Commentary

Texas quickly turning into a powerhouse

Defending American League champions quite possibly better than they were last season

Originally Published: April 12, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The best team in baseball ought to look real familiar. You've seen these guys before -- like in a World Series that feels as if it just ended about 20 minutes ago.

The Texas Rangers played in that 2010 World Series. Now here they are, six months later. And they've already done something that no defending AL World Series contestant had ever done.

One season after rolling into the World Series, they started The Season After by going 9-1 in their first 10 games. Well, there's a good reason for that:

It's very possible this team is even better than the team that went to that World Series.

We've heard scouts say it. We've heard opposing managers say it. And in the Rangers' clubhouse, they firmly believe it.

"Yeah, it's absolutely possible," said second baseman Ian Kinsler. "I think when you gain experience like we gained last year, going through the playoffs and learning that we're very capable of playing at that level, I think we're definitely better.

[+] EnlargeNelson Cruz
AP Photo/Gail BurtonNelson Cruz leads the American League with five home runs.

"You know, we lost Vlad [Guerrero]," Kinsler went on. "But that's really it. Everyone wants to talk about Cliff [Lee]. But we were a first-place team without him. There isn't anyone in this clubhouse who wouldn't rather have him than not have him. But at the same time, we believe in the guys we have, and we're very confident."

While Guerrero was spinning out the Rangers' revolving door over the winter, Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli were spinning in. So thanks to Beltre, they've upgraded their leather shop. And now this lineup is so absurdly deep that every day, Kinsler said, "we have two guys sitting on the bench who could be hitting 3-4-5 in a lot of lineups."

And not only that. Think how many players on this team are still on the rise or in the thick of their prime -- Nelson Cruz, Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and practically the entire pitching staff.

So every April, you see certain teams that just seem to have That Look. And this April, the Rangers have had it from day one.

They obliterated the Red Sox in three games right out of the chute. Over the weekend, they took two of three from an Orioles team that had lost only once before the Rangers rolled into town. And in between, they swept Seattle.

They've won games started by Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, Justin Verlander and Clay Buchholz. They've compiled the best ERA (2.49) of any team in baseball. And how much has this pitching staff missed Cliff Lee? Well, even with three starting pitchers (Brandon Webb, Tommy Hunter and Scott Feldman) on the disabled list, the American League is hitting a Mendoza-esque .202 against this staff. So you decide.

But what really elevates this outfit to prime-time greatness is a lineup that feels like the '95 Indians reincarnate. The Rangers are slugging .508 as a team. They've whomped 18 home runs -- and the Home Run Derby King, Josh Hamilton, has hit none of them. And they've pounded 44 extra-base hits in 11 games. The Twins -- a team that employs two MVPs (Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau) -- have 18.

"Our lineup is completely ridiculous," said pitcher C.J. Wilson. "I mean, it's comical. It's like you build a team like that on a video game. It's crazy. We have five guys who can steal a base, maybe six guys who can steal a base. We have eight guys that can hit home runs, maybe nine guys. I don't know any other lineups that can say that. Last year, I felt like we had the best lineup in baseball. And this year, I feel like we've got the best lineup in baseball again."

C.J. Wilson Our lineup is completely ridiculous. I mean, it's comical. It's like you build a team like that on a video game. It's crazy. … Last year, I felt like we had the best lineup in baseball. And this year, I feel like we've got the best lineup in baseball again.

-- Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson

What will determine if there's another World Series in their future, though, is pitching. Manager Ron Washington says he's confident that, at some point, Webb, Hunter and Feldman will all be back. But in the meantime, the three guys the Rangers have plugged into the rotation to replace them -- Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando -- have a combined 1.15 ERA and are working on a streak of 20 straight shutout innings.

"So anything is really possible," Wilson said. "And with our offense and our defense, it takes the pressure off our pitching. We don't have to go out there and be great. We can just go out there and be normal."

It's still too early to know exactly where this is leading. But this is a team with off-the-charts chemistry and focus. And it will need all of it, because there are 5½ months of baseball still ahead. And there's a lot more involved in winning than just looking like you're a better team on the computer printouts.

"The experience that we have, of making it to the World Series, you can't discount that," Washington said. "But we didn't win it. So these guys have a taste in their mouth. They feel like they can finish it off. But before we can finish it off, we have to make it through the 162-game season.

"Personnel-wise, we're better," the manager said. "Experience-wise, we're better. And all that comes into play. But in baseball, you've got to prove it between the lines. … It's tough to predict baseball. You've got to play it, man."

He's dead-on, of course. But so far, no team in this sport is playing it quite like those en fuego Texas Rangers.

