ARLINGTON, Texas -- It was just three months ago that the Texas Rangers looked like a team not only primed to contend with the Oakland Athletics for the AL West, but ready to make a run at a third trip to the World Series in the last five years.
We know how that worked out.
Then the club had begun what looked to be a successful offseason. They traded All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler to Detroit for Prince Fielder, obtaining the left-handed power hitter for the middle of the lineup they so desperately needed and, at the same time, freeing up second base for prospect Jurickson Profar. Ownership stepped up with more money and the organization stretched for a seventh year to sign Shin-Soo Choo to lead off. The rotation seemed set with Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando penciled in to start the season. Neftali Feliz had just completed a promising winter ball stay and appeared ready to return to his closer's job.
It appeared to be a balanced and improved team that was set up to contend.
But that was before a dog named Wrigley charged up the stairs of Holland's home, tripping the left-hander and causing a knee injury that eventually required surgery and has him out until at least June. It was before Harrison slept on a soft mattress and felt some back tightness, putting him behind schedule to the point where he won't start the season on time. It was prior to losing Profar and starting catcher Geovany Soto for 10 to 12 weeks because of injuries near the end of spring and before Darvish's stiff neck and Elvis Andrus' sore elbow and shoulder.
In just two short months, the Rangers have piled up a hefty MRI bill. In addition to the injuries, Feliz failed to rediscover his velocity or command and will start the season in Triple-A, and Ogando pitched his way out of the rotation and into the bullpen.
Now the expected rotation to start the year includes just one name -- Perez -- from the quintet scribbled down in January. Tanner Scheppers will make the kind of history no one expected when he takes the mound for his first big league start on Opening Day, of all days. He's the first to do that since Fernando Valenzuela did it a few months after Ronald Reagan's first inauguration in 1981. And Scheppers isn't the only reliever from last year's squad in the rotation. Lefty Robbie Ross earned a spot, too, after others struggled and injuries altered things dramatically.
The Rangers' six-week stay in Arizona has to alter the outlook for 2014. How can you predict this team to make the postseason after averaging what seemed like an injury every few days in spring?
That's not to say there weren't positives coming out of Arizona.
For one, Fielder had a solid spring and is primed to have a big season in Texas. The ballpark seems suited for him, he's got a consistent and difficult batter to pitch to in Adrian Beltre behind him and he's treating this opportunity like a fresh start. Plus, Choo has a track record of getting on base, which should give Fielder plenty of chances to drive him in. This is a team that should score runs.
And while Scheppers and Ross weren't likely rotation candidates, they pitched well this spring to earn their spots. And Darvish's MRI didn't show any structural damage, so he should be back sooner rather than later and is coming off a runner-up finish for the Cy Young.
It also doesn't hurt that the Rangers have a favorable schedule, one that includes some interleague games against teams that aren't expected to contend and a gaggle of games against Houston in the AL West. Add in the fact that other division teams are experiencing injuries as well -- see the A's rotation -- and the Rangers have the ingredients to win the AL West.
The season ends with 17 of the final 23 games at home, including a four-game set with Oakland in Arlington to wrap up the regular season. In fact, the Rangers play their last 13 games against AL West opponents (seven of them against the A's).
Texas' goal now has to be simple: Make those games matter. To do that, the pitching has to step up and keep this team from falling too far behind early.
And, of course, they can't afford any more injuries.
There's no doubt this team can still contend in an injury-filled AL West. But the last two months have to temper the expectations. At this point, they're too banged up to predict a division title. But as the Rangers can tell you, a lot can happen in two months, let alone six.