Hard to believe, the season is already at the 25% mark. The Texas Rangers finished the first quarter of the season a lackluster 18-23 at the quarter pole but, considering the season started at 8-16, it’s not horrible. Horrible would be the team behind the Rangers in the standings, the Oakland A’s, who are a full five games behind Texas, which sits in fourth, a half game out of third.
At the end of April, the Rangers’ report card reflected a totally awful offense. The first quarter report card has improved.
The offense has improved greatly from April. The season’s opening month saw the Rangers offense putting together a miserable slash line of .210/.293/.318 with an OPS+ of just 75 (league average would be 100). Shin-Soo Choo ended April at .092. The offense has recovered in May so now they stand at a more respectable .237/.312/.383 with an OPS+ of 96. It still isn’t good but it’s improved to just below average. If the Texas offense performs the rest of the season the way they have in May, the numbers at season’s end could be in the upper third in the league. At this point, the biggest need for offensive improvement is the average with runners in scoring position. The Rangers sit at a measly .214 with RISP. Only 16 of their 117 extra base hits have come with runners in scoring position and only 37 have come with a man on first. Texas is hitting for decent extra base power but nobody’s on base when they do it. Grade: C
Defensively, the Rangers have committed 33 errors in 41 games. Only Oakland has committed more in the AL. Greatness wasn’t expected defensively, despite a couple of well-regarded defenders like Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus. In Baseball Reference’s defensive stats, Texas has a MINUS 5 on Total Fielding Runs Above Average, putting them 10th among the AL’s 15 teams. The good news is Prince Fielder admitted Mitch Moreland is a better defensive first baseman than he is and will agreeably be the DH if it helps the team win more games. Grade: D
The rotation took a header right off the bat when Derek Holland went down shortly after making his first start. With Yu Darvish already lost for the year, it was yet another hit the pitching staff could ill afford. The joke is, the Rangers have a better rotation on the Disabled List than many teams have on their active roster (Darvish, Holland, Martin Perez, Matt Harrison and Nick Tepesch). Colby Lewis and Nick Martinez have been outstanding, Yovani Gallardo below average (more later), Ross Detwiler awful and Wandy Rodriguez a godsend. Grade: C
A nice 4-game stretch to close out the season’s first quarter makes the relief stats look better but only Oakland has a worse bullpen thus far. When Neftali Feliz blew a save on May 16th against the Indians, it gave Texas more Blown Saves than Saves on the season. There have been some bright spots: rookie Keone Kela and long reliever Anthony Bass but overall, inconsistency has been the pen’s modus operandi. One night they’ll look like killers, the next like victims. Jeff Bannister has made moves lately to try solidifying the bullpen. Feliz is no longer the closer. Shawn Tolleson has taken to the role so far, having picked up saves in consecutive nights against the Red Sox. Other than that, Banny says he’s not going to have role players in his bullpen for now. He’ll play match-ups more than having a 7th inning guy or an 8th inning guy. Grade: D-
There is no bigger surprise than the play of Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields. The expectation for Double D, who hit only .236 for AA Corpus Christi last season, was, at best, being the 24th guy on the 25-man team, serving primarily as a late inning pinch runner and defensive replacement. Instead, he’s putting pressure on the Rangers to find a place for him in the line-up every day once Josh Hamilton arrives.
DeShields leads the club in steals with 10. He’s actually tied with Adrian Beltre for first on the team in WAR at 0.9. He leads all Rangers regulars in pitches seen per at bat at 4.09 (Tommy Field is better but only has 9 games under his belt). When Hamilton joins the roster, DeShields could find himself in a CF platoon with Leonys Martin as well as a 2B platoon with Field.
While he has an impressive track record, nobody thought Prince Fielder would be as good as he’s been thus far. Fielder’s hitting for average, he’s hitting for power, he’s been the steadiest hitter all season. Facing a shift just about every day, Prince has learned to hit against it, going the opposite way many a time. He leads the AL in multiple hit games. And, as mentioned earlier, he manned up and became the primary DH because he saw that Mitch Moreland’s D gives the team a better chance to win.
On the pitching front, Colby Lewis, Nick Martinez and Keone Kela all get nods. Lewis has possibly been even better than he was in the Rangers’ World Series years. Usually one of the league leaders in home runs allowed, he’s only given up three in 8 starts. In 50 innings he has 41 K’s, outstanding for a pitcher whose fastball seldom tops 90 on the radar guns. All this on a resurfaced hip. Colby pitched in pain for years. Now he probably wishes he’d done the procedure sooner.
Martinez was hands down the AL’s best pitcher in April, posting a sub 1.00 ERA. He’s struggled in his last few starts but still sports a 3-0 record with a 1.88 ERA. Pretty good for a guy who had never pitched above AA when forced into the Rangers plans a year ago. Martinez was below average a year ago, expected considering his situation, but posted a sub-3.00 ERA in 5 September starts. Seeing his success roll over to 2015 is great.
