Let’s take a quick look at who I think are the 10 most important Rangers, in order, at this point in spring training.
1. Josh Hamilton.
Before Texas traded for Cliff Lee in mid-July, their pitching staff had a makeup similar to the one they’ll roll out this April. Hamilton, after being banged up most of 2009, started 2010 healthy, heated up, and hit .454 with nine home runs and 31 RBI in 26 June games.
Texas went 21-6 that month and began to separate itself from the rest of the AL West as they entered July 3.5 games ahead of the Angels and nine games ahead of Oakland. Hamilton would go on to hit .418 in July and .356 in August before playing only five games in September.
The Rangers may not need those same ungodly numbers from Hamilton this year, but they will need him to stay healthy because as he proved last year, his bat can carry a team with a mediocre pitching staff to a division title.
2. Nelson Cruz
The only hitter in the Texas lineup that can have the same dominant effect over a series or stretch of games that Hamilton does, has to be Nelson Cruz. Cruz missed 54 games due to injury last year and still managed to hit .318 with 22 HR and 78 RBI. Not to mention, he led the majors in walk off home runs (3) and extra inning home runs (5).
Texas needs Cruz to stay healthy.
Having the best hitters with not much pitching usually doesn’t work out well. The Rangers, who went a decade without seeing the playoffs, know this better than anyone.
But if there ever were two guys that can power a team with mediocre pitching into the playoffs, it would be Hamilton and Cruz.
3. C.J. Wilson
This time last year, Wilson was merely a bullpen-to-fifth starter convert. Now, after going a 15-8 with a team leading 3.35 ERA in 2010, he’s the ace of a young staff.
Two years ago, nobody in the Ranger front office likely foresaw Wilson becoming a number one starter. But things change when you light it up like Wilson did last year.
Barring any onset fatigue after pitching so many innings a year ago, there’s no reason to assume Wilson wont’ be as effective in 2011.
4. Neftali Feliz
The Rangers might like to look at what to do with Neftali Feliz as a win-win situation (i.e. if you put him in the rotation, you’ll have a fifth starter who throws 100 mph and if you keep him in the bullpen, you’ll be returning an All-Star closer who saved 40 games his rookie season) but if Texas wants to get the most value out of Feliz, for this season, they’ll leave him as the closer. Feliz would bring stability to an unstable bullpen, especially after Frank Francisco’s departure.
Right now, nothing is guaranteed in the starting rotation or the middle relief of the bullpen, but keeping Feliz in the closer’s will guarantee that aspect of the Texas pitching staff will be solid.
5. Michael Young
As far as consistency goes, its hard to top what Young brings to the table. He’s durable, can hit for average, and showed last year he can be a 20+ home run hitter.
But as good as he is on the field, his off-the-field contributions- leadership, respect, and team-first attitude- far outweigh all of that. That’s why Young is simply one of the few MLB players who is irreplaceable.
Obviously its been a rough offseason between Young and GM Jon Daniels, but now that the trade rumors have subsided and it appears Young will remain a Ranger, the rest of the team can focus and know they’re team leader isn’t going anywhere.
And for a team that wants to win the World Series but lacks a true leader, other than Young, that’s huge.
6. Adrian Beltre
It’s easy to say signing Beltre was simply icing on the cake of a great offense, but essentially, Beltre is replacing Vladimir Guerrero in the Texas lineup.
Guerrero, who signed with Baltimore, hit .300 with 29 home runs and a team-high 115 RBI out of the cleanup spot. Beltre had a career season last year and hit .321 with 28 HR and 102 RBI.
So even though Beltre is expected to be a major upgrade to the Rangers, the pressure will still be on him to produce like Guerrero did last year.
7. Ian Kinsler
Injuries have been the story of Kinsler’s career to this point, but they can’t the story of his 2011 season.
Ron Washington has decided to replace Elvis Andrus with Kinsler at the leadoff spot. The move is understandable, though. He’ll bring more speed to the top of the lineup and the ability, with his power, to give Texas a quick 1-0 lead.
But with Kinsler, all upside comes with a downside. In 2009, the last time he was the leadoff hitter, his power was up (31 HR) but his average was down (.253). Last year, out of the six hole, his average went up (.285) but his power went down (9 HR). And in both years he spent stints on the DL.
People have been speculating for years what Kinsler could do if he was able to play a full, injury-free season. This year would be the perfect time to answer that question.
8. Colby Lewis
9. Tommy Hunter
Lewis, the second starter, and Hunter, the third starter, have to replicate the years they had last season. C.J. Wilson is good, but if those two can’t maintain what they did last season then it’ll put a ton of pressure on a second-year starter to carry an entire staff.
No one is quite sure what Texas is going to get out of their fourth and fifth starters. But whoever does win those two jobs (and the list of candidates is long) will be inexperienced and unpredictable. Its hard to say Hunter, who was a rookie last year, and Lewis, who’s only pitched one full major league season after being in Japan for a few years, have a wealth of experience but they pitched like veterans last year.
They weren’t stellar, just solid.
But Texas has to have that again in 2011.
10. Elvis Andrus
That’s the one word that comes to mind when describing Andrus’ 2010 season. He only hit .265 and 0 home runs but provided a spark for the Texas offense out of the lead off spot and was a menace on the bases with 32 steals. Plus, his impact in the field was equally important.
This year, he’ll hit out of the two hole with Hamilton hitting behind him so he might have to earn a few more trips to first base but he should be fine given that he’s still developing in only his third year.