Springtime Storylines: Can the Rangers win the AL once again?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers.

The Big Question: Can the Rangers win the AL again?

Why not? It’s oh so fashionable to pick the Angels at the moment thanks to their twin pickups in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson — the latter of which was a double blow to the Rangers as he leaves Texas — but it’s not like the Rangers are some team in decline. They were a better team than the Angels were to begin with and then they went and replaced Wilson with Yu Darvish (more on him below). Neftali Feliz is likely slated for the rotation and Alexi Ogando for the pen, but it remains a very deep staff. What the Rangers have in 2012 is a lot like what they had in 2011: a top five pitching staff, a top three lineup a lot of team depth and a lot of games against the Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s. That’s a recipe for a very respectable win total and, I suspect, another playoff birth.

But how deep can that run go? With the caveat that luck plays a big role in the postseason, I wonder if this will be a more tired Rangers club when October rolls around. While I give a slight edge to the Rangers in the division, the Angels are a better team than they were before and thus the Rangers may be in a race much longer this season than they were last. That added pressure, along with two straight years of long playoff runs, could mean a lot of tired arms and legs in Arlington. Nothing is guaranteed when you reach the playoffs, but it’s possible for the Rangers’ unmatched recent playoff experience to be offset by some fatigue.

That’s several months from now, of course. In the meantime, it’s worth watching the Rangers’ health. Because, really, that’s the biggest threat I see to this club.

What else is going on?

  • Yu Darvish is going on. Tons of hype to be sure — and a lot of money when you combine that posting fee with that contract — but Darvish seems like the real deal. Depending on who you believe, he is poised to be just as valuable as C.J. Wilson was and could be more valuable if things break right.
  • More broadly, the Rangers’ rotation is still pretty spiffy. In addition to Darvish, you have Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Colby Lewis, Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando. Two of them — Feldman and Ogando for now — will be in the pen, but Ron Washington has a lot of good starting pitching at his disposal. I mentioned the injury bug when talking about the Angels rotation yesterday. If it bites the Rangers, there’s a much bigger margin for error here.
  • The offense is basically the same and it was excellent last year. Figure some regression for Mike Napoli and Michael Young, both of whom are coming off fantastic seasons, but overall it remains extremely strong.
  • I believe in Joe Nathan. I know some people look at his age (37 this season) and his overall numbers from 2011 (bad) and wonder if he can handle the closer’s role, but he was better in the second half last year. It’s possible that he needed a few months to shake off the rust following a year off from Tommy John surgery. Even if he’s not as good as Neftali Feliz has been in the role, he’s not the only horse in that bullpen.
  • Apropos of nothing, but it’s worth mentioning that the Rangers have improved every single year since Ron Washington has been on the job. Texas won 75 games in 2007. Since then they’ve won 79, 87, 90 and then 96 games. Players come and go. Washington — and the front office who restocks the roster — keeps on keepin’ on.

How are they gonna do?

It’s going to be a close race with Anaheim. But I don’t think the Rangers got any worse since they were one strike away from winning the World Series. And they may be better.

Battle of the Aces: Max Scherzer takes on Clayton Kershaw tonight

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I hope you don’t have any plans tonight at around 10PM Eastern time, because that’s when we get a pitching matchup for the ages as Max Scherzer will take on Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium. When they meet tonight it will be the first time two pitchers with three or more Cy Young Awards have matched up since 2006. That year, and in 2005 and 2000, Roger Clemens faced Greg Maddux. In 2001 Clemens faced Pedro Martinez.

Kershaw won his hardware in 2011, 2013 and 2014, with an MVP award in 2014 to boot. Scherzer collected trophies in 2013, 2016 and 2017. Each has started the 2018 season in Cy Young form. Kershaw is 1-2, but that record is due to poor run support. He has a 1.73 ERA and has struck out 31 batters and has walked only three in 26 innings. Scherzer is 3-1 with a 1.33 ERA and a whopping 38 strikeouts to only 4 walks in 27 innings.

This will be the third time that Kershaw and Scherzer faced each other if you include the playoffs. The first meeting was a decade ago when both were rookies. They most recently faced off in Game 1 of the 2016 NLDS, way back when Scherzer only had one Cy Young Award to his credit. Kershaw beat Scherzer in that playoff game and the Dodgers beat Scherzer’s teams in the two regular season matchups, with neither guy setting the world on fire. As so often happens in baseball, the hype hasn’t been matched by reality.

Still, there’s always a chance it will. And even if, in the end, this turns into a slugfest, the first couple of innings should at least give us some hope of something good. I’ll be watching.