1.556 OPS. Though that's only in a handful of games, it bodes well for the slugger and his new team moving forward.
Just as they did last year with Vlad, they plucked a former Angel that loves to hit in Texas from their bitter rivals, in a low profile masterstroke of a player acquisition. Though Napoli came to Texas via a pit stop in Toronto, the end result remains the same.
Potentially one of the most significant reasons the Rangers could be better than some people expect is the emergence of first baseman and occasional right-fielder, Mitch Moreland.
After a strong late-season showing in 2010, Moreland busted out in the playoffs, earning regular duty and hitting far more than the Rangers expected from the 25-year-old former pitcher.
He has carried that strong postseason performance right into 2011, as he earned a spot with a great spring training, and he hasn't stopped hitting.
Though he has only seen time against right-handed pitching due to a variety of talented platoon partners at first base, Moreland has torn up AL pitching so far in 2011.
Hitting .313/.389/.563 with a gaudy .951 OPS, Moreland has slotted right into a powerful Texas lineup in need of left-handed production, especially in the absence of Hamilton.
Though he has only one home run so far, his seven doubles are good for second in the AL, and he should be able to take advantage of friendly gusts toward right-center field in Arlington.
Primarily utilized at first base early on, he is now proving to be an adequate option in right to maximize the roster flexibility that Ron Washington has in his current squad.
If Moreland continues to hit like he is, he may be able to lock down first in Arlington for the foreseeable future. With a predominantly right-handed lineup, he should see plenty of action as his manager seeks to balance out the order with a few well-placed lefties.
Michael Young Seems to Be Okay with His Role
There was worry in certain quarters that longtime Ranger Michael Young could struggle in his new role as a designated hitter/utility infielder after being uprooted by the newly-acquired Adrian Beltre at third base.
If shifting around the diamond doesn't agree with Young, it's certainly not showing in his performance.
Already starting games at DH, first and second, the veteran infielder is simply doing what he has always done. He's hitting, and doing so extremely well.
At this early date, his standard slash line of .342/.355/.466 with an .821 OPS, are all better than his career averages, and he looks like a man on a mission.
Always considered a "professional hitter," Young has done little to diminish that reputation, swinging a big stick when the Rangers need him most.
So far, in his limited opportunities with runners in scoring position, Young has hit .500, thriving when his team needs him to produce.
A six-time All-Star, Young have precisely the right mindset to thrive under adverse conditions and the daily uncertainty that accompanies his new role in Texas.
As one of the more respected players in baseball, Young could further bolster that image by tucking away his personal issues with the way the matter played out, and leading his team to success once again.
If the Rangers are to exceed expectations in 2011, their fortunes could very well hinge upon their veteran leader playing this season with a lot to prove his own management and the baseball world in general.