So, here we are. With a little under two weeks left in the season, the Rangers are a game back of Tampa for the first Wild Card spot, a half-game up on Cleveland for the second Wild Card spot, and have Kansas City and Baltimore lurking a few games back.
Coming into the season, the possibility of this being the scenario wouldn't be that shocking -- well, it being Cleveland and Kansas City nipping at the Rangers' heels might be, but the notion of the Rangers fighting for a Wild Card spot wouldn't. After what was considered even at the time to be a disappointing offseason, the Rangers were seen to be a likely candidate to take a step back in the A.L. West, and while they were not being written off as a playoff contender, there were a fair number of folks picking the Angels or the A's to finish ahead of the Rangers in the West.
Nevertheless, the Rangers were well-positioned in the A.L. in late August, vying for the best record in the league after finishing a 19-4 stretch, prompting Ranger fans to get hyped about postseason play while laughing at those who thought the loss of Nelson Cruz would cripple the team, at those who referenced "hubris" while talking about the front office's action the previous offseason.
How things can change in just a short amount of time. The Rangers were 79-56 at the end of August, 23 games over .500 and 2 up in the A.L. West. Since that date, Texas has gone 2-11, falling completely out of the running in the A.L. West race and putting even a Wild Card spot in jeopardy.
Its worth noting that, for all the claims that the Rangers have "choked," that they have "lemonbooty" (as one local columnist put it on Twitter yesterday), that they are repeating last year and clearly can't handle the pressure of September, the reality is that this team has been prone to these freefalls before. Texas had a 3-12 stretch in July. Texas had a 2-9 stretch (including a six game home losing streak against the Indians and Blue Jays) in June. The Rangers aren't in freefall because they are choking...they are in freefall because they are streaky, and the offense has a tendency to not score runs. The Rangers averaged 2.4 runs per game in that July stretch, and 2.45 runs per game in that June stretch (including scoring 8 runs over that 6 game home losing streak).
This is who they are...a team with really good pitching and defense, and a mediocre offense that is prone to slumps.
The bigger question is, why is this happening? Fans are lobbying to fire Ron Washington, fire Dave Magadan, fire Gary Pettis and Dave Anderson, do something to effectuate change. But does that really solve anything?
The DMN has some quotes from Nolan Ryan about the Rangers' problems this year, and I think Nolan has a really sensible take on things while explaining why he doesn't think Ron Washington should pay for the team's struggles with his job:
"I think Ron has done everything within his power to try to motivate his club, and I just think we have some people having sub-par years, and we've had some injuries, and we just, we brought a lot of young players into our organization that don't have a lot of experience.
"I think it's a combination of a lot of things. But it comes down to the guys on the field"
It sounds simplistic, but that's really what it is. The Rangers have been without their second best starter, Matt Harrison, for essentially all season. The rotation they were hoping to have, at least by June, was Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, and Alexi Ogando. When Ogando starts tonight, that will give the Rangers their 20th start, total, from Harrison, Lewis and Ogando.
The combination of Matt Harrison missing the year with back surgery and Colby Lewis not making it back at all has been a huge blow to this team. Those problems have been exacerbated by injuries and regression from some of the pitchers counted on for depth. Martin Perez was hurt on a comebacker this spring, knocking him out for the first two months. Justin Grimm, who the team thought was ready to step up and be a decent back-end option this year, imploded. Nick Tepesch was okay for the first few months of the season, then missed a couple of months with an injury. Cody Buckel caught Steve Blass Disease and has been a non-factor this year. Even someone like Chad Bell, who probably would have been an option at some point this season, given all the injuries, was hurt.
And then, when the Rangers actually make a move this summer to get pitching help, go out there and get Matt Garza, the best starting pitcher on the market, that backfires. Now, while we've all talked about how Garza isn't a #1 starter, how he's a #3 guy on a playoff rotation, that we should expect him to come in and put up a low-3 ERA, I also think its fair to say that no one expected him to put up an ERA near 5, either. Sometimes guys come in and out-perform expectations. And sometimes you bring in a guy who, for whatever reason, has a bad streak and doesn't perform to expectations. Garza has, clearly, been the latter.
