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.

Report: Twins sign Erick Aybar to a minor-league deal

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The Twins have reportedly signed free agent shortstop Erick Aybar to a minor-league deal, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune reported Friday. FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman adds that the deal comes with a potential $1.25 million if Aybar reaches the majors, with additional incentives based on plate appearances. He’ll be able to opt out on March 27. The team has yet to confirm the signing.

Aybar, 34, is now four years removed from his career year in 2014. He’s been in a state of steady decline since then, slashing just .234/.300/.348 with seven home runs and 11 stolen bases over 370 plate appearances for the Padres in 2017. His poor performance wasn’t helped by a fractured left foot, either, which cost him almost six weeks on the disabled list.

Still, the Twins see something promising in the veteran infielder, and reportedly intend to use him as another utility option this spring. Per Neal, Aybar will join fellow backup infielders Eduardo Escobar and Ehire Adrianza and may even (temporarily) take over for Miguel Sano at third base if Sano isn’t able to shape up for the role by Opening Day.