It's August 15th, the Rangers boast as large a divisional lead as any team in baseball, and a third consecutive division title (which is one hell of an accomplishment in its own right) is appearing more and more like a foregone conclusion ... but you'd never know it judging solely from the tenor of the fan base, which seems to be completing the full-circle progression from miserable (during the hopeless early-aughts) to overjoyed (during that 2009-11 window, up until Game 6 of last year's World Series) back towards kinda-sorta miserable. The 2012 regular season will not go down in our collective memory as an altogether enjoyable or pleasurable ride, and that sucks.
Because, as of this point in time, we're still tortured by the haunting and painful refrain of "one more strike," we're fearful of the possibility that the Rangers' current championship-contending window will come and go without a title to show for it, we're troubled by the seeming deficiencies in the makeup/usage of the roster that threaten to undermine its post-season aspirations, and we're increasingly consumed with scorn and disdain for the worst everyday player of baseball and his managerial enabler.
I'm definitely generalizing here to some degree, and I know that there are lots of people out there who are still very optimistic about this ballclub, who like where things are headed ... but even if you're still feeling pretty good on the whole, you know exactly what I'm talking about with that last paragraph. The highs are still great, but the lows feel a hell of a lot lower than they used to, and it's difficult to fully embrace the ride itself when you're so fed up with how certain controllable elements of the ride are being handled. Put another way, it's tough(er) to let your worries go for three hours every night and sink that recurring time/emotional investment into Rangers baseball when, deep down, you know that the best possible lineup isn't being put out there on the field every night.
And since I've grown rather sick of writing one post after the next about this situation, let's just go ahead and get it all out there in the open this morning and be done with it, even if that respite lasts for only for a couple of days.
Yesterday afternoon, Evan Grant pinned Ron Washington down on the subject of Michael Young and his ceaseless playing time, and Washington basically doubled down on his comments from the Norm Hitzges show last week, saying, among other things: "[Young's] done it for 12 years and the bottom line is before the year is over, he’s going to do something grand for this club. I’m willing to wait for it as the manager. ... He does way more than what happens whenever he gets in the box. He busts his butt every day working early. He works with other players to try and help them get better. I’m a big believer in Michael Young. And if the ship sinks, I’ll still be on it.”
Young, meanwhile, acknowledged his offensive issues earlier on in the season and identified his troubles as a learning process, but also reaffirmed his confidence in his skill set, and remarked that he felt that he had made significant strides within the last month: "I feel like I’ve made a good adjustment. My biggest attribute is my hands and my bat speed and I wasn’t letting my hands fly through the zone. I was really fighting it. Right now, I feel like myself going up there. I don’t think I’ve completely turned the corner, but I expect that I have a long hot stretch in me before this season is over."
We also got a taste of the clubhouse sentiment on Young from David Murphy, who offered nothing less than his most enthusiastic and unequivocal support for his teammate on ESPN 103.3 FM yesterday afternoon. He sounded pretty genuine in his remarks and I don't see much reason to believe that he was blowing hot air, but even if he did actually feel otherwise and felt that Young was a drag on the team, there's no reason to believe that he would publicly advocate any course of action that might rock the boat.
And, as I said last week, maybe we should be interpreting Washington's comments in a similar light. An aggressive, wholehearted show of confidence in Young right now doesn't absolutely preclude Washington seeing the light at a later date, or him mercifully realizing before the post-season that it just might be a really terrible idea to allocate significant October playing time to somebody who has so little in his bag right now. It's not too late to rock the status quo. This could still change.
The problem, though, is that I've never been less confident in it changing than I am right now. And that's where this becomes a really sticky issue to work through, because it wasn't all that long ago that Washington was largely adored by the fan base (even by some saber-educated types who could set aside their occasional misgivings), and heralded for his ability to maximize the talents of his players while suppressing the clubhouse strife that has doomed so many other skippers before him. It's very easy to speak in black-and-white absolutes and wholly condemn Washington on the basis of his handling of the Young fiasco, but the overall evaluation is far more nuanced than all of that.
Three weeks ago, I passed my breaking point with Michael Young, and was very explicit in detailing why I felt that particular way. There's a dirty little secret about Young that I didn't disclose in that post, however -- Young has not been terrible against everyone this year. Young has, in fact, been mildly serviceable against lefties (137 PA, .323/.365/.402, 104 wRC+), with an average-heavy triple-slash line versus southpaws that may not be the greatest thing in the world out of the DH spot, but at the very least won't kill you. From that standpoint, Young is not as completely useless as his overall numbers (476 PA, .269/.300/.343, 66 wRC+, -1.6 fWAR) would lead you to believe.
Yes, the scope of Young's effectiveness is extremely limited (horrendous against right-handers, below-average at every defensive position), but my frustration with his performance has actually begun to subside -- it's clear he's putting in the requisite work in an effort to improve, and trying to maintain an upbeat attitude, and, from that standpoint, I don't fault him, because he's doing what he should be doing to try and save his career. Getting old sucks, and sooner or later, he's going to have to come to terms with his own baseball mortality. I still don't want to see him play baseball for the Rangers anymore, but that has nothing to do with his level of effort or caring.
So, Young isn't completely useless. He's completely useless when deployed in the manner that he's currently being deployed in, though, and that falls entirely at the feet of Washington, who seems to be under the completely ludicrous impression that benching Young even every now and then -- keeping in mind that he's about to turn 36, hasn't had a game off in more than two months, and would probably benefit as much from a little extra rest as anyone on the roster -- would be equivalent to him turning his back on Young, and who has even gone so far as to chastise those fans who haven't stuck by Young for being "unloyal" and choosing to "run in the other direction."
There's a certain irony in his finger-wagging attitude towards the fans, because if you stop down and think about all of this and think about the evidence laid out here, it's not just Young playing poorly that has turned the fans against Young -- it's also Washington's radically loyal mindset. Washington thinks it's wrong for any Rangers fan to turn on Young, but Washington's usage of Young is a big part of the reason why the fans are turning on Young. After these many months of futility and mounting evidence, Washington is still utilizing Young in such a way where he's destined to fail with astounding regularity and consequently hurt the team. In that sense, Washington is a huge part of the problem.
And, of course, I can't imagine that the front office is particularly thrilled with how this is all playing out. But Washington has the back-to-back World Series trips to hang his hat on, and, by all accounts, has the respect of the room, as well as the final word on the lineups. If it comes down to Jon Daniels or Nolan Ryan handing down an ultimatum to the manager's office about making out the lineup a certain way, then that's probably the beginning of the end for Washington in Texas, and I would imagine that there is some trepidation about crossing that conceivable point of no return.
So, what do I expect to change? Nothing, really. It could change, but I don't think it will. And for the next six-plus weeks, we'll likely continue to fret about whether the first "12 years" of Young's career in Texas -- the apparent basis for Washington's ever-lasting support --- will materially detract from the Rangers' chances of winning it all in his 13th year.