After posting one of the absolute worst month-of-June offensive performances with runners on base of any hitter in baseball (42 PA, .118/.214/.176), Josh Hamilton finally delivered in a couple of key scoring situations last night, as he plated two second-inning runs with a single through the right side against C.J. Wilson, and crushed yet another Angels lefty (Hisanori Takahashi) with a long two-out, two-run double in the seventh inning that effectively put last night's game on ice.
It wasn't Hamilton at his absolute greatest, but he produced in several key situations and was a contributing factor in a big Rangers win, and, from that standpoint, it was an encouraging night -- the kind of night that leads you to believe that maybe, just maybe, he actually is right on the verge of turning the corner.
After the game, though, Hamilton decided to address the secret behind his success on the night, as well as that other little thing that has left everyone hopelessly confused:
"Basically I just said, 'You know what?' Stop thinking about it, stop listening to everybody, everybody has something to say, and just go up there and play," Hamilton said. "React. Try to slow the game down again and it worked. It's just about trusting myself."
Hamilton said he is enjoying the game more the past few days, but wasn't ready to reveal the reasons behind his cryptic comments last week.
"People are not going to understand, I'll share more later," Hamilton said. "It's out there that my marriage is falling apart and people are trying to figure out what's going on. ... But it's nobody's business. When I let you know, I'll let you know."
There has been a lot of speculation and conjecture over the last week within the blogosphere and the Twittersphere about what, exactly, is going on with Hamilton, which began when he issued some cryptic remarks last weekend about how he had been disobedient to God but couldn't tell the media what was going on as of yet. And, of course, that speculation intensified earlier this week when Ron Washington indicated that he was aware of Hamilton's "problem," but felt Hamilton needed to be the one to put an end to the speculation and divulge the nature of his situation: "Josh is the one that made the statement and got all the inquiries going, and I think Josh is the one that has to put a rest to the inquiries, not Ron Washington. I can just tell you one thing: It is not because he's hurt."
And my Clubhouse post relaying Washington's comments on the Ben & Skin show ended up triggering another firestorm of commenter guesses and speculation, with that speculation being referenced on NBC Sports' Hardball Talk blog, and then being further referenced yesterday morning when the Musers on the Ticket attributed that speculation to "the blog Baseball Time in Arlington." It's funny how that works.
To be clear, I have no interest in publicly guessing at what, exactly, is going on with Hamilton. I think it's dangerous to baselessly speculate upon his situation -- especially when we have so little information to go off of. The story will likely come out at some point, and we can have a more informed, productive conversation about it when that point arrives, but as of right now, there's really nothing here beyond a collection of ambiguous remarks and our own hyperactive imaginations.
With all that said, however, I do want to address one particular bit of speculation, and make one further comment on this very pecuiliar situation, and then, hopefully, we can somewhat move on from this:
(1) Randy Galloway apparently said yesterday that Josh's mystery problem was that he had resumed dipping again, a habit which he apparently attempted to kick by way of the cold-turkey method over the weekend of June 23-24th; from the beginning of that weekend to present, Hamilton has batted just .198/.281/.387 over 139 plate appearances, and that, in turn, has given rise to some thought that he picked a terrible time to attempt to stop dipping, that doing so exacerbated his slump, and so forth.
The thing about that, though, is that Hamilton batted .206/.286/.381 from the outset of June up until that weekend, with an identical .677 OPS. He was slumping hard both before and after he initiated his effort to quit dipping, and slumping with pretty identical numbers on both sides of that weekend, and so I don't know that there's really any meaningful correlation between his offensive problems and his dipping habits (or lack thereof).
(2) Jason Cole and David Newbury engaged in an interesting back-and-forth on this last night on Twitter, and I think it's a point worth bringing up here: Hamilton says that this matter of his is "nobody's business," and, you know, he's kind of right -- but isn't he the one who started the speculative ball rolling in the first place? Isn't he the one who volunteered this information about his problem in the first place? What, exactly, did he think was going to happen? Did he not think that issuing cryptic remarks about his "disobedience to God" would catalyze a whole wave of speculation and alarm? I mean, I hope this is really nothing of great significance in the larger scope of things, and that everything is okay with him, but I guess I just don't understand his thought process.