Ready to rumble

•  A year and a half after Angels manager Mike Scioscia went ballistic about all the un-baseball-like off days teams have to deal with in October, it looks as if his sport finally listened. Baseball is moving toward a schedule that will turn the postseason back into a baseball event, not a 4½-week TV miniseries.

Nothing is final yet. But there is an excellent chance that this year's postseason will begin just two days after the end of the regular season and, if these series go the maximum number of games, there would be only one off day between the end of each round and the beginning of the next.

So the most likely schedule would have two Division Series start on Friday, Sept. 30, with the other two beginning the next day. There would be no more "bonus" off day (between Games 1 and 2) in one of the four Division Series. And the entire postseason would be completed within 29 days of the end of the season, even if the World Series goes seven games. Under the old format, it could have stretched to 32 or 33 days. 'Bout time.

• With free agency looming for their Opening Day starter, C.J. Wilson, the Rangers made a brief attempt to sign Wilson to an extension. But Wilson's lack of an established track record as a starting pitcher made it impossible for either side to figure out his true value. So those talks are now on hold.

If Wilson has a year anywhere near his first season as a starter (15-8, 3.35), he'd be the most attractive left-handed starter on the market. But in a perfect world, Wilson sounds like a guy whose clear first choice is to stay in Texas.

"I like pitching with this lineup," Wilson told Rumblings. "And our defense is pretty good, so I like that, too. And that's a factor for me, because I want to win. The winning thing is more important than anything else -- and knowing I'm going to be in a good situation, because you have a choice. You have a choice of what you're going to factor your decision on. And for me, the ultimate thing is, 'Am I going to be a happy person?' I played for a team that wasn't winning for a long time, and now we're winning. So it's a lot easier to see a future here."

• Wilson reports he saw a recent quote from Roy Halladay (on ESPN.com, coincidentally enough) in which Halladay said, "To me, free agency was a chance to pick where you want to play, not a chance to see how much money you could get." And Wilson wants it on the record that he agrees with those sentiments "100 percent."

"Actually," he said with a laugh, "I agree with him, just unequivocally, 100 percent, on whatever he says, because he's the best."

Edwin Jackson
Jackson

• So if Wilson stays in Texas, that would be one more Nutrisystem attack on what is already shaping up as a frighteningly thin starting-pitching market next winter. There's Mark Buehrle, but he's widely expected to re-up with the White Sox. There's a possibility that Chris Carpenter and Roy Oswalt could be out there, but that's dependent on the fate of their 2012 options. So that might leave Edwin Jackson as the big free-agent attraction. And teams are already shuddering at the hype Scott Boras will be showering on him.

"Scott will make him sound like Walter Johnson," said one NL front-office man. "But how many teams has this guy been on? He's been on five teams in six seasons. Doesn't that tell you something? Did Walter Johnson ever pitch for five teams in six years?"

• One more on the Rangers: Their haul when they traded Mark Teixeira -- which includes Andrus, Feliz and Harrison (plus Jarrod Saltalamacchia and pitching prospect Beau Jones) -- in 2007 now looks like one of the great deadline deals of recent times. But a source familiar with those negotiations says the Rangers almost walked away from that package because the Braves wouldn't include outfielder Jordan Schafer. At one point, Texas actually pulled the plug and told the Braves it was going in a different direction, then came back to them right before the deadline and said yes. Good thing!

• Here's an unanswered -- and unanswerable -- Manny Ramirez question for you: Did money play a role in Manny's decision to bail on the Rays, retire and head off for his summer vacation in Spain? If he'd served his 100 games, he had only about $700,000 in salary waiting for him after he returned. But if he'd packed it in when he got caught back in 2009, he'd have been forfeiting nearly $33 million. And there was zero chance of that. Anyway, just asking.

• The Royals may be paying only about $4 million more for their entire roster than the Yankees will pay just their third baseman this year. But Royals officials have told people within the sport that if all their high-end phenoms have the impact on winning and attendance they expect, the payroll could eventually "mimic what the Twins have done." The Twins had a $24.1 million payroll a decade ago, before the winning started. They're at $118.2 million this year, according to the Associated Press.

• Nate McLouth had an encouraging spring for the Braves after being encouraged by new hitting coach Larry Parrish to be more aggressive. But he's had a rough start (.229 AVG/.289 OBP/.286 SLG). And one scout calls him Parrish's "biggest challenge," saying: "He's almost got a backward plan. He's looking for the breaking ball so much, he's getting beat by fastballs in. He's way, way out of sync mentally, and I think he's taking it into the field. He's looked non-focused on a couple of fly balls out there. Not very encouraging."

