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.

Cards’ Pujols hits 700th career home run, 4th to reach mark

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES – St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols hit his 700th career home run on Friday night, connecting for his second drive of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers and becoming the fourth player to reach the milestone in major league history.

The 42-year-old Pujols hit No. 699 in the third inning, then launched No. 700 in the fourth at Dodger Stadium.

With the drive in the final days of his last big league season, Pujols joined Barry Bonds (762 homers), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) in one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs.

It’s been a remarkable run for Pujols. This was his 14th home run since the start of August for the NL Central-leading Cardinals, and his 21st of the season.

Pujols’ historic homer was a three-run shot against Dodgers reliever Phil Bickford. The ball landed in the first few rows of the left-field pavilion, the same location his two-run shot touched down the previous inning off left-hander Andrew Heaney.

Pujols received a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd – he finished out last season while playing for the Dodgers. He took a curtain call, raising his cap in acknowledgment.

The fans chanted “Pujols! Pujols!” They finally sat down after being on their feet in anticipation of seeing history.

Pujols snapped a tie with Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the list when he hit career homer No. 697 against Pittsburgh on Sept. 11.

Reaching 700 homers seemed like a long shot for Pujols when he was batting .189 on July 4. But the three-time NL MVP started to find his stroke in August, swatting seven homers in one 10-game stretch that helped St. Louis pull away in the division race.

“I know that early in the year … I obviously wanted better results,” Pujols said after he homered in a 1-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 22. “But I felt like I was hitting the ball hard. Sometimes this game is going to take more away from you than the game (is) giving you back.

“So I think at the end of the day you have to be positive and just stay focused and trust your work. That’s something that I’ve done all the time.”

Pujols has enjoyed a resurgent season after returning to St. Louis in March for a $2.5 million, one-year contract. It’s his highest total since he hit 23 homers for the Angels in 2019.

He plans to retire when the season ends.

Pujols also began his career in St. Louis. He was selected by the Cardinals in the 13th round of the 1999 amateur draft and won the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year award.

The Dominican Republic native hit at least .300 with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs in each of his first 10 seasons. He helped the Cardinals to World Series titles in 2006 and 2011.

He set a career high with 49 homers in 2006 – one of seven seasons with at least 40 homers. He led the majors with 47 homers in 2009 and topped the NL with 42 in 2010.

Pujols left St. Louis in free agency in December 2011, signing a $240 million, 10-year contract with the Angels. He was waived by the Angels in May 2021, and then joined the Dodgers and hit 12 homers and drove in 38 runs in 85 games.