Going into Wednesday's action the Texas Rangers sat comfortably atop the American League West (well, as comfortably as they can with the Oakland Athletics in second place), the same place they sat this time last year, and the year before that. I'll admit I expected this year's script to unfold somewhat differently for them than it has so far. Texas has been carried in huge part by its pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation anchored by ace Yu Darvish, who leads the majors in strikeouts, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando. The team is even getting quality innings from the young pitchers at the back of the rotation, Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm, neither of whom was supposed to be in the team's starting five at the beginning of the season, and one of whom will return to either the pen or the minors whenever Colby Lewis comes back (likely Grimm, who had a bad start on Monday in Oakland and has looked considerably shakier than Tepesch at the major league level).
However, a team cannot win on pitching alone -- someone has to score the runs. That was the issue with the Rangers coming into this season: With the departure of Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli to other American League would-be contenders, how were the Rangers going to score the runs necessary to make those quality starts meaningful? Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre can't do it all by themselves, and the rest of the Rangers' projected batting order was looking a bit quiet. Some fans were even starting to regret trading disappointment and relative bust Chris Davis to the Baltimore Orioles for Koji Uehara at the tail end of the 2011 season (this of course was before his white-hot streak to start this year).
The 2013 Rangers haven't found themselves too hurt by any of these departures, however, thanks to great early-season starts from a guy Texas fans expected to be good, a guy they didn't, and a guy they professed they'd never love for about six weeks straight and now find that they can't live without.
Ian Kinsler's spring was dominated by talk about not only his poor 2012 at the plate (by his standards; 731 plate appearances of .256/.326/.423 hitting was still good enough to make him the sixth-best second baseman in the league who qualified for the batting title) and last season's place in his recent, gradual decline as he reached age 30, but whether or not he would even be the Texas second baseman moving forward with super-prospect Jurickson Profar knocking on the door. There was talk of moving Kinsler either to first base or left field so that both Profar and Andrus could play up the middle, assuming that neither was traded, and neither was -- Andrus received a massive extension that guarantees he'll be with Texas through most of his prime, and Profar was sent back down to the minors to bide his time.
Kinsler put to rest any questions about moving him anywhere -- or making him unhappy in any way -- to bed real quick. Through the first 40 games of the Rangers' season, the only second baseman in professional baseball qualified for the batting title hitting better than him is the Yankees' Robinson Cano, and there's no shame in being a few ticks behind the torrid pace that man's setting for the position. Kinsler is also looking rejuvenated in the field, staving off any questions about whether or not to move him somewhere lower on the defensive spectrum. Which is good, because first base needs to be kept free so Mitch Moreland can play there every day.
Yes, that Mitch Moreland. The same guy who's been noodling around the first base position the last couple years for the Rangers, not really hitting poorly, per se, but with none of the authority you really want to see from the position -- especially when compared to the effortless, majestic power of a guy like the aforementioned Chris Davis. A slugging percentage in the mid-.400s with a career-high 16 home runs in a season with good defense is fine from a shortstop, but not from the premier power position on the diamond playing at home in one of baseball's most infamous launching pads. At least for now, however, Moreland is noodling no more: he has seven home runs on the season already, nine doubles (previous season high: 22), and while his home and away splits are pronounced, that's because he's got an OPS over 1 in Arlington; an OPS in the .750s is more than acceptable for a road player in a division where everyone else is playing in pitcher's parks (or, of course, is Houston, though Moreland has actually been terrible against the AL West's new cellar-dweller in his first six games against them this year). Moreland's only 27, so it's entirely possible that some of these gains are real. Though it's almost certain he'll slow down a little bit as the season goes on, his hot start is making up for a somewhat pedestrian opening to the season from his opposite number across the diamond, Adrian Beltre.
Which brings us to the third and final surprise from the Texas offense so far: Lance Berkman (a.k.a. Big Puma, a.k.a. Fat Elvis, a.k.a. Launch Ballman). Rangers fans were, well, let's say they were not enthusiastic about the signing, considering two months ago any good Rangers fan who'd been following the team more than a year harbored a deep and abiding animosity for the slugger. That's because Berkman, who Rangers fans were already somewhat disposed against due to him being a star for That Other Texas Team for most of his storied career, spent the last two seasons on the St. Louis Cardinals, including the 2011 World Series against the Rangers where he hit .423/.516/.577 against Texas and was a big contributor to the Cardinals' eventual victory (though he was, perhaps, not as helpful to that cause as another certain someone also on this year's Rangers).
However, while it's time that heals all wounds, hitting the seams off the baseball helps a whole lot too: Berkman's hitting doubles and home runs, walking more than he's striking out, and generally not looking a whole lot like a guy who's 37 years old and lost a lot of last season to injury. That's the question mark on him going forward, of course, and why it was hard to tell how much he was going to produce for the Rangers out of the gate: can Lance Berkman stay healthy? We won't know until we close the book on the season, but the Rangers have one crucial advantage to keep the old slugger healthy that the Cardinals did not: he can DH. So far that's all he's done for Texas, and he seems to have taken to it quite nicely.
For their record at the end of the season to match their aspirations the Rangers are going to need more than just these three guys to hit, but Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre are no slouches and while David Murphy's not great, he's certainly better than he's hitting so far this year. If the Rangers can sustain the current success of their pitching staff while getting performances like this at the plate, they'll once again make the postseason -- and probably skip the play-in game this time around.