May 29, 2007
Melting in the Texas Heat
The Texas Rangers have the worst record in baseball. They're worse than the Nationals, worse than the Devil Rays, worse than the Royals. Given that I had them winning 89 games and the AL West, and being one of the top five teams in baseball, you could say that they've been a disappointment to me. Why such bad baseball from a team that seemed to have such promise?
My first reaction has been to look at the Rangers' team OBP of .317, a hideous number that is next-to-last in the AL, and well below any reasonable minimum for a contender. When you look more closely, though, you see that the Rangers' offense, while playing below expectations, isn't the team's major problem. The team's .433 slugging is fourth in the AL, and they've scored 253 runs, fifth in the league. The team EqA of .256 is 11th, and just a few points below the average of .260. Michael Young (.248/.288/.386) and Gerald Laird (.225/.306/.324) are killing them, and just Mark Teixeira (.302/.392/.531) has an EqA above .300 in more than token playing time. The rest of the lineup has been a collection of high-strikeout, low-OBP power guys.
One of the misunderstandings about the 2006 Rangers was that they weren't another all-hit, no-pitch Arlington squad. Because they got so little productivity on the corners, last year's team was actually the worst-hitting Rangers team in some time. The Rangers' pitching, however, was essentially average: eighth in the AL team pitching VORP, eighth in the AL in ERA, a 99 ERA+.
That pitching has completely disappeared in 2007. Here are the eight pitchers from last year's team who have had notable roles for this year's version:
2006 2007 Pitcher IP ERA IP ERA Vicente Padilla 200.0 4.50 64.0 5.77 Kevin Millwood 215.0 4.52 35.1 6.62 Robinson Tejeda 73.2 4.28 51.2 5.75 Kameron Loe 78.1 5.86 54.0 6.17 Joaquin Benoit 79.2 4.86 24.3 3.70 Akinori Otsuka 59.2 2.11 18.2 1.93 C.J. Wilson 44.1 4.06 25.0 2.16 Ron Mahay 57.0 3.95 16.1 3.86
The rotation that kept the Rangers around .500 in 2006 is nowhere to be found in 2007. Millwood, Padilla, Tejeda, and Loe are pitching the Rangers out of games early and often (Millwood less so since going on the DL), and taking a very good bullpen out of the game. There are recent Rangers' offenses that might have been able to overcome this kind of pitching, but this isn't one of them.
Jon Daniels was not quite as active last winter as he was during his first on the job, and his efforts were spent more on adding hitting-Sammy Sosa, Kenny Lofton, and Frank Catalanotto are all free-agent additions. The pitchers he acquired haven't been a huge help so far. Eric Gagne has been intermittently available, and while effective, he's had limited impact in a shade more than 10 innings. Brandon McCarthy, acquired for John Danks in what amounted to a challenge trade with the White Sox, has walked one more man than he's struck out in his 10 starts and has an ERA of 6.35. It's not easy to make fans long for the halcyon days of John Koronka, but there you go. Low-investment adds such as Jamey Wright, Bruce Chen, and Mike Wood-all of whom could have worked out-have failed to add any value.
Could Daniels have done anything to change the Rangers' fortunes? I broke out the stats above the way I did to illustrate the point that the Rangers' pitching is largely being done by the same guys who had the jobs last season. Daniels did re-sign Padilla to a contract that seemed outsized in the moment, but that deal turned out to be in line with what mid-level starters got in last winter's market. Tejeda was widely praised after a late-season run of effectiveness last year, and Loe has his backers as a groundball machine. None of these guys is faring well, especially compared to last year, but this kind of collective drop may not have been predictable. Certainly the same strategy of returning mostly the same group of relievers has worked out. The Danks/McCarthy trade looks pretty bad at the moment, even beyond the hefty ERA gap (Danks has a 3.78 mark), but it's still a little early to issue an evaluation on that deal.
The Rangers are bad because their starting rotation has been among the worst in baseball, and their offense has not returned to being a top-tier outfit. This is not a young team by any stretch, and with a farm system that is ranked among the lower third in the game, it's hard to see what trying to rebuild will accomplish in the short term. The Rangers have a number of long-term contract commitments as well, and only one attractive trade chit, Mark Teixeira, in that number. There's little chance the Rangers could lower payroll and get value if they decided to punt the next season or two.
Despite their wretched performance to date, the Rangers may have to ride out this season and hope that their rotation-as well as disappointments such as Laird, Young, and Nelson Cruz-bounces back in 2008. It's unlikely that they can close the gap on the Angels (or the wild-card-leading Tigers) with the current rotation and lineup, and there's not enough trade value on the roster, or future value in the system, to make radical changes a viable option. It's going to be a long, hot summer in Dallas.