Rangers add Yu Darvish, pray for Josh Hamilton

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Texas Rangers.

2011 record: 96-66
Finish: First, AL West
2011 final payroll: $92.1 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $125 million
Yahoo! Sports’ offseason rank: 3rd
Hashtags: #ghostofgame6, #nellysreach, #yubetcha, #felizstartstake2, #morelandlessprince, #wheresoswalt, #demons4josh

Offseason action

Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish throws off the mound at Rangers Ballpark after agreeing to a six-year deal with Texas.
(Getty Images)

What, exactly, should the Rangers have fixed this winter?

A slightly longer left arm for Nelson Cruz? A better fastball for Neftali Feliz? Can a general manager shop for an out that never came on the last Thursday in October?

How does one go about fixing the unfixable?

The Rangers were a good team Oct. 27 when they had Game 6 of the World Series torn from them, became somewhat needy when starter C.J. Wilson signed with the Los Angeles Angels six weeks later, and signed Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish six weeks after that.

They signed seasoned closer Joe Nathan about four minutes after deciding Feliz should take another stab at the starting rotation.

They waited until they were maybe a little nervous about first baseman Mitch Moreland’s recovery from wrist surgery, and signed Brad Hawpe, then Conor Jackson.

Beyond that, the Rangers spent to maintain who they are. That is, they re-upped manager Ron Washington through 2014. They extended Cruz (two years, $16 million) and shortstop Elvis Andrus (three years, $14.4 million). They talked extension with a handful of others, including Josh Hamilton, who submarined those conversations with a night on the town.

As has become their custom, the Rangers were players everywhere, or reputed players operating out of curiosity and open-mindedness. They pushed markets. They may still add Roy Oswalt, though GM Jon Daniels insists the payroll already is over budget, so trading Koji Uehara alone probably isn’t enough.

What the Rangers didn’t do is sign Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, almost certainly because they went nearly $108 million deep on Darvish (including the posting fee).

[ Fantasy: Four Pressing Questions for the Texas Rangers ]

They like everything about Moreland, from his power potential and fit in their ballpark all the way down to his determination. The only issue with them not upgrading at first base, however, is who did upgrade at first base. That is, the Los Angeles Angels, their chief – and likely only – rival in the American League West, signed Pujols. And the Detroit Tigers, who took them to six games in the ALCS, signed Fielder.

The Rangers haven’t lost any ground. That’s not the issue. Their division – and the American League as a whole – may have gained some.

Reality check

Josh Hamilton

So, big year for Hamilton.

He’ll be 31 in May, two years removed from being league MVP in spite of playing a little more than three-quarters of a season.

He carries a heartbreaking and public illness, which he commands one day at a time for his whole life; that occasionally commands him for a few inescapable hours.

One of the great athletes the game has ever seen, one of its most tortured souls and – if you’re running the Rangers – one heck of a tough man for whom to predict tomorrow, Hamilton enters his walk year. That shouldn’t be too much to handle for a guy who chose sobriety, and who’s lived on walk days since baseball allowed him back into the league five years ago.

Yet, it all leads to an interesting time for the Rangers. They hired a new assistant for Hamilton. They cringe when he nears an outfield wall. When he goes hard into second base, they must root for him to stand up.

[ Related: Each sober day for Josh Hamilton is one closer to forever ]

In a camp with all sorts of intrigue – Feliz pitching for a place in the rotation, Darvish finding his way through the American game (and then through American lineups), Alexi Ogando returning to the bullpen, identifying a center fielder, tending to catcher Mike Napoli’s ankle and Moreland’s wrist – the story of Hamilton could turn into the story of Texas’ season.

Yes, the Rangers live with back-to-back World Series misses. They’ve lopped off their ace (Cliff Lee, then Wilson) in consecutive offseasons. And consecutive AL West titles have served to stir up the Angels, who spent $320 million on a single day in December.

They also live with Hamilton, and he with them. The question, as of today, is for how long?

Savior

Joe Nathan

All that being said about Hamilton, the Rangers would seem to have enough offense – with or without him – to do their usual number on AL pitching staffs.

The reason they fly two AL pennants over their ballpark is because Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels finally put a reasonable pitching staff out in front of that offense.

That staff is in transition again. So, Feliz is a starter. And his place in the ninth inning has been given to Joe Nathan, the 37-year-old right-hander who has put one so-so season between himself and Tommy John surgery.

His ERA with the Minnesota Twins last season was 4.84 and he pitched all of three times in back-to-back games. The good news: He generally was the old Nathan in the second half of the seasond.

If he’s that guy, the Rangers won’t have to rethink the Feliz decision, and they won’t have to move other relievers into that role.

If he’s not, well, they could be shopping for bullpen help at the deadline again.

Rangers in Haiku

As Springsteen would wail,
Oh, I came for Yu, for Yu,
Yeah, I came for Yu

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Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Feb 15, 2012