The Texas Rangers have managed to capture each of the last two American League pennants, however they remain in search of the organization's elusive first World Series title.
Prior to those back-to-back pennants, the Rangers had not made the playoffs since 1999, and they had not won a postseason series in the team's 50-year history. Still, given the way the 2011 season ended, the 2012 campaign could not start soon enough for the reigning league champs.
"It's time to close the book on last season," manager Ron Washington said during his first team meeting this spring.
Of course, that is easier said than done for a squad that saw its season come to a screeching halt upon the final out in Game 7 of the World Series. On two occasions in Game 6, the Rangers found themselves within one out of winning it all. However, on both occasions, the resilient St. Louis Cardinals battled back from the abyss, erasing a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning and then doing it again in the bottom of the 10th. St. Louis would go on to complete its improbable run by taking Game 7, forcing the Rangers to put the champagne bottles away and somehow try and shift their focus to 2012.
"I think it took a couple of weeks to let everything process and just get over it," designated hitter Michael Young said at the outset of spring training. "The last thing you want to do is sit there and say, `I'm good, I'm good, I'm good' and never really get over it. You've got to give yourself some time.
"We're not going to have a hangover. We're still hungry. More than that we're confident we can play baseball. We'll show up every day in 2012 and take each day for what it offers and try to be the best we can that day. Everything else will take care of itself. We're not thinking about what happened in 2010 and 2011."
Despite how things ended last year, there are plenty of reasons for optimism as Texas enters the 2012 season looking primed for another deep playoff run. Look no further than the offense, which has established itself as one of the top run-producing lineups in baseball, and remains largely intact. The same cast of characters returns after ranking in the top-five in the majors last season in team batting average (1st, .283), slugging percentage (2nd, .460), runs (3rd, 855), and on-base percentage (5th, .340).
While the offense is in good shape, the team's most notable offseason departure was no doubt that of left-hander C.J. Wilson, who bolted to Anaheim along with his 16 victories and 223 innings produced in 2011. Replacing the southpaw will be among the Rangers' chief objectives as they enter a new season looking to finish what they started.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Rangers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (96-66) - First Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Joe Nathan (RHP), Yu Darvish (RHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: C.J. Wilson (LHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Ian Kinsler (2B); Elvis Andrus (SS); Josh Hamilton (LF); Michael Young (DH); Adrian Beltre (3B); Nelson Cruz (RF); Craig Gentry (CF); Mike Napoli (C); Mitch Moreland (1B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Derek Holland (LHP); Yu Darvish (RHP); Colby Lewis (RHP); Matt Harrison (LHP); Neftali Feliz (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Joe Nathan (RHP)
MANAGER: Ron Washington
HOW WILL THE OUTFIELD SHAKE OUT?
Heading into the spring, Washington made it clear that he hoped to keep Josh Hamilton in left field, despite moving Hamilton to center field during the playoffs. Among the early candidates to become the everyday center fielder is Craig Gentry, who played well in 64 games last year after being recalled from Triple-A on May 7. But early in spring training it was Julio Borbon, the team's opening day center fielder the past two seasons, who got off to a hot start. Borbon played winter ball after his season was cut short by injury.
It is a possibility those two could wind up in a platoon of some degree, while it's also possible Hamilton ends up moving back to center field. If the latter happens, David Murphy likely goes from fourth outfielder to starting left fielder. Murphy came up big in the postseason, starting 12 of 17 games and batting .317.
Regardless of who is penciled into the starting lineup on Opening Day, health, as it usually is, will ultimately determine playing time. Most notably is the fact that Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, two of the team's key cogs, have missed a total of 246 games over the past three seasons with a combined nine trips to the disabled list. When those two are both in the lineup wreaking havoc, the Rangers' offense is as potent as any in baseball. If those two can stay on the field for a full season, it would certainly help quell any other questions about Washington's lineup card.
After all, Hamilton is less than two years removed from winning the league's MVP award, while Cruz all but carried the team to the World Series by blasting six home runs in the ALCS, the most homers by one player in a playoff series in MLB history. His 11th-inning walkoff grand slam in Game 2 against the Detroit Tigers will long stand as one of the signature moments in the 2011 postseason.
WILL THE NEW-LOOK PITCHING STAFF SUPPLEMENT A STRONG OFFENSE?
Texas will be without its most reliable starting pitcher from a year ago, as the aforementioned Wilson took his talents to Anaheim after pacing the Rangers' rotation in wins (16), ERA (2.94) and starts (34). While his departure will no doubt leave a void, the front office believes it filled that void with a few key offseason moves.
At the forefront is the $110 million the organization doled out to sign right- hander Yu Darvish, who was widely regarded as the top pitcher in Japan. The Rangers out-bid every team in Major League Baseball for the exclusive right to negotiate with Darvish, and only time will tell if that investment pays off any better than the last Japanese mega signing, Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox.
To further bolster its starting rotation, Texas made a gutsy move by moving closer Neftali Feliz into the rotation and signing former Twins' All-Star closer Joe Nathan to take his spot at the back end of the bullpen. Feliz saved 40 games in 2010 and 32 in 38 chances last year, plus another six in the playoffs before crashing and burning in Game 6 of the Fall Classic. Still, he was a starter in the minor leagues from 2006-09. Now back in that role after a two-year stint as closer, the 23-year-old will work on fine-tuning his offspeed pitches to complement his plus-fastball.
Of course, Nathan, now 37, is not devoid of uncertainty at this stage in his career and two years removed from Tommy John surgery. The Twins' all-time saves leader did return to action for 48 games last year, but it wasn't until he started really popping the catcher's mitt this spring that prompted Washington to declare, "Joe Nathan is back."
"I had a good winter, a healthy winter, a normal workout regimen," Nathan said. "And that's what's led me to come into spring and feel as strong as I do."
