Even if it breaks your heart

“Pennant races drain the energy from the best of them. Old-fashioned baseball races are to me the most grueling daily test in any sport. Gotta keep coming out, every day, in the face of looming disaster.”  – sportswriter George Vecsey

I wrote this team off at the end of April.

And again at the end of May. I didn’t call for the proverbial fire sale, but I came as close as you can get.

I wanted at least the trades that did happen (Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy), if not more.

Heck, as of early June, I had everyone not named Odor, Mazara, Bush or Beltre open for discussion.

It’s true. As Casey Stengel would say, you can look it up.

I say that to say the following, in full-throated, from-the-heart earnestness: this is the easiest Ranger team to root for I can recall since at least the World Series teams. 

Easier than the 2015 overachiever squad. Easier than the 2016 league-leading bunch. Easier than the pretenders to the pennant throne in 2012. And it’s not that close.

It’s joyous. It’s lovable. It’s non-traditional.

It’s also a roller coaster of emotion, and a grab bag of “you never know what you’re gonna get” from night to night.

It’s greatness for Rangers fans.

Wait, what? This team? THIS one? The .500 Boys? The guys that were dead from the neck down as of June 1st?

YES!

Why? Because they can’t lose.

They’re like Mookie Wilson AFTER the ball got past Rich Gedman in the ‘86 World Series:

“When I came to the plate, we were losing. Now, all of a sudden, I’m still at the plate, and we’re tied. Now, I can’t lose.” – Mookie Wilson, after a wild pitch scored the tying run before his ground ball through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series

Why quote Mookie here? Because that’s where the Rangers are right now.

They didn’t trade the farm for Cole Hamels, or Carlos Beltran, or Jeremy Jeffress, or Lucroy. They went the OTHER way. They traded Yu. And still, there’s life in these veins.

Think about that for a minute; let it soak in. THE cream-of-the-trade crop? This team’s #1 starter?

GONE.

As of July 31st, they were dead and just didn’t know it. Now, after taking three of four in Anaheim, they’re one game over .500, plus three Dodgers prospects, minus one ace, 1 games out of the last Wild Card spot, and needing to pass just four teams). Is that a long shot? Heck yes.

But remember this: on the day of the Darvish trade, they were five games under .500 (50-55), and 5.5 games back of the last wild card spot.

Since trading Yu Darvish, they’ve gone 14-8 and gotten to a +33 in run differential (second in the Wild Card race to the Yankees, who lead with a distant +124).

They are playing with house money. They waved the white flag. You want to know the last team to trade their only All-Star and STILL make the playoffs? I don’t, because I can’t find one. This would be, legitimately, unprecedented.

And if we, as I suspect, these Rangers will, end up watching the one-game Wild Card play-in game from various offseason hunting lodges and golf courses, so what? For three months of Yu Darvish, we got three prospects, one of whom (Willie Calhoun) looks like a legit hitter, positional challenges be damned.

So how, if all this isn’t really legit, do we hope to get to the playoffs? Because make no mistake: IF we make the playoffs, well, anything can happen. Wild Card teams win as readily as dynasties do, ever since the era of the Yankees Core Four dynasty ended with the Diamondbacks win in 2001. Get to a 4 of 7, let alone a one-game WIld Card play-in, and anything can happen.

So how do the Rangers do it?

Be who they are

This is a team of streaky hitters. Period.

Mike Napoli? Streak guy, throughout his career.

Joey Gallo? Absolute streak, on top of being a three-true-outcomes hitter at his core (HR, walk, strikeout).

Mazara and Odor? Streakers.

Now, while I see a lot of consistency potential in Mazara’s ability to inside-out balls to short left, he’s not the powerful hitter we pay him to be when he does that. To be power-first Nomar Mazara, he has to be able to strike out or roll over some balls to second trying to pull one into the upper deck, or pop one to left trying to stay back and drive opposite field.

As for Rougie, honestly, is there any doubt?

Robinson Chirinos? A rock behind the plate, second only to Beltre in the clubhouse, but at the dish, he’s a streaky, pull-heavy hitter. That said, he’s gone from the best backup catcher in baseball to, well, a very solid all-around starting catcher, with a lot of pop at the dish.

The only streak-proof players in the Ranger lineup? To an extent, Shin-Soo Choo’s patience helps him stay out of prolonged slumps. Elvis Andrus has been consistently good all year. And Beltre is Beltre. Keep him healthy enough to be on the field and you’ve got a consistent 1-for-3 most nights, at least.