2:30 p.m. CDT Update: For what this is worth, CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman just published a post indicating that, per sources, "[Josh's] recent inability to kick [his] chewing tobacco habit" is what this is all about, and "possibly a little bit about his disappointment in not being as disciplined at the plate in recent weeks, too." Heyman also says that Hamilton is expected to address this issue in conjunction with the team later this afternoon, and notes that the Rangers don't consider his tobacco issue to be a "serious concern."
4:00 p.m. CDT Update: Hamilton has issued a formal statement with respect to his comments over the past week, which reads as follows (per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram):
"Due to the speculation that occurred from my recent comments, I felt it was important to clarify what the "issue" was to which I was referring- both personally and professionally. The issue is 'discipline.' Professionally, it's been plate discipline. Personally, it's been being obedient to the Lord in quitting chewing tabacco. I was hesitant to address the tobacco once again, because it's an area that I've struggled with trying to quit in the past. I wanted to have some time of success 'under my belt' before addressing again publicly, but feel I haven't been given that option with all of the speculating out there as to what the 'mystery issue' was. But there you have it -- discipline. Hebrews 12:4-5 and John 3:30."
Late last night, we received word of Mike Olt's imminent promotion to the majors, and after discussing that move and its potential impact both before and after it actually occurred, we now have word this afternoon from FSNSW's Emily Jones that Olt will make his major league debut tonight, batting eighth and playing first base.
It has been widely assumed that the Rangers made this call because they felt they could derive immediate value at the major league level from Olt, because they felt that he was 'ready' (at least in the sense that he had utterly demolished Double-A pitching, and that there wasn't too much more he could pick up developmentally at that level), and also because they had designs on actually playing him;, in that regard, it's encouraging to see him get the start right away against a lefty-hurling C.J. Wilson.
We've talked about how bringing Olt up is a calculated risk that the Rangers are wise to take, as they're killing several birds with one stone by introducing a bat with the potential to make some offensive noise into the mix (the chances of that improve if/when they become more willing to reallocate Michael Young's playing time to Mike Olt), someone who boasts more two-way upside than Brandon Snyder did and gives your bench/defensive flexibility a measure boost as the Rangers prepare to embark down the stretch run towards October ... but there's one question that we haven't seriously delved into yet, and it's that question is, what does Olt give you from an offensive standpoint right now?
Obviously, this isn't a sure thing as far as bolstering the Rangers' run production; his offensive skill set runs deep, but, as Jason Parks says, he's "a bit susceptible to pitches that are soft and spinning," with the kind of profile that's going to result in an abundance of swings and misses, and while there is huge offensive talent in the package and a history of upper-minors success, the reality is that he's a rookie. Sometimes rookies hit, but sometimes rookies flounder, and that's the case whether you're talking about an average or good or great -- this is the tier where Olt falls, I think -- or elite prospect. In that regard, I feel that Jason Cole made some incisive points in his Olt scouting report as far as how the first two months of Olt's major league career might play out:
Once his scouting report gets around, Olt could begin to see a steady diet of breaking balls, and pitchers will likely begin working him down and away with fastballs. That's what he struggled with at times in the minors, but Double- and Triple-A pitching isn't able to expose it with any consistency––it's an adjustment he'll need to make against major league arms. ... Olt will have to make the adjustment eventually, but he has the ability and aptitude to do so. ... The question is how quickly that cycle, which is normal for any rookie hitter, comes around.
That last sentence is the real key to unlocking the mystery of Olt's rest-of-2012 offensive expectation, I think. Dan Szymborski's rest-of-season ZiPS projection on Olt has him down at .237/.320/.414 with six home runs the rest of the way (assuming, of course, that he receives everyday playing time, which messes up the homer projection but shouldn't materially affect the triple-slash projection), and I think that's a reasonable bar to set, but we're talking about a small sample of plate appearances over just a couple of months, and a very wide range of expected outcomes.
