This may sound as axiomatic as a warning for shit underfoot in a feedlot, but here goes. The only thing standing between the Texas Rangers and a second-consecutive AL West title is the disabled list.
If we learned nothing else from the first 1/3 of the season, we know that it's critical for the Rangers to keep Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and their starting pitchers healthy. Granted, you could say the same thing about any contender and fill in the names (and if you claim to have predicted in March that one of those names for the Yankees would be Bartolo Colon, you're a liar).
But for the Rangers, the risk of injury (and resulting change in fortunes) is demonstrably higher. With Hamilton and Cruz in the lineup, the Rangers are 19-5. Without them both: 15-22. Ugh. And based on their histories, keeping that pair healthy is like asking a member of Congress to keep a secret. If you have an argument that any other serious contender in the American League has its fate riding on more brittle players, I'd like to hear it. Consider the following:
This is Hamilton's fifth year in the show -- and it will be the fourth in which he failed to play something approaching a full season without missing significant time. Excepting his only "healthy" year in 2008, Hamilton has lost a staggering 218 days to injury, including the 29 days he spent on the shelf so far this season. In the last 2 1/3 seasons alone, the Rangers have been missing his bat for nearly 37% of their games.
Cruz is the other critical power bat in the Texas lineup. His track record with the sawbones is a bit better, but still problematic: 20 days in 2009, 59 days in 2010 and 15 days so far this season. Although his season to date has been a disappointment, you can add Ian Kinsler to this list on the bet that he'll get things straightened out sooner or later -- if he doesn't end up on the DL first. Over the first five years of his career (this being the sixth), Kinsler has lost an average of 41 games a season due to injury.
GM Jon Daniels built this roster with the kind of depth meant to sustain the club offensively in the event -- and as it turns out the inevitability -- of injuries to Hamilton or Cruz. This is why Daniels made the deal for Mike Napoli, and why he ultimately did notmake deals to move Michael Young and/or Chris Davis even after Adrian Beltre was signed and Mitch Moreland was tabbed as the primary option at first base.
Even so, the Rangers were able to do little better than tread water while Hamilton and Cruz were out. Give them credit for grinding through the injuries, thanks largely to excellent starting pitching. C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis (last night's disaster notwithstanding) have been exceptional for over a month while Derek Holland and Matt Harrison have continued to mature and improve. Tommy Hunter's groin injury may be the most fortunate accident in franchise history if Alexi Ogando keeps anything in the neighborhood of his current pace. Barely more than a year ago, he was banned from the country by INS. Next month, he'll be on the All-Star team. Call it luck or the difficulty of predicting performance when it comes to kids, but starting pitching has been a pleasant surprise. Heading into the week, the Rangers had one of the four best rotations in the league even according to the defense-independent metrics used at Fangraphs.
But here again, the Rangers have little margin for error, especially since Daniels needs to conserve his trading chits to shore up the bullpen. Unless you count Dave Bush -- which I don't -- there is practically no experienced depth to draw on if one of the current starting five goes down. Thus far, the Rangers have expressed no outward concern regarding Ogando's workload, but the fact remains that with 73.2 innings under his belt thus far, he's already exceeded his combined AA-AAA-TEX total from last season -- which was his only season pitching in North American professional ball.
The Rangers were hoping to have Hunter, Scott Feldman and perhaps even Brandon Webb available as reinforcements come June, but at least two of them are starting to look like "ifs" rather than "whens." Hunter is just now in the beginning stages of his second rehab assignment after re-injuring his groin, and the results of his first outing were mixed at best. (I wonder if Nolan has told Hunter that he might be more durable if he wasn't tipping the scales at close to 3 bills.) Feldman is having trouble maintaining velocity and stamina on his surgically-repaired knee, and Webb ... well, let's just say that Brandon is parked at yet another rest area on a long-tough uphill slog.
If you followed the Rangers last year, you certainly recall that the club dealt with a Hamilton injury and losing both Cruz and Kinsler for extended periods while nevertheless winning the pennant. Four things to remember about that: (1) the Rangers had an incredibly favorable interleague schedule last year; (2) the bullpen was in much better shape; (3) all three of those guys were healthy by the playoffs; and most importantly (4) the Rangers ran away and hid from the rest of the division in June before they traded for Cliff Lee, who looked very pedestrian until the ALDS.
The wheels may indeed be coming off in Oakland, but the Angels and Mariners have plenty of pitching to hang around and take advantage if the Rangers run into trouble. A 10-day jaunt through Minnesota, New York and Atlanta starts Thursday. If they can stay healthy, grind through the rest of June and patch some holes at the trading deadline, the Rangers should be in position to separate themselves from the rest of the division in July. Texas is clearly the best top-to-bottom team in the AL West if they can keep their key pieces on the field. Unfortunately, recent history teaches that this is a pretty big "if."