So what does that mean for September?

In Banny, we trust

“I don’t think a manager should be judged by whether he wins the pennant, but by whether he gets the most out of the twenty-five men he’s been given.” – “We are Family” 1979 Pirates manager Chuck Tanner

In my view, Jeff Banister’s #1 job is to create a clubhouse atmosphere where the most players can be at their best, day in and day out, over the course of a season, but particularly when the grind hits—and this is the grinder of pennant-race baseball.

So far, I’ve seen nothing to make me doubt he does that, so I’m not about to say change a thing there. Even if there were slips, guys like Beltre, Napoli, and Chirinos have been through this before and police the locker room atmosphere well (as does, to an extent, a guy like Hamels—although pitchers run on a different wavelength. They’re like the snipers in a platoon full of grunts. Everyone knows they can make or break a battle, but nobody really knows how they tick, and nobody is dumb enough to try and mirror them step for step).

So let’s assume the clubhouse and culture are locked in, because this team, over the last two years, has given us no reason to think anything less.

From there, the tactician in Banny has to shine.

I don’t know if field generalship is what the Rangers look for first in him. I don’t think, for instance, he’s going to make anyone forget Billy Martin or Whitey Herzog anytime soon, when it comes to game management.

As far as that goes, though, it’s not about matchups with the other manager. It’s about reading the heat maps for his club. I don’t care if Delino Deshields is 0-for-September; if you’re read on him Thursday is that he’s hot and ready to break, you say, “Screw the stats” and  you play the man.

This has to be Banny from the Belly, trusting his gut and the instinct that 30 years in baseball and three years as skipper of this club has gotten him. Period.

When you’re riding horses that run hot and cold, versus warm and cool, you can’t ride the same lineup for two weeks straight – at least, not usually. You have to read today based on the vibe you get in the clubhouse, during BP, pre-game. It’s got nothing to do with yesterday’s box score.

It’s all about gut; and for that, I’ll trust the skipper; he’s two-for-two in postseason pushes so far. This’ll be his most daunting test, though, by far.

In the ‘pen, trust the kids—but not necessarily the ones you’ve heard of

To win in October, the 40-man roster expansion, and which kids emerge, is the make-or-break component so many times. You’ve got to rely on the kids for the almighty bullpen and spot-start help you need down the stretch.

I think Yohander Mendez has the potential to be a game-changing reliever since he has some MLB time under his belt. We saw him last year. He has one of those “wipeout” changeups that has the potential to remind you of Jeff Zimmerman’s slider a generation later.

Connor Sadzeck has a 70-grade fastball; when I’ve seen it at Frisco, though, there just wasn’t enough command to it. As we’ve seen with Shawn Tolleson, 96 and located poorly, or without movement, still gets hit hard, so we have to have command and movement.

To be clear: Sadzeck has better stuff than Tolleson, so I’m not comparing the two. I just haven’t seen consistent dominance from Sadzeck yet, and I tend to lean towards performance versus stuff or potential when it comes to projecting prospects. And in terms of stuff, you won’t find many with as much easy heat as Connor.

But beyond that, look past the true prospects; simply put, they’re mostly in the low minors and way too important, in their developmental cycles, to risk their confidence with a too-soon, full-pressure September in The Show.

But see, the OTHER kids are the guys that make the team loveable. They’re guys that probably won’t alter a franchise’s course, but they might tweak a season’s destiny; they come in and help the team win games.

Case in point? Austin Bibens-Dirkx, the most lovable player on the Rangers this side of Belts He came in as a hero for the rest of us, and has instead made a true impact on the season, winning games he shouldn’t have won and hearts he couldn’t help but win.

But four picks for September piqué my curiosity: Nick Gardewine and Ricardo “Ricky” Rodriguez with Frisco (both of whom have made the Rangers roster in the last days and weeks, and Ricky has shown something), and Sam Wolff and Preston Claiborne from Round Rock.

First, lets consider the minor league numbers for those four in 2017:

Lev ERA IP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
Gardewine AA 2.41 33.2 1.396 9.4 0.5 3.2 13.4 4.17
Rodriguez A+-AA 1.34 47 0.723 4.6 0.2 1.9 11.7 6.1
Wolff AAA-AA 2.93 43 1.302 7.7 1 4 12.3 3.11
Claiborne AAA 1.89 38 1.368 8.8 0.5 3.6 9.9 2.8

Now, most of these guys have seen at least a cup of coffee in the show. Claiborne, at 29, has 63 big league appearances across 3 seasons, but none were particularly impressive; his career ERA is 4.05.

