AL West Report: The Reeling Rangers

The Texas Rangers had moved into sluggish mode lately after their outstanding start. Now they’ve officially upgraded that to struggling. The AL West leaders just played three straight series against their division rivals and lost all three, including dumping three of four to heretofore struggling Oakland. The Rangers’ record is now at 34-25—obviously still a solid season by any measurement, but no longer enough to have the rest of the league far in the rearview mirror, and the race is on in the AL West.

Texas’ struggles are not unexpected, nor are they new. No team was going to maintain the pace the Rangers opened the season with—the Cardinals started off just as hot and when they hit the skids they fell all the way to .500 and into third place. Furthermore, this is how Texas played last year—a blazing start followed by a sluggishness that seemed to last throughout the summer, before the peaked again in September and in the American League playoffs. So the purpose in pointing out their struggles is not to hit a panic button.

One player who might want to play with a greater sense of urgency is Michael Young. The veteran has a batting average of .288, which seems fine on the surface. And the lack of home runs can be lived with. But he’s not taking walks, nor is he driving the ball in the gap for doubles, and his on-base percentage/slugging percentage line is a subpar .316/.381, marking him an offensive liability. Nelson Cruz is having a similarly poor year, with a lousy OBP and performing below expectations with his power. The offense is much too reliant on Josh Hamilton being transcendent. With a .338 average and 22 home runs, along with being a complete package of plate discipline and defense, Hamilton has been just that. But a championship team, which this most definitely still is, can’t leave that much on his shoulders.

There’s every reason to think Texas will follow last year’s pattern and turn back upward. The pitching staff is deep and that’s before you factor in Neftali Feliz’s impending return from the disabled list in the next week or so and the signing of Roy Oswalt to come on board in July. Matt Harrison threw a shutout against San Francisco last night to stop the bleeding and Yu Darvish has delivered a solid 3.72 ERA in 12 starts. And the Ranger gamble on Joe Nathan’s return to health in the closer’s role has paid off, with a 1.90 ERA as he’s closed 12/13 save opportunities. So this is likely just a normal bout of summer sluggishness. But with the Angels off the mat and better than last season, Texas can’t let it drag on for an extended period and some better play from good hitters is the key to snapping out.

Around the rest of the AL West…

LA Angels (30-29): We’ve all talked about Albert Pujols’ early struggles and recent resurgence, and to a lesser extent, that of Dan Haren in the rotation. We’ve celebrated Jered Weaver’s no-hitter and lamented his brief trip to the disabled list. But how about a little love for C.J. Wilson. I’ve mentioned him briefly in previous division reports, but with a 7-4 record and 2.39 ERA the lefty the Halos pilfered from Texas on last year’s free agent market has been a lifesaver early in the season.

Seattle (27-33): Last night’s strange six-pitcher no-hitter against the Dodgers was a visible example of the fact the Mariners have been playing better baseball lately. They bottomed out on May 27 with a 21-29 record, but have since won series with the Rangers and Angels. I don’t want to go on some Rick Sutcliffe-esque display of overstatement since they also lost a series to the White Sox, but Seattle is playing some steady baseball. The big concern has to be pitching. Felix Hernandez isn’t on the DL, but he’s dealing with a back issue and with a 3.42 ERA, he’s below his normal Cy Young-caliber level. With Kevin Millwood also starting to get nagging injuries and Blake Beavan pitching poorly, last night’s no-hitter could be forgotten in a hurry.

Oakland (26-33): Taking three of four from Texas stopped a complete free-fall, although the Oakland turned around at lost at Arizona. There’s more reason to think that Ranger series was about Texas’ vices rather than Oakland’s virtues. One pitcher who deserves a big shout out though is Jarrod Parker. His last three starts have come against the Angels, Twins and Rangers, and he’s gone 21 innings and allowed just one run. The Moneyball gloss might be off Billy Beane these days, but the man keeps churning out young pitchers just like he did in the days of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, the trio who really made the Moneyball A’s possible.