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July 22, 2009

Prospectus Today

AL West Quandaries

by Joe Sheehan

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Making the decision whether to buy or sell isn't just about your team's record in the second half of July. You have to take into account the overall direction of the organization, the level of competition, your team's ability to add what it needs, and whether doing so will make the difference both in the current season and what it will mean for the ones that follow.

There's perhaps no team with a more complicated set of factors to consider than the Texas Rangers, who are on pace to win 90 games, have a positive run differential, and who could clearly use the top player on the market, Roy Halladay. With one of the very best farm systems in the game, the Rangers can put together a package that would be the envy of all suitors, not just for Halladay but for any player they pursue. However, by doing so, they might be chipping away at what sets up as a dynasty in the AL West for years to come, and even adding Halladay wouldn't assure them of anything given the standard for contention in their league.

The Rangers are a legitimate 51-41. They've outscored their opponents by 36 runs, and while their third-order record is a bit less impressive-48-44, the eighth-"best" mark in the AL-it's close enough to their actual record. They've caught a break in that their pitching and defense have allowed fewer runs than you would expect, and they've outplayed their Pythagorean record slightly thanks in part to a 14-9 record in one-run games. As I wrote about earlier this season, their offense has shown a complete lack of understanding of the strike zone, leading the league in strikeouts while drawing just 273 walks, 12th in the AL. They're living off of their performance on contact, which is down to a .332 batting average and .589 SLG from the .360/.641 marks that drove their 23-14 start to the season, and right around their league-leading marks in 2008. The current performance is their level of ability, which makes them a league-average offense or so, not the offensive juggernaut their power makes it seem. They simply don't get enough guys on base to have a good offense.

Check the pitching staff and you find the opposite problem, as the Rangers are dead-last in the league in pitcher strikeouts. That they've been able to keep their opponents off the scoreboard is a credit to the best defense seen in the Metroplex since the 1990s Cowboys. Adding Elvis Andrus to the mix has been a boon, and while his performance is slipping as we get deeper into the season, he has been a big reason why the Rangers' Defensive Efficiency and PADE are both fourth in the game. (Chris Davis also showed considerable dexterity at first base while he was in the majors.) This was a different run-prevention team this year, and that trait should carry forward into future seasons; when the high-strikeout pitchers arrive, this will be a very difficult team to score upon.

For this year, though, I'm not sure the Rangers can continue to keep their opponents down. The bullpen's peripherals are fine, with the primary problem being Frank Francisco's incessant health problems. The rotation, however, features just a single starter with a 2:1 K/BB, that being Derek Holland, who has allowed nine homers in 43 innings in eight starts. Only Holland has an above-average strikeout rate as well. The rotation's lack of top arms is the biggest reason to favor the team adding a Halladay, who would not only push them towards the Angels this season but give them a leg up in 2010. I've said in the past that adding Halladay would make the Rangers the AL West favorites, but I'm less convinced of that with each passing day, as the Angels play better and better baseball. Since John Lackey made his first real start on May 18, giving the team its more-or-less intact rotation, the Angels are 36-20. What the Rangers want to avoid is making a big deal and still not getting to the middle of October.

The combination of being slightly over their heads, having underlying metrics that indicate some slippage is ahead, chasing a team that, when healthy, has been very good, and having little chance to take the league's wild card… the mix is bad for the Rangers. To invest what it would take to bring Halladay in, which would be some combination of Holland or Neftali Feliz to start, then another two prospects from their top dozen at least, is more than they need to bet on a season that isn't critical to their future. I'm not sure it makes sense for them to make a second-tier move, either, although the idea of acquiring Matt Holliday is interesting for a team that has BA and OBP issues, and has built around defense this year.

Context is everything. In a vacuum, the Rangers are five games better than the Astros, who I positioned yesterday as a buyer. Given what the Rangers would have to do to make the playoffs, though, and where they are in the success cycle, for them to make an over-the-top trade doesn't make sense this year. It probably wouldn't get them there, and it would take a big chunk out of their future. I see an argument for trading a number of their pitching prospects to add one ace starter-it's one way to "develop pitching"-but that kind of deal should be made in the offseason, and for a pitcher who can be retained for a long time.

Should the Rangers then be sellers? There's a case for it, perhaps shopping Kevin Millwood, Hank Blalock, C.J. Wilson, and others who would have value in the market and who have no role on the team going forward. Millwood, having his best season in years, would be one of the top pitchers on the market, and a number of teams could use a bat on the corners. However, and this is not a position I usually advocate, the Rangers don't have to make that kind of trade. The prospects they could get for players such as Millwood and Blalock would be a drop in the bucket in their system, and the bad PR involved in trading away veterans during a successful season could be damaging. The Rangers are that rare team that should be neither a buyer nor a seller, simply riding it out with the roster they have, treating this as a bridge season between their building years and their extended run of success.

