The American League West race likely won’t be a runaway in 2012, as it was the past two seasons, but the Rangers remain the team to beat. They have the best infield in baseball and one of the top outfields. They received production from their catchers in 2011 that they hadn’t had since Ivan Rodriguez was in his prime. All that offense overshadows a young, talented rotation — which now includes Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz — and some stingy relievers. The bullpen, which faltered early last season and prevented the Rangers from pulling away sooner, is one of the AL’s best. The two-time defending league champions have a chance to be better in 2012 and erase the sting of missing out on their first championship in a terrific World Series against St. Louis.
The biggest pitching story of the offseason was the Rangers’ pursuit of Darvish. The righthander agreed to terms in January after the Rangers bid a record $51.7 million for the posting fee. Darvish is seen as less of a risk than previous Japanese pitchers who came to the majors. He’s 25, 6'5" and has a fastball that clocks in the mid-90s. Darvish, 93–38 with a 1.99 ERA in Japan, is also a premium strike-thrower. While Darvish has ace potential, he won’t top the rotation. Colby Lewis, who resurrected his career in Japan, will likely get the Opening Day nod as the lone veteran on the staff after C.J. Wilson jumped to the Angels. Big things are expected from Derek Holland after he won 16 games in 2011. The Rangers rewarded him with a five-year, $28.5 million contract that takes him through the first year of free agency. Another lefthander, Matt Harrison, should be in the rotation after also breaking through last season with 14 wins. Feliz, the closer the past two seasons, is the most intriguing piece. He was thought to be a No. 1 starter when acquired in 2007 as part of the Mark Teixeira haul. Feliz will be paced, as Alexi Ogando was in 2011, but the Rangers expect him to succeed.
A weakness early last season, the Rangers’ bullpen became a strength down the stretch and in the playoffs. The team worked in the offseason to make sure there are no holes in 2012. The biggest move was the acquisition of free agent closer Joe Nathan to replace Feliz. Nathan returned last season after missing 2010 due to Tommy John surgery. He hit his stride in the season’s second half, though he is not the Joe Nathan of old when he saved 246 games over six seasons for the Twins. Mike Adams will work the eighth inning. The Rangers still have high hopes for righthander Koji Uehara, who struggled last season in Texas after being acquired from Baltimore at the trade deadline. Uehara’s ability to retire left-handed hitters was a factor in how aggressively the Rangers pursued lefty relief help. With Feliz and Darvish in the rotation, the Rangers had the option of moving Ogando back to the bullpen. He was an All-Star last year as a member of the rotation, but he showed in the postseason how effective he could be as a shutdown reliever. Scott Feldman, another starter, was a valuable late-season piece as a long man and spot starter.
Second baseman Ian Kinsler, a two-time 30-30 man, and shortstop Elvis Andrus excel in all facets of the game and rate as two of the most exciting players in the game. The Rangers like Kinsler’s pop and knowledge of the strike zone atop the lineup. He finished with a team-high 89 walks and a .355 on-base percentage that helped offset a .255 batting average. Andrus, meanwhile, has hit ninth, first and second in his first three seasons, and has swiped at least 30 bases each year. But it’s not just the steals that make him and Kinsler so good on the bases. They both get terrific reads on balls put into play and go from first to third as well as anyone. Andrus is known as much for his glove as his legs. Though he committed a league-high (for a shortstop) 25 errors, he played the final 33 games without one. Many of his errors were on balls that average shortstops never reach. Kinsler’s 11 errors were second-most (among second basemen) in the league, but his .850 zone rating was second-best.
Adrian Beltre exceeded expectations in his first year, even though he missed all of August with a hamstring injury. He hit for power (32 homers) and average (.296) while playing Gold Glove defense at third base, all of which helped him shake the label that he performs only in a contract year. Beltre’s biggest impact was in the field. He was an instant upgrade over predecessors Michael Young and Hank Blalock, and he and Andrus combine to give the Rangers the best defensive left side of any infield in baseball. Across the diamond, though, first baseman Mitch Moreland enters 2012 dogged by doubts. He started 2011 well, hitting .300 the first two months. But an injured right wrist affected his swing in the second half, and he lost out on playing time. Young and Mike Napoli will also see time at first.
Talent isn’t an issue, but avoiding the disabled list has been a problem. Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz combined for 54 homers and 181 RBIs in 2011 even though Hamilton was down for more than a month early in the season and Cruz had two DL stints. Hamilton, who can be a free agent after the season, will play primarily in left field to keep his body fresh. Cruz, who saw David Freese’s two-out, two-strike drive sail over his head to tie Game 6 of the World Series, has a big arm in right field. Julio Borbon, Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin will compete for time in an unsettled center field. Hamilton could become the regular there if no one distinguishes himself during spring training, and fourth outfielder David Murphy would become the left fielder. That’s the alignment that has prevailed the past two postseasons.
Napoli developed into an all-around force, hitting for average and shedding the tag he acquired in Anaheim as a poor defensive catcher. He had always hit for power, but a torrid second half (.383) pushed his final average to .320. He fell 70 plate appearances short of qualifying for league-leader status, but was sixth in average, third in on-base percentage (.414) and first in slugging percentage (.631) among players with 400 plate appearances. Napoli also earned the trust of the pitching staff and threw out base runners at a far better rate than the Rangers had expected. The offense-defense combination made him the No. 1 catcher down the stretch and in the playoffs. Yorvit Torrealba won’t be glued to the bench. He caught a team-high 98 games in 2011, hitting .273 and throwing out 32.5 percent of attempted base-stealers. He will catch at least twice a week as the Rangers monitor the wear and tear of the Texas heat on their backstops.
Young will play first, second and third base again this season, but most of his time will be spent as a designated hitter. He adapted quickly to the role after being a regular in the field over his first 10 seasons, and finished up at .338 with 106 RBIs and 213 hits. Murphy is the team’s best pinch-hitter when he isn’t filling in for an injured outfielder, but the Rangers don’t call on their bench often. Torrealba has pinch-hitting experience from his days in the National League, but he is only 1-for-27 lifetime. Alberto Gonzalez is the leading candidate for a backup infielder.
Ron Washington has seen his record improve each of the past four seasons since he took over as manager in 2007. The Rangers play hard for him because of his enthusiasm and loyalty to the players. Highly regarded pitching coach Mike Maddux turned down two chances to become a manager during the offseason and will return to Texas. General manager Jon Daniels isn’t afraid to make midseason acquisitions to bolster the roster, and he’s attempting to keep a talented core together for the long haul.
A third AL West title is within the Rangers’ grasp. The division got tougher when the Angels snagged Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, but the Rangers didn’t go quietly through the offseason. Darvish and Feliz ooze talent and will fortify the rotation despite Wilson’s departure. The Rangers’ offense might be the most dynamic in baseball. With the bullpen built to avoid the early-season woes it encountered in 2011, the Rangers enter this season as the team to beat in the AL West.