Keone Kela is a rookie who’s performed well in every role the Rangers have given him this year. He’s been used in long relief, short relief, in the middle of games and in high leverage late inning situations. Through it all, he’s put up a 3-1 record, 2.25 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 20 innings. Only 22 years old, Kela is already thought of as a future closer in another year or two.
With three-fourths of the season still ahead, everyone has time to improve back to expected levels. Still, two of the biggest disappointments are infielders.
Everyone had high hopes for second baseman Rougned Odor following a rookie campaign in which the 21-year-old hit a respectable .259 with 9 home runs and 48 RBI. This writer projected Odor for about .270 this season with 14 home runs and 70 RBI. Instead, he laid a big egg. The league adjusted to Odor and he didn’t adjust back. With a .144 average after 29 games, Texas sent Odor to AAA Round Rock to get his game back. He’ll likely be back no later than the All-Star break (and already has 3 Home Runs for the Express) but nobody expected him to get sent down either, so who knows?
Meanwhile, his teammate Elvis Andrus has everyone worried. Never a great hitter, Elvis is regressing so far again this year, checking in at this writing at .224 with a homer and 11 RBI. After spending most of his career as the #2 hitter in the line-up, Andrus shows up at #6 more often than not these days. Once he’s on base, he only has 5 steals in 8 eight attempts. This would all be acceptable if he played defense the way he’s known to, but even that is regressing. Elvis has nine errors in the season’s first 41 games and should have gotten tagged with his 10th in a game against the Red Sox this week. Put it all together and you have a MINUS 0.5 WAR. That’s right, Elvis is now considered a BELOW REPLACEMENT LEVEL player! This from a guy who averaged over 4 WAR from 2011 to 2013. Oh yeah and a new long-term contract just kicked in this year. The only thing saving Elvis right now is the Rangers feeling they don’t have an everyday shortstop down on the farm. I think the problem is mental. In the World Series years, the Rangers were full of leaders and Elvis could just enjoy playing baseball. Now he’s a veteran and maybe expected to do more and he’s letting it get to him. If he doesn’t hit, fine. But Elvis, you’ve got to get your D back!
On the pitching side, I could say Neftali Feliz is a disappointment but he’s never regained his velocity since Tommy John surgery. For me, the biggest pitching disappointment is Yovani Gallardo. Sure, he’s a bit removed from his days fronting the Brewers rotation. But I didn’t expect him to have so many command issues. Gallardo is 3-6 with a somewhat respectable 4.26 ERA but it seems every start is a struggle for him. I’ve gotten used to Eric Nadel describing the action on the radio and hearing an opposing batter has worked the count to 3-2 on Gallardo. He’s only allowed 15 walks but every batter feels like a long battle. While he’s not a heat thrower, Gallardo is reminding me of Rich Harden in 2010, where you just prayed the at bat would end soon. He’s averaging less than 6 innings a start and he’s the guy who’s needed as the “ace” with Holland and Darvish out. When acquired, Gallardo got pencilled in as the #3 starter. He’s pitched like more of a #4 than the #1 or 2 results the Rangers need from him now.
That’s the first quarter report card. Overall grade: C-
“Get your scorecards here! You can’t tell the players without your scorecard. Get your scorecards here!”
Once Spring Training gets underway for Texas Rangers position players, even the coaching staff is likely to need a scorecard to unravel the players competing for the left field job in 2015. The odds are excellent no single player will truly win the job. Far more likely is two players will serve as a platoon most of the time unless or until someone gets the hot hand in mid-season and wins the right to play full-time.
First, a recap of last year and it resembles the mess that begins this season. Eight different players were left fielders for the Rangers in 2014. Shin-Soo Choo led the way with 63 games in left, but he moves to right field this year. Also seeing playing time in left, in descending order of games played, were Michael Choice, Daniel Robertson, Jim Adduci, Ryan Rua, Jake Smolinski, Mitch Moreland and Mike Carp. Of that group, Robertson, Adduci and Carp are no longer around.
Still around, though, are four players: Choice, Rua, Smolinski, and Moreland. BUT THAT’S NOT ALL, FOLKS! They’ll be joined in Spring Training by Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields and non-roster invitees Ryan Ludwick, Nate Shierholtz, Antoan Richardson, Carlos Peguero and Jared Hoying. What does this tell you? The Rangers front office is not 100% sold on any single player for left field. It’s a wide open competition. Here’s where each of them likely stand.
