Texas looking for repeat of '10 success
Rangers have pieces capable of another run, but other factors could hold them back
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Texas Rangers head into the 2011 season as the defending American League champions and are hoping to return to the World Series and claim the championship this time.
They overcame health issues, a rotation that went through changes at the top and a mediocre start to end up taking control in June and winning the division with more than a week left in the season.
So can the Rangers win the West again? Here are five reasons they can and five reasons they can't:
Five reasons the Rangers can repeat
1. A productive lineup No one in the American League West -- and few teams in the league -- has the kind of lineup from top to bottom the Rangers will run out onto the diamond each day.
AL MVP Josh Hamilton is back, hoping to continue his impressive form and stay healthier in 2011. Nelson Cruz showed he could hit in the clutch and provide power. Michael Young has been one of the most consistent hitters in the league, and Ian Kinsler gives the club versatility at the top.
Joining that crew is Adrian Beltre, who not only brings two Gold Gloves at third but is coming off one of the best offensive seasons of his career. Yorvit Torrealba should add more offensive boost to the catcher spot. The lineup also has speed, and in 2010 the Rangers showed they could score runs in more ways than simply hitting the long ball.
2. Game-changing MVP Hamilton was more than just incredible offensive numbers in 2010. Sure, the .359 batting average -- highest in the league -- 32 homers and 100 RBIs were critical to the team's success last season. But it was his all-around play that allowed him to win the MVP award, despite missing nearly all of September. Hamilton showed good instincts on the bases, twice going from second to home on a ground ball in the infield. He ran down almost everything hit his way in the outfield and made big catches in big moments. And when the team needed a big play, Hamilton seemed to provide it.
3. Dominant closer When the games get tight and the Rangers need to nail down the ninth inning, manager Ron Washington knows he has one of the best closers in the game in Neftali Feliz. There was plenty of debate this spring about whether to put Feliz in the rotation. But he's going to be the closer, and that helps a bullpen that was shaky in camp. Feliz has that 100 mph fastball, and because he spent the spring stretching out as a starter, he focused more on his secondary stuff. His changeup improved, and he has added a cutter to his repertoire. If he can keep his dominance going for another season, the Rangers will have a true weapon in close games late.
4. Solid defense The signing of Beltre was designed to help the pitching staff in the wake of the Rangers' decision not to pay the high price for free-agent Cliff Lee and a few pitchers on the trade market (Matt Garza and Zack Greinke). Beltre is one of the top defensive third basemen in the game and makes the infield even better. It's difficult to see many ground balls getting past the left side of that unit. Kinsler has also improved his defense every season of his career, and Mitch Moreland has pleased coaches with his work this spring. The infield is in good shape with the gloves.
Center fielder Julio Borbon remains a work in progress, but overall the outfield is also very good on defense. Hamilton fields his position well and has a good arm. There are few players in the league that throw the ball better than Cruz, and David Murphy is underrated as a defender. So when it comes to defense, the Rangers are solid.
5. Playoff experience Don't discount the importance of having gone through a stretch drive to a division title. It was something this team learned how to do last season. It wasn't easy. The Rangers had some uneven play in September as they tried to close things out but got the job done. The Rangers can draw on that experience in what should be a tight, competitive battle for the division title. When things get tough this season -- and they inevitably will -- the Rangers' leaders will know how to handle it.
Five reasons they can't repeat
1. Injuries Injuries cropped up last season, and the Rangers managed to get through it with solid depth and timely production from other players that picked up the slack in their teammates' absence. Kinsler missed two months with injuries, Cruz spent three stints on the disabled list with hamstring issues and Hamilton sat on the bench for the final month of the season. None of that includes injuries here and there to the pitchers. But the Rangers avoided the season-ending injuries to major players that would have set them back tremendously.
The teams that win titles usually avoid the key injuries. Texas is no exception.
2. Starting rotation Just like last year, the Rangers departed Arizona with some unknowns in the starting rotation. As a refresher, Scott Feldman was the Opening Day starter and Rich Harden the No. 2, yet neither factored into the club's push to the division title late in the season. Many wondered whether C.J. Wilson could handle the rigors of starting. We all found out he could. This season, there are other questions. Can Wilson and Colby Lewis repeat their performances from last year, after both pitched more than 200 innings for the first time in their careers? Can Matt Harrison finally stick in the rotation, after making it out of camp for a third straight year? Is Derek Holland ready to have a consistent season? If the answers to the questions aren't positive, the season could look much different from the championship edition of 2010.
3. Bullpen The Rangers' relief corps struggled in spring training. Feliz is still ready to close, but what about the pieces that have to get past the lineup in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings? Alexi Ogando returns, hoping to stabilize a late-inning role if he doesn't take Tommy Hunter's spot in the rotation. Darren O'Day, who has been solid the past two seasons, didn't pitch well this spring. Arthur Rhodes, a guy who has been in the game for two decades, gave up some hard hits in camp. The club hoped Mark Lowe would come in and show the form he had before injury, and while his velocity was there, he was hit often. It could simply have been a bad spring, and the relievers may revert to form once the season begins. But what if it wasn't?
4. Tougher schedule The schedule makers didn't do the Rangers any favors in 2011. Texas benefited from a favorable interleague slate last season, helping it reel off a big June that included 11 straight wins, to vault into first place in the AL West, a place it stayed until the season ended. This year, Texas has to face NL East teams, except the Washington Nationals. That includes a weekend series in Philadelphia against that vaunted starting staff (and former Rangers pitcher Lee) and a trip to Atlanta that comes right after a series at Yankee Stadium. Combine that with a June that is almost exclusively on the road, and the schedule isn't easy.
5. Pressure of expectations Texas' first trip to the World Series means the team must deal with expectations it hasn't experienced before. It's one thing to come into a season hoping to be competitive and another to be considered the favorite. How will this team handle it? Will the Rangers take it in stride like they did last year when various things swirled around them? Can they stay focused on the task at hand? Dealing with the increased expectations and scrutiny that comes with winning will be a key for the Rangers this season.
So there you have it. We could have added more reasons on either side, but these are some of the issues to watch as the season progresses.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.
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