Three reasons why the Rangers will win the Wild Card, and three reasons why they won’t
With the All-Star break coming to a close, let’s take a look at this Rangers team and try one last time to figure out what the result of the 2017 campaign will be.
Will they win the AL West? I am fully confident in saying that there is zero chance that will happen.
Will they win the Wild Card? They are only three games back at the moment so that outcome is very much a possibility.
The last question is whether they miss the playoffs altogether—and that is probably the most likely scenario of the three.
Whatever comes with the close of 2017, we are likely to have a far better understanding of what it will look like before the July 31st trade deadline.
See, the Rangers first ten games coming out of the All-Star break are against teams who are also squarely in the Wild Card race—and all 10 of those games are away from Globe Life Park.
Let’s say the Rangers go 7-3 during that stretch. They will be above .500 and likely within a game or two of the second Wild Card when they return home. In this scenario, they would likely be buyers—or at least stand pat—at the trade deadline.
Conversely, if the Rangers were to go 3-7 on the trip, they would be six games under .500 and five or six down in the Wild Card race. Put into a spot like that, you’d likely see the Rangers sell off at least a few of their assets.
So which one is it going to be? Are the Rangers going to put things together and win the Wild Card, or are they going to miss the playoffs altogether?
Below are three ways each scenario could play itself out over the next 74 ballgames.
Reasons they will win the Wild-Card
Last season Cole Hamels was, at one point, considered the front-runner for the AL CY Young award.
On August 25th, Hamels sported a 14-4 record with a tidy 2.67 ERA; Hamels would go just 1-1 over his last 6 starts of 2016 and gave up 23 earned runs in his last 32 innings pitched.In the playoffs, it didn’t get any better for him as he gave up six earned runs in just 3.1 innings pitched to open up the Divisional round against the Blue Jays.
Thanks to this less-than-stellar finish to 2016 there was a certain level of concern about Hamels as 2017 began—and, in a way, those concerns came to fruition.
While Hamels wasn’t terrible in his first five starts in 2017, he didn’t light the world on fire either; his strikeouts were down and his walks were up. In the five starts before his oblique injury, Hamels managed to strikeout just 15 batters, while walking a dozen.
Then came what could be the season’s hidden blessing for Hamels and the Rangers: before his last start in April, against the Astros, Hamels was scratched due to an oblique injury. He sat for two months and did not return to the team until June 26th.
His return further stoked fears that Hamels was broken, as he gave up seven runs to the Indians in just 4.1 innings pitched.
Since then, however, Hamels has put together two quality starts. In those two starts Hamels has averaged just over seven innings pitched, one run, six strikeouts, and less than a walk per outing. Of course, it’s only two outings—but they were both really quality outings that resulted in Ranger wins. If this is the Cole Hamels we’re going to see for the rest of 2017, then you have to like the Rangers chances of sneaking into the Wild Card.
Last year, it seemed that Hamels tired as the year went on. This year, thanks to his injury, he may be rounding into top form just as he’s needed most down the stretch.
Last season, Rougned Odor broke out for 33 home runs and 88 RBIs. He proved so much to the Rangers front office that he was rewarded with a six-year, $49-million contract extension during the offseason. In return, on Opening Day, Odor seemed to prove the Rangers prescient by bashing two home runs. It was clear that Odor was going to break out even further in 2017.
Well, that hype last for a few days; Odor then proceeded to play dreadful baseball over the next two and a half months.
It got so bad that Odor played 20 games in the first half where he started the day hitting below .200. The Rangers counted on Odor to produce like he did in 2016; instead, he left a gaping hole of lost production in the lineup.
So what’s the good news? Well, Odor showed some very big signs of life heading into the All Star break. Odor recorded a hit in 10 of the Rangers 11 games before the break and hit 5 of his 17 home runs in their last 9 games heading into the Midsummer Classic. During that stretch, he increased his offensive output across the board, from average to OPS. While he still strikes out a lot and fails to consistently draw walks, he looks to be rounding into 2016 form. He is always going to strike out and struggle to draw walks. If he can simply make contact consistently, good things are going to happen, as was clear over the past two weeks.
If his success going into the break replicates itself moving forward, the Rangers will be dangerously consistent on offense—and that alone gives them a great shot and the Wild Card.
- Reinforced bullpen
It is no secret that the Rangers bullpen has been historically bad in 2017. Sam Dyson started the season as the Closer and was terrible. He is now closing games for the San Francisco Giants. Tony Barnette spent a few games in the closers role and failed. Matt Bush then took over and succeeded for a little while and then went into full meltdown mode himself. The Rangers are now a “closer by committee” ball club and still searching for ways to hold onto leads late in games.
For a look at just how bad the bullpen woes have been, check out these two tweets by ESPN 103.3 FM’s Mike Peasley:
Rangers are 13-for-30 in save opps this year and have converted just 4 of last 14 chances
— Mike Peasley (@PeasESPN) July 2, 2017
Rangers have 11 L's when leading after 6
Rangers have 8 L's when leading after 7
Rangers have 5 L's when leading after 8
— Mike Peasley (@PeasESPN) July 2, 2017
Thirteen out of thirty in save opportunities is utterly dreadful. Eleven losses when leading after six? It’s is just unreal how bad it has been; in fact, the 13 saves by the Rangers ranks them 14th in the AL in overall saves.
With all this being said, how exactly is the Rangers bullpen—the primary reason they have played so poorly—going to be the reason they win the Wild Card? Simply put: it has to be.
The Rangers aren’t going to put it all together and leap-frog 5 teams unless their bullpen plays a significant role in the process.
