Reviewing the Rangers at the break
Michael Young and C.J. Wilson deserve top honors, but keep an eye on Nelson Cruz
PHOENIX -- Now that the All-Star Game is over, the baseball world is ready to shift to the second half of the season. That includes a Texas Rangers team that won seven straight games to finish the first half and stay one game up on the Los Angeles Angels, who are playing well right now.
So before the Rangers face the Mariners on Thursday in Seattle to start the second half of the season, let's give out some awards for the first half and look ahead to the second half.
Offensive MVP: Michael Young. It seems more than just five months ago that one of the team leaders was asking for a trade and figured he wouldn't be a Ranger when the season started. But when no deal came together, Young got ready for the season like the professional he is and has hit so well that he earned his seventh All-Star Game invitation as voted on by his peers.
"He's done it all for us," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He's been a leader, he's come up with big hits and he's the same, consistent guy he's always been."
Among regulars, Young leads the team in batting average. He is second in RBIs behind Adrian Beltre, and was a critical offensive contributor when Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz were out of the lineup for extended periods earlier this season. He's also proved to be versatile, playing at first, second and third. That's enabled Washington to shift other guys into the DH spot to give them some time off.
Pitching MVP: C.J. Wilson. This was a tough one with Alexi Ogando making a strong push for the award. But it goes to Wilson because he has been more consistent and remains the leader of this rotation. He was selected by Washington to go to his first All-Star Game because he has kept his team in games, has pitched more innings than anyone else on the staff and has shown that strong competitive streak that earns the respect of his teammates.
"He's taken the ball every time and given us an opportunity to win every time he's touched the mound," Washington said. "You can't ask any more."
Wilson will be a free agent at the end of the season, and is on his way to a large payday and a nice contract. The Rangers want to re-sign him but won't discuss it until the end of the season. By then, he might have even more on his already-solid résumé.
Most underappreciated player: Ian Kinsler. Many fans harp on his high popup rate but don't see all the little things he does during a game. Kinsler's average is certainly not where he'd like it to be, but that uppercut swing (which he's trying to level out a little) has produced 12 home runs. His patience at the plate has earned him a team-high 53 walks -- more than double the next-highest Ranger -- and allowed him to make things happen on the bases. He's a smart runner who is rarely caught, as his 19 stolen bases in 21 attempts show. And he's improved defensively at second base every season in the majors. He has a quick turn at second on double-play balls and can range into the hole to scoop up hard-hit grounders. He is one of this club's best players but is underappreciated.
Most underrated player: Matt Harrison. I asked Washington his pick for this category, and he didn't hesitate to name Harrison. Why?
"I don't think too many people believed in him," Washington said. "Belief starts with yourself. Matt came into camp believing in himself, and he's carried it through."
Player who made you shake your head (good and bad) the most in the first half: Tie, Elvis Andrus and Derek Holland. The first half of 2011 was a reminder that Andrus is still a young player at age 22. He has 15 errors, one fewer than he had in all of 2010. Of course, that's not the best gauge of a player's defense, and Andrus' defensive runs saved is very high. But even Andrus concedes his defense should be better, and because he's capable of playing better, Washington isn't afraid to ride him hard at times. But with the bouts of lack of focus comes spectacular play. And Andrus has matured at the plate. He works pitchers better and has a .283 batting average. His base stealing has improved as well.
Holland's stuff is some of the best around. When he's throwing his breaking pitches for strikes, he's difficult to hit, period. In the past month, Holland has two complete-game shutouts (at Cleveland, versus Oakland), yet he couldn't get out of the first inning in a start between those two outings. He is prone to the big inning and at times doesn't look confident. It's clear he has the stuff to compete in the big leagues and be a solid starter, but he hasn't found the consistency. What will we see in the second half from him?
