There's little doubt that the Minnesota Twins have a difficult stretch on the schedule to begin the season. In April they face the Angels (four games), Rangers (three), Yankees (four), Rays (three) and Red Sox (three) in what can only be dubbed a gauntlet. Having already been swept by the Orioles to start the season, the only other games on the schedule this month are three against the Royals. And much like the Detroit Lions of the NFL, they're no longer a pushover franchise.
This weekend the Twins play host to the Texas Rangers, who lost in the 2010 World Series before getting close enough have defeat swiped from the jaws of victory in the 2011 Series. Texas is already off to a better start than the Twins in 2012, and they're certainly no less dangerous than they've been in the recent past. Let's take a spin through the Rangers.
While Twins fans will remember that this is where Joe Nathan took his services, the Rangers' biggest acquisition of the winter was Japanese superstar pitcher Yu Darvish. The Rangers forked over more than $51 million just to own exclusive negotiation rights with the right-hander, who they subsequently signed to a six-year, $60 million dollar contract. If you're still not happy about how the Twins are paying Tsuyoshi Nishioka, imagine what will happen if Darvish doesn't deliver.
Other than Nathan and Darvish, the Rangers dabbled in some speculation over a few players in the off-season but largely stayed in-house. They exercised options on Colby Lewis and Yoshinori Tateyama, extended Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Derek Holland and Elvis Andrus, and apart from C.J. Wilson, Darren Oliver and Mike Gonzalez haven't lose to much of their core team.
Harrison's breakout 2011 was due to better command, and better results on balls in play. His walk rates were down, not nearly as many of his fly balls left the park, a significantly higher percentage of his plate appearances ended in a strikeout; a lot of that success can be pegged on a fastball and curveball that became a very good combination. His swing-and-miss percentage (career 7.2%) jumped to a very good 10.7%. His stuff has started to work.
Darvish will be fun to face. The 8 hits and 4 walks that he allowed to the Mariners over his 5.2 inning debut is certainly nothing close to what he's capable of, and now that spring training is over and he understand the level of competition he's facing a bit better, he has a good opportunity to ramp up his hype a bit against the Minnesota offense.
Finally there's the converted closer, Feliz, who shut the Mariners out across seven innings in his first start of the season. He's a fly ball pitcher who's been pretty good at mitigating the home run ball, although now that he'll be exposed over longer periods of time that Homer-to-flyball ratio is likely to rise. His fastball velocity was down a couple of miles per hour against Seattle, but it's just the start of the season - his changeup velocity was down as well. Will he be ramping up against the Twins?
After Nathan, and in spite of not bringing back a couple of arms, the Rangers are still exceptionally strong. Mike Adams, Alexi Ogando, Mark Lowe, and Scott Feldman all had success last season, and that list doesn't include the longtime Twins blogosphere target Koji Uehara. Robbie Ross is the lone rookie, whose spot will likely be taken by Tateyama once he returns from the disabled list.
When a guy like Mike Napoli can bat seventh or eighth in your lineup, that offense is doing something right. The most common 7-8-9 hitters for the Rangers (in this admittedly very young season) have been David Murphy, Napoli, and Mitch Moreland. That's a lot of power potential at the bottom of the order.
At the top, the Rangers have been leading off with Ian Kinsler, followed by Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and Nelson Cruz. Dangerous as ever. Their bench is less impressive, with Alberto Gonzalez, Craig Gentry, Brandon Snyder and Yorvit Torrealba rounding out the roster.
I'm an optimist. I always have been. Partially because I'm an unabashed Twins fan, partially because it's in my nature, partially because it's spring and if there's any time during the baseball season to be optimistic it's spring. But with the way the Twins are built on paper it's still hard to see them winning this series.
Which is why they play the games. Here's hoping for some solid starting pitching from the Twins, who should take at least one game over the weekend.