It's been another wildly successful year in Arlington, as the Texas Rangers are on pace to win their third consecutive AL West title -- and sure look like good bets to win their third consecutive American League pennant.
Robbie Griffin and John Stathas joined me for a round table discussion, breaking down the 2012 Texas Rangers. We also dust off our crystal balls and tell you how the Texas' season ends.
What has impressed you the most about this particular Texas Rangers team here in 2012, and what sets them apart from other teams in the American League as we get ready for the playoffs?
Griffin: The pitching. This might be the best pitching staff in franchise history. In fact, I just looked it up, and they're probably going to end up with the highest team pitching fWAR. They already have the franchise strikeout record set. Matt Harrison has come of age, and Yu Darvish has turned in to nearly everything we hoped for, with a supporting cast that most teams would have as two or three types behind them. From there, you have a dominant bullpen to clean it up. The Ballpark continues to mean Texas pitching is underrated, but this is a level of dominance on the mound we have never gotten to see in Texas, and I hope the Ranger fans are appreciating it.
Stathas: I'd have to say it's their attrition. The Rangers have dealt with one injury after another this season: Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz for the season, Napoli and Moreland for significant periods of time, and seemingly the entire bullpen at one time or another. Pepper in Michael Young's dismal summer and you've got a Rangers squad with plenty of holes. But the Rangers never faltered and maintained the division lead wire to wire, and they're now just a few wins away from sealing the AL's top seed. I think this ability to overcome adversity and the depth (both hitting and pitching) displayed by Texas is what sets them apart from the rest of the AL. And oh yeah, Adrian Beltre swinging what appears to be a nuclear fuel rod at the plate...that helps too.
Starkey: Like Robbie, I'm impressed with how Texas' staff has managed to stay glued, without a known quantity at the top of the rotation. In 2010, the team was in uncharted territory, and acquired Cliff Lee who was unquestionably the team's ace. In 2011, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis were clearly the anchors. In 2012, nobody knew exactly what Darvish was going to bring -- and he brought inconsistency at first. Still, as Robbie pointed out, the team statistically turned in an excellent year as a pitching staff.
Oh, and Joe Nathan certainly made me look foolish.
On the flip side of that, what concerns you the most about the '12 Rangers headed into the postseason? Are there any weaknesses that can be exposed this fall?
Griffin: The Rangers weakness this year is the same weakness they've had in the Ron Washington era: health. If this team had no health issues, they would be a supremely dominant force of baseball. No one would be shocked to see Hamilton, Beltre, Kinsler, and any pitcher you can think of all hobbled come October, and that could be crippling. They also seem to be going in less healthy than they have been the past couple of postseasons.
Stathas: The Rangers may be winning the games down the stretch, but not really in they fashion I'd like to see. The series win in LA was nice, but barely avoiding a sweep in Seattle with a 3-2 win Sunday was not what I wanted to see. Granted, Hamilton was out, Beltre was banged up, and hitting Michael Young in the 3-hole is not the optimal Ranger lineup. They've also been struggling mightily over the past week to get a hit with runners in scoring position. The Rangers aren't exactly hot right now, but they're finally back to full strength and I'd like to seem them get hot over these final eight games in the regular season.
Starkey: Well, I'd say there's a few, but I think Texas' biggest weakness is the offensive approach. First off, Ron Washington is way too bunt happy for my liking. There are few, if any, situations where I would have Elvis Andrus bunting, and it seems to be a daily occurrence. It's also no secret that Josh Hamilton has a poor approach, and often gets "bored" at the plate. Adrian Beltre isn't one to really work deep into counts, either.
Texas also seems to give away a lot of outs on the basepaths. In October, you cannot give away outs and live to tell about it that often. It's concerning to me.
Yu Darvish. Let's talk about him for a minute here. He went from being a Cy Young pick from a few of us in the spring, to being maddening with walks in the summer, to now dominant late here in September. What do you expect from him in October, and is he the Game 1 starter at this point?
Griffin: I mentioned this before, but I would only start someone not named Darvish if the Rangers somehow manage to open with the Tigers. Starting a lefty twice against them is too delicious to ignore. Other than that, Darvish is easily the top starter, and I think he is now embracing the potential to be one of the very best pitchers in baseball. Both leagues -- Japan and MLB -- have different types of hitters and different shaped strikezones; I think learning the zone and the hitters has been a project for Darvish. Now that he has it seemingly figured out, there are only a couple pitchers who I think should be more feared, and they might all be out of October play.
