The Rangers won a series in Kansas City coming out of the Break, and that’s the prescription.
But in Sunday’s finale, with a chance to sweep, leaky defense betrayed a contender-level start out of Yu Darvish, and last night, in the opener of a set of four in Baltimore, more of the same, but this time it was Andrew Cashner who did enough but whose offense (which was no-hit for more than half a game by Jason Hammel in Friday’s win, and which was scoreless into the ninth in Saturday’s win) couldn’t do anything with Chris Tillman (lowering his ERA to 7.20) and whose defense, once again, factored into the scoring.
Both losses came in the seventh-or-later, and there have been 21 of those this season. That’s nearly half of the Rangers’ 47 losses.
A couple hours before Monday’s game broadcast would air on The Fan, Jon Daniels was on the station telling the Ben and Skin Show that it would be oversimplifying things to suggest the club’s win-loss record on this 10-game road trip and the homestand that follows will put the organization in the “Buyer” or “Seller” box in time for the July 31 trade deadline. What will be at least as instructive, if not more so, Daniels said, is how the team is playing.
Since the Break, the Rangers have won twice and lost twice. They’ve won a one-run game and lost a one-run game, won by two and lost by two. The rotation has been really good — quality starts every time out, and in fact now five in a row and seven out of eight — but the offense has been sluggish, the defense less than crisp, the bullpen reaffirming that it’s probably short a dependable arm or two in winning situations.
And all that against a couple of mediocre teams.
In Darvish’s last 10 starts, dating back to May 27, he’s fanned 63 and walked just 15 in 61.2 innings, holding opposing hitters to a .235/.294/.385 slash line.
The Rangers are 1–9 in those 10 games, scoring 25 runs.
At .238, in games started by Darvish or anybody else, Texas has the American League’s second-lowest batting average (third-lowest in baseball).
It’s unfortunate that, in a year when the starting pitching has been more than good enough, other facets of the team haven’t been as reliable.
What’s more unfortunate, potentially, is that Texas finds itself at the moment in that purgatory between “poised for 162+” and “looking to 2018.” Series wins are great, but what the Rangers really need — with the depths the club climbed in the second half of 2015 at readily accessible recall — is a string of those, with perhaps a sweep or two mixed in.
I’m not here to suggest I’d rather see Texas go 3–9 over these next 12 leading up to the trade deadline than 7–5 — but it sure would be helpful to know, before the end of the month, more about what this team is than we do at the moment.
And if going by JD’s other measure — evaluating the club not only based on its record but also on how it’s playing the game — there have been moments these last few days that were less than encouraging.
In that context, I wanted to share with you something that Joe Sheehan wrote in his Newsletter yesterday. I’m not sure I agree with the platform — that Texas should trade Darvish in the next 13 days — and there are a few other specific points I might take issue with, but Joe’s writing always makes me think, and I think the thought process he walks us through here (which includes this provocative comment about the mid-2017 Rangers: “They are as hard a buy/sell decision as I’ve seen in years”) is valuable.
Not to mention that it brings us in on an analysis that, at least theoretically, the folks at 1000 Ballpark Way have been engaged in for a good while now, keenly attentive to a whole bunch of factors, which on the surface include not only the standings, but also the brand of baseball the Rangers are playing and what that might be indicative of going forward.
The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 9, №49
July 17, 2017
After a walkoff 4–3 loss to the Royals yesterday, a game that ended with Shin-Soo Choo losing a ball in the sun to allow the winning run to score, the Rangers slipped back under .500 at 45–46. They are dead in the AL West race, of course, 16 ½ games behind the Astros, but they’re one of a half-dozen teams bunched in the AL Wild Card race. The Rangers begin the day 2 ½ games behind the Yankees for the second Wild Card, three back of the Rays for the top spot. Seven teams are separated by four games for the two playoff berths. Of those seven, the Yankees and Rays have far and away the best underlying performance, with the Mariners and Rangers next in line.
It’s been an odd year for the Rangers, who have essentially the same roster they had a year ago. Last year’s Rangers outscored their opponents by eight runs all season; they also rode a strong bullpen and unusually well-timed performance to a 36–11 record in one-run games. They won the AL West going away on the strength of that mark. This year’s Rangers have actually outscored their opponents by 31 runs in just about 60% of a season, but have underperformed that — they’re just 7–15 in one-run games. The bullpen that was so impressive last year imploded early in this one, and the team hasn’t hit nearly so well in high-leverage situations as it did in 2016.
The 2016–17 Rangers are likely to be one of the signature examples when we argue against the idea that teams have a particularly ability to win close games. There’s been minimal change in their personnel, no change in management, and yet a huge swing in close-game record. Playing well in close games isn’t a skill over and above playing well.
However they got here, the Rangers are now faced with a decision over what to do about it. The division title is out of reach, leaving them playing for half a playoff berth. We know that teams can advance to the World Series and even win one from the Wild Card Game, but it’s a daunting challenge — mathematically, assuming all playoff teams are equal, the Wild Card gives you a 6.25% chance at a title. Realistically, it’s far below that when you consider how often the Wild Card has to play better teams without home-field advantage. To pick a number, the Diamondbacks have the best chance of being a Wild Card team of any team in baseball, about 83%. They have a 3.1% chance to win the World Series. That’s what you’re playing for if you’re the Rangers, a chance at a chance at a chance.