But get this: there are actually signs that this bullpen can turn things around.
Keone Kela has struggled with shoulder issues and should return after the break with the ability to close out ball games, which is the most likely end-game scenario for the Rangers moving forward. Jose Leclerc is also healthy again and has continued to pitch extremely well in his rookie season. If you add in stalwart Alex Claudio and a newly-healthy (and supposedly “fixed”) Tony Barnette, things start looking better. Matt Bush should also fare better in a role with less pressure as he continues to figure things out as a Major Leaguer.
If they stay in Wild Card contention, the Rangers are likely to make a move or two aimed at improving their bullpen, much like they did in acquiring Sam Dyson in 2015. They have already made one of these moves by acquiring Jason Grilli before the break, and his veteran presence alone will be a welcome addition to the ‘pen.
Finally, although he should have no pressure attached to his return, there is a possibility that Jake Diekman makes it back sometime in the second half. If he returns healthy and pitching anywhere close to how he did in 2015, then watch out.
Here’s the deal: it won’t take much to improve on the first half; even small improvements and a steadying force at the back end of the ‘pen could mean the difference between several wins and losses.
It could even mean the difference between a Wild Card berth or early October tee times.
Reasons they won’t win it
One of the unique aspects of the American League Wild Card race this year is that the top nine teams in the race are separated by just five games in the standings. The Rangers are sixth in the overall Wild Card standings at the moment—which makes the task of climbing up the ladder extremely difficult.
It’s one thing to outplay one or two teams down the stretch; it’s an entirely different animal to outplay eight, which is what the Rangers essential would have to do to claim one of the two Wild-Card spots. Some of the notable teams joining the Rangers in the race for October are the Yankees, Rays, Royals, Orioles, Angels, Mariners, and Blue Jays.
Making matters even more difficult, the Rangers open the second half with ten straight road games against the Orioles, Rays, and Royals. In addition to this, 41 of the Rangers final 74 ball games come against teams that are in the Wild Card hunt.
It’s inevitable that at least a few of these teams will get hot in the second half; unless the Rangers are one of them, it will be extremely difficult to keep pace.
- Starting Pitching
On paper, the Rangers starting rotation is exactly what you would have hoped for on opening day. Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish are a two-headed monster at the top, and Martin Perez, Tyson Ross, and Andrew Cashner fill the remaining three spots.
On the season, Yu Darvish has been the most consistent Rangers pitcher, and was named the team’s lone All-Star for it. The main problem for Darvish has been run support; otherwise, there should be no worries there.
Cole Hamels, one of the reasons why the Rangers could turn things around, is similarly one of the reasons why they may miss the playoffs. While many have been quick to proclaim Hamels healed after his last two stellar outings, that’s hardly a big enough sample size to truly gauge whether he has legitimately turned things around. Only time will tell.
Beyond Hamels and Darvish, things really get—interesting. Martin Perez has not been very good in 2017 (4-6 record, 4.60 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.670). It’s the same old story for Perez. He will show you flashes of brilliance, melt down for an inning, and then get himself together again. Every. Single. Time.
Another big question mark for the Rangers is Tyson Ross. Since coming back off the Disabled List, things have been up and down for Ross, as expected. In just five games pitched, Ross has put together three solid outings, and two very poor ones. The question for the Rangers will be which Ross emerges consistently over the second half of the season. They desperately need it to be the good Tyson Ross.
While the starting pitching certainly isn’t bad, the Rangers need a starting rotation that can be somewhat dominant in the second half if they are going win the Wild Card. Beyond Yu Darvish, it’s hard to have complete faith in any one one of the remaining four starters to put together a run of dominance.
It’s no secret that the Rangers strike out way too much. They set multiple records for strike out futility in the first half of the season, and no one in the lineup seems to be immune. The Rangers have struck out 819 times, third-worst in the American League and fifth-worst in all of baseball.
It’s easy to overlook the strikeouts at times because of the high number of home runs the Rangers hit—which inflates several of their offensive statistics and helps to hide the gaping holes that exist beyond the flashy numbers.
The hard truth, though, is that home runs don’t win you ball games. If they did, the Rangers would have a lot better record now. Home runs certainly help the cause, and bring the crowd to its feet, but home runs alone aren’t enough.
When you put the ball in play, good things are going to happen eventually; if you can’t do that, you aren’t giving yourself a chance. There have been too many opportunities to manufacture runs that have passed the Rangers by due to their strikeout issues—and that will continue to plague them in the second half unless they can find a way to increase their patience at the plate.
On the flip side, though the Rangers have no problem striking out themselves, they have a huge problem striking out the opposition.
The Rangers are the second-worst team in baseball at striking guys out. That puts pressure on your pitchers, your defense—and yes, your offense. Just as the Rangers struggle to manufacture runs because they strike out too often, they struggle to keep the other guys from scoring because they simply can’t get a strike out when they need it. When they need a strikeout, they get a sacrifice fly or an RBI groundout instead.
These things add up—and ultimately cost you ball games.
Simply put, the Rangers can’t continue to have issues with strikeouts in the second half if they are going to have a chance at the Wild Card.
As you can see there are going to be several variable at play in the second half for your Rangers. They are still in the race, but several things are going to have to fall into place if the Wild Card is going to be a realistic end-point in 2017. Conversely, there are several areas that could continue to hamper the Rangers in their quest for the postseason.
One of these things is going to happen. Either the Rangers will make the playoffs or they won’t. There’s no more time to talk about it, though, because the break is over and the second half (not to mention the trade deadline) are fast upon us.
With that being said, let’s all take a deep breath and get ready for Kansas City.