If the BABIP gods fondly smile down upon him and the adjustment cycle develops in such a way that pitchers don't figure him out right away, he could be an .800-plus OPS hit with the ability to provide immediate offensive punch against lefty or righty pitchers. If, however they develop an adequate scouting report on him quickly, force him to make that adjustment in relatively short order, and he's not expeditious in throwing his counterpunches ... then, yeah, this could be a disappointing two-month run. And as if all of the variance stemming from the fact that he's a rookie being summoned into a small-sample situation weren't enough, you also have to account for the fact that Olt needs to hit sooner rather than later, because, otherwise, the playing time may not be there later.
I'm excited that this call-up happened, because, frankly, I believe that it needed to happen, and I'm excited that Olt is actually going to play ... but this is not a preordained slam dunk. If you can come to terms with that, and if you can acknowledge the factors that may or may not render this an immediate success, you're far more likely to come away satisfied with how Olt performs during the remainder of the 2012 season than if you expect him to function as this ballclub's rookie panacea.
5:30 p.m. update: Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a few notes on how Ron Washington intends to deploy Olt at the outset of his big league career, and indicates that Olt will get his "fair share" of playing time in the big leagues, as he'll start against left-handed pitchers at either first base or designated hitter (per Washington), and will also get some time at third base, "possibly against right-handers," when Adrian Beltre ends up DHing.
This is encouraging, but it's also a little strange when taken at face value, because part of the appeal of Olt is that he isn't a platoon bat -- sure, he hits opposite-handed pitchers better than same-handed pitchers (which is very often the case), but the split isn't extreme, and, ideally, you utilize him in such a way that he gets semi-regular playing time against starting pitchers of either dexterity. With that said, though, there is probably also some motivation to ease Olt into the mix and put him in a position to succeed early on by maximizing his exposure against lefties, so, from that standpoint, I don't have a problem with the framework of this plan.
But if you're talking about expected production, the easiest and most efficient way that you can enhance this lineup right now is by scaling back Young's playing time against right-handers, against whom he has posted a sub-.600 OPS this season ... and if we roll back to this situation a month from now, and find that Olt is only playing occasionally against right-handers while Young doesn't lose any playing time whatsoever to right-handers, then that's going to be disappointing.
On a well-attended, unseasonably cool night in early May 2004, the Rangers fell behind 2-0 to the visiting Tigers, surged back ahead to retake a 4-2 lead, and then, by way of a truly horrific sequence of events, allowed 12 unanswered runs and fell behind by a 14-4 margin going into the bottom of the fifth inning. Their win expectancy, at its lowest point, plunged below 1 percent -- the seeming point of no return, salvation, or comeback.
The story from that point -- perhaps with a slightly apocryphal or embellished element to it -- goes something like this: with his team ahead by double digits, Craig Monroe lofted an inning-ending pop fly and, in a spectacularly ill-advised move, slammed his bat into the dust in frustration. The Rangers, as the story goes, took particular umbrage to Monroe's display, became angry, rallied around that show of disrespect, and went out and plated 10 runs in the bottom half of that inning to knot the game at 14-14, with an extra-innings win following several hours later.
Now, obviously, things never deteriorated on Wednesday night to such a degree that the Rangers' chances of winning the game mathematically slipped below 1 percent ... but the situation was dire. Twice. Yu Darvish breezed along for 2.1 innings before careening into a wall and delivering one of the worst innings of any Rangers pitcher thus far this season, and ultimately put Texas into a 7-1 hole; their win expectancy plunged as far as 5.1 percent during that phase of the game. And after they scratched and clawed their way back into the game from the fifth inning on, and eventually made it all the way back on Ian Kinsler's game-tying solo shot in the ninth inning, Joe Nathan imploded for three runs in the 10th inning, and their win expectancy again plunged as far as 5.4 percent.
They were effectively 1-in-20 shots to win at two separate and distinct points in this ballgame, and they made it all the way back and triumphed in the face of terrible odds ... and they did it twice. They've overcome late-game deficits this year, but they hadn't pulled something like that off until now. They pulled an improbable, odds-defying win out of nowhere right around this same time last August, but the key point of distinction there is that the Rangers didn't have to come back twice. Last night, they were buried early, methodically rallied all the way back, and then had to go right back out and fight for their lives once they found themselves mired in a three-run hole in the 10th inning. It may not have been unique, but it was a truly marvelous piece of work.
