Rangers first half better than expected

by Dan M | Posted on Saturday, June 29th, 2019

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BY DIC HUMPHREY
DHUMPHREY24@GMAIL.COM
Member United States Basketball Writers Association

The Rangers finished the first half of their schedule this week
by sweeping a three-game series from the Tigers in Detroit.  The Texas
offense managed to score just 12 runs in the series, but dominant
pitching, especially from the starting pitchers, led to the sweep.
Jesse Chavez, Mike Minor and Ariel Jurado combined to toss 22-1/3rd
innings allowing two runs only one of which was earned.
Texas goes into the weekend with a 45-36 record, a season high
nine games over .500 and far better than anyone, even General Manager
Jon Daniels, expected.  Double those numbers and the Rangers’ record
projects to 90-72.

The Rangers have closed to within 4.5 games (four in the loss
column) of the Astros in the American League West, such that they have
a chance to win the division title.  As for the Wild Card, they are
solidly in the mix with Tampa Bay, Boston, Cleveland and Oakland for
one of the two Wild Card berths.  After Thursday’s games, they held
the second Wild Card position, trailing Tampa Bay by one game for the
first Wild Card berth, and one-half game ahead of Cleveland.  Boston
is 1.5 games behind the Rangers, and Oakland trails Texas by 2.5
games.

The worry for the Rangers going into the season was the pitching
staff, particularly the starting rotation. Minor finished 2018 very
strong, and free agent Lance Lynn was signed during the off season.
The team felt they had at least a serviceable one and two punch with
this pair.  They have actually been much better than serviceable.
They have combined to win 17 games, and Minor’s 2.40 ERA leads the
American League.

The Rangers filled out the opening day rotation with three
pitchers that were recovering from arm surgeries, pitchers that
essentially had not pitched in the Majors for a couple of years – Drew
Smyly, Shelby Miller and Edinson Volquez.  All three have failed
miserably.  Volquez hit the injured list after two starts.  He is
trying to come back, but it may not happen.  Smyly started nine games
and was demoted to the bullpen.  He had a nice three inning save, but
followed with a horrible outing in which he gave up home runs to three
consecutive batters. He was designated for assignment shortly
thereafter with a 1-5 record and an 8.42 ERA.  Miller is still in the
Rangers’ bullpen, but he may soon follow Smyly out the door.  He’s 1-3
with an 8.50 ERA.

In their place, Ariel Jurado and Adrian Sampson have stepped up.
Jurado is 5-3 with a 3.90 ERA, after throwing seven shutout innings
against the Tigers on Thursday afternoon.  That’s not spectacular, but
he’s been good enough to keep the Rangers in a lot of games.  Samson
has a 6-4 record with a 4.14 ERA.  He has been inconsistent at times,
but he has also been spectacular on occasion.  The eleven wins these
two hurlers have accumulated account for much of the success the team
has experienced.

This week, the Rangers shuffled Jesse Chavez out of the bullpen
for his first true start in years.  He had served as an opener on a
couple of occasions this year, but last Tuesday he pitched into the
seventh inning allowing just one unearned run on five hits.  Granted
the opponent was the Detroit Tigers, one of the five worst teams in
baseball, but good teams are supposed to beat up on bad teams.
Perhaps the Rangers are good.

Daniels has historically done a good job of cobbling together
bullpens.  This year’s bullpen appeared to be set at closer when the
year began with Jose Leclerc, who saved 12 games in 12 opportunities
last season after Keone Kela was traded.  Leclerc has been, and
continues to be, an enigma….he blew two saves early in the season.
Those games coupled with some shaky performances in non-save
situations lost Leclerc the closer designation.  He looks like the
2018 Leclerc on some occasions and gets knocked around on others.
He’s still an important piece to the back end of a winning game, but
he isn’t likely to be anointed closer again any time soon.

