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.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Braves 10, Marlins 9: The Braves rallied for six runs, all with two outs, in the bottom of the ninth to walk off winners on getaway day against the Marlins. The Marlins took a 6-0 lead in the fourth inning after Lewis Brinson cracked a grand slam down the left field line. Miguel Rojas hit a two-run homer in the seventh to bring the Marlins’ lead back to six runs at 8-2. The Braves entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 9-4, but Marlins relievers Brad Ziegler and Tayron Guerrero both melted down. Here’s what happened. It’s the Braves’ largest ninth-inning comeback in exactly eight years, when this happened:

Red Sox 5, Orioles 0: J.D. Martinez homered twice, tying teammate Mookie Betts for the major league lead in home runs with 15. Andrew Benintendi also homered and picked up three hits. Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out seven. The Orioles had their opportunities, racking up 13 hits, but went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and only one of their 13 hits went for extra bases. The Orioles’ 13 hits were the most compiled by a team that was shut out since August 25, 2008 when the Dodgers racked up 13 while being shut out by the Phillies. It’s only the 22nd time it’s happened dating back to 1908, according to Baseball Reference.

Athletics 9, Blue Jays 2: Daniel Mengden was magnificent for the A’s, tossing seven scoreless frames on two hits and a walk with two strikeouts. Marcus Semien hit a two-run home run and Matt Chapman picked up three hits. The Jays committed four errors on what was a very forgettable afternoon.

Cubs 6, Reds 1: Things haven’t been going well this year for Yu Darvish, but they did go well at least on Sunday afternoon. The right-hander held the Reds to a lone run on two hits and three walks with seven punch-outs across six innings, lowering his ERA on the season to 4.95. Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez hit back-to-back homers in the second inning off of Tyler Mahle. Joey Votto was the only Red to have more than one hit.

Mets 4, Diamondbacks 1: Clay Buchholz made his first start in over a year and it went well. He held the Mets to one run, which came on Amed Rosario‘s solo home run in the top of the sixth, ultimately the hit that knocked Buchholz out of the game. Rosario added another homer in the seventh, when the Mets scored three runs to take a lead they’d never relinquish. Noah Syndergaard fanned seven in seven innings, giving up one run on six hits and a walk. D-Backs first baseman Paul Goldschmidt remains mired in a season-long slump. He went 1-for-4 with a single and now owns an uncharacteristic .690 OPS.

Padres 8, Pirates 5: The Padres rallied for four runs in the top of the ninth, turning a 5-4 deficit into an 8-5 lead. They rapped out five singles and benefited from an error as well. Christian Villanueva hit his 12th homer of the season, a two-run blast in the fourth inning. Austin Meadows knocked his first major league homer.

Dodgers 7, Nationals 2: This was mostly a clinic on power, as the Dodgers hit three homers, one each from Yasmani Grandal, Enrique Hernandez, and Yasiel Puig. Trea Turner hit one for the Nationals. Alex Wood pitched well, holding the Nationals to two runs on three hits and a walk with four strikeouts, but left the game after apparently injuring himself warming prior to the bottom of the seventh inning. Stephen Strasburg gave up three runs on five hits and four walks with seven strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings.

White Sox 3, Rangers 0: This one was all Reynaldo Lopez. The 24-year-old fired eight shutout frames, yielding only two hits and two walks while striking out eight. In doing so, he lowered his ERA to 2.98. The three runs came on a solo homer from Welington Castillo in the second and a two-run Leury Garcia single in the third.

Yankees 10, Royals 1: Tyler Austin blasted a pair of homers, giving him eight on the season. Miguel Andujar and Austin Romine also homered for the Yankees in what was a drubbing of the lowly Royals. Sonny Gray went eight innings, giving up a lone run on four hits and a walk with five strikeouts. The Yankees now have a major league-best 30-13 record while the Royals drop to 14-32. Only the White Sox (.302) have a worse winning percentage than the Royals (.304).

Cardinals 5, Phillies 1: Jack Flaherty was phenomenal for the Cardinals, striking out 13 batters while limiting the Phillies to a run on two hits and a walk over 7 2/3 innings. 21-year-old Freddy Peralta also struck out 13 earlier this season. Before Flaherty and Peralta, the last pitcher younger than 23 years old to strike out 13 in a game was Noah Syndergaard nearly three years ago against the Diamondbacks. Aaron Nola, who has been ace-like all year for the Phillies, didn’t have his best stuff on Sunday, surrendering four runs over six innings to the Cardinals. Rhys Hoskins homered but Odubel Herrera‘s on-base streak finally ended at 45 consecutive games. It’s tied for the fourth-longest in Phillies history.

Twins 3, Brewers 1: Logan Morrison knocked in two runs with a single to right field in the bottom of the eighth, breaking a 1-1 tie. That proved to be the game-winning hit as Fernando Rodney came in and struck out the side in the top of the ninth to seal the deal.

Giants 9, Rockies 5: The Giants scored nine runs for a second consecutive day. Gorkys Hernandez, Brandon Belt, and Nick Hundley each homered, accounting for six of the nine runs. Nice. The Rockies got three hits each from Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story but it wasn’t enough. Starters Ty Blach and Tyler Anderson both had forgettable days on the mound, giving up five and four runs in 5 1/3 and 4 1/3 innings, respectively.

Angels 5, Rays 2: Shohei Ohtani continued to pitch well, holding the Rays to a pair of runs on six hits and a walk with nine strikeouts. With seven major league starts under his belt, he’s sporting a 3.35 ERA. He’s also batting .321/.367/.619. Sergio Romo started for the Rays for a second day in a row. He pitched an inning yesterday before giving way to Ryan Yarbrough. This time, he got four outs before Matt Andriese relieved him. Martin Maldonado homered for the Angels; Johnny Field went yard for the Rays. Matt Duffy collected three hits as well.

Tigers, Mariners (11 innings): Mitch Haniger hit a game-tying two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to send the game into extras. Jean Segura broke the 2-2 tie in the bottom of the 11th with an RBI single. Tigers starter Francisco Liriano brought a no-hitter into the seventh inning but lost it when Haniger singled to center. Liriano ended up giving up the one hit and walking three while striking out five on 102 pitches over eight scoreless innings.

Astros 3, Indians 1: Lance McCullers had his best stuff working, bringing a bid for a no-hitter into the sixth inning. He ended up going seven frames, giving up just a hit and two walks with eight strikeouts. Brian McCann broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the seventh with a two-run home run off of Carlos Carrasco.