Courtesy Keith Ferguson
By Keith Ferguson, special contributor
Listening to the Texas Rangers practice at spring training in Surprise, Ariz., sounded like listening in on a gathering of the United Nations.
Worldwide player development feeding one of the top farm systems in the major leagues has brought in top prospects from Latin America and the Pacific Rim, culminating in a spring training that, on some days, had more Japanese media snapping photos than American media. One of the reasons the Rangers have seen success in the last two seasons while reaching back-to-back World Series is the team’s continued organizational emphasis on developing new talent.
The last team to make three straight World Series appearances was the New York Yankees, who won three of four trips to the series from 1998–2001. Whether the Rangers can duplicate previous years success or take the leap and actually win the championship remains an open question.
After observing the team at spring training, here are five factors that could determine the fate of the 2012 season:
Can Yu Darvish deliver? The hottest prospect in the entire Rangers organization is a 25 year-old pitcher from Japan. Yu Darvish was acquired by the Rangers during the offseason after winning the right to negotiate with him for $53 million dollars. Darvish was a highly successful pitcher in the Japanese baseball league. The question for the Rangers is whether he will produce a return on their investment. The Rangers have lacked a No. 1 starter in their rotation and are hoping that Darvish can grow into that role. For the Rangers to make a World Series appearance in 2012, Darvish will likely need to meet or exceed expectations.
Can Josh Hamilton stay healthy? Josh Hamilton is known around the game as the natural—one of the few players in the game who excels in all five areas of player performance. He hits for power and for average, plays excellent defense, has a strong arm and has speed. However, Hamilton has fought injuries every year since his return to the majors after battling substance abuse issues. The Rangers will likely need Hamilton’s strong left-handed bat in the line-up and his skills in the field to remain competitive. He is capable of making the entire team better. If, that is, he can remain healthy.
Can the Rangers’ starting pitching produce enough innings? The Rangers’ starting pitching in 2011 was near the top in the league in ERA, but they were also near the top in number of innings pitched. This is a product of the Nolan Ryan era of team-leadership—making starting pitchers go longer into games and deliver more pitches. With CJ Wilson moving to the Angels, the Rangers are working to fill a spot in the number of quality starts. Yu Darvish could be one piece of that puzzle, but the move of Neftali Feliz, last year’s closer, to the starting rotation could be another. Can Feliz stay healthy and deliver the innings that the Rangers need to stay competitive? The starting pitching talent is deep in the Rangers organization, but can they deliver quality starts? Watch the inning count of the starting five to get a feel for the success of the season.
Can Manager Ron Washington stay aggressive? One of the keys to the Rangers’ success the last few years has been the small-ball coaching of manager Ron Washington. A big believer in stealing bases and moving runners, Washington has helped change the reputation of the Rangers from a long-ball team with massive power to a team that can win in multiple ways. Of course, the Rangers still hit their share of homeruns, but they also get a lot of players on base and make pitchers nervous with aggressive base running. With two runs to the World Series under his belt, Washington must keep his players and the opposing teams on their toes.
Can Joe Nathan close down games in the ninth? After moving 2011 closer Feliz to the starting rotation, the Rangers went out and picked up former Twins closer Joe Nathan. Nathan was a dominant reliever for the Twins (saving more than 36 games for six consecutive seasons) before having Tommy John surgery in 2010. Since then, he has struggled to recover his groove. The Rangers took a risk on him in the offseason and will have to hope that he finds his old form. Feliz’ ability to stay in the starting rotation and the winning percentage of the Rangers in 2012 will be greatly impacted by the effectiveness of Joe Nathan as their closer.