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Choo signing vaults Rangers to top of AL mountain

On-base machine a perfect fit with slugger Fielder, stellar pitching staff @RichardJustice

The Texas Rangers just won the offseason. In the end, it appears to be about that simple. That is, if winning the offseason is defined as identifying the club that has put itself in best position to win the World Series in 2014.

The Rangers have done that. Other clubs have gotten significantly better as well. For sure, the Mariners. Likewise, the Nationals. The Cardinals are good, too, after another terrific, smart offseason by general manager John Mozeliak. In fact, at least a dozen other teams -- Yankees, Royals, Giants, etc. -- ought to be feeling pretty good about their offseasons.

There's a case to be made for at least 15 clubs being good enough to win the World Series in 2014. With the talent level spread so evenly among the top teams, it's getting more and more difficult to identify a true favorite.

Still, no team is better positioned to get to the World Series than the Rangers. If they're not at the top of the American League power rankings after adding two impact hitters -- Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo -- they're close.

Best of all, the Rangers did this without touching the core of one of baseball's best pitching staffs. So almost two months after a 2013 season ended badly, general manager Jon Daniels has his fans rightfully awash in optimism and expectations.

This offseason began with the Rangers missing the playoffs for the first time in four years. They were the first team in eight years to win 91 games and miss the playoffs, but that was small consolation for their fans.

They'd blown a five-game lead in the final two weeks of 2012, and so after losing a tiebreaking 163rd game to the Rays in 2013, a playoff qualifier, all sorts of tough questions were being asked.

Was there something fundamentally wrong with the Rangers? Was the mix of players wrong? Was manager Ron Washington the right guy to lead them? Or was there simply a problem with talent?

After failing to re-sign Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli in free agency a year ago, the Rangers scored 78 fewer runs in 2013, falling from first to eighth in the big leagues in scoring. Texas had 54 games in which it scored two runs or fewer, fifth most in the AL. The offensive decline killed the Rangers, because both their rotation and bullpen were better in 2013. Their defense was also better in 2013.

So Daniels had a simple mandate for this offseason: offense, offense, offense. First, he made one of the bombshell deals of the winter by acquiring Fielder from the Tigers for second baseman Ian Kinsler.

With that move alone, Daniels added a guy who has averaged 35 home runs in eight big league seasons to the middle of his lineup, a player with a left-handed swing perfect for the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington.

And on Saturday, Daniels did that other thing, agreeing to a deal with Choo worth $130 million over seven years. He's a perfect fit. Texas was seventh in the AL in on-base percentage, and Choo is coming off a season in which he had a .423 OBP for the Reds. That's why baseball people call him an on-base machine.

Actually, Choo is more than that, way more than that. He had 162 hits, 34 doubles, 21 home runs, 112 walks and 20 stolen bases for the Reds in 2013.

In Choo and Fielder, Daniels acquired two players who are ninth and 10th among active players in on-base percentage. They're an eyelash behind Miguel Cabrera and right in front of Matt Holliday and Alex Rodriguez.

Suddenly, a lineup that looked so vulnerable last season could line up this way:

1. Choo, LF
2. Elvis Andrus, SS
3. Adrian Beltre, 3B
4. Fielder, 1B
5. Alex Rios, RF
6. Mitch Moreland, DH
7. Geovany Soto, C
8. Jurickson Profar, 2B
9. Leonys Martin, CF

In terms of speed and power, there aren't many teams better. Again, though, the strength of the Rangers is a rotation that begins with Yu Darvish and Derek Holland and a bullpen loaded with hard throwers (Neftali Feliz, Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers) even after the departure of free-agent closer Joe Nathan.

When Daniels announces the Choo signing, he'll caution people that expectations mean little. There were various points the last two seasons when Texas appeared to be the AL's best team. Around midseason last summer, he didn't even want to hear it.

"Hey, we were the Flavor of the Month for a while last season, too," Daniels said.

After winning the AL pennant in 2010 and '11, there's a World Series-or-bust expectation among Rangers fans. To get from here to there is an improbable climb even in the easiest of seasons.

Still, Daniels has put Texas in a good place. With the A's, Angels and Mariners also better, with the Astros on the rise, the AL West could give us a fun ride next summer. The Rangers appear likely to lead the way.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Texas Rangers, Shin-Soo Choo