Not far behind the Rangers are the surprising Mariners, 49-44 and 5˝ games behind the Angels. Coming off of last year's terribly disappointing campaign, and riding the wave of a strong rotation and a couple of big hitting performances, there's some idea that the Mariners should capitalize by trying to add a couple of pieces for a run. This would be a mistake, and Jack Zduriencik knows this. The proper move for the Mariners is to convert Jarrod Washburn, Erik Bedard, Russell Branyan, and anything else not nailed down to reinforce their mediocre farm system. The Mariners aren't good enough to win this year, and probably not next year, and the prospects they could get for their veterans over the next couple of weeks-not top-25 guys, to be sure-would have an impact for them. It's time to sell.

We'll spend tomorrow on one team that has every reason to think it can hang with the big boys... and has no business trying.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Rangers,  The Who

18 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Richard Bergstrom

I think the Rangers should actually take a shot at Halladay. They have ten games remaining with the Angels and adding a pitcher like him could help the Rangers take those series (and thus, the division lead).

Jul 22, 2009 09:53 AM
rating: -1
 
hyprvypr

While I understand that fundamentally, the M's trading for a couple of big pieces this year and going for it is a bad idea, there is something to be said for keeping and improving the current fan base. Fans like to win, even one that understands what rebuilding is about. That said, I'd still like to see a token effort to acquire a couple of bats(and surely at least inquire about Halladay). If Jack Z was smooth about it, he might even be able to retain the blue chip prospects in the farm and add a couple of modest pieces that would put the M's into the race.

""The Mariners aren’t good enough to win this year""

This sentence is a pretty lame. It should be more like, the Mariner's *probably* aren't good enough to win this year. By making this blanket statement, you are condemning all wild card and cinderella teams to futility. Once the playoffs begin, the M's would look much better on paper with a lights-out bullpen and a wicked starting 3. They just have to make it there and given the race, it's certainly not mission impossible.

It would really be a mistake for the M's to not retain Russell Branyan. He's a great all-around player. He will put up a .850-.900 OPS, plays solid defense and runs well for a big man. I'd love to see them sign him to a 2-3 year deal at 3-5$ mill a year.

If you don't keep the fan base happy, people stop going to games and then your budgets shrink. There is certainly some importance to giving the fans hope and not winning at all for 2-3 years isn't hope.

Jul 22, 2009 10:09 AM
rating: 0
 
Fresh Hops

You're underestimating the market for Branyan after this season; he's going to cost about 2 or 3 times what you think. My guess is that his next contract comes in around $9M a season, but it's hard to know in this market.

5 games out is a long way to go to put the M's in the race. The M's are not a terrible team, but they're not a very good one either. I'm happy with what they've done this season, but I'd be upset to see the M's trade serious prospects to try to make up 5 games in the next two and a half months, especially give the fragility of Eric Bedard and some regression from Jarrod Washburn and Branyan, no short stop worth mentioning, a stand-in at 3B, Griffey as the DH, etc.

The M's have just a 17.5% chance at the playoffs, according to this site. That's a pretty small chance to be betting large sums of prospects on.

Jul 22, 2009 11:13 AM
rating: 0
 
HonusCobb

I would agree with the statement, "The Mariners aren't good enough to win this year."

But you're right, it's not impossible. I'd say their odds may be slightly better than Tom Watson tying for second in the Open Championship this past weekend.

They've got good starting pitching...but they've also got a really really bad offense. You can't expect Branyan to produce like he did in the first half through the rest of this year or for another half season like that ever again.

The Mariners need serious help at every offensive position other than Center and Right Field (and maybe second base if Lopez can hit like he did last season)..and how much longer is Ichiro going to be able to play at the level he's played at since entering the bigs?

At every position where their player has gotten the most Plate Appearnces here are the Mariners OBPs..

C - Rob Johnson - .278
1B - Branyan - .375 (and dropping)
2B - Jose Lopez - .300
3B - Adrian Beltre - .291
SS - Betancourt - .278
LF - Balentien - .278
CF - Guitierrez - .354
RF - Ichiro - .394
DH - Giffey - .331

This is one of the worst offenses that I've ever seen. I would argue that "The Mariners aren't good enough to win this year."

Jul 22, 2009 11:16 AM
rating: 1
 
HonusCobb

correction - Tom Watson didn't "tie" for second. He placed second.

Jul 22, 2009 11:18 AM
rating: 0
 
shmikdog

I just have to say re: Branyan... he's in his age 34 season and has career OPS of ~830. Is it realistic to expect a 850-900 OPS over the next 2-3yrs? Methinks not...

Oh, and I'll happily take the under at $100 on him signing a $9mm AAV contract this winter. (And hedge it with $20 on Drayton Moore getting canned in 2010 at 5:1... you know... just in case...)

Jul 22, 2009 12:12 PM
rating: 2
 
SeanDoyle

Is it possible that a 34 year old player with a career OPS of ~830 could produce an 850-900 over the next 2-3 years? Yes. Is it likely? I'd think not. Very few players are able to improve by that much in their mid-30's, and there's a big difference between an 830 OPS and a 900.