None has a particularly impressive scouting report.

The best I could find on Gardewine was his college scouting report:

“….He’s small (6-foot-1, 165 pounds) but has a quick arm and clean delivery that produce quality stuff. Those traits prompt comparisons to Matt Stites, a former juco pitcher at Jefferson (Mo.) is now a reliever in the Padres system. Gardewine may wind up in the bullpen as well because his size leads to durability concerns. He has the pitches and throws enough strikes to have a chance as a starter, however. His best offering is a cutter that can reach 90 mph. He sits at 90-91 mph and peaks at 94 with his fastball, and he mixes in a hard breaking ball and a changeup.”

Hmmn. OK, what about Rodriguez? Well, as MiLB noted as of his early August callup:

“Rodriguez, 24, is in the midst of a stellar season between the RoughRiders, Texas’ Double-A affiliate, and Advanced-A Down East. In 35 outings, he’s 5-1 with a 1.34 ERA and has converted all 17 of his save chances. He has only permitted runs in three of his 35 appearances this season.

The righty gained notoriety throughout the farm system when he retired 45 consecutive batters in a 12-outing span with Down East from May 14-June 28. He leaves Frisco having allowed two runs in 15 innings, including 11 1/3 consecutive scoreless frames to close out his time with the squad.”

Fair enough. Those are legit credentials, even if most of it is at Down East. You don’t retire 45 consecutive guys with smoke and mirrors, even in A ball.

What about Wolff? Again, he’s not a primo prospect, so for a glimpse, we have to look back at his 2013 draft scouting report from Baseball America:

“Wolff is a South Dakota product who played four sports in high school and was a 42nd-round pick of the Angels in 2009. He didn’t sign and spent two years at JC of Southern Nevada, where he was a 47th-round pick by the Red Sox in 2011. He headed to New Mexico instead, and the third time should be the charm as Wolff is one of the most intriguing seniors in the 2013 draft class. He had a 3.19 ERA in one of the toughest pitching environments in the country, helping New Mexico to a Mountain West Conference title and one of the best seasons in program history. He has a small frame at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, but his fastball sits in the mid-90s and touches 98 mph. He mixes in a solid slider and changeup, as well. His father Steven spent three years in the Padres system, and Sam could go as high as the fifth round to a team looking for a good senior value.”

Mid-90s fastball with a solid slider and changeup… yeah, that’s something to build on.

Finally, the veteran of our group, Mr. Claiborne.

Who’s he? Well, he was part of a position-pitcher debate coming out of Tulane, although the Yankees chose to make him hurler. That turned out to be a good call, as he put up solid numbers in their system. He features a fastball that averages around 93 mph and complements it with a changeup and slider that are big league quality.

Each of these four has one thing in common: swing-and-miss performance stats.

That’s the key commodity in MLB these days, and particularly in the playoff-like pressure that comes with every series in a serious September. Teams win in October with swing and miss relievers; 2016 showed us that.

Inning eaters get you to September. Swing and miss guys get you through the pressure grinders of September and October. It’s that simple.

But here’s the thing: this is NOT a stellar AL crowd. The Yankees are the cream of the crop, but they’re young, and there’s no guarantee how they’ll fare in a true September push rapt with pressure. We’re not having to beat the class of the AL, in the standings; Cleveland, Houston, and Boston are where they are, and I don’t think they’re going anywhere.

Calhoun and Guzman bring the lumber

Two guys you may or may not have heard of are non-traditional September impact players. The thing you’re typically looking for from expanded rosters is positional versatility. Think Drew Robinson. Teams like the Rangers want guys that can help them win at multiple positions while they rest the thoroughbreds.

Ronald Guzman and Willie Calhoun are bats without positional versatility. But they are quite the bats.