Two other bullpen hands have been back end anchors – Shawn Kelley
and Chris Martin.  Kelley recently said that he had decided to retire
after last season.  When Chris Woodward became the Rangers’ manager,
he called Kelley and talked him into giving baseball another year.
Kelley agreed and has been a terrific addition to the pen. He’s taken
some lumps on occasion, but has a 3-2 record, 11 saves and a 2.79 ERA.
His veteran presence has helped the younger pitchers too.
Martin has also been a key at the back end of games.  He has saved
three games with a 3.48 ERA.

It’s a bullpen that was taxed heavily by poor starting pitching
early.  However, since Jurado and Sampson fell into place in the
rotation, the bullpen workload has lessened and the performance has improved.
Brett Martin didn’t make the opening day roster, but he appears to
be the top lefty in the pen at this point. Moving Chavez into the
starting rotation definitely leaves a hole in the relief corps, but there may be help on the way.
Matt Bush is finally back from the injury that ended 2018 early and
precipitated surgery.  He has been absolutely spectacular at AA Frisco
and will likely move on up to Arlington soon.

When the season began, there was a lot of speculation that the
rebuilding Rangers would likely trade Minor and Lynn prior to the July
31 trade deadline to further re-stock the ailing farm system. At this
point, it is doubtful the club will let go of either one… and
possibly will even work to extend Minor’s contract past next season.
Adding another starting pitcher would give the team a better chance
to make the playoffs, as would a couple of solid relievers.

It is doubtful that the Rangers will give up any major prospects
for help this year.  They will probably be looking for second tier
starters. I.e., don’t expect Madison Bumgarner or Matt Boyd to be
wearing a Ranger uniform over the final third of the season.
As for relievers, there always seem to be a lot of them available
in July, which in turn lowers the price in prospects.  Undoubtedly,
Daniels will bring in at least a couple of veterans to shore up the
pen.

One reason the pitching has been so effective is the offense.
The Rangers have been leading, or near the league lead, in runs scored
per game.  Three veterans that the Rangers brought to training camp
are largely responsible. Hunter Pence, Logan Forsythe and Danny
Santana weren’t locks to make the opening day roster, and Santana in
fact didn’t.  All three have been major contributors.  Forsythe has
played all four infield positions.  Santana has played all three
outfield positions as well as first and second base.  They provide
tremendous flexibility when Woodward makes out his lineup.

Joey Gallo has stepped up his game as well. He and Pence were
finalists in the All-Star voting. Pence won and will start at
designated hitter for the American League. Candidly, he is probably
not the best choice based upon his statistical performance, but he has
always been an immensely popular player such that he received heavy
backing from his previous stops in the National League, most notably
San Francisco, in addition to the votes from Ranger fans.  On the
other hand, he has been a terrific boost to the younger players on the
Rangers and deserves a bushel of credit for the Rangers’ overall
success this year.

Gallo may still be named as a reserve.  After hitting two home
runs Thursday against the Tigers, his first multi-home run game this
year, Gallo’s OPS is up to 1.103.  After missing 22 games with an
oblique injury, he doesn’t have enough at-bats to qualify; but if he
did, that OPS would lead the league.  He’s become solid defensively in
the outfield and is nothing short of a super star budding right before
Ranger fans’ eyes.

Shin-Soo Choo is having his best season as a Ranger.  He has an
on base percentage of .384 and has scored 53 runs batting atop the
Rangers lineup.  Texas averages a league high 0.84 runs scored in the
first inning, and Choo accounts for much of the scoring.  Early leads
definitely make starting pitchers better.

Finally, manager Woodward and the coaching staff deserve a large
helping of credit for the Rangers turning into contenders.  Woodward
continues to emphasize process over results.  The thrust is that if
players stick to the process, the results will follow.  So many of the
situations noted above are a testament to the players sticking to the
process, believing in the instruction they are getting and the
analytics they are given to make themselves better.

The July 31 trade deadline is little more than four weeks away.
This year, the July trade activity promises to be extremely brisk, as
teams can no longer make trades after the non-waiver trade deadline.
With so many teams effectively tanking, there will be many
opportunities to shore up contending teams’ rosters.  The deals that
get made in July could well decide which teams will make the playoffs.
Jon Daniels needs to step up to keep this surprising Ranger team in
contention.

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