RANGERS AT A CROSSROADS

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

After getting swept this weekend in Cleveland, the Rangers find themselves six games behind Oakland in the West and in fourth place in the Wild Card race, trailing Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Cleveland. They have essentially collapsed since the All-Star break, losing eight of 10 games to lose four games in the standings to the Athletics after not trailing in the West by more than 3.5 games since 2009.

For sure, it is not where Texas expected to be as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches, now less than 70 hours away. The Rangers have led the division for more than 60 days this season, but largely because the offense has failed, Texas is in a predicament as to which direction to take at this year’s trade deadline.

First, it is entirely too early to give up on this season for the playoffs, no matter how dire the situation looks right now. There are stories after stories of teams failing to win with a larger lead than the Athletics have with far less of the season remaining. Look no farther than last year when the Rangers beat Oakland in Arlington on September 24 with a walk-off 5-4 win to push their lead to five games with nine games left in the season. Texas beat Oakland three days later to hold a four game lead with six games to play. Amazingly, Oakland still won the division without a playoff.

The Rangers shored their pitching staff this week with the acquisition of Matt Garza from the Cubs. Unquestionably, they paid a king’s ransom in prospects to get him, but he’s likely to make 12 starts by season’s end, having won the first. He can be a huge difference maker. With Yu Darvish looking like the early season Darvish after a stint on the disabled list, and with the continued solid start after start from Derek Holland, the Rangers have three quality starting pitchers to head up the rotation. Alexi Ogando has looked more than adequate in his two starts since coming off the disabled list. Martin Perez is struggling after considerable success in late June and early July. They are backed up by Colby Lewis who has made two minor league rehab starts and opening day starter Matt Harrison, who is set to begin a minor league rehab program next week. There is also talk that the Rangers are in on trade talks for Jake Peavy.

In short, these are not your father’s Texas Rangers that never had enough pitching and always had lots of offense; like the 2008 team that led the Major Leagues with 901 runs scored, yet finished below .500 with 79 wins, 21 games behind the Angels. This Texas team is fourth in the American League with a 3.74 team ERA, while it is sixth in batting average and eighth in runs scored.

However, it is unfair to totally blame the offense for the recent collapse that has seen the Rangers go from a seven game lead in late May to a six game deficit. In recent games, there has been almost a total breakdown in every area of the game besides pitching. The defense has been atrocious. They rank ninth in the American League and 15th in the Majors in fielding percentage, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story. There have been catchable balls that don’t get caught, throws to the wrong base giving opponents extra bases; and opponents seemingly steal bases at will, evidenced by Cleveland swiping four in game two of the just finished series. The base running has been more egregious. Manager Ron Washington is generous in handing out the green light, and he wants his players to be aggressive. Aggressive is one thing. Stupid is another. Senseless outs on bases have become a way of life for the Rangers. Third base coach Gary Pettis is also at fault here. In short, they look unmotivated, uninspired, and unfocused.

Off the field, things haven’t gone so well either. Tanner Scheppers was unavailable Friday night in Cleveland with a cut and bruised left eye. He initially said he was “sucker-punched” on the streets of Cleveland as he walked back to his hotel in the wee hours Friday morning. The assailants left immediately and didn’t try to rob him. That story sounded fishy from the beginning; and by Sunday, the local beat writers uncovered more facts. First, the incident took place in a restaurant/bar around 2:30 in the morning. Scheppers was reportedly there with Joe Nathan and A. J. Pierzynski. Scheppers got into an altercation with another patron, and was probably the aggressor more than the victim. Supposedly, the Rangers are looking into the situation, but in any event, this was not a good turn of events for the Rangers. There are enough problems on the field without creating more drama off the field.

Washington was so concerned with his team’s play after the sweep that he held a team meeting after Sunday’s game that lasted 40 minutes.

Another problem with the lagging offense is Nelson Cruz. He has been linked to the Biogenesis investigation, in which Ryan Braun accepted a 65 game suspension just last Monday. The feeling is the suspensions are coming soon, and MLB has the opinion that many of the players involved will accept a suspension that can be completed this season rather than appeal and be faced with missing games next year if they lose. Cruz is eligible to be a free agent this winter, and the general feeling is that he will not be back with Texas. The feeling is that he may be suspended for most if not all the remaining games of the season soon, perhaps as early as next weekend.

That brings the question as to what the Rangers should do in the next few hours before Wednesday afternoon’s non-waiver trade deadline. First the trade market for hitters looks very thin if rumors are to be believed. Hunter Pence, Kendrys Morales, and Alex Rios are the three most prominent names mentioned, and quite frankly, it is questionable as to whether any of them will make a material difference to the Ranger’ lineup.

The speculation surfaced Sunday that Texas is kicking around the idea of trading closer Joe Nathan to hopefully obtain a more significant bat. Nathan is having a super season, having saved 32 game in 34 opportunities. There are teams in pennant races that could use a closer. The best fit would seem to be the Los Angeles Dodgers, who not only have the closer need but also have a surplus of outfielders. The idea here is that with Nathan as the bait, a better offensive player, preferably an outfielder, with a contract that gives team control past 2013 can be obtained. And the idea also is that with Scheppers, former All-Star closer Joakim Soria, and with former Ranger closer Neftali Feliz hopefully returning next month; the Rangers have other closer options if Nathan departs.

Another rumor has the Rangers heavily in on Jake Peavy of the White Sox, a starting pitcher that will likely be traded this week. The idea here is to strengthen the rotation even more and try to win low scoring games going forward. There is some question as to what assets the Rangers have to be making trade deadline deals. Teams looking for prospects generally want players from the top levels of the farm system (AA and AAA) that will be in the Major Leagues soon. Texas has brought a host of rookies to the bigs in recent years and has sent out more prospects in July trades such as the one that obtained Garza this week. The Rangers still have a formidable farm system, but especially after the trade for Garza, the cupboard is close to bare at the top two levels. The best prospects in the Rangers’ system, – Jairo Beras, Ronald Guzman, Joey Gallo and Lewis Brinson to name a few – are in the lower levels of the system.

The best course of action for Texas may be to do nothing and let the season play out. That’s not the Rangers’ M. O. at this point. They have made the playoffs for three straight years, and plan on making 2013 the fourth in a row. The shame of this team is that it is perhaps the Ranger team best suited to do damage in the playoffs if they get there, because their pitching staff is so good, and strong pitching staffs usually pay off in the short post-season series. Unfortunately, it is the Ranger team over the past four seasons that is least likely to make the playoffs as July comes to a close. How that plays out may hinge greatly on what happens on the trade front over the next few hours.

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