Rangers Report Card: Last place in the West

by Dan M | Posted on Friday, April 27th, 2018

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DIC HUMPHREY
DHUMPHREY24@GMAIL.COM

ARLINGTON, Texas – The first month of the Ranger season comes to a close this weekend and it hasn’t gone well for Texas.  They finished their first eight series with a 1-6-1 record, and are firmly entrenched in last place in the American League West with a 9-17 record, which puts them eight games out of first place; and perhaps worse, five games in the loss column out of fourth place.
The big story for the Rangers has been injuries.  One of baseball’s long time adages is to be good; a team needs to be strong up the middle – catcher, pitcher, second base, shortstop and centerfield.  The Rangers lost players at each of those positions, except catcher, starting with center fielder Delino Deshields in the second game of the year.  He is actually back more quickly than expected from a broken hamate bone, but his absence was a huge loss for the offense.  His plus-plus speed at the top of the batting order was sorely missed, as the Rangers have been averaging fewer than 3.5 runs per game.
Next to go down was second baseman Rougned Odor with a hamstring injury.  This one looked like it might not hurt all that much.  Odor was struggling, and Jurickson Profar was waiting in the wings to take over.  Some regular time for Profar had the potential to benefit the Rangers from a number of angles.  Good play from Profar could increase his trade value, or perhaps establish him as the starting shortstop or second baseman going forward.
However, shortly thereafter, shortstop Elvis Andrus was hit in the elbow with a pitch, breaking a bone.  The injury did not require surgery, but he’s out for more than a month.  The middle infield situation looked dimmer, as Profar moved to shortstop and the Rangers rushed Isiah Kiner-Falefa up from AAA.  However, only four games into that experiment, Profar was upended turning a double play and missed games because of MLB’s concussion protocol.  At that point, the middle infield situation looked bleak.  Profar is back, but Odor is still at least two weeks away, and Andrus is looking to return around June 1.
This week, the infield took another hit when Adrian Beltre strained his left hamstring.  An MRI revealed only a grade 1 strain, but he’ll be out at least three weeks.  For now, Kiner-Falefa moves to third base, and Drew Robinson takes over at second.
The starting pitching was also affected.  Doug Fister, perhaps the best Ranger starter in the early going went to the disabled list after his third start.  He was activated this week and started Wednesday’s game against the A’s.  Reliever Tony Barnette came off the disabled list, but was back on after just two appearances, though he is expected to return this weekend in Toronto.  There was optimism that Tim Lincecum would make a contribution to the bullpen, but his progress is slow, and he’s been moved to the 60-day disabled list.  He won’t be seen in Arlington until late May at the earliest, and probably later.
So far though, the Rangers’ bullpen has been really good on the road and really bad at home.  That is the main reason they are 5-5 on the road and 4-12 at home.
The terrible start has brought into question the direction of the team.  GM Jon Daniels said after last season that he expected the Rangers to compete for a spot in the playoffs this year.  That might have been the company line last fall when the team was selling 2018 season tickets, but the player moves so far look much more like the team is rebuilding.
There were quality free agents that didn’t sign until late in the free agent season that came at bargain prices, yet the Rangers weren’t in the game for players like Lance Lynn, a starting pitcher that would upgrade the rotation.
In spring training, the Rangers said they would give Ryan Rua a real shot at the left field job, and instead of moving Joey Gallo around three positions, he would be the regular first baseman to hopefully improve his offense and defense.
Both those ideas are out the window with the injuries, and looking at the call-ups, younger players are getting a chance.  Kiner-Falefa, a lightly regarded middle infield prospect is now a regular, and Ronald Guzman, the most Major League ready AAA prospect, is now a starter.      Guzman is a first baseman, so Gallo moved to left field and Rua has moved to either Round Rock or the bench.  He’s been demoted and brought back twice in the last 10 days.  Both youngsters are holding their own offensively.  Guzman looks really good at first base, and Kiner-Falefa looks fundamentally sound.
The pitching was the main concern, and the rag-tag starting rotation that Daniels assembled is decent.  Bartolo Colon has become a fan favorite.  At 5’-10” and 285, his nickname is naturally “Big Sexy”.    Amazingly, he throws mainly fastballs, very few of which crack the 90 mph level.  Somehow he gets outs.  Mike Minor has been the best of the new acquisitions.  Minor is a product of the Vanderbilt baseball factory.  The Rangers are trying to keep his workload down as he moves from the bullpen to the rotation after arm surgery, so he only starts every sixth or seventh day.  Fister has been pretty solid too.  He’s a fan’s delight as he works fast.  His games don’t drag.  Matt Moore has been generally bad, but his last two starts show promise.
