First half debrief: Despite heavy blows, Rangers remain standing
When the season started for the 2016 Texas Rangers, the fans held lofty expectations. Certain professionals had them listed as division winners, at the least, and a select few were expecting a potential rematch of the 2010 World Series, pitting Texas against the San Francisco Giants. Barring the one “baseball nerd” that has Texas winning just over 80 games, it’s safe to say that the Rangers are exceeding expectations. With a winning percentage of .600 at first half’s end, Texas is on pace for 97 wins which would be tied for the most in team history. They own the American League’s best record, and have the best record in franchise history through the first half at 54-36. At times, it’s seemed like they’ve been held together with chicken wire and duct tape, but hey if you’re really skilled at putting things together with chicken wire and duct tape you can put out a really great product.
Biggest Surprises (Positive)
1. Ian Desmond: I don’t think there’s a doubt in anyone’s mind that Ian Desmond has been the biggest free agent steal across baseball in 2016. There’s no chance that the Texas Rangers have the record they have without him in their lineup, and Desmond has parlayed that worth into his second All-Star nomination.
Among his accomplishments so far?
- Played left field for the first time as a starter, effortlessly.
- Played center field for the first time as a starter, effortlessly.
- Leading the team in Batting Average (.322), RBI (55), On Base Percentage (.375), On Base Plus Slugging (.898), Total Bases (182), hits (113), doubles (22), stolen bases (15), and…number of pitches seen (1459).
- Completely endearing himself to the fans by saying all of the right things.
“I don’t think it could be any more clear that I’m where I’m supposed to be…And I’m grateful for that, extremely grateful for that, because I’m having the time of my life, the time of my career. It’s just awesome. It’s amazing how things worked out.” – Tyler Kepner, New York Times.
At this point, it doesn’t look like anything can slow Desmond down. He’s been immune to the injury bug and whatever slump has affected his teammates at times. Does this mean Desmond can be here to stay for longer than this year?
That’s another topic for another article.
2. Catcher Magic: The revolving door at catcher came to a halt this year with the continued presence of Robinson Chirinos, in his third year with Texas. The team also acquired Texas native Bryan Holaday from the Tigers in exchange for a pitcher who never pitched in the organization and Bobby Wilson, who would later be reacquired in a separate trade. When Chirinos suffered a fractured forearm after a hit by pitch, prospect Brett Nicholas stepped up. For the season, the Rangers catchers have been able to put up a respectable catcher’s line with a collective slash of .236/.288/.424, 13 HR and 47 RBI.
3. Elvis Andrus: It might seem weird to find Andrus on the list of “surprises.” I don’t think anyone’s surprised that the 27-year old was able to put the tragedy of Game 5 of the ALDS behind him; in fact he probably put it out of his head two days after it happened. However, the way Andrus has rebounded could be seen as a surprise.
After playing eight seasons in the pros, it can be easy to forget that Andrus is just coming into his prime. At the break he’s slashing .294/.349/.422, which would be career highs if he can keep up this unrealistic pace. Defensively, he’s also looked much better than the abomination that was his first half last season. Remember at one point Andrus was on pace to make 44.5 errors in 2015.
Now though, Andrus is well on his way to putting up his best season since 2012. Not coincidentally, that would be the year before he signed his big extension with Texas. Is he putting up a $15 million season? The jury’s still out on the big picture, but this half season points to yes.
Biggest Surprises (Negative)
1. The Bullpen – Admittedly, once they got their sea legs under them, the bullpen improved by leaps and bounds. At the outset of the season, however, the Rangers were touted to have a super bullpen, fronted by Shawn Tolleson, Sam Dyson, and Jake Diekman. They were backed up by newcomers Tom Wilhelmsen, Tony Barnette, and Matt Bush.
On paper, that was a deadly bullpen.
The problem was that Wilhelmsen, Tolleson, and Barnette were entirely ineffective in the first month and a half. Wilhelmsen’s debut was disastrous, giving up five earned runs including two homers to his former club. He never recovered, and although he put up three outings without an unearned run, he gave up another five the next time out. He was relegated to low leverage situations and eventually sent down, an assignment which he refused before going back to the Mariners. Tolleson was booted from his incumbent role as closer, finding himself entering games earlier than he was used to. He has since been decent since returning from the Emergency Medical Leave list, but the real turnaround story has been for Barnette. The former closer from Japan has worked his way into one of the high leverage roles on the team. That doesn’t detract from the fact that the bullpen still has one of the worst ERAs in the majors at 4.42 with one of the highest workloads at 806 innings. The next section details why the workload has been so rough.
2. Rotation Injuries: It’s not realistic to expect a rotation to stay with its original five starters for the whole season. Injuries happen for sure, but when 3/5 of the Rangers rotation were taken down by various setbacks and injuries within two weeks of each other, the one time best rotation in the American League was dealt a severe blow. Colby Lewis, arguably the Rangers’ best pitcher to start the year (6-1, 3.21 ERA), suffered a lat strain and won’t be back until September. Derek Holland, not arguably the Rangers’ worst pitcher to start the year (5-5, 5.20 ERA), ended up being sidelined with a shoulder injury without any significant progress towards recovery. Both happened after the team found that Yu Darvish would be back on the DL with shoulder and neck problems. Since then, the rotation has been patched together with Cesar Ramos (6.04 ERA), Nick Martinez (6.45), Chi-Chi Gonzalez (8.71), and Kyle Lohse who, to his credit, battled through his one start to try and save some innings for the bullpen.
3. Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland – When you look at the stats of the two left handed supposed power hitters on this club, it’s remarkable that the club ranks 3rd in the AL in runs scored. Thankfully, the lineup is balanced enough throughout that they can score runs with more than just a long ball. That doesn’t negate the fact that there are two practical black holes in the middle of the lineup.
For Prince, fresh off of winning “Comeback Player of the Year,” the signs of regression happened in the second half of last season. Fielder dropped from hitting .339/.403/.521 in the first half to a much less impressive .264/.348/.394 in the second half. Even so, the .216/.296/.343 line he’s posted this year should be viewed not just as concerning but outright disturbing.
Moreland, going into his contract year, isn’t doing himself any favors, slashing just .229/.296/.411. Luckily his defense hasn’t suffered, which is the only bright side to keeping him on the field. Offensively though, Moreland is on his way to putting up the worst year of his career. Both Moreland and Fielder need to start regressing back to their career averages, especially as the team heads down the stretch.
Despite finishing poorly, losing nine of the last eleven, Texas still hold the best record in the American League as well as a 5.5 game lead over Houston. This isn’t like years past, where upgrades made during the trade season were not necessarily requirements to improve the club. This year there is a clear need, two actually. Jon Daniels will need to go out and get two arms, a starter and reliever. Even if/when Darvish and Holland come back, their workloads will be monitored even more closely than before. A.J. Griffin‘s workload is already being watched, as he’s shown signs of being very hittable since coming back from his last DL stint. As far as the bullpen goes Dyson, Diekman, Bush and Barnette are already pushing their limits, with Dyson and Diekman coming off of seasons in which they were used to extreme limits. Bush is coming off of two whole years away from throwing competitively.
Trust in JD, though, Rangers fans. He’s not blind to the needs of the club and knows that the lead that the team worked so hard to build up can’t go to waste.