In advance of the Rangers appearing on Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN this weekend, ESPN made Buster Olney available to do a Q&A with us about the Rangers' 2013 season. I visited with him this morning, and the transcription of our conversation is below.
AJM: ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball this week features the Tigers in Arlington against the Rangers. Do you think these are the best two teams in baseball right now?
Olney: I don’t. I think the Tigers still have to sort through some bullpen issues in order for them to climb up to that next level. Its not clear where that’s going to come from. I think the Rangers have certainly earned their stature, and knowing that they’ve got all these different pitchers who could be coming back healthy during the year I think only reinforces that. I was actually, the other day, I was riding back from the Sunday night game last weekend, and the conversation popped up in the car with Dan Shulman and Boog Sciambi and others. We were saying, “Who are the best teams in baseball right now?” And Boog and I both settled on the Rangers and Cardinals. I think the Cardinals are, especially with Edward Mujica becoming such a strong closer for them, along with the Rangers, the two best teams.
AJM: Part of what makes the Rangers’ success so surprising to some is the fact that they were considered to be one of the big losers of the offseason. They seemed to have a lot of irons in the fire, but nothing really panned out, and they ended up going with Plan C and Plan D. How surprising is it to you that the Rangers are in this situation, given how the offseason played out?
Olney: It’s a surprise, but I don’t think it’s a huge surprise. I didn’t pick them to win the division – I picked Oakland – but its been neat to see them get help from guys like Justin Grimm and have Mitch Moreland have a bounceback year and become the type of player they hoped he could be. Ian Kinsler – its pretty clear he was devoted to getting better, but a lot of the things we thought needed to have happen to them to win the division haven’t happened. Besides the fact that they lost Josh Hamilton, they lose Matt Harrison maybe indefinitely, that’s a big deal, to not get Soria back as quickly as they had hoped, that’s a big deal. But the depth of their organization is really showing now.
AJM: You mentioned Kinsler, who is off to a great start to the season after a very disappointing 2012 season. He’s a polarizing figure, both among the fans and among the media in the Dallas area. There’s a lot of people who see Kinsler as one of the cornerstones of the team, and there’s a lot of people who see him as somebody who pops up too much and has a bad attitude. How is Kinsler perceived around the league?
Olney: I think in terms of perception of what he was last year, there were a lot of questions around baseball. Was he someone we were already starting to see some decline in him, and was this decline going to be a real problem? I had even in the last week an executive for another team say to me, why the heck didn’t they play Profar every day at second base in spring training and just move Kinsler? Its been interesting to see that whole situation develop through the years with the Rangers, when asking veterans to move. And clearly with Michael Young, it was a touchstone, a real issue with him. It feels like, from the outside looking in, that they definitely were very wary of how this was going to play with Kinsler. In that regard, that’s part of the reason why people pay attention to Kinsler with other organizations so much. I know from my conversations with Ian earlier in the season, he talked about how he was just trying to get better and bounce back, and I think one of the things he probably focused on a little bit was just being able to do more at the plate – in other words, not be such a one-dimensional guy.
AJM: Profar is obviously someone that Rangers fans are very excited about, and there was a significant push this offseason from a lot of fans to move Kinsler to the outfield or first base, or trade Elvis Andrus for Justin Upton, and let Profar have an everyday job. How do you see the Profar situation shaking out with the Rangers? Is it something where probably next year he’s going to come up and take over at second base, with Kinsler moving to the outfield or first base, or do the Rangers, despite their insistence that Profar is untouchable, try to use him this summer to land a Giancarlo Stanton or a David Price, someone like that?
Olney: What’s interesting about that is, I think initially their plan is – and I think you’ll see Profar up at some point – is that, as time as gone on, the Rangers have become more aware, more sensitive, to the impact of heat on their players, and trying to keep their players fresh. I know one of the things they’ve talked about is coming up with some sort of a rotation system – not early in the year, but at some point during the year, calling up Profar and moving him around and getting him regular playing time while giving more rest to your everyday guys at different spots. But at some point they’ll settle in with Profar – and I think second base makes the most sense. But here’s the other thing that’s gotten sort of complicated with a potential trade: Profar, in the eyes of executives of other teams, is the type of guy for whom you need to get the type of player who is a former Cy Young Winner, like a David Price, or to get someone like Stanton. And I have had people with other teams tell me that they think eventually Stanton winds up with the Rangers. But Price just went on the disabled list, and there’s no chance that any team, whether it’s the Rangers or another club, is going to give up a high-impact package of prospects until Price demonstrates that he will get his velocity back. And Stanton is definitely getting the reputation – fair or not – as someone who gets hurt a lot, and who has a difficult time coming back from injuries. So it would be interesting to see how invested the Rangers would be in those type of trade conversations, if they pop up, knowing how good Profar can be. And he is, among rival evaluators, definitely is viewed as, while not a Trout or Harper type guy, a difference-making type player once he gets to the big leagues.
