You know how this works, I sent off a bunch of questions to Adam J. Morris from SB Nation's terrific Texas Rangers blog Lone Star Ball and he gave answers that make the questions seem a little less inane. We get to know a little more about the team we are about to play.
Who has been the biggest surprise for the Rangers?
The biggest surprise for the Rangers has probably been Elvis Andrus. I think a lot of us felt the Rangers were rushing him, and while he would probably be okay with the glove, he'd be overmatched at the plate. Instead, after a shaky start in the field, he's been one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball this year, and has looked respectable at the plate...he doesn't have a ton of power or draw a bunch of walks, but he consistently has good at bats and appears to have a plan at the plate. Honorable mention should go to Darren O'Day, a Rule 5 pick who wasn't on the team until he was claimed on waivers from the Mets a couple of weeks into the season, and who has stepped into the primary RHP setup role out of the pen.
Ron Washington is into his third season as manager, what are his strengths and weaknesses?
Washington's strengths are his passion and the loyalty he inspires in his players. He had a rough start a couple of years ago, including a rather notorious behind-closed-doors blowup with Mark Teixeira, but by all accounts, the Rangers players love him and play hard for him. He's direct and to the point, and after the passive-aggressive Buck Showalter, who'd talk bad about a player to everyone but the player himself, having a manger who will talk straight to you and criticize you to your face while having your back in public is a remarkable change of pace. His biggest weaknesses appear to be preparing the team to start the season -- the Rangers came out very poorly for the third straight season -- and his in-game management, particularly his use of the bullpen.
I'm sure I'm reading things wrong but it looks like the Rangers are getting really good starting pitching, how is that happening and will it continue?
There's been a lot of talk this year about the Rangers having better starting pitching, and while the starting pitching is perhaps a little better this year, the main improvement is in the defense playing behind the pitchers. Andrus and Chris Davis giving the team a full season at shortstop and first base has resulted in a big upgrade, Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton have improved at their respective positions, and the team has gone from being near the bottom in Defensive Efficiency to among the league leaders. Errors are also down, resulting in a lot fewer unearned runs being allowed, something that was crippling last season.
Michael Young moved over to third so Elvis Andrus could play short, Young's offense isn't suffering. How is Elvis doing at short? I take it he is better defensively than last year's Gold Glove winner?
The stats indicated that as a shortstop, Young was anywhere from a little below average to terrible defensively. Andrus has been terrific, with incredible range...it seems like every game, he makes a play that takes your breath away. He's a guy who looks like he should be a multiple Gold Glove winner in the future.
Frank Francisco has been terrific as closer, what's making him so much better than in past years?
Francisco actually closed out 2008 very well -- he didn't allow a run in his last 13 games of 2008, and has allowed just one run this year. He's always had the ability to pitch like this, but after Tommy John surgery in 2005, it took him awhile to get all the way back, and it was probably the middle of last season before he started pitching again like he did pre-surgery.
How serious is Josh Hamiiton's injury? Will he be the same player he was last year?
It is still unclear how severe Hamilton's injury is, although he'll apparently be out at least another 5-6 weeks. Once he gets back and healthy, he should be back to the guy he was pre-injury, and the Rangers are probably going to move him to a COF slot by next season to try to keep him on the field.
Can the Rangers stay on top in the AL West?
I think the Rangers can stay on top in the A.L. West. It is a weak division, and the Angels are more vulnerable than they've been in years. The Ranger offense hasn't actually been that good so far -- Michael Young has been exceeding expectations, and Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz have hit well, but Cruz and Kinsler are just hitting like they did last season. Meanwhile, the team has gotten less than expected so far from Hamilton, David Murphy, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and (especially) Chris Davis. The pitchers are pitching basically like they did last year, so unless the defense falls apart, this level of run prevention should be able to be maintained, and if that happens, the Rangers should be in the race until the end.
Is there anything else us Jay's fans should know about the Rangers?
Watch Elvis Andrus at shortstop. At least a couple of times in this series, he'll do something in the field that will amaze.