With a 22-Game Taste, Let's Circle the Bases: Last-Place Rangers Have First-Place Potential

While Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has cryptically blamed the refs yet again for his team's fourth first-round exit from the playoffs in the last seven years, the Rangers haven't even sniffed the postseason since the Y2K panic. Although Texas is stuck in last place at 10-12, it could be poised to end the drought and actually win the American League West. And, heck, now that baseball has rightfully taken its spot atop the local sports world (at least until Cowboys training camp starts in a couple months), there's no better time to catch up on the first month of the season.

The parity displayed thus far among division foes might be the best evidence for optimism with a whopping 140 games left to play. After all, the Rangers are only one and a half games back, and they could just as easily be in first place. Four of their losses have been by only one run, and three have been by two runs.

Long the team's Achilles' heel, the pitching staff looks solid -- sixth in AL ERA (3.92) and strikeouts (155) and seventh in batting average against (.251).

Admittedly, I thought allowing C.J. Wilson to compete for rotation spot would be a failed experiment in spring training, but he not only won the job easily, he's been the team's best pitcher with a luminous 1.75 ERA. Colby Lewis (3-0, 3.80 ERA, 28 K, 23.2 IP) has proved to be a savvy pickup, and last year's ace, Scott Feldman, should give them a reliable and effective front three.

I applauded the signing of Rich Harden and still do, but he's been disappointing in his first five starts because of an alarming number of walks (23 in 23.2 innings). However, he's struck out nearly a batter per inning, so his stats and ability to pitch further into games should improve as he finds the strike zone more consistently. Fifth starter Matt Harrison has struggled with a 5.48 ERA, but Derek Holland has been dominating at Triple-A Oklahoma City (3-1, 0.53 ERA, 29 K, 33.2 IP), so he could replace Harrison soon if he can't turn things around.

In the bullpen, manager Ron Washington pounced on the early struggles of former closer Frankie Francisco and handed his job over to 22-year-old Neftali Feliz. Thankfully, despite some recent hiccups by Feliz, Washington hasn't wavered on Feliz's role. Feliz should emerge as a top closer by season's end, and with Francisco and others pitching well out of the pen, those one-run losses should turn into one-run victories.

If Texas needs bullpen help moving forward, Double-A Frisco prospects Tanner Scheppers (23) and Alexi Ogando (26) are likely to be the first summoned from the organization's deep minor league system. Scheppers, the Rangers' supplemental pick in the 2009 draft, has tremendous upside as a starter but has been used out of the bullpen, striking out 19 in just 11 innings with an 0.82 ERA. Ogando, who was restricted from playing in the U.S. until February of this year because of his involvement in a human trafficking ring, has been equally dominant with 14 strikeouts in 10.2 innings and a 0.84 ERA.

Second baseman Ian Kinsler's season debut tonight in Seattle should go a long way toward rejuvenating the team's offense, although Joaquin Arias performed admirably as his replacement with a .321 batting average. After sustaining a high right ankle sprain during spring training, Kinsler went 3-for-9 with two runs, three RBI and a stolen base in his rehab assignment with the Frisco RoughRiders.

Of course, the team's hottest slugger is on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, but assuming Nelson Cruz and his .323 average, seven homers and 17 RBI aren't shelved for an extended period of time, the lineup is likely to emerge as the best in the West.

Surely Michael Young won't hit .247 the rest of the way. Julio Borbon won't hit .194. And replacing first baseman Chris Davis, who hit just .188 before his demotion, with Justin Smoak is starting to pay dividends as Smoak hit his first big-league homer yesterday. Josh Hamilton is also showing signs of hitting his stride, and Vladimir Guerrero has silenced critics predicting his further decline with a .350 batting average.

The catching situation remains a problem as the combo of Max Ramirez and Matt Treanor aren't exactly what Rangers' fans had in mind before the season. Who would have guessed Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden (17 strikeouts in 27 at-bats with the Rangers) would be sharing duties behind the plate at Triple-A Oklahoma City before May?

The Angels, A's and Mariners hardly look like elite teams, with Seattle and Oakland trotting out lackluster lineups. Seriously, who scares opposing pitchers in either lineup? Ichiro Suzuki does to a certain extent, but it's not like the guy has game-changing power.

The A's and Mariners do have better pitching staffs than Texas, with Seattle featuring last year's AL Cy Young runner-up Felix Hernandez, 2008 AL Cy Young Cliff Lee and eventually Erik Bedard. Lee, aquired in an offseason trade from the Phillies, makes his season debut tonight against Texas after missing time with a strained abdomen, and Bedard is expected to join the rotation in a month. Oakland has a nice group that includes Ben Sheets, Justin Duchscherer, Dallas Braden and Gio Gonzalez, but its best pitcher, Brian Anderson, just hit the DL with a muscle strain near his left flexor tendon and won't return for four to six weeks.

The Angels are the most balanced team with Kendry Morales, Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui in the lineup and a pitching staff of Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir, Joel Pineiro, Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders, along with a deep bullpen. But they clearly have their weakest team in years and have plenty of question marks.

With a tough road trip to Boston and New York already out of the way, the schedule looks favorable to the Rangers for a while. In fact, the May 28 through 30 road trip to Minnesota is the next worrisome series ahead, and Texas doesn't play the Red Sox or Yankees again until after the All-Star break.

With the series at Seattle beginning tonight followed by a trip to Oakland, the Rangers could find themselves in first place in no time. If not, the following four-game series at home against the Royals and subsequent home series against Oakland should give them plenty of time to wiggle their way past three mediocre teams.

If they're not in first by then, Washington's got to go. This division is there for the taking, and Wash had best rally the troops.

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