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Rangers can't afford to lose Darvish

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The season starts in five days, and the Texas Rangers don't even know who their Opening Day starter will be. That should be enough to prove this is the worst spring training the Rangers have had since Jon Daniels became the general manager in 2006.

It has been a disaster. Blame injuries.

The Rangers announced Tuesday that Yu Darvish isn't healthy enough to pitch on Opening Day and reliever Neftali Feliz, the 2010 Rookie of the Year, will start the season in Triple-A. On Sunday, the club announced second baseman Jurickson Profar would miss 10-12 weeks with a small muscle tear in his shoulder. On Monday, the Rangers announced catcher Geovany Soto would miss 10-12 weeks with a torn meniscus.

Welp.

Just so you know, Feliz isn't hurt, he just can't get batters out these days. In nine spring training appearances, batters hit .310 against him and his fastball hovered around 91 with no movement. As a reliever, his fastball has never averaged less than 96 mph. The Rangers hope Feliz, who returned from Tommy John surgery in September, will use the time at Triple-A to build his arm strength, which will improve his velocity and command.

But the news concerning Darvish trumps everything else -- and not just because it's the third consecutive day the Rangers have received bad news concerning a key player. The results of Darvish's meeting with back specialist Drew Dossett will have the biggest impact on the Rangers' season.

Remember, Darvish's issue began on Friday when he woke up with a stiff neck and the Rangers told us it was no big deal. Four days later, he's flying to Dallas so he can confer with a back specialist.

See how quickly circumstance can change? Darvish had been the only pitcher in the rotation without a mammoth question mark next to his name. We have no idea whether Martin Perez can match the performance of his rookie year or whether Tanner Scheppers' body can withstand the rigors of starting every fifth day. Remember, Alexi Ogando and Feliz were converted relievers. Each has had arm issues. And if Robbie Ross earns a spot in the rotation, it'll be one more converted reliever in the rotation.

Daniels is putting up a strong public front -- even cracking the occasional joke -- but behind the scenes he must be shaking his head, wondering which of the baseball gods he angered.

"It is what it is," he said. "I can't sugarcoat it.

"We're not the only ones dealing with injuries. It adds a little bit of a challenge. You knew it was coming. We just didn't expect it to be all at this point in the season."

Darvish is the key to the entire rotation. If he misses a start or two, it's not that big of a deal. He went 13-9 with a 2.83 ERA and piled up 277 strikeouts in 209 2/3 innings to finished second in the Cy Young Award voting last season. More important, he gave the Rangers swag. On the days he pitches, the Rangers knows their odds of winning increase dramatically. And you never know when he's going to do something special, whether it's come within one out of a perfect game or strike out 14 batters, the latter a feat he has accomplished five times.

"If we have to move that turn back from Opening Day and give him a few extra days, it's not the end of the world," Daniels said this weekend. "A week later, no one will remember. That's the reality of it. My bigger concern is how do we ensure this guy makes 32-35 starts?"

There's nothing worse than a spring training full of injuries and contingency plans. This offseason, Daniels and the Rangers spent $130 million on left fielder Shin-Soo Choo, acquired Prince Fielder and his $138 million contract and made some other moves here and there to put together a roster that could end Oakland's two-year reign in the AL West. Well, it doesn't look like it's going to happen this year.

No team ever uses injuries as an excuse for losing, but a team can sustain only so many injuries before it compromises its ability to win.

The Rangers' streak of four straight 90-win seasons will end this year. Right now, even 85 wins seems iffy. A third-place finish seems likely. Daniels will disagree, and manager Ron Washington will cuss you out if you mention the prospect of losing season to him.

"It's not always the best team that wins; it's the team that plays the best that day," Washington said. "We still got people in that clubhouse that can win ball games for us. We have to rally together and keep it together until we get all our pieces together. We're gonna show up on March 31 and start playing, and when it happens I'll be there with all the confidence in the world. I hope my players feel that too."

That's fine, but all the confidence in the world won't matter if Darvish is out for an extended period of time.

The Rangers' fate this season rests with an MRI.