Can Nathan stay healthy and return to form? Will Feliz benefit from a move to the rotation? How will Darvish handle his transition to Major League Baseball, and the media circus that is sure to follow him along the way?
Questions abound for all three pitchers, but the ceiling is undoubtedly high if all three can stay healthy and pitch to their potential.
HOW MANY ROLE CHANGES ARE TOO MANY?
Feliz's attempt at transitioning from All-Star closer to starter is not the only role change that will weigh heavily on the team's fortunes this season. Ironically enough, the Rangers are moving All-Star starter Alexi Ogando to the bullpen.
Ogando baffled hitters early on last season, posting a 7-0 record and a 2.20 ERA en route to his first All-Star nod. But as his innings increased in the second half of the season, the results tailed off and the right-hander finished the year 13-8 and posted a 5.11 ERA over his final 13 games. In the playoffs, Ogando was moved back to the bullpen as an emergency reliever and delivered impressive results, prompting the organization to consider making the move on a permanent basis. His ability to retire left-handed hitters also factored into the decision, as the Rangers entered camp without a proven lefty specialist.
While Ogando's exact role is still to be determined, the team believes the youngster is versatile enough to handle the switch. The same cannot be said about Feliz, whose psyche took a hit in the World Series and is now being asked to reinvent himself. The former closer established a rookie record with 40 saves in 2010, which was also enough to earn him the AL Rookie of the Year award that year. But his ascension took a dramatic turn late in Game 6 of last year's World Series, when he allowed a game-tying triple to David Freese in the ninth inning with two outs and the count 1-2. Visibly shell-shocked, Feliz did not take the mound in the 10th, and the Cardinals went on to complete their dramatic comeback, changing the course of the series.
Whether Feliz can put all of that behind him and become a successful starting pitcher is no less critical than whether Ogando can maximize his effectiveness coming out of the 'pen.
"(Feliz) might struggle a little bit. But then again, he might not. We don't know," Washington said. "We are going to take the chance, and as long as he is healthy, he will take the ball."
X-FACTOR: SHAYNE KELLEY, MAJOR LEAGUE STAFF ASSISTANT
Officially, the Texas Rangers hired Shayne Kelley during the winter to assume the above post. Unofficially, he'll be Josh Hamilton's new "accountability coach," a position that since 2007 belonged to Johnny Narron. But Narron left the Rangers organization back in November to become the new hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers. In January, Michael Dean Chadwick was hired as Narron's replacement, only to back out of the position a couple of weeks later.
All of this is important because Hamilton, as has been well documented, had a relapse in his lifelong battle with alcohol and drug addiction on Jan. 30 when he didn't have Narron or Chadwick or any other "aide" by his side. Coincidentally or not, the former MVP gave in to his inner demons on that night in February and had a few drinks. In the days and weeks that followed, rumors began to run rampant about some other events that Hamilton allegedly took part in that night.
Those rumors aside, the fact is Josh Hamilton exercised poor judgment, and his actions merely reinforce the fact that he is walking on some very thin ice. The outfielder also relapsed in 2009 when some photos of him at a bar became public, and as part of his reinstatement from previous suspensions, he must submit regular urine samples to MLB officials. Failure to comply, or a failed drug test, would result in a lengthy suspension. Of course, the Rangers can ill-afford to be without their star slugger for a prolonged period.
"It's going to be a process," Hamilton said in his first public interview after January's incident. "I'm not fixed but I'm trying to do the right thing one day at a time... The battle is not over. It's going to go on for a long time. It's a spiritual re-programming."
Hamilton has since undergone counseling sessions to try and understand the variables that led him to relapse. But throughout the daily grind that is the Major League Baseball season, he'll lean on Kelley, who was recommended by Hamilton's agent, Michael Moye, and Rangers vice-president Chuck Morgan. Interestingly enough, the two had never met prior to Kelley's hiring.
Whether Hamilton can stay the course and avoid violating the terms of his reinstatement will no doubt factor heavily in the team's World Series quest. And for Hamilton, who becomes a free agent after this season, it could also factor into whether the front office is willing to extend a long-term offer.
The 2011 Texas Rangers set club marks for best record (96-66) and home attendance (2,946,949), yet the overwhelming feeling around the team's spring training complex is a sense of unfinished business. While there are certainly some question marks, few teams, if any, enter the 2012 season positioned as strongly as the Rangers for a deep playoff push, and possibly more.
Barring a rash of injuries, or another Hamilton relapse, the offense remains plenty capable of scoring runs in bunches. And even with Cliff Lee's departure last offseason and Wilson's exit this past winter, there is a buzz surrounding the starting rotation. Left-hander Derek Holland was recently inked to a five- year, $28 million deal that could keep him in Arlington through 2018. While casual observers may recognize Holland as much for his sweet mustache and notable appearance as a TV weatherman back in February, the Rangers front office touted his work ethic and conditioning. After going 10-1 with a 2.77 ERA over his final 15 starts and then carrying that momentum through the postseason, Holland will now help anchor a pitching staff that is as deep as any in the league. Of course, that depth hinges on Darvish's ability to retire big league hitters, as well as Feliz's transition to a starting role.
Among the everyday players, there simply aren't many unknowns. And it's not like this team is getting older. Michael Young (35) is the only regular older than 32, and Colby Lewis (32) is the only starting pitcher in his thirties. Put simply, the window is wide open for the Rangers to become a staple of October baseball. When they lost the 2010 World Series, the Rangers entered last season intent on finishing the job. That drive took them all the way to within one lousy strike of becoming World Champions. Will the third time be the charm? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: after getting so close to the promised land not once but twice, no team will enter the 2012 campaign hungrier than the Texas Rangers.