Monday, May 14, 2012

Texas on Top

The Rangers are the best team in baseball.  There’s really little doubt about it.  At this point, in this season, I think they’ve made it pretty obvious.  They just put a public beatdown on the Angels during Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN.  If you don’t recall, the Angels were supposed to challenge the Rangers for the AL West but that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.  They have the second best record in baseball (to the Dodgers) and are an impressive 13-6 on the road thus far.  They’ve truly got it all: pitching, hitting and defense.

When lefty CJ Wilson left Texas for division-rival Los Angeles in free agency, most of us saw the Rangers as taking a pretty big hit.  John Daniels responded by rolling the dice on Yu Darvish, the 25 year-old phenom from Japan.  Japanese players have been  volatile in Major League Baseball, but it appears the Darvish gamble has paid dividends.  He’s jumped right into the rotation, gone 5-1 with a 2.89 ERA (3.59 xFIP) and over 10 K/9.  Derek Holland, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison have all been reliable starters, too.  Holland is the ace of the staff and is continuing to mature while Harrison has had some tough outings and bad luck (5.23 ERA vs. 3.73 xFIP).  Neftali Feliz has been erratic but effective.  If he doesn’t get it together, though, his 3.38 ERA won’t last. 

It’s not just the rotation, though.  Texas’ bullpen has sparkled behind closer Joe Nathan (another gamble that’s paid off), setup men Mike Adams (last season’s bounty from a trade with the Padres) and Alexi Ogando.  Mark Lowe, Koji Uehara and Robbie Ross have been just as good in middle relief.  This bullpen is deep on quality arms, to say the least. 

At the plate, the Rangers can mash with the best of them.  In fact, they are the best of them  so far.  They lead baseball in runs scored (194), RBI (188), hits (353) and average (.291), are second in on-base percentage (.349), are third in homeruns with 52 (behind the Orioles and Yankees) and rank seventh in strikeout rate (17.6 %).  The team has been somewhat lucky with a .322 BABIP.  This tells us that they will have some slightly tougher luck going forward, but with their ability to hit the ball over the fence with regularity and leg out some hits (Andrus, Kinsler, Gentry), they won’t plummet.  They posted a .304 BABIP last season and a .307 in 2010, so they are consistently among the leaders of baseball in this category.  When you swing the bats like they do, hits have a way of happening.  Just ask Jered Weaver, who came off a no-hitter to throw 3.1 innings tonight, giving up 8 earned on 10 hits (he only walked one, so the Rangers swung their way to that snowman).

Josh Hamilton is playing out of his mind right now.  He has 18 homeruns and 41 RBI (leads baseball in each category) in only 31 games.  Of course that’s not sustainable, but it’s not as if he’s exactly going to disappear and hit .180 the rest of the way through the season.  This guy can hang in there and bang all season long.  Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler have been awesome table-setters with a .391 and .352 OBP, respectively.  Adrian Beltre continues to hit the ball hard and Michael young continues to be Michael Young.  Mike Napoli had one hot stretch but has cooled off and Nelson Cruz really hasn’t got it going yet.  Those two are strikeout machines (Cruz has a 24.7 K% and Napoli’s is 29.2%) but are always a threat to go yard.  Craig Gentry has been good in his spot starts and as a defensive replacement.  There are really no weaknesses here.  David Murphy is available off the bench and can contribute, too.  Opposing pitchers cringe when these guys come to town.

UZR loves the Rangers in the field, too.  They have the highest UZR rating thus far and, although there are some serious questions of sample size, the eye test proves that they play good defense.  Beltre is a Gold Glove third baseman, Andrus at short is really blossoming, has plus range and a good arm while Kinsler is above average at second.  Mitch Moreland isn’t the most potent first baseman at the plate but can pick it defensively.  Murphy and Gentry can run down anything in the outfield, Cruz is a sold right fielder and Hamilton has been much better since moving to left field full time.  Of the starters, only Mike Napoli rates as below average.  Michael Young can play all over as a super sub when he isn’t DH’ing, which offers nice flexibility, but he isn’t a great fielder.  Overall, they play solid infield defense, being strongest at short, third and first.  In the outfield, they have two above-average centerfielders who can run ‘em down, while the corner outfielders are also plus defenders. 

The one thing that can slow these guys down is the injury bug.  Hamilton in particular is a real concern.  He’s missed large chunks of the last three seasons, missing 73 games in ’09, 29 games in 2010 and 41 games last year.  Moving him to left field will help keep him on the field longer, but it’s almost a “when” instead of “if” with him.  Beltre has been solid throughout his career but missed some time last year and in ’09, plus he’s 32.  Kinsler has been dinged up from time to time and Nelson Cruz has a pretty robust injury history.  The starting pitching looks young and solid (Feliz is the only worry), but the bullpen has some injury concerns, namely Joe Nathan.  If he can stay healthy, they have enough depth to weather any other storms.

Even if injuries do bite this team, as they certainly will, the Rangers can put their top-rated farm system to use in an attempt to plug holes.  With the consensus minor league system in baseball, Texas is built for the present and the future.  If they don’t have an internal solution to fit their needs, they have plenty of pieces to flip for available big league talent. 

This club will be tough to stop as they are solid in all three aspects of the game.  They can pitch well and close down games.  They can hang up crooked numbers in any inning of any game.  In the outfield they can cover ground and the infield is full of talented fielders, too.  The top-rated farm system in baseball puts this team at the top into the foreseeable future, as well.  Simply said, the Rangers are the best team in baseball. 

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