The Rangers made a nice little run at a playoff spot before being eliminated in the season's final days in 2009. However, coming close is not going to be good enough this season. Club president, Hall of Famer, and Texas icon Nolan Ryan has set 92 wins as the Rangers' goal. That would be an improvement of five victories over last season's 87-75 mark and put the Rangers in good position to win either the American League West or wild card, ending a playoff drought that stretches to 1999, the last of three division-winning seasons in the span of four years.
Ryan has clearly put heat on the Rangers and embattled manager Ron Washington, who is on the hot seat after word leaked out last month that he admitted to team management last year that he had used cocaine last season. However, Washington and the Rangers say they are ready to take the next step after snapping a streak of four straight losing seasons last year and finishing above .500 for just the second time in nine seasons.
"I think what happened to us last season has carried over in a couple of ways, especially with our younger guys," Washington said. "It gave them confidence that they could compete and win at this level. They also don't have to look over their shoulders anymore. We have more of an established team. They know what is expected here. There are no more surprises."
The Rangers aren't ready to say they have arrived, not after finishing 10 games behind the division-winning Angels last season and eight games in back of the wild-card winning Red Sox. However, there is a quiet confidence amongst the Rangers, who are off to a 5-4 start, that they are ready to break through.
"We have a good team," right fielder Nelson Cruz said. "Last year, pitching and defense really carried us, and we have good pitching and defense again this year. It's going to be our strong point. What's going to make the difference is our hitting. I don’t think we performed as well as we could last season and I think we have a better lineup this season."
The Rangers certainly changed course last season in Ryan's first full year of running the organization. After years of trying to outslug the opposition, the Rangers hired highly regarded pitching coach Mike Maddux away from the Brewers and became more focused on run prevention. The Rangers were seventh in the AL in runs scored with an average of 4.8 a game, and 10th in runs allowed with a 4.6 average, after perennially finishing at or near the bottom of the league in that category.
The Rangers are confident pitching will be a strong point again this season, even though right-hander Rich Harden, signed as a free agent over the winter to front the rotation, has struggled and Frank Francisco has been taken out of the closer's role in favor of flame-throwing rookie Neftali Feliz.
However, the big question is if they will score enough runs, and the Rangers have questions at two key spots in the batting order. Rookie center fielder Julio Borbon will have to prove his worth as the leadoff hitter, and new cleanup hitter Vladimir Guerrero joined the Rangers as a free agent following the worst season of his career and with a recent history of injuries that have turned him from a Gold Glove-winning right fielder into a designated hitter.
Borbon is hitting .103/.103/.103 in 30 plate appearances. However, Washington isn't ready to make a switch at the top of the order, stating, "You have to be patient. I know he can help us. He's just got to get it together, and I know he will. That's why I'm not ready to pull the plug."
Guerrero had a sub-par and injury-marred 2009 with the Angels in which he hit a career-low 15 home runs in 100 games with a .295/.340/.460 slash line. However, the Rangers believe the 35-year-old designated hitter can still be an elite offensive force. Guerrero has hit .405/.436/.514, but with just two extra-base hits in 39 plate appearances so far this season.
"Vladimir has been swinging the bat well and I know the power is still there," Washington said. "He hasn't shown it yet, but he can still do a lot of damage. I've always been a believer that it takes guys about 100 at-bats before they really settle in and get untracked. Once Vlad reaches that point, you'll start seeing the power again. There is a lot left there. He's still a heckuva ballplayer, a good old-fashioned ballplayer who knows how to hit and run the bases. He's going to add a lot to our team."
Do they read Baseball Prospectus in the chambers of the Supreme Court? Well, the justices just might, by the sounds of Justice Samual Alito's recent interview with the Philadelphia Daily News' Paul Hagen. Even though he is in his 60s, Alito admits to lean more toward being a sabermetrician than a traditionalist.
