The Baseball Notebook

March 12, 2010 2:00 PM

Texas Rangers Preview

Fans in the Dallas area have had a lot to cheer about lately. The Cowboys won their division and advanced in the playoffs. The Mavericks look poised for a run deep into the NBA postseason. The University of Texas reached the BCS National Championship Game. The Dallas area is rapidly becoming one of America’s most livable sports cities, and for a change baseball may be a part of the equation. Optimism is running high in Rangers’ camp that the time is ripe for their first AL West title since 1999.

The reason for resurgent hope is that Texas finally has pitching, a fruit of being run by one of the game’s all-time greats in GM Nolan Ryan. The Rangers brought up young Tommy Hunter, who was impressive in 112 innings of work, posting a 4.10 ERA facing American League lineups in a hitter’s park. Scott Feldman was even more impressive, winning 17 games with a 4.08 ERA. Texas gets reliable support at #4 from Brandon McCarthy and Neftali Feliz has potential as either a fifth starter or out of the bullpen.

To this mix, Ryan went out and added Rich Harden. There’s no denying Harden’s talent. When healthy he is a legitimate #1 and Cy Young candidate. But that “when healthy” is about as big a qualifier as there is, because he has never been healthy. Texas’ rotation will be serviceable without him, but if they are to win big, a healthy Harden is a must. And that’s a longshot.

Harden wasn’t the only big-name addition. Ryan strengthened the offense by grabbing Vlad Guerrero away from the Angels in free agency. Now Vlad is clearly on the declining side of his career, but he can still hit. Not only is he better than anyone else Texas might have gotten to DH, his loss weakens the Angels. Guerrero will provide help to third baseman Michael Young, the second-best in the AL at his position (and the best defensively) behind only A-Rod. Whether the Rangers make the leap from good offense to great one depends on Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton. The first two must get on base more consistently, in addition to their solid power skills. A low team on-base percentage made the long September slump that knocked them out of the playoffs last year inevitable. As for Hamilton, he just needs to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2009 and find the form that made him an All-Star the year before.

One of the offense’s most intriguing possibilities is centerfielder Julio Borbon. He showcased real potential last year, with a .376 on-base percentage in 157 at-bats. He also played excellent defense and could be a rising star. Elsewhere, there are weaknesses at catcher, short and first. Filling at least one of them is probably a prerequisite to winning the 92 games Ryan thinks they will.

The bullpen was strong a year ago with Darren O’Day and Darren Oliver setting up for Frank Francisco. There should be plenty of leads for them to protect this year. Even if Texas isn’t great, they are most definitely good, and should continue the trend of successful sports in Big D.

Up Next: Atlanta Braves tomorrow
Final AL West Picks & Preview: April 3

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