Opening day: Rangers

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After a season in which the Rangers made a complete transformation from American League bottom-feeder to league champion, there’s one question facing them as they head into an Opening Day that looms larger than maybe any other story line in the league.
 
How in the world will Texas ever top that?
 
Texas finished in first place in the AL West in 2010, the first time it has done so since 1999. They won a postseason series over the Tampa Bay Rays and then dethroned the New York Yankees to win the AL Championship pennant and earn a spot in the World Series.
 
They fell just three games short of amazing, losing 4-1 against the San Francisco Giants, capping a year of improbability with mixed feelings of pride and disappointment — proud that their once-anemic team had finally gotten to the biggest stage in baseball, frustrated that they had come so close yet were unable to deliver the franchise its first ever World Series Championship.
 
Fans want and expect a repeat of last year, but is it doable?
 
Texas certainly returns enough of last year’s talent to make it happen. AL MVP Josh Hamilton’s bat has become one of the best in baseball in recent years; the left fielder won the league batting title last year and hit 32 home runs despite missing many games because of injury. Right fielder Nelson Cruz, who hit 22 homers last year, returns, as does second baseman Ian Kinsler, a career .281 batter and two-time all-star selection.
 
Those three are some of the best talents in the game, but they have all had a hard time staying out of the training room so far in their careers — with Hamilton missing 29 games last year, Cruz with 54 and Kinsler with 59.
 
The Rangers will need them to stay healthy, because life without Cliff Lee might be pretty difficult. Lee was acquired in a midsummer trade from the Mariners last season and, as the staff ace, propelled his new team to the World Series. Texas was unable to sign him over the offseason — Lee chose the Philadelphia Phillies over the Rangers and Yankees — and his presence at the top of the pitching rotation will surely be missed.
 
C.J. Wilson, the former relief pitcher, will take over Lee’s spot. The lefty was 15-8 last year in his first year as a starting pitcher for the Rangers.
 
Colby Lewis, Tommy Hunter (who will begin his season on the DL for the third-straight year), Derrick Holland and Alexi Ogando are the favorites to fill out the rest of the rotation. Their win-loss records, a combined 32-22 last year between the four of them, might not blow anybody away, but it’s a young staff of pitchers yet to reach their high ceilings.
 
Manager Ron Washington has chosen to keep last year’s AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz in the closer role for now, which ensures that, at the least, the Rangers will have their flamethrower to count on in save situations, though Feliz would have been terrific addition as a starter. Keep an eye on Brandon Webb, who won a Cy Young in 2006 but has only pitched four innings the past two years because of an injured shoulder. Webb hopes to be available for the Rangers by May.
 
Then there’s the Michael Young situation. Texas’ career leader in hits publicly requested a trade after the Rangers signed third baseman Adrian Beltre over the offseason, a move that pushed Young out of his position. The Rangers didn’t budge, and Washington plans to also use Young as a DH and utility infielder. Young will see plenty of at-bats, but you can’t blame the six-time all-star and fan favorite for getting fed up with changing positions; it will be the third time in his career he’s had to do so.
 
The Rangers have the pieces to duplicate last year’s run, but it won’t be easy. The young pitching staff will experience growing pains, the Young dilemma could be a distraction, the AL West will be a more challenging division than last year as the Anaheim Angels and Oakland A’s both made offseason upgrades and there’s the constant threat of injuries that have plagued Texas in the past.