• But McLouth has looked like Rickey Henderson compared with another guy who had a promising spring, Blue Jays leadoff man Rajai Davis. He's hitting .156 with zero walks. "He's got no conception of the strike zone," said one scout. "He's just a one-zone guy -- belt, middle-in. And that's all he can hit, because everything's collapsing with his swing. I'd make a dramatic change with him, put him in a crouch and just make contact. If he makes contact, he could hit .280 just with his speed. But unless he plays to his strengths, I can't imagine him being very effective against good pitching with this approach."

Alex Gordon
Gordon

• And now a hitter with a dramatically better approach: The Royals' Alex Gordon (.357/.400/.548 so far). "His bat head is in the zone a lot longer," said one AL exec. "He's not coming off with his top half the way he used to, so he's driving balls to left-center field. But he's still turning on balls in the inner half." Gordon has worked hard the last two offseasons with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer to incorporate this approach. But now he's "finally at the point where he could carry it into a game, at game speed," the exec said. "Last year, he couldn't do that."

• Rumblings from the labor front suggest there's a clear split between the two sides on expanding the playoffs, with owners pushing hard for a one-game sudden-death playoff between the two wild-card teams and players holding out for a best-of-three. The more we've thought about it, the more we've concluded that anything but a one-game, winner-goes-on-loser-goes-home format would be a huge mistake.

• Finally, how good is Roy Halladay? In seven starts since the beginning of spring training, he's faced 135 hitters and allowed a TOTAL of two runs -- one in spring training, one in the season. And the spring training run wouldn't have scored if his catcher hadn't dropped a throw to the plate. Still, Halladay isn't happy with himself, because "I'd definitely like to be a lot more efficient." Yeah, you could understand why. His ERA is "only" 0.69. And he's walked one of the 51 hitters he's faced in his first two starts. But he hasn't made it beyond the seventh inning yet, and he hates when that happens.

"For him, giving up no runs is neat," said his teammate, Brad Lidge. "But nine innings -- that's his bread and butter. So no wonder he's upset."

So if Halladay went nine innings every start and allowed no runs, then would he be happy?

"I'm sure he'd find something he needs to work on," Lidge chuckled. "But that's why he is who he is."

Five astounding facts of the week

1. Over the last four seasons, Manny Ramirez has been caught by the PED testers as many times (two) as all other position players combined. The only other PED suspensions for position players since 2008: 50-gamers for Pablo Ozuna (2009) and Ronny Paulino (last year).

2. The bad news for the Red Sox and Rays is that 46 previous teams since 1900 started 0-6, and only six finished with a winning record. The good news is, five teams in the division-play era were at least six games under .500 later in the season and went on to win the World Series -- the 2003 Marlins, '02 Angels, '91 Twins, '79 Pirates and '77 Yankees.

3. Rays first baseman Dan Johnson got a hit (a double) in his first at-bat of 2011, then went 0 for his next 24, without even a walk or an HBP. Our favorite streak guru, Trent McCotter, went back to 1950 and couldn't find a single other position player who had done that (hit in his first AB, then 0-for-24).

4. The Phillies got their leadoff hitter on base each inning via hit, walk or HBP last Thursday against the Mets. Loyal reader Eric Seidman, of Baseball Prospectus and BrotherlyGlove.com fame, reports it was only the 16th time any team had done that in a nine-inning game since 1950 -- and the first since the Pirates on May 13, 2007.

5. After our buddy Jonah Keri quipped on FanGraphs that Manny Ramirez played for the Rays "for about 10 minutes," Craig Robinson of FlipFlopFlyBall.com decided to check how close to the truth that was. The verdict: That 10-minute estimate was 12 minutes off. All of Manny's at-bats, plus his miniscule time on base, combined to last 22 minutes, 5 seconds. It just seemed shorter, obviously.

Tweets of the week

It isn't often you run across a life-changing Twitter humorist. But once we discovered the laugh-till-you-cry fictitious tweetage of Nyjer Morgan's alter-ego, @Tony_Plush, last week, we were officially addicted. Our three favorites from his barrage of hilarious tweets:

• "It is hard for Plush to talk about baseball after a loss to the Cubs. His heart feels threadbare, his soul ripped asunder."

• "Plush climbed back into the box and stared into the eyes of Zambrano. He saw fire and pestilence, a noxious evil no man should ever witness."

• "Tony Plush is off to the Mitchell Park Horticultural Domes! He is a great fan of flora and fauna. His favorite genus is telopea."

Late nighter of the week

Finally, here's No. 10 on David Letterman's recent list of "Top 10 Rejected Major League Baseball Slogans:"

"The Fastest Four Hours In Sports."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com