Guzman’s a career Ranger minor leaguer, and has put up streaky but solid numbers across. But he’s a legit hitter, a 6’5” 205Lb long-and-tall power hitter. Here’s the scouting report from MLB on the Rangers #3 prospect:

“Scouting grades: Hit: 55 | Power: 50 | Run: 30 | Arm: 45 | Field: 50 | Overall: 50

 

Guzman led his Dominican team to the 2010 RBI World Series junior division title and played in the Under Armour All-America Game that summer, establishing himself as arguably the best hitter in the 2011 international crop. When Texas signed him for $3.45 million and Nomar Mazara for $4.95 million on the same day, the industry consensus was that Guzman was the better prospect. While he hasn’t developed as quickly as Mazara, he has made huge strides the last two seasons and reached Triple-A at age 21 last year.

 

Guzman is at his best when he keeps his left-handed swing compact and focuses on drilling line drives to all fields. He’ll lengthen his stroke when he gets power hungry, but he’s starting to understand that he’ll run into enough homers with his bat speed and leverage. While there’s a good chance that he finds a happy medium where he hits for average and power, he hasn’t shown much patience and won’t draw a lot of walks.

 

Because he lacks quick-twitch athleticism and is a well below-average runner, Guzman only can play first base. His range is limited but he has worked diligently to become a passable defender. He presents a big target and does a nice job of scooping throws out of the dirt.”

Here’s Baseball America’s take:

“The Rangers’ two big 16-year-old Dominican signings in 2011 were Nomar Mazara ($4.95 million) and Guzman, who got $3.45 million. Guzman got off to a strong start to his pro career, but stalled when he spent parts of three seasons at low Class A Hickory. He rebounded in 2016, playing in the Futures Game and reaching Triple-A Round Rock as a 21-year-old. Guzman signed with a hit-over-power profile, but the last two years got caught up trying to focus on home runs. He did a better job of calming his hitting actions to keep his body under control at Double-A Frisco in 2016. That enabled him to have a more repeatable swing and recognize pitches better because his head wasn’t moving as much. The results showed with improved walk and strikeout rates. Guzman’s long levers add length and some stiffness to his swing, but he doesn’t strike out excessively. He doesn’t have traditional first-base power but could hit 15-20 home runs per year. A limited athlete and runner without great range, he showed much-improved defensive actions to go with being an already big target. Guzman, whom the Rangers added to the 40-man roster in November, should return to Triple-A to open 2017 with a chance to make his major league debut by the end of the year.”

What do we see in common? Well, both site the long swing, the moderate power, the limited athleticism, and the fact that he improvement trends in his walkout to strike ratio.

Guzman has had his best minor league season so far this year, and it’s largely been because of that increase in discipline. Here are his key stats:

PA XBH HR BB:SO SO OBP SLG OPS
481 36 12 42:77 77 0.378 0.455 0.833

Lets hone in on one thing in the MLB scouting report: “Guzman is at his best when he keeps his left-handed swing compact and focuses on drilling line drives to all fields. He’ll lengthen his stroke when he gets power-hungry, but he’s starting to understand that he’ll run into enough homers with his bat speed and leverage.”

That reminds me a lot of another first baseman we had here in Texas throughout the World Series seasons, who recently left for Boston: Mitch Moreland.

Moreland is clearly more athletic at first than Guzman, but he doesn’t have his height, so that helps a bit on the stretch-and-lunge front so key to a first baseman.

Is Guzman likely to be Moreland 2.0? No, but he profiles a bit that way. He has, I think, a bit more power, and a bit less athleticism. But that’s at least enough to help for September, even if it is only to get a higher-contact rate bat at first base for Gallo, or spell a veteran like Beltre or Choo at DH here and there. Also, there’s the classic role for the September callup: situational pinch-hitting. Guzman’s increased discipline makes him a better fit in that role now than in any previous year of his career.

You can see a bit of that increase in the way he approaches at bats. Just check out how many pitches he sees in this multi-AB sequence for Round Rock:

If Guzman is someone to watch, Willie Calhoun is someone to get excited about. I profiled him in detail before, on the heels of his being the centerpiece of our return for Yu Darvish. I won’t go back into detail on Calhoun here, except to say this: so far in Round Rock, he has almost as many homers (6) as strikeouts (7) in 69 at bats.

Between Oklahoma City (now the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate) and Round Rock, he’s put up MLB-ready numbers:

PA XBH HR BB:SO BA OBP SLG OPS
487 60 29 40:56 0.29 0.35 0.58 0.93

Calhoun has the same problem as Guzman: he’s a bat without the athleticism for his position. He profiles as well below MLB par as a 2B, which means he’s gotten the reps to use him there if you had to, but you’re risking a guy who could give up as much dWAR as he adds oWAR. He’s more suited as  left fielder, for instance.