Rua is the “front-runner” for the job, mostly on the basis that he was the starter in left field in Game 162 in 2014. A 17th round pick, Rua could become the third Rangers’ 17th rounder to make a name for himself in the big leagues, joining Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland. He began to turn heads in the organization in 2013 when he mashed 29 homers for Class A Myrtle Beach, whose park is NOT conducive to home runs, then adding another 3 in 95 plate appearance cup of coffee with AA Frisco. The power wasn’t as prevalent in 2014, but he hit .300 with 10 home runs in half a season with Frisco, then .313 with 8 home runs in 58 games at AAA Round Rock before getting the call to Arlington just before September roster expansion. With the Rangers, he hit .295 in 28 games with 2 home runs and 11 RBI. Rua has hit at every level and had a positive defensive WAR. Though he largely played second base in the minors, he’s got some experience in left field.
All things considered, if I had a wish for one person to lay claim to left field, the choice would be Choice. Nothing against Rua. The difference is power. Michael Choice has more home run potential in his bat than Rua and outside of Prince Fielder, there’s no other Rangers player with 30 home run potential than Choice, at least until Joey Gallo shows up. Choice outright won the right field job in Spring Training last year after being acquired in a straight up trade that sent popular Craig Gentry to Oakland. A Dallas native, everyone was ready to love to former first round draft pick and he blew his first chance. He never got untracked at the plate, hit a paltry .182 with 9 home runs in 86 games (with a trip to Round Rock mid-season). His defense wasn’t good and Fangraphs had him listed with an overall NEGATIVE 2.1 WAR. Yep, he graded out at worse than replacement level. Still, he’s a former 1st round draft choice with pop in his bat. He will get another chance. We’ll see if he can seize it.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Mitch Moreland will NOT be the regular left fielder. For the most part, he will serve as the Rangers designated hitter, so I will dwell on him in a later post. He is, however, going to see playing time in left field, maybe right field as well, but not as a regular.
Smolinski is an interesting name to add to the mix. A former 2nd round draft pick of the Nationals, Jake signed with the Rangers as a minor league free agent after being released by the Marlins in 2013. Like Rua, Smolinski started 2014 at AA Frisco, earned a July promotion to the majors on the basis of a 10 HR, 43 RBI half season, hit .389 in 11 games before getting sent down to Round Rock when Jim Adduci returned from the DL, then returned to Texas in mid-September after rosters expanded. Overall, Smolinski contributed a .349/.391/.512 slash line to the Rangers with 3 HR and 12 RBI in 24 games. This, however, is considerably higher than the combined .267 he hit in 80 games for Frisco and Round Rock. Like Rua, he also had a low walk rate getting used to the major league strike zone. With stats so similar to Rua’s, the edge goes to the former just because he’s a year younger and thus has a little more upside. I have a feeling Smolinski will be part of a late spring trade that will bring either a utility infielder or a left-handed reliever to Texas.
Son of a former major leaguer, DeShields is a Rule V pick from the Houston Astros, which means he MUST be on the Rangers roster all year or he has to be offered back to the Astros for $25,000. That means DeShields will be given every opportunity to win the job of 4th or 5th outfielder. If nobody wins left field outright, the odds of DeShields getting a job go down substantially. The upside for DeShields is speed. In five minor league season, he’s swiped 241 bases. The downside is he’s never played above the AA level and has a “lazy” tag attached to him.
Ludwick is an interesting wild card here. A 12-year big league veteran, he’s only 3 years removed from a 26 home run, 80 RBI season with the Cincinnati Reds. He also once hit 37 home runs for the Cardinals. A shoulder injury in 2013 cost him a lot of his power. If he can find that power stroke again in camp, Ludwick could grab the job outright.
Schierholtz has played exclusively in the National league for the Giants, Cubs, Phillies and Nationals, putting up a career .253/.302/.405 line with 52 home runs. Rangers fans saw him in the 2010 World Series with the Giants. Last year was pertty forgettable for Nate, as he hit a combined .195 for the Cubs and Nationals in 122 games. A longshot at best to make the squad.
Carlos Peguero, Antoan Richardson, Jared Hoying
I’m lumping the last three together because their chances of sticking with the Rangers for the Season Opener are even more doubtful than Schierholtz. Over four seasons, Peguero has never played more than 46 games at the big league level. He’s got some pop in his bat, having hit 30 home runs for AAA Omaha last season but the odds are he’s one of those 4-A players, a AAA All-Star who just doesn’t translate to the big league level. Richardson has had two brief appearances in The Show, 4 at bats with the Braves in 2011 and 16 with the Yankees last year. He’s got little power to speak of but has 324 steals in 10 minor league seasons. If he makes the team it’s because DeShields didn’t and a lot of other people had bad springs. Hoying is a 10th round draft pick of the Rangers who became a minor league free agent and re-signed with the club. He got a non-roster invite as a courtesy after hitting 26 homers with 78 RBI for Round Rock last year. The homers were more than twice as many as he’d ever hit in a professional season. If Hoying is on the roster in April, things have gone horribly wrong for the Rangers.
A lot of people have the opportunity. Seeing how it all shakes out will be the most interesting story for the Rangers this spring.