2011 MLB Predictions: Top 5 Reasons Texas Rangers Will Win AL West

Timothy Howell@@tmurrayhowellCorrespondent IIJuly 6, 2011

2011 MLB Predictions: Top 5 Reasons Texas Rangers Will Win AL West

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    The All-Star break is all but upon us.  And based on actual games played, the Texas Rangers are actually past the midpoint of the 2011 season—halfway to defending their American League Championship crown, or letting it slip away.

    It would be pure conjecture to discuss how deep the Texas Rangers will go in the postseason. Let's face it—you have to make it first.

    And the 2011 Texas Rangers are certainly poised to do just that.  Here's the top five reasons why the Rangers will win the AL West for the second straight year.

Reason No. 5: Bullpen Help Is on the Way

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    Last year, the Texas Rangers rode a smoking-hot June into first place—to stay.  Their 21-6 mark was highlighted by an 11-game winning streak and a young right-hander named Tommy "Big Game" Hunter.

    Hunter won his first game of the season on June 5th against Tampa Bay last year—and ended up 7-0 by July.  

    Once again this season, Hunter's debut has been delayed due to an injury.  Big Game is back on the big league active roster once again and pitched well in his first action of the year—going four and two-thirds innings with two strikeouts and just one earned run allowed.

    The only question about Hunter's return is where to put him—he's been a big league starter for most of his career.  However (and this is ultimately a good thing), the Rangers' rotation is quite crowded.  Derek Holland might be the odd-man out and be shuttled back to the bullpen should he continue to have poor starts (his last start he lasted just two-thirds of an inning and allowed five earned runs).  

    This is another win-win for the Rangers, as Hunter could take Holland's spot and the Rangers would gain another quality left-hander for the bullpen that can provide long-relief.

    More good news: Scott Feldman's recovery from knee surgery has been progressing—he was upgraded from the 60-Day DL to the 15. Like Hunter, Feldman is a proven winner as a starter but can also be effective from the bullpen.

Reason No. 4: Adrian Beltre's Bat and Glove.

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    The Texas Rangers' off-season, the shortest in their history, was largely consumed with the epic saga of Cliff Lee. Would he sign here? Or would it be New York? Of course, it would be neither. By the time the Rangers looked up, it seemed as if spring training was already here—and Lee was long gone. 

    This doesn't mean that the Rangers had a poor offseason.  Hardly.

    Adrian Beltre was the prize offseason signing for the Texas Rangers. Even though Beltre represented a huge upgrade over Michael Young at third base (and brings a steady bat to the lineup) there was a feeling of letdown that the Rangers failed to secure an ace via free agency.

    Beltre's five-year, $80 million deal raised more than a few eyebrows, but it's an investment that has been worth every penny.

    His defense has consistently dazzled, and his bat (along with Michael Young's) helped to keep the Rangers from falling flat on their faces when Hamilton went down with a fractured humerus in April.

    Beltre has been an excellent replacement for Vladimir Guerrero, and no one will argue that he's an infinite improvement on Vlad defensively.  Beltre will be a key reason why the Rangers will win the AL West, and his glove will be even more appreciated in the postseason—when all weaknesses are exposed.

    Beltre is one of four Texas Rangers that will represent the franchise in this year's All-Star Game in Arizona. He'll be alongside Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and CJ Wilson.  For Beltre, it's his second All-Star nod, his first coming last year as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

Reason No. 3: Alexi Ogando Is Pitching Like an Ace

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    Alexi Ogando—is he this year's Tommy Hunter or CJ Wilson?

    Regardless, Alexi Ogando's emergence as a premier starter has been the story of the season for the Texas Rangers.

    Like Hunter a year ago, Ogando burst onto the scene and won his first seven games in a row. And like Wilson, Ogando did it in his first year after being converted from a reliever into a starter.

    The luck that the Rangers have had in converting relievers into starters over the last two years is almost comical—it's been that successful. 

    Ogando came back down to earth in June, when he lost three games in a row—his first three losses of the season—allowing 19 hits over just 9.2 innings. He surrendered 10 earned runs during his losing streak and struck out only five.

    Questions began to arise about Ogando's workload—he's already thrown 56 more innings this year than he did a year ago.  

    There were even whispers that after his last start—July 1st against Florida—that his next scheduled start would be skipped so he could be shutdown early for an extended All-Star break rest.

    The questions have seemingly been answered, as Ogando was outstanding in  his last start against the Marlins, where he struck out a career-high eight and improved his record to 8-3 and dropped his ERA to 2.86. It's now being reported that he will make his next scheduled start prior to the All-Star break.

    However, Texas Rangers' skipper Ron Washington has made public that his next start will be his last for 12 days. Chances are if he pitches well in that start, the whispers will subside and the Rangers can get ready for a stretch run with one of the AL's best starters in tow.

    Sure, Ogando is certainly no Cliff Lee, but he is another top-of-the-rotation starter that will help the Rangers on their path to the postseason.

Reason No. 2: The AL West Can't Hit

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    The AL West has been purported to be the weakest division in the AL, if not all of MLB. I feel this is an exaggeration.  There's plenty of talent in this division—and every team has a shot at winning the division.

    A more accurate description of the AL West would be to label it as a division that "can't hit."

    And this is yet another reason why the Texas Rangers will win the AL West.

    They're the only team in the division that can hit. Their 3.96 ERA is easily the worst in the division—yet their .268 BA is the division's best.

    So much for the old adage: "Good pitching beats good hitting." 

    The Texas Rangers could use another starting pitcher—the bullpen will be bolstered by the aforementioned returns of Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter.  

    One more starting pitcher could be all the Rangers need to distance themselves from the Mariners and Angels for good down the stretch.

    Even without a trade, the Texas Rangers' pitching is good enough to compete as long as the offense continues to cruise along.

    The Rangers have too much offense for their divisional rivals. And the Rangers pitch well enough to win plenty of games. They may not win 90 games as they did a year ago, but 85 or more might be enough to win the AL West this season.

Reason No. 1: A Healthy "Hami" and Healed "Boomstick" for the Second Half

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    The Rangers started off the year at 9-1—and that was due in no small measure to the hot bats of Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz.  

    It's not breaking news that Cruz and Hamilton are "injury prone."  Both have already been on the disabled this year—Hamilton in April and Cruz in May.

    In 2010, when Hamilton was lost for September due to a rib injury, the Rangers were still able to clinch the AL West.  

    Cruz was on the disabled list on three separate occasions in 2010.

    However, Hamilton and Cruz were healthy when it mattered most—in the postseason.

    If Hamilton and Cruz stay injury-free in the second half in 2011, the Rangers shouldn't have any problem in duplicating their AL West Division title from a year ago.

    Josh Hamilton's power stroke is starting to surface—he's hit four long-balls in his last 10 games, after managing just six in his previous 39 games.

    Nelson Cruz is on pace for a career-high in home runs as he's already reached 20, tops for the Texas Rangers.  His batting average has climbed 15 points over his last 10 games—from .237 to .252.