Personally, to spell the streak-and-slump roller coaster that is Rougned Odor, I’d think about using Calhoun at second perhaps once a week, with more time filling in in the outfield, at DH, or even as one more option at first base. With his bat control and power, he’s honestly an ideal pinch-hit candidate. That could be the role where you see him change some games.

One name not on my list: Jake Diekman

Jake’s case is near and dear to my heart. Someone in my family’s case is close to Jake’s, down to the resection surgery of the colon (his was for Ulcerative Colitis, hers was for Crohn’s, and wasn’t her first).

So to say I’m nervous about Jake’s prospects for coming back at the 8-month mark? That’s a big understatement.

Jake could be an impact pitcher in October at 80%. Except he’s not at 80%, I don’t believe; not really.

The abdominal wall and core are too important to a cross-body hurler like him—and that whole areas is too traumatized, after three surgeries, to be at 80%. It’s just that his heart is as 110% and skewing the average.

But more importantly, from everything I know—and I had a conversation with Chi Chi Gonzalez about this in spring training—is that Jake is just a good guy.

Good guys deserve the benefit of the doubt, and it’s far from my place to tell an athlete what to do with his body.

Except, I am, and I will, because of who THIS guy is—one of the good guys:

If this were about how he’ll perform on the mound, I’d be all for it. But the heart of it comes down to the man’s quality of life, beyond baseball.

Simply put, I care too much about Jake the man to dare lean on Jake the pitcher before March 2018.

That’s not likely to be the case. I think we’ll see Jake in September. And that scares the hell out of me. I’ve honestly never wanted to be wrong about anything Ranger-related in all my life; I hope I’m right about Jake Diekman’s heart, and wrong, as it were, about his guts.

I hope he goes out and dominates, pitches us to a Wild Card spot, and has an awesome October. And I hope he has no ill effects from it beyond fatigue. I’ve just seen too much go the other way to believe in that. It’s not about his heart, believe me. If it were a question of “guts”, not gut, well, there’d simply be no question. Such is the man


Dream’ with eyes wide open

This team is just loveable—so feel free to love them. Go on. It won’t hurt. Not now. Not this time.

This team is not great. At many stretches, they haven’t even been good. So what does that bring me to? Easy. Root like crazy for this team.

They’re playing with house money. They can’t break your heart, because they weren’t supposed to be here.

Not after the start they got off to in April and May.

And after the year-long slumps throughout the lineup.

And after the Darvish trade.

And the Lucroy trade.

And Houston’s team-of-Sports Illustrated-predicted destiny.

And on, and on.

And to hell with it. Because they don’t care. I promise you that.

They don’t read their own press. They’re too busy winning ballgames when they’re supposed to be auditioning roles for the next roster revamp.

But see, led by guys like Beltre, Chirinos, Andrus, and Hamels, they didn’t get the memo. And thank God for that.

If you have friends who need to adopt a team, give them this Rangers team. It’ll be a roller-coaster, but damn it’s fun.

And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll come down to a week left to go, and a hope for October, and it’ll break your heart. God, wouldn’t that be GREAT? I mean, as Bart Giamatti has told us, and I’ve often refrained, It’s designed to break your heart.

This team is build in the image of those Red Sox that Giamatti had in mind when he wrote those words. Just good enough to dream on. Just bad enough to break your heart.

But there’s no curse of the Bambino or New England self-loathing and angst to be found. Just a silver boot that, given the chance in October, we’ll break off in the Astros … hind quarters … if given the chance.

So by all means, root for this team. They can do alot of things, but break my heart ain’t one of them. That ship sailed on the backs of Blue Jay big flies the last two Octobers.

This Ranger team, if there is one, is a team of destiny playing beyond itself, in some kind of dream state.

So, cheer as loud as you want. You won’t wake them up.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington. Along with John Manaloor, he co-owns Shutdown Inning, and serves as Editor in Chief for SDI.
He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

2 comments

  • For all the good that was spoken. Austin biven-dirks and claudio have been the two best pitchers. This is bannister and the gm’s fault. Tired of losing.

  • Right at the TOP of my favorite articles! Depth, detail, heart! I learned, I enjoyed the read! But most of all, my heart is totally with you on this team of Rangers!

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