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A Rangers collapse is no sure bet

A Rangers collapse is no sure bet
Let's say this quickly before everything falls apart in typical Rangers fashion:

To Lee, or not to Lee?

  • The Rangers lead the American League West.

  • Their run differential is the second best in the league.

  • Their rotation, believe it or not, is producing the most innings perstart of any team in the AL.

    The proper question for anyone with a working knowledge of Rangers history is, "OK, when do they collapse?"

    The answer: Not now. And maybe not for a long time.

    Believe it or not, the Rangers have a plan. It actually includes pitching and defense. And it actually should work.

    "I do think they're legit," A's general manager Billy Beane says, "and they're also going to get better."

    Beane, before he traded pitchers Dan Haren, Rich Harden and Joe Blanton between Dec. 2007 and July '08, says he told owner Lew Woolf that the A's needed to replenish their farm system in part due to the Rangers' rising young talent.

    And now, as the Rangers prepare for their first series of the season against the rival Angels (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 4:10 p.m. ET), the future is starting to take hold.

    The Rangers, who lead the majors in OPS and rank third in the AL in runs per game, control every one of their starting position players through at least 2012.

    At several positions, they boast multiple options. That depth, general manager Jon Daniels says, will enable the team to focus almost exclusively in the future on its perennial weakness — pitching.

    Approximately $40 million will come off the Rangers' payroll this winter if right-hander Kevin Millwood fails to work 180 innings, a total that would guarantee his $12 million salary for 2010.

    The number still will be nearly $30 million if Millwood returns — a good bet, seeing as how he already has worked 52 1/3 innings, fourth in the AL.

    Some of the extra money could go toward retaining or replacing four productive bench players, all of whom the Rangers value — shortstop Omar Vizquel, first baseman Hank Blalock and outfielders Andruw Jones and Marlon Byrd.

    Some could go toward right-hander Ben Sheets, whom the team nearly signed last winter and is "watching from a distance" as he recovers from elbow surgery, Daniels says.

    The Rangers could pounce on Sheets if he is ready for the second half. They could trade one of their hitters for a reliever before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. And they still could be flexible enough financially to strategically target a free-agent pitcher or two in the offseason.

    The stunning part of all this — one of the upsets of the season, in fact — is that the Rangers' pitching already is quite good.

    The change starts with new pitching coach Mike Maddux, who — with a near-certain nudge from team president Nolan Ryan — is encouraging pitchers to be more aggressive with their fastballs.

    "We're pounding fastball command throughout our system," Daniels says. "We already had been, but Mike takes it to a different level with his preparation on how to attack hitters.

    "It's not dissimilar to what the Red Sox do with (catcher Jason) Varitek and (pitching coach) John Farrell. It's pretty obvious that they stress that. It's early, but our guys seem to have taken to it."

    Millwood's leadership, Ryan's emphasis on conditioning and manager Ron Washington's confidence in the pitchers also help. But the Rangers' improved defense might be the biggest difference of all.

    The Ballpark in Arlington is notoriously hitter-friendly, but Rangers pitchers no longer fear contact; the team has improved from last in the majors in defensive efficiency last season to first in the AL thus far.

    The controversial promotion of rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus and move of Michael Young to third base has proven a masterstroke; Andrus ranks third among major-league shortstops according to the plus-minus ratings on Bill James Online; Young was 32nd at the position last season.

    Andrus, who also has hit better than expected, draws nothing but praise from Young, an All-Star in each of the past five seasons. Young, who is signed through 2013, offers additional raves about the team's new direction.

    "The biggest thing for us is that pitching and defense are leading the way," Young says. "We made a huge point in spring training to bear down on the small parts of the game that haven't been a strength for us over the years. We made it a point to take a lot of pride in our defense. I think it shows."

    The importance of the Rangers' growing stability and continuity is impossible to measure, but Young says there is intangible value to reducing the amount of player turnover.

    The Twins prove season after season that players with a shared history often develop stronger bonds. Young says that such closeness carries players through difficult periods, enables them to speak to each other more freely.

    "The last five years or so, we always had a lot of new faces in the locker room," Young says. "When we played contending clubs, they were basically the same year, year out. That's what we're trying to build."

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    Make no mistake, however: The Rangers remain a work in progress.

    The rotation seems almost certain to regress. The offense actually could be better; Rangers hitters own the highest strikeout rate, second-lowest walk rate and 11th-highest on-base percentage in the AL. The bullpen has benefited from the promotion of one top prospect, left-hander Derek Holland, and could receive a second-half jolt from another, righty Neftali Feliz. But closer Frank Francisco has not pitched since May 6 due to right biceps tendinitis.

    "We've got five months to go," Daniels says. "The road is littered with dozens of former May flavors of the month, so by no means are we getting ahead of ourselves. The Angels are getting healthy. Both Seattle and Oakland will play as well or better than they have. But we're happy with what is going on."

    That's a start.

  • Author:Fox Sports
    Author's Website:
    Added: May 15, 2009

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