"My son is a very rabid baseball fan," Alito said. "He’s really into the sophisticated baseball statistics. He does computer programs, analyzing everything. My wife accuses us of talking only about baseball. Once the season begins, she gets tired of hearing us. I'm very interested in it and I'm attracted to it. I can't say I really understand it all that well, but it makes a lot of sense to me. I guess it has its limits, but the nature of baseball just lends itself to a statistical analysis."
Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring from the high court this summer, is likely to be more of a traditionalist. The second game he ever attended was Game Three of the 1932 World Series, when the Yankees' Babe Ruth hit his famous "called shot" home run against the Cubs in the fifth inning at Wrigley Field. Stevens has a framed scorecard of that game in his office. It was given to him by a colleague who also attended the game and who clerked with Stevens for Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge.
Alito said many of the justices are baseball fans, saying, "Unfortunately, I had a bet with Justice (Sonia) Sotomayor about the outcome of the World Series. She’s a Yankees fan. Justice (Antonin) Scalia is a Yankees fan. So we had a bet, cheesesteaks versus Nathan’s hot dogs and I had to provide Nathan’s hot dogs. Justice (Stephen) Breyer is a Red Sox fan, and Justice Stevens is a Cubs fan."
Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan was one of the pioneers of using statistical research in baseball. While it is now pretty much a widely-regarded concept, he has found a new convert in right-hander Brad Penny. Penny is in his 11th season, having also pitched with the Marlins, Dodgers, Red Sox and Giants. However, he says he has blown away by Duncan's research.
"He shows you numbers I've never seen before," Duncan said. "Like ground-ball outs to hits, fly-ball outs to hits. No one has ever showed me stuff like that before. He puts it in front of you. Hell, why haven't I been trying to get ground balls all the time?"
Penny has got 25 of 42 outs on ground balls in his first two starts with the Cardinals after signing as a free agent in the offseason. He has allowed just 11 baserunners and one earned run in 14 innings. Penny has never had a ground ball/fly ball ratio over 1.0 in his career.
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Jim Johnson will handle the closing duties for the Orioles while Michael Gonzalez is on the disabled list. … Orioles manager Dave Trembley's job is not in danger despite the 1-8 start, as he has the strong support of president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail. … Jerry Manuel's job with the Mets, though, isn't so safe. If Manuel doesn't get things turned around soon, he could be gone and replaced by former Mets manager and current ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine. … While the Red Sox have talked about using a modified six-man rotation once Daisuke Matsuzaka comes off the disabled list, there is a chance Tim Wakefield will be shuffled to long relief or released. … The Royals are very willing to trade Juan Cruz as part of a major bullpen shakeup. … Journeyman Matt Treanor has a chance to become the Rangers' top catcher, as management is not thrilled with either Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden. … The Rangers have interest in infielder Aaron Miles, who was released by the Reds.
Scouts' takes on various major-league players:
Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt: "He's still good, but not the No. 1 starter he used to be. If the Astros ever decide to rebuild, he is the guy I'm sure they are hoping they can trade for prospects, but I wouldn't give up a bundle for him. He'd be a good No. 3 starter on a contender, not a No. 1 who is going to come on board July 31 and carry you to the World Series."
Orioles closer Mike Gonzalez: "He's got great stuff and he's very good when he's healthy, but the problem is that he's never healthy. The Orioles took a big gamble when they thought they could count on him to close, and now he's already on the DL."
Rangers closer Neftali Feliz: "I know Ron Washington keeps saying that he'll eventually return Frank Francisco back to being the closer once he gets straightened out, but I wouldn't do that. Feliz throws 100 mph, has a good changeup, and isn't scared to pitch in tough situations. He'd be my closer, no questions asked."
Marlins center fielder Cameron Maybin: "I know he's still young, but I'm starting to become skeptical about just how high his ceiling really is. He isn't getting any better. He takes bad routes to balls and swings at a lot of pitches out of the strike zone."