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March 18, 2011

On the Beat

Life After Lee

by John Perrotto

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SURPRISE, Arizona—Ian Kinsler believes there is a misperception about the Rangers. "A lot of people think that we only won last season because of Cliff Lee, and that we won't win this season because we don't have him," the second baseman said.

"That's not the case at all," continued Kinsler. "Cliff's a good pitcher, but we're certainly more than a one-man team. Anyone who watched us last year and was paying attention knows that we were a whole lot more than Cliff Lee."

The Rangers may still be somewhat bitter that Lee spurned them as a free agent last winter by signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Phillies. However, Kinsler has a point. The Rangers held a 5 ½-game lead in the American League West when they acquired Lee from the Mariners on the Friday before the All-Star break, then went on to win by nine games over the Athletics. Furthermore, Lee added just 1.5 WARP in his 15 starts and 108 2/3 innings.

Of course, a case could be made that the Rangers would not have won their first AL championship without Lee. He beat the Rays twice, giving up just two runs in 16 innings, in the Rangers' five-game victory in the American League Division Series, then pitched eight shutout innings in his lone start against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

Then again, a case could be made that the Rangers' five-game loss to the Giants in the World Series might have been different if Lee pitched like he did in the AL playoffs. He was rocked for 10 runs in 11 2/3 innings while losing two starts.

"We had Cliff Lee in the World Series and we didn't win it," Kinsler said. "The Phillies had Cliff Lee in the World Series in 2009 and they didn't win it, either. It just goes to show you that one single player doesn't win a championship. That's why I feel we're going to just as good as were last year or better."

Manager Ron Washington has made peace with the fact that the Rangers weren't able to retain Lee despite various management members making three visits to his Arkansas home in the offseason. Washington knows the Rangers have to move on and believes they have.

"The one thing you learn really quick when you're managing a baseball team is that you've got your hands full worrying about the players that you do have," he said. "You can't worry about the players you don't have."

The Rangers did retain most of the players that got them to the World Series, as well as signing free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre to a five-year, $80 million contract, which forces Michael Young into a designated hitter/super utility role. Young asked the Rangers to trade him, and former club president Chuck Greenberg, who left the organization last weekend, reportedly scuttled a deal general manager Jon Daniels had in place with an unknown club. However, the senior Ranger has gone about his business as usual this spring.

"I said at the start of spring training that I was not going to make this an issue and it's going to remain that way," Young said. "I have far too much respect for [Washington] and my teammates to cause any kind of distraction."

Washington has been pleasantly surprised how smoothly camp has gone in the wake of winning the AL pennant. "I haven't seen anybody walking around here feeling full of themselves because we won last year," he said. "I don't see guys sticking their chests out and saying, 'Look at me.' Spring training is always the time of the year when everyone complains. You always hear guys talking about the workouts being too long, having to be on the field too long. I have not heard one complaint all spring. To me, that's pretty amazing, and it also tells me our guys are focused on trying to get back to the World Series."

The Rangers' biggest concern at this point is their rotation, as only left-hander C.J. Wilson and right-hander Colby Lewis are assured of spots. Neftali Feliz, who won the AL Rookie of the Year as the closer last season, has been used as a starter in Cactus League games but has vacillated on his desire to be in the rotation. If Feliz decides he wants to stay in the bullpen, then the Rangers would likely fill out their 3-4-5 rotation spots with Tommy Hunter, lefty Derek Holland, and Dave Bush.

"Everyone says the rotation is our weak link, but we've got better starting pitching than people think, even if it's somewhat inexperienced," Kinsler said. "If you go back to this point last year, our rotation is every bit as good as it was then. The organization has built up a lot of pitching depth. We didn't have a one-man rotation last year. We had other pitchers besides Cliff Lee."

The Rangers should also have a better offense with Beltre allowing Young to become a rover, free-agent signee Yorvit Torrealba taking over at catcher for Bengie Molina, and former Angels slugger Mike Napoli, acquired from the Blue Jays in a trade, available off the bench to catch, play first base, and DH.

"I'll take our guys and stack them against anybody," Washington said. "I know the kind of players we've got and the kind of people we've got. I wouldn't trade them for anyone. I'm very happy to go into the season defending our American League championship with this team."

Rumors and Rumblings:

One scout who has watched Colby Rasmus this spring is predicting a breakout for the Cardinals center fielder: "He's hitting the ball hard, and he's on every pitch. He's ready to go to the next level." … Some in the Yankees front office believe left fielder Brett Gardner should supplant shortstop Derek Jeter as the leadoff hitter, and so does one scout: "Gardner would be a heckuva leadoff hitter. He's a pain in the ass with the way works the count and fouls off pitches. I'd love to see him hitting first." … Jamey Carroll is expected to get the nod as the Dodgers third baseman on Opening Day if Casey Blake's back problems continue. … Xavier Nady is playing so poorly this spring that the Diamondbacks are considering scrapping their plan of making him their regular left fielder and instead continuing to play Gerardo Parra in left.

The Giants plan on sending first baseman Brandon Belt back to Triple-A to begin the season despite his strong spring. … Fifth starter updates: Brandon McCarthy has all but sewn up the Athletics' final rotation spot, and left-hander Tom Gorzelanny is getting closer to winning the job with the Nationals. … One scout believes outfielder Ryan Kalish could be a big trade chip for the Red Sox in July: "The kid has the potential to be a star and could start for a lot of clubs right now." … The Reds would part with catcher Carlos Hernandez in the right trade. … The Nationals are making infielder Alberto Gonzalez available in trade to clear a roster spot for non-roster infielder Alex Cora.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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