Texas Rangers v San Francisco Giants
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With Rangers pitchers and catchers tossing the baseball around the Surprise Spring Training complex, it is time to look at what the team must do to make the playoffs this season.

In the past I’ve gone with the weakest link from the previous season and this year will be no different. However, for the first time in…well ever, the opening article is about the Rangers offense instead of the starting rotation.

Everyone who followed the Rangers closely last season saw a team that pitched and caught the ball extremely well all season long while the offense cooled off in June and froze in the second half.

In building a 4.5 game lead over the Angels in West, the Rangers were clicking on all cylinders going into Interleague Play and then the lights went out while playing the Dodgers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington…literally.

At the time it was viewed as a simple electric issue, some even joked that cash strapped owner Tom Hicks forgot to pay the electric bill, but no one thought it was a ginormous metaphor for what the Rangers offense was about to endure.

Josh Hamilton began to swing at every pitch thrown to him, Ian Kinsler couldn’t drive the ball past the infield and the Rangers’ young players struggled with major league adjustments.

Something had to be done to fix the Rangers offense this offseason and General Manager Jon Daniels was able to address the offense with money saved through the Millwood trade and the expiration of some veteran contracts.

Daniels was able to add Ranger nemesis Vladimir Guerrero who will fit nicely behind Hamilton in the cleanup spot in the order. Despite the other moves made, including the Rich Harden acquisition, the addition of Guerrero might be the biggest of the offseason.

Hamilton blames last season on a variety of issues from trying to change his swing and panicking when he struggled late in camp to a laundry list of health issues thanks in part to losing 20 pounds over the offseason.

What has gone relatively unsaid as the season approaches is the loss of protection Hamilton faced last season with the departure of Milton Bradley. Bradley had his issues and missed a fair share of games, but when he was in the lineup Hamilton got more pitches to drive than he did in 2009.

Adding Guerrero to the mix will bring that protection back into Hamilton’s game, unless of course Vlad doesn’t have anything left in the tank. Considering the way Guerrero closed the 2009 season, anyone suggesting he doesn’t is likely to be surprised by his numbers. 

The Rangers starting lineup should have plenty of speed and enjoy a return to true Texas Ranger power in the middle of the order as long as everyone stays healthy and certain players rebound from poor seasons last year.

Projected Lineup:

1)     Julio Borbon: Borbon enters the 2010 season hoping to continue the momentum from a strong finish in 2009. Borbon electrified the Rangers offense after being called up mid-season showing what Manager Ron Washington can do on the base paths when he has the right personnel in place. Borbon had 19 steals in 46 games in 2009; expect that ratio to be even better in 2010.

 2)     Michael Young: Is there really anything to say about Michael Young at this point in his career? Well, one thing is certain, Young likes hitting in the two spot and should have a productive season setting up the inning for the power bats behind him.

 3)     Josh Hamilton: I touched on Hamilton earlier so there isn’t much to add at this point. He’s back to his 2008 weight and his 2008 swing, now all the Rangers need is for him to return to his 2008 form.

 4)     Vladimir Guerrero: This addition to the order will either be a big time bust or the steal of the winter. Guerrero had a rough start last year; similar to David Ortiz in Boston, but put together a very nice finish the Rangers hope will be a springboard to a good season in Arlington. At this point the over/under on home runs for Vlad sits at 25, but that can easily be a conservative estimate.

 5)     Ian Kinsler: Some say Hamilton is the most important player looking to bounce back in 2010, but Ian Kinsler may be the most crucial to the Rangers success this year. Hitting fifth in the order will help make his power numbers more effective, especially with the ducks on the pond he should have at his disposal. Still, the five hole on this team is the most important spot. It will be up to Kinsler to either save an inning or keep a big inning rolling to the bottom of the order on many occasions. Can Kinsler handle that kind of pressure? Yes, provided he just concentrates on his role and doesn’t try to compensate for a teammate going through a slump like he did last season.

 6)     Nelson Cruz: Nellie had a solid season in 2009, but to take the next step and become an above average player, Cruz has to find more consistency in 2010. Cruz would go on a tear followed by month long slumps last year, which is why he starts the season at the bottom of the order. It’s not at all impossible for Cruz to vault past Kinsler in the order if he can find some consistency early on.

 7)     Chris Davis: Davis said over the offseason he believed his inability to hit the fastball in the first half last year was due to starting his offseason work later than usual. Davis responded by hitting the cages only two weeks after the 2009 season ended giving the young hitter confidence he won’t see a repeat in 2010. With Justin Smoak hot on his heels, Davis can’t afford another slow start.

 8)     Jarrod Saltalamacchia: Salty had a rough season in 2009. His ability to throw out runners made a nice leap forward, but his offense was inconsistent at best and disappointing at worst. To make things worse, his season ended early thanks to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. By all accounts from Surprise, Saltalamacchia is healthy and ready to resume his career. It won’t be easy for the switch-hitting catcher though, Taylor Teagarden has a full year under his belt and eyes on the starting job.

 9)     Elvis Andrus: Despite being robbed of Rookie of the Year honors, Andrus far exceeded everyone’s expectations both in the field and at the plate. He won’t hit for power, but the kid gets on base and finds a way to score. The speed the Rangers have with Andrus and Borbon back to back will provide opposing managers fits all season long.

As for the bench, the Rangers have David Murphy as the fourth outfielder, added Khalil Greene as a utility infielder and recently signed Endy Chavez who won’t be ready until July. Taylor Teagarden will likely be the backup catcher and depending on how many pitchers the Rangers take will leave one or two spots on the bench until Chavez is healthy. It’s highly unlikely the Rangers take 12 pitchers so we’ll assume there are two spots available at the beginning of the season.

Craig Gentry, Brandon Boggs, Esteban German and Matt Brown will compete for those final roster spots and looking at team needs Boggs and German may have a leg up on Gentry. The Rangers need a guy to play centerfield in case Borbon has trouble adjusting defensively. Boggs provides that insurance and has shown an ability to hit at the major league level. He can also make adding Chavez to the team a seamless transition as the Rangers would essentially be swapping out the same role player.

As for German, he can cover the corner spots in case of injury while Greene backs up Kinsler and Andrus up the middle. Brown and Gentry would be good options at AAA in case the Rangers suffer an injury at the big league level requiring a stay on the disabled list.

This year, the Rangers offense will be a little younger, but more than capable of scoring more runs than the 2009 squad. They do that and the Rangers could find themselves on a collision course with the New York Yankees in the playoffs.

At least they know each other pretty well.