Biggest concern of the first half: Bullpen. The defense has been an issue at times, but overall the bullpen is the big trouble spot. The past few weeks, the Rangers have seen some improvement there. Mark Lowe is settling into a late-inning setup role. Tommy Hunter gives them some more flexibility, and Neftali Feliz -- at least when a save is on the line -- has looked more like he did in 2010. But overall, the Rangers could be enjoying a larger lead in the American League West if not for some bullpen meltdowns. They've tried all kinds of options but struggled to find consistency since Ogando was moved from late-inning setup to the starting rotation.
Best ending to a first-half game: Josh Hamilton's walk-off homer Saturday against the A's before the All-Star break. After all of the emotion of Shannon Stone's tragic fall, to have Hamilton hit that homer to win the club's sixth straight game and be mobbed by supportive teammates will be an unforgettable moment in 2011.
"It was an emotional release not only for Josh, but for the rest of us," Young said. "It was a tough couple of days. If you asked us or any of the guys that play for Oakland, baseball was not our top priority for those games in that series. Obviously, we're thinking about a wife and a son. But once the game starts, we're doing our best to focus on our jobs and trying to play baseball to the best of our ability. To have a bit of an emotional release, it was great for Josh and great for us."
Honorable mention: Mike Napoli sliding into home plate under the tag to beat the Royals in a walk-off win in May.
Best player off the bench: Mike Napoli. The Rangers traded Frank Francisco, an important back-end reliever, to Toronto for the former Angels first baseman/catcher to add a bat to the lineup and give them another option at first base. The catching stuff wasn't supposed to be too important with Yorvit Torrealba and Matt Treanor ahead of Napoli on the depth chart. But the bullpen issues at the end of spring training and Napoli's ability behind the plate made Treanor expendable.
Napoli has managed the pitching staff very well, taking the best catcher's ERA in the league (among catchers with 20 or more starts) at 2.59 into the break.
Best glove in the first half: Adrian Beltre. The Rangers sold the Beltre signing more on the defensive end than at the plate. Don't let the error column fool you. Beltre has had more chances than any other third baseman in the league, and he takes away hits nearly every game. He has made a huge difference with his ability to get to balls down the line and in the hole, and has even given Andrus the luxury of playing slightly closer to second if needed.
Beyond that, he leads the club in RBIs. But he's made some truly spectacular plays in the first half. His reward: being voted the top third baseman by the players for the All-Star Game, which he started.
Let's make some bold predictions for the second half of the season:
AL West winner: Rangers. I'll stick with my preseason prediction of 88 wins and a division title. The Angels will make it tough, and facing them 13 times in the second half, including 10 in Anaheim, won't be easy. My gut tells me the Rangers will have a slight lead heading into that final three-game set in Anaheim in September and win the division on the second-to-last day of the regular season.
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Top starter (second half): C.J. Wilson. No shock here, but the guy has proved for 1 1/2 seasons that he can handle this job. Why should the final few months of 2011 be any different? He'll finish strong, and then the Rangers will have to do what they can to try to keep him for next year.
Top setup man (second half): Mark Lowe. Yep, you heard me. I think Lowe is the most important cog in that bullpen for the stretch drive. The Rangers are likely to make some sort of move before the trade deadline to acquire some help for the late innings, but they'll still need the hard-throwing Lowe to produce. He's performed well in recent weeks with a hard fastball now finding the low strike zone and a good slider. If Lowe can stay consistent, the bullpen gets a whole lot better.
Top offensive producer (second half): Nelson Cruz. A traditionally good second-half player, Cruz must stay healthy. I think he will, and he'll hit some big homers and drive in a bunch of runs in the second half. Cruz has 80 strikeouts at the break, but I think he'll get better in that category, and the extra-base hits will more than make up for it.
Toughest stretch on the schedule: Aug. 22-Sept. 7. We know the Rangers have a ton of division games, and they are critical. But they have to play two beasts from the AL East, too. Of the16 games in late August and early September, they face the Red Sox for seven and the Rays for six. Mixed in there is a three-game home series with the Angels. That stretch could define the club's season.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.