By Marc Normandin
To say things have not gone according to plan for the Rangers is a severe understatement. Sure, they're in first place in the American League West -- that much was hoped for -- but it's the "how" that's off course. The Rangers club that opened the season, or even the one they expected to field shortly into the year, is not what they're running out on the field on a daily basis. That, though, is a credit to the organization, both for the depth they already possessed and for making the necessary acquisitions.
Let's roll back to April, when the season opened. The Rangers were not healthy from day one. Starting pitcher Colby Lewis, who had posted a 113 ERA+ over 500 innings in the three preceding years, was recovering from surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his elbow. Neftali Feliz, the Rangers' closer-turned-starter, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012 and was not expected back until 2013 was well underway. Reliever Joakim Soria had undergone his own TJ a year prior and was expected back sooner than the others, but he wasn't there on day one, either.
It didn't take long for in-season injuries to crop up as well. Matt Harrison, who had been even better than Lewis over the previous three seasons, was placed on the disabled list, on April 10, with back issues that would later result in surgery. Just this week, the Rangers stated that Harrison would not be back in 2013, following multiple setbacks. They got all of 10 innings out of their second-best starter prior to losing him for the year, and that's with all of the other injuries in the rotation they were already covering for.
Second baseman Ian Kinsler, designated hitter Lance Berkman, and ace Yu Darvish all took turns on the DL, too. This has not been a healthy team by any stretch of the imagination, and when you consider that they lost two of their top bats in Mike Napoli and Josh Hamilton to free agency this past winter, it doesn't take much thought to realize that they couldn't afford to miss anyone for any length of time.
They've held on well enough, though, despite the injuries in the lineup and the powerful shoes to fill, and have produced a roughly league-average lineup. That's not good enough on its own, but that's where the pitching comes in.
Despite Lewis throwing zero innings, despite Harrison twirling just 10, and even with the temporary losses of Darvish and 10 different pitchers making a start, the Rangers have managed to thrive on the mound. They're second in the league in ERA+, with their starters posting an above-average 3.96 ERA as a unit -- compared to the 4.19 league average -- despite a hitter-friendly home park and all of those injuries. The relievers have done even better, with a 3.03 ERA compared to the league's 3.72 mark, but the starters have more than done their part by averaging six innings per outing, reducing the bullpen's need to contribute.
While the lineup hasn't been stellar in support of the pitching, they have done their part in the field: they rank fourth in the American League, and 10th overall, in Baseball Prospectus' Defensive Efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs. So, you've got a team with an average lineup, an above-average rotation and defense, and a stellar bullpen. Add it all together, and they're the 1st-place team out west.
Again, they've done it with impressive depth. Lefty Derek Holland was below average in 2012, but he's taken his game to new levels this year, posting a 138 ERA+ while averaging 6-2/3 innings per start. He's stepped up to take over Harrison's role, essentially, and that, in conjunction with Darvish's leap from impressive rookie to ace, has kept the top of the rotation more than afloat. There is Alexi Ogando, who was expected to hold a rotation spot only until the Rangers no longer needed him there. Since none of those injured starters have returned as hoped, however, Ogando has stuck around, posting a 122 ERA+ in his 15 starts.
Most impressive, at least in terms of coming out of nowhere, is rookie Martin Perez. It's not that he's a nobody; he's been a top-100 prospect by Baseball America's reckoning for five years now. He had not found much success, however, in the upper levels of the minors. The majors have been a different story for the 22-year-old southpaw, and that's been huge for the Rangers. In his 11 starts and 68 innings, he's kept the ball on the ground and produced a 3.44 ERA, good for a 124 ERA+. He might not be quite this good yet, but the wins he's helped produce are in the bank, and that's all that matters to a club dealing with the holes of the Rangers.
The final void-filler of consequence for the rotation was acquired in a trade with the Cubs, when the Rangers sent prospects and Justin Grimm, another pitcher plugging a hole, to Chicago for Matt Garza. The right-hander is an impending free agent, but he's also healthy and effective, two things the Rangers needed more of on their roster, especially given the then-unsure statuses of Lewis and Harrison. Garza has made just four starts -- he hasn't been in town very long -- but he's pitched as well as the likes of Perez in his short time in Texas. Should the Rangers make it to the postseason, Garza will be a significant boost in the playoffs, compared to what they otherwise would have had at their disposal.
The lineup hasn't had the same kind of help to fill holes. Besides Jeff Baker, none of the non-regulars have accomplished much of anything, and among regulars, only Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz have managed to be well above average at the plate. That's not to say Kinsler hasn't done his part -- defense is a significant part of what he brings to the table -- but the lineup has had its issues. Cruz was leading the team in homers and was second in OPS+, and his loss for the rest of the season (due to his Biogenesis affiliation) did the offense no favors, either. As they did with Garza, though, Texas stepped up and found a replacement, once again from Chicago.
This time, they went shopping on the south side, coming away with the White Sox' Alex Rios. The right fielder doesn't have Cruz's bat (a negative) but also doesn't have his glove (a significant positive). Rios historically has been a productive hitter, despite his struggles in 2013, and the move from US Cellular to hitter-friendly Arlington should help him recover his season. That perhaps gives the Rangers not quite as much pop, but it does boost their defense, so it should all come out in the wash. They gave up little to acquire him, too, dealing from their middle infield strength on the farm to improve their chances in the present.
The likes of Perez, as well as one of the game's best prospects in shortstop Jurickson Profar, have helped the Rangers weather a never-ending storm of injuries, on every part of the roster. Those internal reinforcements may not have been enough -- not with the talented Athletics around -- but that's where Garza and Rios came in. In spite of all of the busted plans and elbows, the Rangers are in first place in great position to stay there. It may not be the way they drew it up in the offseason, but it's hard to argue with how things have worked out.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book The Hall of Nearly Great and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.