And though I didn't notice any specific post-game quotes that might validate this specific possibility *, I wonder if, at some point along the line last night, they simply got mad about what the Angels were doing to them ... because something snapped. David Murphy spoke at some length about the long-overdue return of confidence and momentum and that "killer instinct" to the lineup last night, and acknowledged that, before last night, the dugout had been awash in lifelessness. Elvis Andrus alluded to the Rangers just being "that hungry" to make a comeback a reality. This roster thoroughly established its resiliency last year and, at times, this year, but that doesn't mean the switch is always available to flip on and off at a moment's notice. Again, something snapped last night. Something changed.
[Upon further review, Andrus did, in fact, state that the Rangers were "angry" after what had transpired thus far in the series, so, well, there you go.]
Murphy also remarked how the Rangers always felt that they were going to come back and win this particular game, and, yeah, I get that it's easy to say throw platitudes like that around after the fact, and after you've pulled off an emotionally uplifting comeback ... but there was a moment that the FSNSW telecast captured right after Nelson Cruz's 10th-inning blast where Elvis Andrus was ready to greet Cruz on the dugout steps, and he had this huge, pure, genuine smile plastered across his face. He's already a jovial sort of player in his own right, but it stood out to me at the time because, damn, when was the last time you saw a Rangers player so positively giddy and confident?
And that's when I start to think that, yeah, they're not just blowing hot air. They really did feel this comeback coming all along. At some point, the emotional trigger was activated, and the narrative changed.
I'm not going to call this a 'season-changing win' or delve into hyperbole of that sort, because I don't feel comfortable assigning such an enormous degree of significance to any one win, much less attempt to project something from it that may not be there to project. Sure, it could give them something to build on, but I've seen far too many wins that were purported to be momentum-builders that ultimately failed to deliver on the hype. Just call it a great win, a necessary win, a win that this team really needed to stem the tide, and hope that everything else falls into place behind it.
It doesn't happen very often, but every once in a while, you'll write a post advocating something in particular (say, a transaction, a specific course of action by a player or coach, or the death of #cookietalk), and it will almost immediately come about, and you'll look like a genius. Such, I suppose, is the case right now, as word filtered from the Twittersphere a few minutes after last night's dramatic extra-innings finish that the Rangers had purchased the contract of Mike Olt from Double-A Frisco, and had cleared space for him on the 25- and 40-man rosters by optioning Brandon Snyder to Triple-A Round Rock and placing Colby Lewis on the 60-day disabled list, respectively.
I feel like this was a roster move that you could kind of see coming, and, with that being the case, I'm not exactly floored by Olt getting the call to the majors ... but then I look at it again and think, yeah, I actually am a little bit floored. I've been increasingly vocal in pining for a reduction in Michael Young's role and playing time on this team (as you would figure to be the case when you're talking about one of the very worst-performing players in baseball), and I was hoping that the Rangers' meritocratic approach in handling Yorvit Torrealba and Roy Oswalt would presage such a role reduction in the very near future, but I hadn't quite convinced myself that they would actually pull the trigger on it.
And while the organization hasn't come right out and stated that Young will lose any sort of playing time to Olt, you have to figure that will end up being at least a minor component of the fallout stemming from the Olt promotion. I don't think the Rangers are initiating Olt's service time clock and bringing him up to the majors just so that he can function as a Brandon Snyder replacement -- that is, as somebody who hardly ever plays, who sees 20-30 plate appearances per month. I can't imagine that they would make this move if that was his intended role. Olt isn't being called up so that he can ride the pine 80-plus percent of the time. Olt is being called up so that he can play. He's going to play. The specifics of the plan for Olt haven't been clarified yet, but he's going to play.
I already laid out my own proposal yesterday afternoon on how you can distribute the playing time so that Olt plays at least 50-55 percent of the time, and hopefully the real-life distribution ends up approximating my proposed distribution by the time we're closing in on the end of the regular season. With that said, though, I do suspect that the number will be closer to 30-40 percent in the shorter run, with more at-bats and a expanded opportunity to inflict offensive damage following closely behind if he should end up performing well from the outset of his major league run.