Looking at the offense, the Rangers clearly were counting on a solid bounceback year from Lance Berkman, were hoping he'd give them 550 plate appearances with an 800-850 OPS. Instead, Berkman has been hurt and, except for the first month, has been awful when he has played. The backup plan, in terms of a 1B/DH/COF option, was Mike Olt, who the team thought was ready to contribute at the major league level, who the team thought highly enough of that they wouldn't give him up for Zack Greinke last year. Olt, of course, had a disastrous 2013 campaign, having a bad spring, having vision problems, and never coming close to hitting well enough to be a viable option for the major league club.
As a result, Jurickson Profar -- a 20 year old shortstop -- ended up getting most of the at bats that were expected to go to Berkman. And with Berkman and Olt both unavailable, the Rangers were particularly ill-suited to deal with the injuries to Mitch Moreland and Jeff Baker, and ended up having to try to plug Chris McGuiness and Robinson Chirinos and Engel Beltre into the lineup for a team expected to be a contender. And while Alex Rios ended up being acquired, all he did was replace Nelson Cruz, who is on a 50 game vacation.
So we have a lineup that, coming into the season, wasn't the team's first choice for who they wanted, but was instead the guys they put together when they couldn't get Justin Upton or Josh Hamilton or Giancarlo Stanton. And then when Berkman ended up being done and Olt was unable to contribute and Moreland and Baker and Kinsler all missed time, there simply weren't guys available to fill in.
And then you have a handful of guys who simply haven't performed. David Murphy, who has been a solid platoon outfielder for his entire career here, had a disaster season. Elvis Andrus didn't hit in the first half of the year. Ian Kinsler is dealing with his second straight disappointing campaign. The team was counting on Mitch Moreland to take a step forward, and instead, he treaded water, performing like a slightly above replacement level first baseman. The team was counting on Leonys Martin and Jurickson Profar, and neither has hit quite as well as the team expected them to.
Its been a confluence of events. As Nolan said, its a combination of things...some people having sub-par years (Elvis, Kinsler, Murphy), some injuries (Harrison, Ogando, Berkman, Lewis), and young players who haven't stepped up (Moreland, Olt, and offensively, at least, Leonys and Profar).
There are those who say Ron Washington should be fired over this performance. Okay, I get that sentiment. But what, exactly, should Ron have done that he hasn't done this year? I've seen him slammed for not being "smart enough" to platoon. But Wash has been starting Jeff Baker and Craig Gentry against lefties all season. He's sat David Murphy and Mitch Moreland against lefties, when there has been a righthanded bat available to play. What other platoons was Wash supposed to avail himself of?
As for Dave Magadan, well...I don't think I know enough about what goes on with the team to have a meaningful opinion about the hitting coach's job. If you think the hitting coach should take the blame because David Murphy and Mitch Moreland haven't hit this year, and Elvis slumped in the first half, and Kinsler hasn't hit since April, okay. I just don't know that a hitting coach has so much of an impact that he should get the blame for those problems (or the credit, conversely, when a hitter exceeds expectations).
At the end of the day, this is a team that has gotten great performances from three "everyday" type players -- Adrian Beltre, Yu Darvish, and Derek Holland. Jeff Baker has been solid off the bench, the bullpen has had a great year, but the rotation and the everyday lineup has been, outside of those three I named, underwhelming.
And the reality is that this happens sometimes. Good teams, good organizations, have disappointing years. They have seasons where guys don't perform, where injuries strike, where they end up falling short and not making the playoffs.
It isn't a reason for panic. Its the reality of rooting for a baseball team that doesn't have a $200M payroll. And as the Yankees are showing this season, even teams with a $200M payroll sometimes underachieve.
So yeah, there's been a lot of reason for disappointment this year.
And even given that, this team still has the fifth best record in the A.L., and still has a pretty decent shot of making the postseason.
A decade ago, I'd have killed for the Rangers to have a down season like the one we've had so far in 2013.