There was a clear Plan A. The Rangers spent the first half of the offseason this past winter pursuing Cliff Lee. After that dream ended with Lee signing with the Phillies, the Rangers moved on to Plan B which was attempting to design the team to be deep enough to survive injuries. Plan B has been A-OK for the Rangers in 2011 so far.
If there was one particularly loud gripe (besides, you know, PITCHING!!) about a team that went to the World Series the previous season, it was that they were vulnerable to losing Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, and reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton for large chunks of the season. Considering all three of those gentlemen were preseason MVP candidates, it was clear the Rangers would be counting on them but needed to be sure that the season wouldn't sink without them given the likelihood of each of them missing some time during the season.
After the Rangers signed Adrian Beltre and it became clear that Michael Young would not be traded, the Rangers had an elite third baseman and middle of the order bat in Beltre and what we understand now to be an elite every day utility player in Young. Besides the ugliness of the Michael Young saga in the offseason and Beltre landing on the DL to begin the second half of the season, I can't imagine the Rangers could have envisioned the move going any better. Young is having a bit of a career revival and near career year while seeing some time at every position in the infield and DH and has even looked like a solid defender while filling in for Beltre. As for Beltre, he has been as advertised in the field and has really turned it on with the bat since his return.
But neither Young or Beltre was unsung heroes. While they solidified the depth, and allowed the team to survive those predictable early injuries by Hamilton and Cruz, they have essentially been as it was drawn up. It has been a great thing that they have lived up to their lofty expectations, but would we have accepted anything less? Probably not.
True inspiration for the season struck when Vladimir Guerrero wanted similar money to return and said no to the Rangers and less money. Then Lance Berkman decided the Rangers were a fluke and told the Rangers no. Finally, Jim Thome decided he couldn't leave the midwest and told the Rangers no.
Therefore, on January 25th, on the heels of the inexplicable Vernon Wells trade to Anaheim, the Rangers stole the best player involved in that deal, and little did we know it at the time, had acquired one of the best hitters in baseball. And just like that, Plan B was complete. Mike Napoli was a Ranger and he's been an unsung hero of the 2011 Texas Rangers.
At this point, it seems sort of laughable to consider Mike Napoli unsung but David Schoenfield agrees, so it has to be true. Napoli currently sports a 1.011 OPS which is second best in baseball for players with over 350 PA. Likewise, Napoli is second in baseball with an .301 ISO, second with a .430 wOBA, and third behind only Jose Bautista and Ryan Braun in wRC+ with 172. Napoli has accrued a 4.7 WAR in 380 PA. Napoli has been a ridiculous hitter this season.
When Napoli was acquired from Toronto for Frank Francisco the consensus was that it was a good pick-up for the Rangers but could possibly hurt the bullpen depth and, in Texas, there was the concern of never trading pitching for hitting. With Alexi Ogando making the rotation later in spring training, causing a dearth of quality back-end RHP in the bullpen, and with Napoli being perceived as sort of redundant with Michael Young staying with the team, there was whispers of discontent with the Napoli trade. And while Napoli was used initially as a first baseman and DH primarily, he slowly started gaining more starts behind the plate because the Rangers couldn't afford to leave his bat on the bench. It didn't hurt that Napoli was performing much better behind the plate than advertised.
While the reason Napoli isn't an Angel anymore is rumored to be because Mike Scioscia did not approve of Napoli's work behind the plate, Napoli currently has a career high 41% caught stealing rate and has drawn positive reviews from the Rangers' pitching staff on his game-calling and handling ability. And if you believe in advanced catching metrics, Napoli has an American League best 3.27 CERA. And while Napoli likely isn't one of the top defensive catchers in baseball, he's been anything but horrible which was the description applied to him for years in Anaheim.
Consider for a moment the three-headed catching monster left behind in Anaheim of Jeff Mathis, Hank Conger, and Bobby Wilson. They have a combined WAR of -0.5 this season. It's easy to see how Mike Napoli has impacted the AL West race. Not only has Napoli been awesome for the Rangers, he taken all of his awesome away from the Rangers closest competitor for the division title.
Josh Hamilton ended up missing over a month and a half. Nelson Cruz has been on the DL twice. And while Ian Kinsler has been healthy all season, the Rangers lost Beltre for a month. Without Mike Napoli, it's hard to imagine them weathering that storm. Now that the Rangers are nearly healthy for what would be the first time since the first week of the season, don't expect Mike Napoli to fight for playing time, as was a concern before the season. Even with Cruz, Hamilton, Kinsler, Young and Beltre, the Rangers can't afford to keep their best hitter, and unsung hero, on the bench.
Honorable Heroic Mention:
- Yoshinori Tateyama - While Yoshimania has dissipated recently, as Tateyama made dubious history by allowing a grand slam in back to back at-bats, Yoshi gets a nod for coming on in May when the bullpen was in dire straits and pitching well with nearly zero expectations. Yoshi put together a three month string from May-July of under 2.85 xFIP that bridged the Rangers from a terrible early bullpen to the bolstered bullpen post-trade deadline.
Endy Chavez and Craig Gentry - The Rangers have an interesting dynamic where, as currently constructed, Josh Hamilton probably fits best as the team's centerfielder but is too much of an injury risk to have him play there for more than a game or two a week. So, Hamilton plays a lot of left field (arguably his best position anyway) while the team has generally suffered a weak hitter in center. After Julio Borbon hurt himself in May, the Rangers called up Chavez who hadn't played in a game in the Majors since 2009. Chavez caught fire a week into his stint and was deemed "too hot to send down" when Borbon was ready to return. And while that caused angst among fans who understood that a roster move shouldn't have been determined by such small sample, Chavez has given the Rangers three and a half months of solid defense in center while hitting just well enough to contribute at the bottom of the order.
Gentry has contributed another 50+ games of superb outfield defense and is one of the best baserunners on a team filled with great baserunners. All told, the Rangers have gotten 129 games out of Chavez and Gentry and combined they have given the Rangers 3.2 WAR. While Josh Hamilton will probably move to center for the postseason like he did last season, Gentry and Chavez have provided value at a position that has been a trouble spot for the Rangers since Marlon Byrd left.
- Matt Harrison - Harrison joined the Rangers rotation out of spring training for the third consecutive season with little fanfare but a generous helping of consternation from Rangers fans used to watching Harrison struggle. We had read each spring about how this was the season Harrison had matured and figured it all out. Matt Harrison was the pitcher who cried Cy Young in our eyes. And while he's not going to win a Cy Young Award anytime soon, Harrison has been a mainstay in the rotation all season and one of the more consistent pitchers over a season that the Rangers have had on a starting staff in years. I can't imagine anyone would have guessed that Harrison would have a 3.3 WAR on the 12th of September. That WAR is good enough for second best on the Rangers' pitching staff behind only C.J. Wilson. And though Harrison has had some struggles recently, he's probably pitched himself into the postseason rotation, which is, considering the expectations coming into the season, the definition of unsung.