Stathas: Pending the status of his neck problem that scratched his start Tuesday night, I expect Darvish to shine on the big stage. I think he goes into some Zen-like state and we could see a version of Yu that we never saw this season. A sort of Spinal Tap amp volume 11. This is a guy who, at the age of 20, started Game 1 of each of his team's playoff series, the Japan Series, and the Asia Series. He was also named MVP of the Asia Series. That being said, I think at this point Matt Harrison gets the ball Game 1. He's been the most consistent starter all season and has earned the spot atop the rotation. Harrison also has more postseason experience at this level.
Starkey: I think a lot of it was a cultural adjustment here in the United States -- both literally, and in a baseball sense. Darvish never had to pitch this often in his life, nor did he have to pitch in Texas heat. I think he learned to deal with life in America, as well as the strike zones here in the U.S. I feel like Darvish wasn't getting the calls he was used to getting, and had to adjust accordingly.
I'm not quite sure what to expect from him in the playoffs. I don't think he'll crumple under pressure, but I won't be surprised if he walks five guys in five innings against the Yankees or Tigers. I'd absolutely start him in Game 1, though.
What team in the American League do you think the Rangers match up best against in the playoffs going forward and why?
Griffin: Well, the Orioles, because the Orioles aren't actually that good. For a less-obvious answer, I'd go with the Yankees. They derive a ton of their runs from deep fly balls, and if the majority of their games are against a Darvish or a Harrison, that will be mitigated a touche. Meanwhile, their pitchers are some of the best at avoiding balls, but the Rangers are such a hacky squad that advantage is, again, slightly mitigated against Texas.
Stathas: I would love to see the Orioles in the ALDS. We've handled them in the regular season just fine and they have zero front-line starters. On the flip side, the team I do not want to see is the Angels. They're the only team with better pitching depth than the Rangers, and an October surge would be the perfect storm for Mike Trout to ice the cake on his monster rookie year. I compare the Angels to the Cardinals of last season. Don't let them in the playoffs and you won't have to worry.
Starkey: Looks like we're all in agreement here -- the obvious answer is the Orioles. Still, I'd be slightly scared of the mysterious and completely irrational "it" factor. I've been waiting all year for the O's to fall off, and they just haven't. Buck Showalter is a very good in-game manager, and can squeeze a lot out of his guys.
Still, the O's are by far the weakest of all the American League playoff teams. They're still an awesome story, though.
Which has been more surprising to you this year: the play of the Oakland A's or Los Angeles Angels?
Griffin: The A's. If you go back to that preseason projection I ran, you'll see the Angels are actually likely only to underperform that by a small bit. I felt they were a low-90s win team, so high-80s isn't too far off. Oakland, meanwhile, I felt would have to be considered successful if they managed mediocrity. They are in contention for one of the best records in the league, instead. They are a stunning development in 2012. The Angels are just an unfortunately-necessary reminder that throwing a ton of money at aging players can't fix an entire roster.
Stathas: Definitely the Angels, but not for how well they played. I predicted them to win the AL West this year, mainly because of their starting pitching. But the pitching wasn't quite as spectacular as I foresaw. Even with the emergence of Mike Trout, the Angels never seemed to put it all together. The closest they got was during the July 30-August 2 series in Arlington. The Rangers' 9th inning comeback in Game 3 really dampened the Angels and can definitely be considered a turning point in the Angels and Rangers' season.
Starkey: Los Angeles for me. As gleeful as I was to see Albert Pujols struggle out of the gate, I would never have predicted such a slow start. I expected the Angels to win the AL West at the beginning of the year, and that simply won't happen -- and there's a good chance they miss the playoffs.
Fill in the blank. The Rangers season will end with ____________.
Griffin: It's completely irrational, but I just feel like it has to be a title this year. Last year I felt they were the favorites, but couldn't shake my doubt that something horrible would happen. Logically the Rangers are again -- I believe -- the favorites, but even the favorite is only going to win a minority of the time. Any less than a pennant will severely disappoint me at this point, but I just can't wrap my mind around the Rangers not winning the World Series for some reason.
Stathas: a World Series win in five games over the Nationals. Third time's the charm.
Starkey: I'm the turd in the punch bowl. I think Texas' offense isn't consistent enough this year, and I do think that the Rangers fall to the Yankees in the ALCS this year. It pains me to write that, but I still consider New York to be the favorite in the American League.