April gap means something for Rangers
It's early, but Texas' strengths, lead over Angels bode well
DETROIT -- April is early, the season provides plenty of ebbs and flows, and nothing we've seen to this point can be defined as a trend.But facts are facts, and the fact that the Rangers awoke Friday with a seven-game lead on the last-place Angels -- the club expected to give them their greatest competition in their bid to claim a third consecutive American League West crown -- is not insignificant, even at this primitive point in the season schedule. "We'll take any advantage we can get at any point during the season," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "The games in April count just as much as the games in September." That the Rangers, possessors of an 11-2 record, have treated these April games with that September-like sense of urgency says a lot about their relentlessness, even when the national narrative this offseason and preseason focused on the Angels' acquisitions and the curiosity over whether Texas would mentally rebound from the trauma of Game 6 and another World Series bid gone wrong. Well, the Angels are a much better team than their sub-.500 start would indicate, and it says here that the AL West will, indeed, be a legitimate race this summer. But the Rangers' talent level and track record tells you all you need to know about the validity of these victories they seem to have no trouble compiling in the early going. One would be hard-pressed to name a Major League team with a greater aggregate rank in the game's four major categories -- starting pitching, relief pitching, offense and defense. There might be better starting rotations, there might be better bullpens, there might be more imposing lineups and there might be stingier defenses, but you could make an argument that no team thrives in all four areas quite like these Texas Rangers. "They're such a tremendously solid team in all areas," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. And because they have depth in all areas (case in point: the average MLB team would happily leave Alexi Ogando in the middle of its rotation, while Texas had the luxury of moving him back to the bullpen), the Rangers are braced against the inevitability of injury and performance plummets that offset the peaks. "It's the design of the club, and it's why we're so proud of what our scouts and coaches have done," general manager Jon Daniels said. "You look up and down the roster, and there's a great story to each guy and how they got to the point they got. You need a lot of pieces, a lot of talent to overcome slumps and injuries and all sorts of things that you don't know when they're coming, but they're coming. Who knows how that plays out, but hopefully we're in a position where we can keep it going." Obviously, it will probably prove impossible for the Rangers to sustain a pace at the plate that would leave them with nearly 1,000 runs at season's end. But as if the past two October runs haven't hammered the lesson home, the depth, balance and speed of the Rangers' starting nine makes them a handful for opposing pitchers, even if the lineup doesn't possess quite as much obvious starpower as those in Boston or the Bronx or here at Comerica Park. Manager Ron Washington was talking before Friday's game about the pressure his team's speed puts on the pitcher, sometimes forcing rushed deliveries or strays in focus, and Kinsler agreed. "We can really do anything the game asks us to do," Kinsler said. "That's a huge benefit for us. There are a lot of teams that, even though they are very good ballclubs, they're lacking somewhere. I really don't feel like we have that one glaring weakness. It allows us to produce runs any way we can and stop teams from scoring any way we can." Right now, it's easy to be high on the Rangers, because they entered the weekend with the most runs scored, the fewest runs allowed and the best record in the Majors. Their worst starter has been Yu Darvish, the high-profile import who has shown improvement each outing (he was impressive against the loaded Tigers lineup on Thursday night) and who some believe can be a legitimate No. 2 arm, if not an ace. So, yeah, it's all good with the Rangers in the present tense, and there are no obvious issues -- aside from the usual caveats about health -- waiting in the wings to sap their strength. On the health note, both Derek Holland and Matt Harrison took huge leaps in innings pitched in 2011, and so they might be at risk for some sort of setback, and the Rangers will also have to be careful with Neftali Feliz's innings threshold in his first season as a starter. Again, though, that's where the depth comes in handy. And beyond the depth is the resilient attitude of a team that has dealt with plenty of distractions and disappointments -- notably, Washington's positive cocaine test, Hamilton's alcohol relapses, the Michael Young dispute and, of course, the World Series losses -- and kept on keeping on. "There are really no ill-effects to anything on this club," Kinsler said. "Nothing really bothers us. Losing a couple games, different things outside the clubhouse that we can't control, it really doesn't bother our team or push us too far off track. I think a lot has to do with Wash's personality and also the type of passion that everyone has for baseball, really. We all love to play the game, and we all love to be in the clubhouse." And though they're not popping champagne or celebrating their standing, they love the way this early part of the season is playing out. Because while the Angels clearly have an abundance of time to right themselves and close the gap, a gap is a gap, and the defending AL champs are running from the pole position. That's not inalterable. But it's not insignificant, either.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.