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Rangers aim to outperform expectations in '18

Texas embraces underdog role in quest to return to postseason
MLB.com @Sullivan_Ranger

ARLINGTON -- The Rangers understand that nobody is going to pick them to win the American League West or even earn an AL Wild Card spot.

They are not bothered by that.

ARLINGTON -- The Rangers understand that nobody is going to pick them to win the American League West or even earn an AL Wild Card spot.

They are not bothered by that.

"I like it," second baseman Rougned Odor said. "I like when people say that. That makes us play better and harder."

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Hamels on leading Rangers staff

The Rangers remember that they lost 95 games in 2014 and came back to win consecutive division titles from '15-16. They were 78-84 last year, but they still have a strong lineup led by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Delino DeShields, Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara.

Texas' pitching will still be critical. The team has a veteran rotation headed by Cole Hamels and strong arms in the bullpen, including Keone Kela, Matt Bush and Chris Martin. The Rangers still expect to compete for the postseason.

"We have a talented team," Andrus said. "We just need to play the way we normally play. We need to play our game, good defense, pitching, everything. The Astros are a tough team, but I like our chances."

What's the goal?
General manager Jon Daniels has said the Rangers are not going "all-in" to win the division, but they aren't in a total rebuild, either.

The Rangers envision themselves as a contending team, but they also realize they play in the same division as the defending World Series champion Astros, plus a much-improved Angels club.

"I think we have always tried to look realistically where we are and make decisions based on that," Daniels said. "You have to have a long-term plan in place, but you have to adjust based on where things stand. We considered everything from all-in to pulling back. This is where we think the wisest play is, at this time. We are very realistic about the team and the division.

"It's just looking at the whole scheme of things and looking at all our options and what makes the most sense, now and in the future. Sometimes patience isn't the most fun thing and the most attractive thing, but it's a prudent move and that's where we are at."

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Andrus on his recent success

What's the plan?
Manager Jeff Banister said the message to his team is to get back to the style of baseball the Rangers played when they won back-to-back division titles.

"A relentless style of baseball that puts pressure on the other team," Banister said. "It's not always pretty, but do whatever is necessary to win the baseball game. Don't care who gets credit, it's an all-in Texas mentality."

Banister emphasized several things in Spring Training. He wanted his pitchers to throw more strikes and cut down on the walks. He wanted Texas to develop into a premium defensive team, and he wants an offense that puts constant pressure on the opposing pitcher without having to rely on the home run.

All are things to watch as the season unfolds.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Beltre looks forward to 2018

What could go wrong?
The Rangers enter the season without a designated closer. Banister plans to use multiple pitchers in that role, including Kela and left-handers Alex Claudio and Jake Diekman.

Banister is stressing the need for a complete bullpen. The Rangers were crushed in the sixth and seventh innings last year by a combined score of 218-154. But they need to show early in the season they can close out games. If Texas starts having trouble late in games, it could create a crisis of confidence for the entire team.

The wild card is Tim Lincecum, who should be ready by the end of April and could end up the closer.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Banister on managing pitchers

Who might surprise?
One player who could answer a lot of the Rangers' bullpen questions is Diekman. The left-handed reliever reported to camp bigger and stronger after missing the first five months of last season while undergoing three surgical procedures for ulcerative colitis. He's healthy once again, and Texas could use him as a setup man or potential closer.

"I feel like my arm strength compared to two, three, four years ago -- my velocity and arm speed -- is better," Diekman said.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Diekman confident in recovery

T.R. Sullivan has covered the Rangers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast.

Texas Rangers