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Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Best in the West

At the beginning of the year, I had a very hard time deciding who to pick to win the AL West.  At this point, not quite six weeks in, not only am I happy with my choice, I'm wondering how I ever could've considered anybody else.  It's not that the Rangers have been dominant, so much as every other team in their division looks tremendously short-handed.

The preseason darling, the renovated Mariners, recently lost eight straight against the Rangers, Rays, and Angels.  Ken Griffey Jr. and Milton Bradley have been in the news frequently this season; unfortunately, not for anything they've done on the field.  The Mariners haven't gotten a smidgeon of offensive production from anybody except Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez.  And now, even King Felix is struggling.  The Mariners pitching depth makes is reasonable to imagine them putting together an extended hot streak and perhaps climbing back towards .500, but contention is seeming pretty far-fetched.

The Angels have the opposite problem.  They've scored a reasonable number of runs, but their pitching, with the exception of Jered Weaver, has been just dreadful.  The back four have gone 6-16, with only Ervin Santana and Joel Pineiro even showing flashes of effectiveness.  As bad as the rotation has been, the bullpen is even worse.  Only one reliever, Fernando Rodney, has an ERA under 4.00, while four have ERAs over 7.00.  There are talented arms on the Anaheim staff, but it won't be long before the hole is too deep to dig out of, even if Mike Scioscia does make his annual adjustments.

And then there is Oakland: a team that was tied with the Rangers for first place until this evening.  It seems like Oakland is doing it with smoke and mirrors.  They have only one player with more than three homers, Kurt Suzuki.  He's their best hitter and he's on the D.L.  There best starting pitcher, Brett Anderson, is also disabled (although Dallas Braden has been doing a damn fine job in his stead).  They're 12th in the AL in OPS and 13th in SLG.  The Ben Sheets experiment has been disastrous.  Without several more infusions of talent (which isn't wholly impossible considering their farm system), I don't see the Athletics keeping pace beyond midseason.

Which leaves Texas.  They are leading the division and have the fourth best run differential in the A.L., despite the fact that Josh Hamilton started slow, Rich Harden started wild, and Ian Kinsler started hurt.  There two best relievers both had ERAs above 5.40 in April and their two highly-touted rookies were hitting below the Mendoza line.

Now, those problems seem to be solving themselves.  Neftali Feliz saved five games last week and has a 1.59 ERA so far in May.  Hamilton has homered in two straight games and his OPS is quietly climbing toward 900.  Harden has allowed only two runs and, more importantly, only two walks in his last two starts, his ERA dipping into a very respectable range (3.53).  Kinsler has been on fire since returning to the lineup, with five multi-hit games already in May.  Justin Smoak put together a seven-game hit streak to begin the month and, although he's still only hitting .194, he's shown some power (4 HR) and a great eye (12 BB/11 K), as advertised.  Julio Borbon has six hits in his last four games.

What's frightening about the Rangers is their depth.  There recent hot streak, 11-4 since April 27, has come without Nelson Cruz, who was far and away there best hitter in April.  He re-enters the lineup on Friday.  Matt Harrison hit the D.L. this week, so the Rangers recalled Derek Holland and got six shutout innings from him in his debut.  Feliz and Frank Francisco have been inconsistent, but Darren O'Day, Chris Ray, and Darren Oliver have provided 35 innings and have allowed just nine earned runs (2.29 ERA).

Despite the comings and goings, the Rangers have hardly showed all their cards, especially in terms of pitching.  Brandon McCarthy is dominating AAA (2.51 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 18 K/5 BB).  Tommy Hunter hasn't allowed a run in two starts for Oklahoma City since returning from the D.L.  Texas' first-round pick from 2010, Tanner Scheppers, has already reached AAA and 45 strikeouts in 34 professional innings.  And 19-year-old Martin Perez has a 2.45 ERA at AA.

The Rangers aren't without issues.  They've tried four different catchers this year who have combined to post a 506 OPS.  They've leaned heavily thusfar on the pitching of Colby Lewis and C. J. Wilson, both of whom are benefitting somewhat from the fact that this is practically their first time through the league. Wilson had previously worked only as a reliever and Lewis spent the last two seasons in Japan.  They will likely both be tested during the summer, as the Ballpark at Arlington becomes even more of a launching pad and the league adjusts to them.  Wilson has never thrown more than 136 innings at any level and hasn't thrown more than 75 innings since 2005, so his durability is definitely in question.

Durability is also an issue for the lineup.  Hamilton has managed only one full major-league season (2008).  Kinsler and Cruz have never been able to avoid the D.L.  Vladimir Guerrero, who has recaptured the magic that made him an eight-time All-Star, is nevertheless coming off the worst and the shortest season of his career.

The Rangers depth and the fact that their divisional competition may be limited makes it possible for them to overcome the speedbumps that will inevitably arise over the six-month grind.  However, if they are to be anything more than a nice underdog story in October, they are going to need everybody healthy and effective.  The Rays, Yankees, and Twins all look like juggernauts, and all are constructed to win big and win now.  

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