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Rangers preview: Aging Texas may not be able to wait till next year

The Texas Rangers sense the pressure.

They won the American League West in 2015 before losing — in excruciating fashion — to Toronto in the first round of the AL playoffs. They repeated as division champs in 2016 only to be swept by the Blue Jays in the postseason.

And as the 2017 season opens, the Rangers aren’t getting any younger. Adrian Beltre turns 38 Friday. Mike Napoli is 35. Cole Hamels and Shin-Soo Choo are 33. Meanwhile, Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy, both 30, enter their free-agent seasons.

“We’re built to win now,” said Napoli, a huge fan favorite who signed a one-year, $8.5 million contract after helping Cleveland win the AL championship in 2016. “We have guys who’ve been around the block, played in October and are missing one thing. The ring.”

Napoli and the Rangers will be able to quickly gauge where they’re at as a club. They open Monday against the Indians in Arlington.

Beltre, who’s 58 hits shy of joining the 3,000 club, might not be there. The five-time Gold Glove winner with 1,571 RBIs has a left calf strain and already is a candidate for the disabled list. If he’s out, that would open the door for eternal prospect Joey Gallo to start at third base.

The clock is ticking for Beltre, who was 1 for 28 this spring, and he feels the heat.

“I want to play, but it’s a long season and I just don’t want to blow it up,” he said.

“If we win the World Series this year, maybe I won’t ever come back here. That’s the only thing I wanted to accomplish that keeps me going every morning.”

Many in the media — and in Las Vegas, too — think the Rangers missed their best shot. The American-Statesman looked at predictions from 15 analysts and only five picked Texas to hold onto the division title. Houston is the favorite, with Texas running slightly ahead of, or behind, Seattle.

Just don’t tell the general manager the Rangers’ window could be closing.

“I don’t like that term,” Jon Daniels told the American-Statesman during spring training in Surprise, Ariz. “Window of opportunity implies that you’re only trying to win for a certain period of time. We’re not going to take our foot off the gas.

“Now we have years where our talent fluctuates some (and) injuries will always play a role, but we have the resources to consistently compete. We have high expectations here, and you stay with them.”

Assistant general manager Mike Daly said when Daniels took over in 2006, he asked his management team to create a window and see how long they could keep it open.

“Since 2008, we’ve finished first four times, second four times and below that only once,” Daly pointed out. “We’ve had five playoff apperances and back-to-back trips to the World Series (2010-11).

“You look at organizations like St. Louis and Boston who seldom experience dips. How do we keep the window open? It’s a goal we talk about often. We’re very proud of being competitive for all that time. It’s a credit to the vision JD has laid out and ownership’s willingness to spend.”

Daniels, whose $144 million payroll was eighth in the majors last year and sits closer to $160 million now, acknowledged the AL West appears more challenging than in 2016.

“Every club has a case to be improved. That said, we feel our roster is strong,” he said. “We feel like 1 to 25, we’re deep. When at full strength, we’re a pretty complete team.”

Yet Rangers fatigue isn’t the only reason so many people are looking elsewhere for a division champ. Sabermetricians point to all kinds of stats that indicate the club was lucky last year, including a plus-8 run differential that was just eighth best in the league. The Red Sox, for instance, were +184, the Indians +101.

“We’ve seen those numbers, but there’s an art to winning close games with a good bullpen, clutch defense, timly hitting and having a manager like Banny (Jeff Banister) who pulls the right strings,” Daniels said.

This year’s success largely depends on a rotation that offers an excellent one-two punch with Darvish and Hamels but then a lot of question marks in Martin Perez and injured free-agent acquisitions Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross. Cashner (sore right biceps), a TCU alum, should be back in a few weeks; Ross (thoracic outlet syndrome) could be out a month.

“I think it’s as talented a group as we’ve had,” Daniels told the Statesman. “The top two are comparable to anyone’s. Martin is just scratching the surface. Tyson was one of the best starters in the National League for 2013, ‘14 and ‘15. Cash has big upside. We’ve got to get these guys healthy and keep them healthy. We can wait on them early. We want to finish strong.”

In the meantime, some combination of A.J. Griffin, Dillon Gee and Mike Hauschild will fill in.

There’s also the question about potential breakout seasons by such former top prospects as Gallo and Jurickson Profar, who can play six positions. Can they make the kind of leaps that second baseman Rougned Odor and right fielder Nomar Mazara accomplished in 2016.

“Profar and Gallo, they are X factors,” Daly said. “One of these years, their careers are going to take off and make us all very happy.”

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