AJM: Yesterday, Yu Darvish didn’t have the type of outing Rangers fans have come to expect from him, but he still outdueled Justin Verlander while going 8 innings and throwing 130 pitches.. Has he established himself at this point as one of the handful of legitimate aces, a legit #1 starter for a championship contender, like a Kershaw or a Verlander or a Cliff Lee, or is the jury still out on whether he’s at that level?
Olney: No, he’s a #1. And I think he’s looked at that way and respected as that type of pitcher. And I love Ron Washington’s quote after the game when he was asked about Darvish throwing 130 pitches, and his response was – and I’m paraphrasing – but it was something along the lines of, “No, he’s a hoss!” And I think that’s the feeling about it, that he’s a big, physical pitcher who is a great athlete, who has the ability to maintain his delivery and to maintain all those different pitches that he throws and to be effective. And there’s no doubt, you can count probably on one hand the number of pitchers who have that wide of a repertoire – Verlander being one of the other ones – and that really distinguishes Darvish, because he’s so young, and so physical. And I remember when he was in Japan, I had a scout tell me he reminded him of Chris Carpenter, sort of that big, physical pitcher who can throw a heavy fastball when he needed to. I think you can look at him as a guy who is going to anchor that rotation for a lot of years. There are a lot of pitchers who come from Japan – and we had Jon Daniels on our podcast on Thursday – and there always seems to be a difficulty in the transition to the U.S. And there’s been none with Darvish. He’s been terrific from day one.
AJM: He’s been someone who I think Rangers fans view as a “destination-type” starter, a guy who you circle on the calendar when he’s going to next start because no one wants to miss a Darvish start. And the other pitcher in the history of the Rangers who has had that kind of effect is Nolan Ryan. Obviously, this spring, the Nolan Ryan situation, and the perception on Ryan’s part that he was being squeezed out of the front office, was a big story, and now there’s a new wrinkle to the story, since his son is going to be taking over as team president in Houston. I think there’s some thought among some folks who follow the Rangers that the Nolan Ryan situation is in a détente right now, and there won’t be a final reckoning until after the season. How do you see the Ryan situation with the Rangers playing out?
Olney: I wish I could give you a good answer on that, because the palace intrigue is fascinating. You’d think that, when there was talk earlier this year that Ryan might leave the Rangers, we were all thinking, would he go to the Astros? No. Because Nolan’s big thing, it seems, based on what the people who know him best are saying, is that he just wants to have a voice in the room that’s relevant, and he wants to be in a position where he can be listened to. Well, if he goes to Houston, on one hand, if his son is in that role, you’d think, well, he’s definitely going to be listened to if he’s in that spot. But on the other hand, I don’t think there’s a team that’s more devoted to the sort of “new school” type thinking than the Astros under Jeff Luhnow. So you’re kind of wondering, would you be mixing oil and water in terms of philosophy? But if the most important thing for Nolan is to be listened to, in terms of baseball decisions, then I don’t think there’s any doubt that going to the Astros and being there with his son would give him the best chance, because it does appear as if the Rangers have made a shift in how they’re handling Nolan.
AJM: Joe Nathan is 38 years old, and while he’s been perfect this year in save opportunities, his stuff seems to be down, his velocity is down 2-3 mph from where it has been in the past. Are the Rangers concerned at all about Joe Nathan, and should they be concerned?
Olney: I think they’re aware of the potential issues that can pop up with a closer at that age, and I think they’re aware of the possibility that, if they use him on multiple days, that that’s probably going to increase the likelihood that he’s going to wear down. I think they’re comfortable with him being the closer, but I also think that, as the summer wears on, you’re going to see them being one of the most aggressive teams – the Tigers being the other – in terms of trying to go out and get bullpen help. And to that end, what’s interesting is that if you look at the trade market, whether it is for starting pitching or for relievers, it looks like it is going to be terrible. There’s just not going to be a lot of help out there necessarily, in part because of the wild card – with more teams staying in the race longer, they’re not going to be as willing to make deals. But there just aren’t that many prospective free agents who might become available in trade. Someone like Huston Street might make sense for Texas, but it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a lot of help out there on the trade market. They may have to figure out how to make best use of these guys who are coming off the d.l.
Many thanks to Buster Olney for his time and insight, and to ESPN for making him available for us to visit with.