Jul 22, 2009 13:18 PM
rating: 0
 
ElAngelo
(942)

You may have actually identified a pair of decent trading partners. While I agree the Rangers shouldn't put their stud prospects on the market, there's nothing wrong with making minor moves to take a shot at it this year. For example, would it be wrong for them to trade for Jarrod Washburn if the price were right?

Jul 22, 2009 10:31 AM
rating: 1
 
Aaron/YYZ

Washburn at almost any price would get murdered pitching regularly in Texas. He's taking great advantage of the deep fences and great outfield defense in Seattle.

Jul 22, 2009 17:30 PM
rating: 0
 
Fresh Hops

Do the Rangers have the money for Halladay?

Jul 22, 2009 10:54 AM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

Yeah, I don't know how you can talk about the Ranger's making any deadline deals without at least considering Tom Hick's financial problems.

Jul 22, 2009 12:46 PM
rating: 1
 
adman71

Wilson has a role as either the closer or an Arthur Rhodes-type power lefty setup man.

Jul 22, 2009 13:51 PM
rating: 0
 
ccweinmann

Jack Zduriencik may agree with you, but it's going to tough to sell right now. Best thing for the M's long-term might be for them to drop 6 or 7 in a row and fall way out of contention.

Jul 22, 2009 14:22 PM
rating: 2
 
hyprvypr

Branyan is better then anyone here realizes or gives him credit for. He's been kicked around his entire career and the M's are capitalizing by doing what the other 29 teams didn't - start him regularly. He should still be resting against tough lefties - heck most lefties, but he's torched RH'ers the last few years and batting every day, in the two spot where he gets plenty of hittable pitches, he's mashing.

There are only a couple of players in the league who have comparable power. While he fans a lot, so does Ryan Howard, Mark Reynolds, etc. etc. and they all get at-bats.

Branyan is better then players like Mike Jacobs who yet manages to get in the lineup every day.

If I were the M's owner, I'd reward Branyan with a reasonable, short-term deal. Branyan will probably bite at something like 13m/3 years. He'll reward the M's with some .250/.340/.530 seasons.


Jul 22, 2009 15:33 PM
rating: 3
 
HonusCobb

Well yeah Branyan should be playing over Mike Jacobs. But so should Kila Kia'hue or whatever his name is that's in AAA Omaha. There's a lot that we can point to in Kansas City that seems irrational. I went to the Royals/Angels game last night (fortunately Jacobs was on the bench), And there's a couple guys like Betancourt and Olivo that shouldn't be on most major league rosters.

I'm just pessimistic because of Branyan's age, because of his previous career stats. We know that he can hit for power and take walks. But will his OBP be hurt because he's a career .236 hitter? Yes it will. He's a nice player to have on a roster...but I think there's a reason he's never really been a regular. Who knows..maybe I'm wrong.

Jul 23, 2009 10:38 AM
rating: 0
 
hyprvypr

The other thing here is that it's precisely because the offence is so bad that it would be relatively easy to upgrade in a trade. Also, for the same reason you can expect Branyan and perhaps Washburn to regress(though I don't expect much - both have changed their approach)

Jul 22, 2009 15:35 PM
rating: 0
 
hyprvypr

... you can expect the guys below their normal production to regress upwards. Beltre should be coming back towards the end of August which, when healthy, should provide league average offence at 3B and gold glove work.

Lopez should continue to improve and indeed has posted about a .900 OPS in June and July.

It's only 35 at-bats but Rob Johnson is posting a .900+ OPS since July as well.

Sure they have a lot of holes, but couldn't players be found relatively cheaply to fill them at SS/3B, maybe DH/LF?

I don't think they have to move premium prospects to do that. Besides there's always Jeff Clement and Michael Saunders to give a shot.

Jul 22, 2009 15:42 PM
rating: 0
 
Ira

Damn. I actually agree with Joe Sheehan. Yes, the Rangers are having trouble sticking with the Angels. Yes, its the offense that's having the problem, and much of that is a lack of patience. Oddly enough, the most patient bats in the lineup are Andruw Jones and David Murphy. I disagree that their hitting on contact has been good. From what I've seen its been pretty bad. The Rangers have been blasting line drives all over the place, only to watch them get caught time and time again. Of course, they are also striking out too much. Davis, who was part of that problem, has been raking since being sent down, and will probably return soon.

On the pitching side, this is a team that has really been pitching great. They talk about pitching to contact, and this is a team that has really taken that to heart. Their defense has been better, but the contact that the Rangers opponents have been hitting has been pretty wretched. That, more than anything has made the defense look good and made the pitching look good. (Tommy Hunter pumped out another quality start last night, this time against the Red Sox. The only non-quality starts he's had this year were where he failed to go 6 innings. He's not allowed more than 3 runs in any start so far.)

Jul 22, 2009 17:36 PM
rating: 0
 
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