Complacency was not Ron Washington's concern when the Rangers left spring training. The reigning American League Manager of the Year never once sensed that his team had lost its drive after winning the franchise's first pennant last season.
Instead, Washington had another worry: "The prime thing we talked about in spring training was staying healthy."
Washington's fears have been realized during the first third of the season. The Rangers have been hit hard by injuries, and though they lead the American League West, all the hurts have prevented them from building a sizeable advantage. The Rangers are 31-26 and lead the Mariners by 1 1/2 games.
Center fielder Julio Borbon and right-handers Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter are currently on the disabled list, along with righty Brandon Webb, who hasn't pitched in the major leagues since injuring his shoulder in 2009 while starting on Opening Day for the Diamondbacks.
Set-up man Darren O'Day was lost for the season in April after having hip surgery. Three other key players have also spent time on the DL this season: closer Neftali Feliz, left fielder Josh Hamilton, and right fielder Nelson Cruz.
The injuries have negated a hot start that saw the Rangers open the season with a 9-1 record. Since then, they have gone 22-25, though they have won five of their last six games.
"You've got to put nine (players) out there, so if you lose two guys out of your lineup like we did in Josh and Cruz then that makes a big difference, there's no doubt it affects you," Washington said. "But we don't make excuses because we put ourselves in position to win a lot more games than we have."
The Rangers were able to survive Hamilton missing 37 games and Cruz sitting out 18 games without falling apart at the plate, as they rank fifth in the AL and eighth in the major leagues with an average of 4.62 runs per game. The Rangers have had an eclectic group of hitters lead the way, as first baseman Mitch Moreland has proven that the success of his rookie season in 2010 was not a fluke despite being a 17th-round draft pick, posting a team-high .323 True Average in 181 plate appearances.
Catcher/designated hitter Mike Napoli is making a case for more playing time with a .321 TAv in 137 PA, though Washington remains committed to Yorvit Torrealba (.224) as the starting catcher for defensive reasons. Michael Young has a .302 TAv in 237 PA as the team’s primary DH despite having asked to be traded in January after he was displaced from third base by the signing of Adrian Beltre (.281) to a five-year, $80 million contract as a free agent.
"It shows the depth that we have," Washington said. "I'm thankful for that or things could be a lot worse than they've been."
Washington believes his offense is capable of producing more. The Rangers were fourth in the AL in runs scored with an average of 4.86 per game last season, and the lineup’s only significant loss was designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, who left for the Orioles as a free agent. However, Beltre’s arrival has offset Guerrero's departure. The Rangers also anticipate getting Borbon back on Monday after he completes a rehab assignment at Triple-A Round Rock.
"I'm hoping we can give the bullpen a little more breathing room by scoring a couple of runs here and a couple of runs there now that we basically have all of our guys back," Washington said. "I think that could make a big difference."
The Rangers' bullpen has certainly been respectable this season, ranking sixth in the AL in relief runs allowed with an average of 4.04 a game. However, it has blown nine of 25 save opportunities. One of the worst-kept secrets in baseball is that Rangers general manager Jon Daniels is seeking relief help via trade.
"We just haven't been able to shut ballgames down consistently," Washington said. "We still need to finagle the bullpen but if we could give them a three-run cushion more often instead of just one run, it would make it easier on those guys."
Feliz has had a particularly rough time, posting a 5.77 Fair Run Average in 19 2/3 innings after being voted the AL Rookie of the Year last season, as his 14 walks and nine strikeouts belie his 1.37 ERA. Feliz had a 3.93 FRA in 2010, and Washington saw him flash his old form Wednesday afternoon in a 1-2-3 ninth inning that closed out the Rangers' 3-0 win over the Rays in St. Petersburg. Feliz followed with another scoreless ninth Thursday night to close out a 7-4 victory over the Indians in Cleveland.
"We gave him a three-run cushion, but one run was enough, because there was no way they were going to score off him," Washington said. "He looks like the old Neffy. It was the best I've seen him all season. He's pitching with a lot of confidence."
The Rangers are playing with a lot of confidence, though they still aren't getting complacent despite their recent success.
"It's good to have our guys back, but injuries can strike again at any time," Young said. "We can't just expect that we've had all of our injuries for the year. I do like the way we've been playing lately, though. We're building some momentum and hopefully the worst of times is over for us."
Rumors and Rumblings:
The Marlins are becoming concerned enough about shortstop Hanley Ramirez's sore lower back that he is likely to be placed on the disabled list today… Ryan Madson is expected to remain the Phillies' closer even after Brad Lidge is activated from the DL, likely sometime next month. Meanwhile, the Phillies are considering designating outfielder Ben Francisco for assignment today to clear a roster spot for center fielder Shane Victorino to come off the DL… Without fanfare, Nyjer Morgan has replaced Carlos Gomez as the Brewers' starting center fielder… Giants manager Bruce Bochy is leaning toward making Nate Schierholtz his everyday right fielder… The White Sox have decided to continue their six-man rotation experiment, primarily because left-hander Mark Buehrle has convinced manager Ozzie Guillen that it will keep the starting pitchers fresher in the second half of the season.
The Rangers suspended Webb's rehab assignment until the All-Star break on Thursday, three days after his fastball failed to climb above 84 mph in his start with Double-A Frisco. Of his 10 outs, two came on the bases and two others on sacrifice flies, and scouts who saw him felt Webb wasn't even close to being ready to pitch in the major leagues… Braves right-hander Kris Medlen was not expected to return until September after undergoing Tommy John surgery late last season, but he is now on track to be activated from the disabled list in July to work as a reliever… Red Sox left-handed reliever Rich Hill is likely headed for season-ending Tommy John surgery… The Twins, who have placed 11 players on the disabled list this season, have promoted 14 players from Triple-A Rochester. In a bit of good news for Minnesota, second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka is expected back by the middle of the month.
Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown: "You can tell he's starting to get settled in now. He looks a lot more comfortable at the plate than he did when they called him up last year. There is no denying his talent, and I have a feeling he is going to make a big impact on that club as the season goes on."
Reds closer Francisco Cordero: "Nothing against him getting 300 saves but it shows how cheap the statistic is. Bruce Sutter had exactly 300 saves in his career and is in the Hall of Fame. I know Francisco Cordero isn't going into the Hall of Fame. Hell, he's not even an elite closer."
Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee: "His power numbers aren't in line with last year, but I wouldn't worry about it yet. He puts together quality at-bats and he's an outstanding two-strike hitter because he's one of the few guys still willing to shorten up his swing in those situations."
Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta: "I thought the Tigers made a bad move in re-signing him (to a two-year, $11.25 million contract last November), but he's having a heckuva year offensively. The thing that surprises me is that he is playing solid defense. He doesn't have a lot of range anymore, but he makes the plays on the balls he gets to. He won't kill you."
Braves second baseman Dan Uggla: "He's always been a fastball hitter, but he's been consistently getting beat on the fastball all year. He has always been vulnerable to soft stuff, but his bat is really slow. It looks like he's aged five years in one."