By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
After the bumpiest, loudest, most Excedrin-needing two-hour plane ride in the annals of flight, Shitbird 1098 finally touched down, an hour behind schedule, in Fort Myers.
For the rest of the week, I'd be wishing it had never left Big D.
A lot's been made of the pitching staff, or the lack thereof. You know this if you follow the Rangers. You know this if you live in Dallas or own a television or read the papers. You know this if you read the recent ESPN.com column that quoted an American League scout as opining, "They have no chance of winning with that pitching." You pretty much know this if you have a pulse or, considering the amount of attention the hurlers have gotten, even if you don't.
"The criticism is just part of it; it comes with the job," says Rick Helling, standing by his locker, arms folded, biceps bulging through a sleeveless black shirt. Helling, who is 52-34 with a 4.58 ERA since returning from a short stint with the Marlins four years ago, has been one of the few Rangers pitchers in recent years productive and durable enough not to draw serious ire from pundits. "That's the media's job, to figure out what the problems are or what they think are the problems. You get used to it. Unless you're an Atlanta Brave or a New York Yankee, you never have enough pitching. And with the changes we've made in our lineup, with the magnitude of the moves, who else are you going to look at?"
Sure. Makes sense. Top to bottom, the Rangers appear pretty damn formidable at the plate. The plan is to lead off with Rusty Greer, who despite having just 29 stolen bases in seven seasons has a gaudy on-base percentage (.392). That's important for a leadoff man. Get him on base, maybe move him over with new second baseman Velarde, who will likely hit in the two hole, and then bludgeon the opposition with power. Beat them to death with strong strokes from the middle of the lineup, from A-Rod and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, from Rafael Palmeiro and Galarraga and Caminiti (who, as I'm typing this, just rocked a three-run dong over the right-field fence and into the media parking lot for his first homer of spring training. It probably hit my rental car.). And if Gabe Kapler and Ruben Mateo--remember him?--can contribute, too, well, so much the better.
"Our lineup is incredibly impressive," Kapler says without exaggeration. "I haven't seen anything like it. Again, I haven't been around the game that long, but it's hard to think of a lineup this strong off the top of my head. I think we're going to give pitchers a lot of trouble."
With more than 1,300 home runs between them, the muscle of the order should provide enough power to rival TXU. Should keep the ballpark's scoreboard operators plenty busy.
It's the Rangers' contention--some believe it's more the Rangers' wishful notion--that the new faces will also shore up a defense that last year stopped balls the way an Advil stops Ebola. Texas butchered enough plays defensively to be credited with the worst fielding percentage in the AL (.977) and the circuit's most errors (135).
Stick a blind man in leg irons out there with Chinese finger cuffs on his hands, and I'm guessing he'd do a bit better. That's probably an overstatement, but it's not much of one.
"Defensively, we weren't sound last year," Helling says truthfully. "Everybody knows that if you improve your defense, you improve your pitching. They're linked. Everybody looks at the guys we got in the off-season and talks about how good they are with a bat; everybody knows what guys like Alex [Rodriguez] and Ken [Caminiti] can do at the plate. But they're great out in the field, too. And I think a guy who gets overlooked a lot of the time is Randy [Velarde]. As an opposing player, I always had a lot of respect for him as a second baseman, but I didn't know how good he really was until I went and checked out his stats and then saw him play a little bit. And you watch him and A-Rod out there together, and they make it look easy. You look at some of the double-play teams in the majors, and they're working to turn a double play. The guys who are really good are the guys who make it look easy, and they do that. And they haven't been playing together for more than a few weeks now, so you can imagine how good it'll look midway through the season."
Whether that helps a staff that had an abominable 5.52 ERA (worst in the majors, how'd you guess?) become more respectable isn't necessarily as inevitable a conclusion as Helling and Oates might like to believe. The best indication of Texas' displeasure with last year's staff comes from the dismissal of maligned pitching coach Dick Bosman, a friend of Oates who was nevertheless replaced by former bullpen coach Larry Hardy. At the top of the rotation, the Rangers have no clear-cut No. 1 (Helling and Kenny Rogers--13-13 last season with a 4.55 ERA--are more like two No. 2s). At the back, they have two unproven young bucks in Ryan Glynn and Doug Davis (combined 12 wins in 29 starts). In the middle, it's a shaky, if not opprobrious No. 3 in often-injured Darren Oliver (2-9, 7.42 ERA), who, Oates believes, might have as much to do with the Rangers pennant hopes as either one of the Rodriguezes.