That leaves the holdovers – Cole Hamels and Martin Perez.  They are capable of giving a solid performance that gives the Rangers a good chance to win, but they can’t do it consistently.
The bullpen is another story.  Good on the road – terrible at home.  There are so many holes, it will be tough to rebuild on the fly.  It’s also suffering from overuse as the starters rarely complete even six innings.
This foreshadows even more roster urnover.  Clearly veterans Beltre and Hamels will be shopped around to contenders.  They may not be the only ones.  Andrus has an opt-out clause after this season, so he could be made available too.
The Ranger fans have caught on.  There have already been four crowds of fewer than 20,000.  The attendance for the Angels on April 9 was 16,718, the smallest Ranger home crowd since 2010.  The announced attendance includes all tickets sold, so it’s safe to assume that 2,000 – 3,000 tickets were sold on an individual basis.  The season ticket base then is certainly below 15,000.
All this may put manager Jeff Banister on the hot seat.  For now, he gets a pass on the record because of the injuries, but there is no telling how long that lasts.  There have been whispers since he arrived that there was friction with some players.  His tough guy, grind it out approach hits some people the wrong way.  In 2015 and 2016, the Rangers won the division, and winning cures a lot of unhappiness.
After last year’s 78 wins season, the discontent grew louder.  The local beat writers have now confirmed there is truth to the whispers.  Daniels is said to have gotten direction for Banister to work on his communication skills.  The hire of Don Wakamatsu as bench coach was an effort to smooth relations between coaches and players.
Banister may not be the only one on the hot seat as this year’s team has become a punching bag for contenders.  A USA Today article this week has the Rangers as one of nine teams that are essentially out of contention with a 1.3% chance of making the playoffs.
Jon Daniels may be joining Banister on the hot seat.  The team is floundering with one of the 10 highest payrolls in baseball.  Salaries to Shin-Soo Choo, Cole Hamels, Prince Fielder, and Adrian Beltre zap up almost half of the total, with very little production.
The Ranger farm system was once ranked in the top five in the game, but in retrospect, it may have been overrated in those years.  The company line is that the system is now bereft of talent because of prospects for veteran trades to shore up contending teams in past years.  Certainly, a number of those deals happened, but few of the prospects have panned out.  The bottom line is that the Rangers haven’t done well at drafting and developing talent, especially on the pitching front.
Not getting into the playoffs is one thing.  Being one of the dregs of Major League baseball is another.  This is surely alarming to ownership as they prepare to gouge fans for larger ticket prices as they move into the new stadium in 2020.  It’s a much easier sell if the team is a contender.
The Rangers have at least a couple of other problems getting back to being a West Division contender:
The Houston Astros – They won the World Series last year and they looked better on paper going into this season.  Having Justin Verlander for the whole year and adding Garrett Cole has solidified their pitching staff.  Through the first month of the season, they have looked better on the field than last year; plus they have a very good farm system.  They have three big stars – Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa.  The Astros have already signed an extension with Altuve, and if they can keep the other two in the fold, especially Correa, they will be serious contenders for a long time.
The Los Angeles Angels – They look energized with the addition of Shohei Ohtani.  The young Japanese Phenom has proven to be more phenomenal than even his most enthusiastic supporters believed.  He won his first two starts, including a gem in his second start.  He was perfect through six innings before finally surrendering a hit in the seventh.  On the offensive side, he got a hit in his first at bat, and later homered in three straight games.  The Angels’ pitching looks suspect, but they are giving the Astros a run for the division lead.
The Rangers, on the other hand, are struggling to stay out of the cellar.  Oakland has been the cellar dweller for years, but they look poised to move up in the standings.  The Mariners are probably better than last year, but they aren’t in the class with Houston and Los Angeles.
The bottom line for Texas is that 2018 looks like a long season, and getting back to contender status isn’t going to happen soon.

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