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Underappreciated Threats heading into the 2011 MLB Playoffs

Game 1 Starter
Game 1 Starter

A week ago we looked at some unsung Rangers for this 2011 season. Now, with the postseason in their sights, we'll look at some possible under-the-radar Rangers who could impact an October defense of the American League Pennant.

If indeed the Rangers end up playing postseason baseball games, the overwhelming odds for the narrative will be on the big bat slugging Rangers back to attempt to bash their way to the Fall Classic. And that's not exactly incorrect. The Rangers will definitely count on their fearsome middle of the order to match-up favorably against any A.L. opponent. We know as well as TBS and FOX know that Josh Hamilton can take over a game/series. We'll be hearing and nodding in agreement when told that Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, and Mike Napoli are going to have to come up with big hits like they have all season. We'll probably be pleasantly surprised when Ian Kinsler is lauded for his 2011 season and ability to turn a game around with his defense, ability to work a walk, and power at the top of the lineup.

However, when it comes to the pitching staff, there will be questions marks and questions posed. Coming into a potential Game 1 of any series the Rangers will be considered an underdog against Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, David Price, or Jon Lester/Josh Beckett. And maybe that's fair, but I don't think the Rangers will be at as big of a disadvantage as the pundits might think. The reason for that is because C.J. Wilson is really, really good.

No one this season has been better than Justin Verlander. He's having a historically great season in Detroit and could end up winning the American League MVP along with his Cy Young award. CC Sabathia has been his usual great self and even leads Verlander in fWAR 7.1 to 7.0. Those two pitches, along with possibly Jered Weaver, are alone in the top tier of the American League this season. In the next tier, you'll find the likes of Dan Haren, Price, King Felix, Beckett, and yes, the Rangers' C.J. Wilson.

C.J. is tied for 5th with Felix Hernandez in the A.L. with a 5.4 fWAR. Between them and Sabathia/Velander are the two Angels aces. Therefore, if the Rangers close out the AL West and the Angels aren't able to take the Wild Card, that will make C.J. 3rd among starters of playoff teams. C.J. is currently 8th in innings pitched, 6th in strikeouts, 6th in ERA (which is now 2.97), 4th in wins, 4th in adjusted ERA+ and practically everywhere else in the top ten of American League pitching stats. But, noticeably, Wilson has turned it on as the season has progressed. 

C.J.'s K/9 Rate has risen from 7.59 in April to 10.13 so far in September, his BB/9 has dropped from 2.83 in April to 2.15 in September. C.J.'s xFIP has decreased every month since June from 4.03 to 2.66 in September. C.J. is 6-2 and has allowed only 13 ER in 60.2 innings since the start of August. C.J.'s season, especially the second half, is a body of work that are usually pinned on aces.

There still seems to be skepticism out there that C.J. Wilson is an elite starter and I suspect that the lack of an ace will be a story line for the Rangers in these playoffs particularly because C.J. isn't Cliff Lee. He'll have his doubters, especially against other American League #1 starters, but it won't be a surprise to any of us when C.J. Wilson gives the Rangers an opportunity to start any series up 1-0.

Other Threats:

The 2010 Playoff Heroes - Elvis Andrus and Nelson Cruz: 

Parroting what Adam wrote today, Elvis Andrus is really good. Hopefully, the rest of the American League forgets that fact and underestimates him. One of my prevailing memories of the 2010 playoff run was Elvis turning it on to become a game-changing force. There was dancing around inside James Shield's brain in Game 2 of the ALDS, scoring from second on a ground out in Game 5 in what was one of the biggest plays in the history of the franchise, stealing home on a double steal to get an early lead on New York in Game 2 of the ALCS, and hitting a leadoff double in Game 6 of the ALCS, scoring the big go-ahead run two batters later, before making a leaping catch off the bat of A-Rod in the next inning. Elvis was everywhere last postseason. 

This season, Elvis has played under the radar because he isn't the traditional Texas Rangers run producer. But he's still great defensively when he's focused and he's still the best baserunner in the game (6.9 RAR which is 0.7 RAR better than second place Michael Bourn). And, don't look now, but he's started hitting for some power. It's likely something of a sample size fluctuation, but Elvis has a September ISO of .210 and a 1.024 OPS. But Elvis doesn't need to hit for power to impact games in October, as we saw last season.

Nelson Cruz was likely the Rangers best hitter during the postseason last year. While Josh Hamilton took home the ALCS MVP because when he wasn't getting intentionally walked, he was hitting home runs, Hamilton also had a .111 BA in the ALDS with only one run driven in and no extra base hits. Cruz had a 1.350 OPS in the ALDS with two doubles and three home runs and followed that up by hitting three laser beam doubles and two home runs in the ALCS for a 1.235 OPS with five runs driven in. A semi-disappointing season by Cruz could have A.L. pitching staffs focusing on other hitters in the Rangers lineup. If Cruz can get his timing back in this final week and a half, and he taps into one of his hot streaks, he could dominate a series for the Rangers in October once again.

Pitchers to Watch - Alexi Ogando and Derek Holland:

At this point Ogando could either end up in the starting rotation in the postseason, return to the bullpen as a long man, or not make the roster at all. The Rangers are giving Ogando a final bit of rest before he pitches for the final time in the regular season on the 24th. Depending on how that goes, the Rangers could roll the dice and give him a start, even though Ogando long ago surpassed the most innings he has ever thrown, or, seemingly most likely, he could be moved back to the pen to give the Rangers some insurance in case Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, or Matt Harrison struggle. However the Rangers use Ogando, if the rest has given Ogando's arm new life, he can get big outs and be a part of what the Rangers do on the mound as they wade through the likes of the Red Sox, Tigers, and Yankees lineups.

Derek Holland is the X-Factor. We already know that he has the talent to go out on the mound and match nearly any pitcher in baseball pitch for pitch. But we also know that Holland can go to the mound and be ineffective and leave the Rangers down early. For Holland, it's about consistency. He knows it. We know it. And surely the rest of baseball knows it. Because of the lack of consistency, and likely rightfully so, Holland is considered as nothing more than a question mark every time he takes the mound. There are signs that Holland is becoming more consistent, however.

Since allowing 5 runs in 3.1 innings in a late August start in Chicago, Holland has allowed just 5 runs in his last 27.1 innings while striking out a batter per inning against the likes of Boston, Tampa Bay, and Anaheim. Hopefully, come October, we'll be able to put the "consistency" bad word to bed forever when speaking of Derek Holland. If that happens, the Rangers' rotation matches up very well with the rest of the American League.