About two weeks ago, we compared the Royals and the Twins, two teams then tied in the standings but with considerably different rosters and futures. The 2017 Rangers split the difference between those two. In Yu Darvish, they have a free agent who, after years lost to elbow surgery, is pitching at the level of a #2 starter. He’s been their nominal ace when healthy, and on any given day is still their ace. He’s also, pending how his season ends, in line to make at least $25 million a year in free agency. Were he to be made available in trade, he’d be as attractive a rental as there is — conceding that rentals tend to return less in trade than controlled players. The Rangers are also set to lose Carlos Gomez (31, hitting .251/.331/.471, rapidly losing his speed) and catcher Jonathan Lucroy (31, .257/.302/.361, rapidly losing his framing skill). They’re not the Royals, losing half their roster value on October 1, but the Rangers are in position to lose some players without getting much in return. It’s hard to see Texas making a qualifying offer to Gomez or Lucroy at this point.
Like the Twins, though, the Rangers are bringing along a core of young players who should be around for a while and should be able to contend. Three of the Rangers’ top five players by playing time are 23-year-old Rougned Odor, 22-year-old Nomar Mazara and 23-year-old Joey Gallo. 24-year-old Delino DeShields has been up and down while generating 1.8 bWAR with his OBP (.341) and legs (19/4 SB/CS, plus defense in left field). Jurickson Profar’s career has stalled, yet he’s still just 24 years old. The argument for selling is to bring in players who can join that group, particularly a true center fielder or a young starting pitcher.
The Rangers don’t have to think long term. While they are set to lose Darvish, Gomez, and Lucroy, they will retain much of their roster value into 2018, about 71% of the positive bWAR generated by the team so far. Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre, and Cole Hamels are all signed through at least 2018. The Rangers will also have a lot of money to play with; they have committed just $93 million in 2018 salaries, which gives them room to replace Darvish in the market, and will certainly have them at the forefront of Shohei Otani rumors all winter.
So the Rangers are nowhere near a rebuild, yet have about a 3-in-4 chance of missing the playoffs as-is. They have one incredibly attractive trade chip, and a few others — throw Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross out there, I guess — who could at least return a low-level prospect. The furthest out they should be focusing is next year, with much of the team’s productive players under contract, with a group of under-25 players who should be improving, and with plenty of money available for adding to the group.
And yet… 2 ½ games out. Mind you, 2 ½ games out with the memory of 2015 fresh in everyone’s, including the fans’, minds. The ’15 Rangers were 49–52 on the afternoon of July 31, 2015, when they traded a slew of prospects for Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman. At the time, with the Rangers eight games out in the West and four out in the Wild Card race behind five other teams, the deal seemed like a play for 2016. The Rangers went 39–22 after that, not only lapping the Wild Card field but chasing down the Astros to win the AL West. It’s hard to give up on a season in July when you did that just two years ago.
I like to say that for many teams in the Rangers’ spot, they want to either win seven in a row or lose seven in row, just to make the decision easier. The Rangers, by their place in the standings, by the composition of their roster, by the mix of contracts they hold, are in as tough a spot as you’ll ever see. There’s just no preponderance of evidence that points the team in one direction or another. There are still two weeks to the deadline, time for that seven-game streak to push Jon Daniels and his staff to one pole or the other. Today, however, the Rangers straddle the fence. They are as hard a buy/sell decision as I’ve seen in years.
Actually, that’s a misnomer. The Rangers are a hold/sell decision. With the young core, with the division out of reach, there’s no case for the Rangers to be a strong buyer. They shouldn’t be putting top-100 guys like Leody Taveras or Yohander Mendez into trades, shouldn’t be in play for the big-ticket items like Justin Verlander or Zach Britton or Andrew McCutchen. You don’t make a big play when your only hope is the Coin Flip Round.
No, the Rangers’ decisions are really just one: whether to keep or sell Darvish. He won’t bring back the Quintana package, but then again, Aroldis Chapman returned Gleyber Torres and then some for a third of the innings that Darvish will pitch. Realistically, the Rangers’ ask would be one top-50 type, and then a couple of other prospects. With their infield set and their intentions to contend in 2018, the Rangers have the luxury of focusing on close-to-the-majors outfielders were they to shop Darvish. Could they ask for Clint Frazier from the Yankees? Bradley Zimmer from the Indians? Derek Fisher from the Astros? The Rangers’ other short-term need is reliable, preferably controllable starting pitching. Would the Rockies move Jeff Hoffman for the top-end starter they need? How about the Rays with their upper-levels depth? Would they move Blake Snell or (and?) Jose De Leon (currently out with a lat strain) for the starter that pushes them closer to the Red Sox in the East?
The Rangers can trade 12–13 Darvish starts for more than 100 from a controllable pitcher, and they can use that pitcher in seasons where the top team in the AL West doesn’t run away and hide. As hard as it would be to part ways with someone who has been so important to the franchise, as hard as it would be to send this message to the team and the fans, the potential gain in trading Darvish — trading just 70 or 80 innings of him — is too high. The Rangers should cash in this chip.
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