Springtime Storylines: Will the Rangers be able to survive the departure of Cliff Lee?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The defending AL Champs, the Texas Rangers

The Big Question: Will the Rangers survive the departure of Cliff Lee?

Well, sure, why wouldn’t they be able to? They only had him for 15 starts last year, and they were five and a half games up in the West on the day they traded for him.  Indeed, my asking this question isn’t because I’m truly concerned about the rotation sans Lee, but because I really wanted an excuse to note that Lee, while a wonderful addition, didn’t make the Rangers 2010 season as much as lot of people think he did. At least they think he did if the questions I’m asked about the Rangers prospects this year by readers and radio hosts and stuff is any indication.

The fact is that the Rangers rotation heading into 2011 looks to be just fine even without Lee.  C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis were major surprises last season, but I don’t believe they were flukes. Neither seemed to be the recipients of uncommon luck, and their peripheral stats looked strong.  I’m likewise high on Derrek Holland who, assuming he stays healthy, seems poised to come into his own as a starter.  And all of the Rangers’ pitchers will benefit by having Adrian Beltre take over at third base.

The key, though, is Neftali Feliz. Last year’s closer is being groomed to return to his roots as a starting pitcher, a role at which he excelled in the minor leagues (a final decision on whether he starts could come as soon as today).  Yes, there will be questions about his durability — he has never pitched more than 127 innings in a season, and that was three years ago — but if he is given ample rest and a sensible ramp-up, he could emerge as a front-end starter. Maybe even one that apes Cliff Lee’s half-season production in Texas.

The upshot: I think the rotation, while not the strongest in baseball, will be quite capable and won’t be a drag on the Rangers’ drive to repeat.

So what else is going on?

  • If the Rangers do put Feliz in the rotation, who closes? Ron Washington has said he wants an “experienced closer.” Which is kind of silly considering that he won a pennant with Feliz as his closer and he had never done it before.  Still, it wouldn’t shock me if Washington begins the year with some sort of closer-by-committee thing, shuffling in old hands Arthur Rhodes, Darren Oliver and God knows who else through the ninth inning role. The best bet, though, is that Alexi Ogando will move into the role eventually.  He went 4-1 with a 1.30 ERA and 39/16 K/BB ratio in 42 innings last season and throws fire. Looks like a closer to me.
  • Michael Young’s dissatisfaction with being pushed into a 1B/DH/super utility role has taken up a lot of column inches this spring, but he’s apparently not going anywhere, trade demand notwithstanding. This may make life uncomfortable for everyone, but there are a lot of contending teams who would like to have the kind of depth the Rangers have on offense.  They’ll shuttle Young, Mike Napoli, Mitch Moreland and — if a space opens up due to injury or whatever — Chris Davis between DH first base, pinch hitting duties and wherever else a bat with some upside is needed.
  • And while offense is a clear strength for the Rangers, there is a big question when it comes to health. The big guns — Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler — have all had injury trouble in recent years. Not a lot that can be done about it — hamstrings are hamstrings — but it does make the Rangers vulnerable. A bad day or two for these fragile stars and the balance of power in the division could shift toward Oakland.
  • Of course, that’s where Adrian Beltre comes in.  He’s missed some time this spring with an owie or two, but aside from that freak injury in Seattle in 2009 of which we will say no more lest we cringe, he has been outrageously durable for most of the past decade. Fenway Park treated him well last year. The Ballpark in Arlington figures to do the same. One of the more underrated pickups of the offseason.

So how are they going to do?

Quite well, thanks.  Health is always a factor in division races so it goes without saying that the Rangers need to stay healthy (drat, I just said it).  But if they do, I don’t see anyone seriously challenging them for the AL West crown.  If they win it, then it will be time to talk more seriously about the loss of Cliff Lee who did make quite a difference in the playoffs last year.  But that’s a long time from now.  As we sit here on the eve of the 2011 season, the Rangers seem to be just fine.

In the playoffs, the Yankees’ weakness has become their strength

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Two weeks ago, when the playoffs began, the idea of “bullpenning” once again surfaced, this time with the Yankees as a focus. Because their starting pitching was believed to be a weakness — they had no obvious ace like a Dallas Keuchel or Corey Kluber — and their bullpen was a major strength, the idea of chaining relievers together starting from the first inning gained traction. The likes of Luis Severino, who struggled mightily in the AL Wild Card game, or Masahiro Tanaka (4.79 regular season ERA) couldn’t be relied upon in the postseason, the thought went.

That idea is no longer necessary for the Yankees because the starting rotation has become the club’s greatest strength. Tanaka fired seven shutout innings to help push the Yankees ahead of the Astros in the ALCS, three games to two. They are now one win away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 2009.

It hasn’t just been Tanaka. Since Game 3 of the ALDS, Yankees pitchers have made eight starts spanning 46 1/3 innings. They have allowed 10 runs (nine earned) on 25 hits and 12 walks with 45 strikeouts. That’s a 1.75 ERA with an 8.74 K/9 and 2.33 BB/9. In five of those eight starts, the starter went at least six innings, which has helped preserve the freshness and longevity of the bullpen.

Here’s the full list of performances for Yankee starters this postseason:

Game Starter IP H R ER BB SO HR
AL WC Luis Severino 1/3 4 3 3 1 0 2
ALDS 1 Sonny Gray 3 1/3 3 3 3 4 2 1
ALDS 2 CC Sabathia 5 1/3 3 4 2 3 5 0
ALDS 3 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 7 0
ALDS 4 Luis Severino 7 4 3 3 1 9 2
ALDS 5 CC Sabathia 4 1/3 5 2 2 0 9 0
ALCS 1 Masahiro Tanaka 6 4 2 2 1 3 0
ALCS 2 Luis Severino 4 2 1 1 2 0 1
ALCS 3 CC Sabathia 6 3 0 0 4 5 0
ALCS 4 Sonny Gray 5 1 2 1 2 4 0
ALCS 5 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 8 0
TOTAL 55 1/3 35 20 17 20 52 6

In particular, if you hone in on the ALCS starts specifically, Yankee starters have pitched 28 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on 13 hits and 10 walks with 20 strikeouts. That’s a 1.61 ERA.

While the Yankees’ biggest weakness has become a strength, the Astros’ biggest weakness — the bullpen — has become an even bigger weakness. This is why the Yankees, who won 10 fewer games than the Astros during the regular season, are one win away from reaching the World Series and the Astros are not.