Down The Stretch, Watch Out For The Wall
“It’s a long season.” “There’s a lot of baseball left.” “We’re in the dog days.”
There are all sorts of phrases to describe the baseball season, but everyone, fan of the game or not, knows that the season is long. 162 games, not including Spring Training or the Post-Season. Training for the rigors of 162 over the course of six months is unlike training in any other sport, as you’ll find that there are days when each athlete has to lay off the gas and not go through their routine workouts as hard as usual. The travel, albeit slightly more comfortable, is more exhausting than in the minors, and the Major League Baseball schedule makers have a difficult job trying to ensure that coast-to-coast trips, late night to day game turnarounds, and other rough stretches are minimized.
With that in mind, most teams have several faces that will need to be monitored in the last month of the regular season and either rested accordingly or not used in situations they normally would be used in. This is where the argument FOR expanded rosters comes in. Really, with any teams, but especially with teams in contention, being able to rest the guys that put you in the chase to begin with is huge. If you discover a hidden gem among your call-ups, that’s a bonus, but this time can best be utilized to rest the ones you need in the games past 162. Who does Jeff Banister need to keep a close eye on as the Rangers enter a surprisingly pivotal September?
DeLino DeShields coming back at full-force from a slight hamstring injury should be considered one of the Rangers’ biggest blessings. The Rule 5 Draft pick, bound to stay on the 25-man roster for the entire season or else be offered back to Houston for a robust $25,000, has more than proven his worth to this team since debuting on April 8th. He has proven to be a more-than-efficient center fielder, providing gap-to-gap coverage, displaying great closing speed, finding the best routes, and even without the hamate bone injury to Leonys Martin, has supplanted the supposed center fielder of the future for Texas as The Man in the outfield. He has been the perfect lead-off hitter, the straw that stirs the drink of the Rangers lineup. In his best month, May, he featured a slash line of .296/.406/.395, drawing fifteen walks, stealing ten bases, and mostly just letting people know that he didn’t want to go back to Houston.
The influx of roster talent might not have come at a better time for DeShields. Going into the last few days of August, the 22-year old, for the month, has hit to a .205/.287/.313 slash, and has struck out an (un)impressive twenty-six times. DeShields has never played through a full Major League season. At times, he’s seemed like he’s pressing at the plate, and truthfully, his first home run might have been a curse. In the nine games in between his home runs, since he had proclaimed that his bombs would come in bunches, DeShields has gone 6-for-36, struck out eleven times, walked only four times, and had not recorded an extra-base hit. Is he trying too hard? That’s a possibility, but so is the fact that he’s looking like he’ll play about 120 games after only hitting that mark in the minors once – three years ago.
Tolleson was not supposed to be the closer for the 2015 Texas Rangers. In fact, he Neftali Feliz’ed the role from Neftali Feliz, after Feliz proved that he could not be the 9th-inning man. He converted his first save on May 20th against Boston and proceeded to be successful in his next twelve save opportunities. After blowing one against the Padres, he converted the next twelve. Over that time, Tolleson has racked up a K/BB ratio of 4.43, a K/9 of 9.7, a WHIP of 1.099, and an ERA of 2.83.
Then he came into Tuesday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, tasked with protecting a one-run lead, something he has been tasked to do just ten times this season. He, along with the rest of the bullpen, were coming off of an off day, but Tolleson had pitched in three straight in Detroit. If it is possible for a player to look both amped up and tired, Tolleson achieved it. Continually trying to dot the outside corners of the plate, Tolleson would throw too hard or hold on to the ball for a split second too long, missing outside on what seemed like four out of five pitches.
In coming in to close an incredibly meaningful game against an incredibly difficult opponent, Tolleson may have been too wired – but that’s not a good excuse for a pitcher who has pitched in high-leverage situations for most of the last two seasons. Overcompensating? That might make more sense. Tolleson looked tired, and why wouldn’t he be? Sure, he was a setup man for all of last year, but there wasn’t anything on the line last year. His team wasn’t in a playoff race. This year, the stakes are higher, the stressful innings are more stressful and they’re coming more frequently as the offenses go toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow.
We’ve seen Banister rely on Sam Dyson for a couple of saves already this season, and if an infusion of fresher bullpen arms can maybe divide up the save opportunities between Dyson and Tolleson in September, maybe it’s not so scary seeing Tolleson come into games down the stretch.
What? Mr. Iron Man? The guy who only missed one game over four seasons and has been through a pennant race and played through a playoff series? Why is he on this list? Prince Fielder is coming back from neck surgery, a procedure that resulted in him missing an entire season of baseball. His self-imposed move to Designated Hitter was a smart move, not just for the team, but for Fielder as well, but it would behoove Rangers fans to realize that the days are gone of Fielder on the field every day. Banister has already given Fielder a couple of days off this season, and believe me, I have to do a double take when I see a lineup card without his name in it, but it makes sense. The acquisition of Mike Napoli to backup this lineup was made, not just with lefty pitchers in mind, but also because if both Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland need something of a break, a true first baseman can spell both of them.
We might already be seeing some of the effects of the last two seasons. After lighting up the plate in the first half with a .339/.403/.521 slash with a .924 OPS, Fielder’s second half has gone markedly worse. Since the All-Star break, Fielder’s slash line has dropped to .260/.327/.366 with an OPS of only .693. Sure, those are numbers that are fantastic for your average player, but Prince Fielder is not just your average player. While I’m sure Rangers fans did not expect his torrid hitting to continue for the entire season, a 22-game stretch of .247 with 12 strikeouts is not what any of us envisioned. Fielder will probably tell you, as will most of his teammates, that he needs to hit his way out of the slump, but his recent lack of production at the plate could not have come at a worse time for a Rangers team needing a few extra runs here and there.
The problem, of course, with where Texas is right now is that they have to have aces in their places, so to speak. Jeff Banister can ill afford to keep his game changers on the bench in this critical month, but at the same time, he needs to manage like the team is going to be going to the post-season. It would behoove the ball club to bring up a few fresh arms for the bullpen, along with another utility outfielder and infielder.
How Jeff Banister ends up utilizing his expanded roster in September is going to be key as well. A first year manager with a lot of shiny new toys to play with is dangerous, but a first year manager who wants to “dance with who brung him” can be equally as dangerous. Banister is known as a manager that plays to statistics, match-ups and percentages, but now he’s got a lot more of those to play with, and he’ll be going just off of what the scouting sheets from the minor leagues tell him. There are going to be certain horses that can’t or shouldn’t be ridden in September, and how Banister manages an expanded team is going to be very key to whether this team keeps playing past the regular season.