March 17, 2011
Cactus Action, Ranger Danger
Last night's Rangers contest provided news good and bad for Ron Washington's ballclub. Perhaps the most important item of business was gotten out of the way first, as C.J. Wilson looked close to ready, coping quite well with pitching from the stretch and dealing with putting eight of 22 batters faced aboard, allowing just two runs. Adrian Beltre hit his first homer of the spring, while Chris Davis ripped a double and a homer off Jason Hammel. If everything about this time of year is about reps and building up strength, then no worries, right?
Well, not so much, because after Wilson left the game, Mark Lowe came in with a 9-2 lead and nothing to worry about but notching a frame to support his case for late-game work. Lowe makes for a reasonable facsimile of a late-game reliever: he's big, he throws in the mid-90s, and he gets dandy separation between that and a slider he had been effective with, using it as a chase pitch up in the count. So, on a theoretical level, Lowe's worth considering as a closing option to replace Neftali Feliz, especially if you're coming from the more sabermetric point of view that many more people can close than are allowed to. That doesn't apply to everybody, of course; I think we can safely exclude extreme specialists, not because the odd Brian Shouse type wouldn't give it his best, but because inevitably he's going to run into a right-handed person and suffer the consequences of the fact that his stuff doesn't work against them. But if you're able to get righties and lefties out, perhaps many more people possess "closer moxie" or whatever, even if that's not all pitchers.
Last night, Lowe got an opportunity to put that to the test early, facing major-league batters in the sixth inning instead of farm kids in the ninth. It represented a more real test of his usefulness in the role, and it was a complete meltdown. Jason Giambi homered on Lowe's second pitch. Ryan Spilborghs singled, Ian Stewart walked, Eric Young Jr. singled, hell, even Willy Taveras singled. The one major league player that Lowe retired was Ty Wigginton, and four runs later, the Potemkin proposition that they had a "stuff" guy who might be able to take care of their closing needs was as bruised as the box score.
Now, beyond the stuff, it isn't that hard to see where the fascination with Lowe comes from--statheads as well have scouts have some cause to feel good. Turning to his track record before last year's back surgery, and after his two elbow surgeries in 2007, when he pitched in 2008-09, it was to mixed results:
Allowing for the fact that 2008 was his first full year in the majors and he was coming back from a pair of procedures, you can cut him some slack as far as his performance record... up to a point, because it isn't all that clear that he's more than a high-powered situational weapon. In 2008, he was wild against right-handers (walking 12 percent of them) while getting drubbed by lefties for a four-digit OPS. Once he came back in 2009, he was healthy, throwing hard, and using his slider instead of his change as his usual off-speed offering, and was significantly more effective... but again, only up to a point, because he still gave up an OPS over 800 against lefties, including an ISO above .200. If that's the healthy/good Lowe, that's a useful pitcher with impressive gun readings, but one shouldn't mistake the latter for guaranteeing even more in terms of the man's basic utility.
Which leaves the Rangers shopping if they don't overrule Feliz's latest fancy as far as his calling, and send him back to the pen. The easiest solution is "do nothing," and count on some combination of Lowe, Alexi Ogando, and veteran lefties Arthur Rhodes and Darren Oliver. Mix in situational right-hander Darren O'Day, run a de facto committee, albeit without talking about it or acknowledging it as such, because invariably that sort of announcement becomes a distraction, a veritable shriek-fest citing the Red Sox's past failure.
Or they can go shopping, for a veteran right-hander with some experience in the role. And it'll have to be somebody outside of the division, as well as somebody whose team thinks he's expendable at this late date. Mission impossible? Maybe, but maybe the Jays could be convinced to part with Jason Frasor. The Red Sox are an obvious target, especially if they decided enough's enough with Jonathan Papelbon, and that they're covered with Bobby Jenks and Daniel Bard, but that'd cost dearly, in terms of cash and/or a worthwhile prospect or two.
The best targets may well both a pair of Big Apple villains who could probably use relocation and witness protection. From Flushing, there's Francisco Rodriguez, as long as the Mets were willing to eat some portion of cash to help cover his $11.5 million salary (and the $3.5 million buyout for 2012). And from the Bronx, why not liberate Joba Chamberlain in a talent-for-talent trade that the Rangers' farm system could afford, while providing both Job and the Rangers some sweet relief?
It's a thought, but if we see more games like last night's, you can bet the pressure will mount on the Rangers' front office to get something done. After a pennant, expectations are set on high, and nothing pressurizes a situation more than a few early-season late-game losses.