First off, let me apologize for the server problems we are having, which has delayed this point...
Now, to my real post...
A nice ending last night to what had started out as a very disappointing homestand. The Rangers ended up going 3-3 against the Devil Fishies and the Orioles, and if you are hoping for the team to get back into the playoff hunt, that's not going to get it done. On the other hand, given the state of the rotation and how well the Devil Fish have been playing, a split on the homestand isn't all that bad, or that unexpected. And there were some reassuring signs over the weekend, particularly from Kevin Mench, Hank Blalock, and Mark Teixeira. Those guys have been struggling since the All Star Break, but all three hit the ball well against the Orioles, and Mench and Teixeira, in particular, definitely looked like they are coming out of their slumps.
Of course, the best news from yesterday was Chris Young's performance. Young has been Jekyll and Hyde this season, going from ROY and dark-horse Cy Young candidate in the first couple of months to being a Ho-esque disaster the past six weeks or so. There has been talk that Young has looked tired or worn out during that time, and if a 26 year old pitcher is getting tired in June, that's a really bad sign. But Young looked like his pre-slump self yesterday, shutting out the Orioles over 7 innings, and escaping from the only serious trouble he got into - a 2nd inning situation, where the bases got loaded after he induced a 2 out broken bat grounder that ended up going as an infield single. And most encouragingly, Young seemed to get better as the game went along, getting through 7 efficiently, without getting bogged down with lots of multi-pitch at bats, which has been Achilles' heel all year.
If, like me, you have pretty much resigned yourself to the fact that the Rangers aren't playoff bound this year, then there are three significant things that you are probably wanting to see the rest of the way. One is for the young hitters in the lineup right now - Teixeira, Mench, Young, Blalock - to finish the year strong. This is particularly true of Blalock, who has had a tendency to start seasons well and then fade as the year goes on.
Second is for the young hitters who are in the minors to get a look this season. Gerald Laird, Adrian Gonzalez, Jason Botts, Ian Kinsler...these guys, particularly Laird and Botts, should be getting some ABs the rest of the way. Botts and Laird, I believe, should be in the majors and starting already. Whether these guys are going to be able to contribute next season is going to have a significant impact in what the Rangers' targets are going to be this offseason (particularly given that this is a very weak free agent class, with the most attractive available players being outfielders), and determining whether Botts, Gonzalez, and, to a lesser extent, Phil Nevin can be counted on to handle meaningful ABs next season from a DH or corner outfield spot (or the first base job, with Teixeira moving to the outfield) would make it a lot easier to evaluate this offseason's shopping list.
Third, though, and perhaps most important, is how Ricardo Rodriguez and Chris Young pitch the rest of the way. RicRod had a solid outing earlier this week, that ended up getting spoiled by some late problems, and the Chris Young rollercoaster we know about. But despite these growing pains, both these guys have sub-5 ERAs on the season, results that I think are quite sastisfactory. In fact, if you'd have told me that Young and RicRod would post a sub-5 ERA in the rotation before the season, I would have liked our chances of making the playoffs, since those two, plus Rogers and Drese, would have (I'd have thought) given us four solid starters for the rotation, which would be good enough to make the Rangers a legit playoff contender.
Ricardo Rodriguez and Chris Young need to be in the Rangers' 2006 rotation. The other young pitching options - John Hudgins, Juan Dominguez, Kam Loe, C.J. Wilson, DVD - for various reasons aren't likely to be options in the rotation to start the 2006 season, although Dominguez could end up changing that if he steps up over the final two months. And at this point, with Drese and the Ho gone and Rogers' relationship with management having deteriorated to the point where his return to Texas after the season seems to be up in the air, the Rangers are going to have to essentially rebuild the entire rotation.
If they can work on rebuilding the rotation, though, knowing that Young and RicRod can be counted on to hold down a couple of rotation spots next year, it makes it much, much easier to fill in the remaining holes and be optimistic about contending in 2006. Even if the Rangers don't achieve their goal of landing an A.J. Burnett or a Matt Morris, if they can, say, bring Kenny Rogers back, add a Kevin Millwood or a Paul Byrd on a short-term deal, try to trade for a Brian Lawrence or an Odalis Perez or a John Thomson (assuming the Braves exercise their option on him), if they can surround Young and RicRod with solid starters who can eat innings and give the team close to league average performance, then the Rangers will be well situated to compete in 2006.
And that's why, to me, the thing I want to watch most closely the rest of the way is the performance and development of Ricardo Rodriguez and Chris Young. Because the difference between them finishing strong and flaming out the rest of the way could well be the difference between the 2006 Rangers being a playoff contender, and the 2006 Rangers being another .500 squad.