The Texas Rangers have a four-game lead on the Los Angeles Angels coming into tonight’s series finale between the two teams in Arlington. The Rangers are 4.5 ahead of Oakland, which would also be the margin of security Texas has for making the postseason as a wild-card. But it seems like Texas is playing from behind. Los Angeles made the big splash at the trade deadline when they added Zack Greinke, while Texas’ best counter-move was to get Ryan Dempster, who gets the ball for his first Rangers’ start tonight. The idea that LAA is now the favorite in the AL West, even coming from behind, has a lot of currency in the mainstream media right now. But let’s go one step further and ask the unthinkable—could the two-time defending AL champs miss the playoffs altogether?
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think it’s at least on the radar. Injuries to a pitching staff change the equation faster than anything and losing both Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz for the year is a heavy blow for anyone to handle. It’s worse for Texas, because by comparison to other contenders, depth in the rotation was their strong suit. They might not have had a Justin Verlander, a C.C. Sabathia or a Jered Weaver, but had an army of 2s and 3s and beat their rivals in the middle and at the back end of a rotation. Then in the playoffs, Ron Washington had the electric Alexi Ogando, a hybrid who comes out of the pen and gives several innings. It was enough to give Texas the edge in October the last two years.
Now that’s gone. Yu Darvish is the#1 starter, and while he looks like a good signing, with 11 wins and a 4.38 ERA in a hitter’s park, he’s ill-suited to be an ace and is starting to struggle, with a 5.74 ERA in his last four starts. Roy Oswalt was signed in mid-season, but has been banished to the bullpen after a 6.49 ERA in six outings. Derek Holland was clutch in the playoffs last year, but a 4.96 ERA this year has been disappointing. Only Matt Harrison, at 12-6, a 3.19 ERA and workmanlike 135 innings pitched, has been steady. When you look at this staff and consider they have to survive about sixty more games, you can see why the wild-card shouldn’t taken for granted. And why there’s so much pressure on Dempster to show that at age 35, his 2.25 ERA wasn’t a fluke combined with facing NL Central lineups with the Cubs. Or for fifth starter Scott Feldman to continue his strong recent work.
The offense has been Texas’ calling card over the years, even when they were a bad team and they lead the American League in runs scored. It’s a testimony to how good the offense was for three months, because in July the bats were positively atrocious. Josh Hamilton’s slump got media attention and a little public jab from team president Nolan Ryan, but he’s far from alone. The only noteworthy month was turned in by Nelson Cruz, who hit four home runs and slugged. 541 while getting on base consistently. In fact home runs in general weren’t a problem—Hamilton also hit four and catcher Mike Napoli hit five. But Napoli was like Hamilton in that he batted sub-.200, and the team was more like them then they were like Cruz. Texas finished dead last in the AL scoring runs for July.
We can expect the offense to bounce back and compensate at least somewhat for starting pitching problems. Then it’s going to be in the hands of the bullpen. I wasn’t a fan of pulling Feliz out of this unit and putting him in the rotation to begin with and now that he requires Tommy John surgery, I wonder if the Rangers didn’t cost themselves an elite reliever and Feliz his entire career with a foolish decision that blew up with the Yankees and Joba Chamberlain and the Red Sox with Daniel Bard. There’s still good arms in the back of the Texas pen, but they are short on quantity. Joe Nathan and Mike Adams make a nice closer-setup team for the last two innings and Ogando’s impact can be maximized in big situations. But where would Texas be without Robbie Ross, who came from nowhere to post a 1.72 ERA in 51 innings of work? In a short series, or any one-game situation where this group is all rested and available, the Rangers have all they need. Where it will be a problem is if the starters go through repeated stretches of not getting past the fifth or sixth. Then Oswalt, or perhaps Koji Uehara, will have to provide some veteran leadership and innings.
Texas is not playing well right now—they are 2-4 since the All-Star break against Los Angeles coming into Thursday night and lost a series with the Chicago White Sox. Looking ahead, they’ve got a road trip in Boston, a home series with Detroit and then a big four-game set in Yankee Stadium that concludes on August 16. I still can’t quite imagine Texas missing the playoffs entirely, but when starting pitching becomes a dicey situation and not only are they vulnerable to the Halos, it’s at least possible to envision a pitching-rich staff like they have at Oakland or Tampa Bay getting hot and stealing the wild-card berths.