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-
Two weeks into the season, the Texas Rangers stand at 5-8, in last place in the AL West, albeit just a game and a half out of first. The season is still early but it’s not too early to give a State of the Team address. Here are the takeaways from the season’s first 8% of the schedule:
Thank God For Nick Martinez
It could change rapidly but the big league sophomore has been the Rangers’ best pitcher, starter or reliever. Martinez has gone seven innings in each of his first two starts and has yet to surrender an earned run in getting off to a 2-0 start. Without Martinez, the Rangers pitching staff would be lowly indeed. Colby Lewis has been OK, Yovani Gallardo slightly below average and Ross Detwiler abysmal to the point you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Rangers fan in favor of letting him make another start ever. On top of that, no sooner had fans resigned themselves to being without Yu Darvish for the year then the new expected ace, Derek Holland went down for two months with a shoulder issue. Anthony Renaudo wasn’t the answer in one start. The chorus of fans singing for promoting Chi Chi Gonzalez is growing.
The Bullpen Is A Mess
Despite bright spots like Anthony Bass in long relief and Shawn Tolleson in the 7th inning, nobody else in the pen is rising to the challenge. Nowhere was that more evident than Sunday’s gut-wrenching 11-10 loss to the Seattle Mariners. Tanner Scheppers, in his second game back from the DL, couldn’t find the strike zone in the 8th, walking the bases full. Rookie Keone Kela, seen by many as the heir apparent for the closer’s role, showed he’s not ready for prime time, walking in one of the runs after relieving Scheppers. Closer Neftali Feliz was forced to try to get a 5-out save and couldn’t get the job done, giving up a 2-run single in the 8th, then two more runs in the 9th to blow the save and get the loss. The Rangers firemen have acted more like arsonists.
Thank God For Prince Fielder
The big guy doesn’t have a single home run and leads the AL in singles of all things. He’s also been the Rangers’ steadiest hitter. He’s beating the shift by going the opposite way, which is why he’s getting a lot of singles. He’ll eventually get the power stroke going but it’s going to require Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo to start hitting the way they can. Fielder won’t see better pitches until the guys hitting behind him start giving pitchers something else to think about.
New Year, Same Problems
2014 was a record-setting injury year for the Rangers and 2015 isn’t starting much better. Derek Holland is out for two months, left fielder Ryan Rua sprained his ankle, then discovered he has a stress fracture in his foot, which will keep him out for a while. Choo and Mitch Moreland have missed games already with minor ailments, Scheppers just returned from the DL. Texas is a slightly deeper team than they were a year ago but can still ill-afford many more injuries.
Is Elvis In The Building?
What’s happened to Elvis Andrus? Never a scary offensive presence, now his defense seems to have regressed. Elvis makes his living being a brilliant defender first, a decent running threat second. Thus far, he’s not hitting, he’s not running and he’s not fielding. As of yesterday, he was the lowest rated position player by WAR in baseball. This HAS to improve.
The season is not off to a good start. Texas is once again resembling a last place team. They will hit better. There are too many pieces with good track records who have started out slowly. Pitching is another issue altogether. The Rangers need more innings from their starters and a couple more bullpen pitchers to step up. Otherwise it’ll be another long year in Arlington.