And after thinking on it a little more, I don't believe it's very realistic to expect that Young will immediately lose one out of every three plate appearances to Olt. I'd like to see that happen at some point, and perhaps it actually will happen if Young continues to stumble around helplessly in the low-to-mid-.600 OPS jungle down the stretch, but I'll be shocked if that ends up transpiring right away. Regardless, though, it's time. Olt is here, he's hungry, he's talented enough to make this work, and if you're an underperforming and/or slumping regular, the pressure is on. It's time to either ride or die.
"Seems it's inevitable that Mike Olt will play in the majors at some point this season now. The question is when." - Jason Cole, 07/31/12
This, in no way, shape, or form, is an original idea of mine. I want to be clear about that. Cole has talked about it. David Schoenfield has talked about it. Hell, even Jean-Jacques Taylor has talked about it (sort of). But it's August 1st, the Rangers' context-neutral offensive performance has declined every month this season (from a 121 wRC+ in April to a 115 wRC+ in May to a 107 wRC+ in June to a 79 wRC+ in July), and they're coming off one of their worst run-scoring months in a very long time. I hit my breaking point with Michael Young last week, and I've now arrived at a new breaking point: it's time to call up Mike Olt from Double-A Frisco.
In his age-23 Texas League campaign, Olt has amassed 414 plate appearances and hit a league-best .287/.399/.575 with 27 homers and an eye-popping 169 wRC+. To put that in context, no other qualifying offensive player at the AA-ball or AAA-ball minor league levels has produced a better wRC+ this season -- and, yes, I recognize the risks that cross-level comparisons entail, but those don't undermine the fact that Olt has been one of the very best hitters that the upper minors has had to offer in 2012. He draws walks, he hits for power, and he isn't saddled with a huge, alarm-raising platoon split, so he's more than viable against pitchers of either dexterity.
I will also be the first to admit that it's not a perfect solution (ample swing and miss in the bat, some issues against breaking balls, potential rookie struggles upon being called up, etc.), and it's not a complete slam dunk that it would work to the Rangers' satisfaction. I readily acknowledge that. But the reality is that few potential solutions are perfect, and, in light of the position that the Rangers find themselves in at this time, they can afford to take a calculated risk and buy a chance for Olt to produce an immediate offensive impact at the big league level as a CIF/DH bat who can also play in a corner outfield spot if the circumstances on a particular night should dictate that.
So, how do you work Olt into the lineup? Because, clearly, if you're going to go to the trouble of hitting the 'start' button on Olt's service time clock by adding him to the 40-man roster, and if you're going to interrupt his monster campaign at Frisco, you want to play him -- not all of the time, mind you, but ideally 40-50 percent of the time at the lower end, which buys him 3-4 starts in any given seven-game stretch, and doesn't leave him hanging in a Leonys Martin-esque state of active roster purgatory, where he spends the bulk of his time during the games flicking sunflower seeds into the air and contemplating what it would take for him to even be inserted as a late-game defensive sub.
The short version of the answer to that question -- the answer which is making progressively more sense as the season moves forward -- is that you scale back Michael Young's playing time. You don't phase him out completely, but you cut back his playing time, you diminish the drag that he creates on the team's offensive production, and you introduce a new, potentially energizing force to the mix. Yeah, Young went 2-for-4 last night, but, as I wrote last week, the problem is that he embarks upon these brief average-driven streaks, and still fails to make any sort of legitimate headway as far as resurrecting his season, because without any walks or power, he's just going to continue hovering around in the .640-.650 OPS range as a singles-only hitter. A singles-only hitter who's logging the vast majority of his playing time at the most demanding offensive position(s) on the field.
With a distribution of righty to lefty starters that runs about 70-to-30, you can develop and execute a plan where Olt picks up, say, a 15-20 percent slice of that 30 percent chunk against southpaws (Young loses some playing time there, but so does Mike Napoli, who is slogging through a truly abhorrent season against lefties), and then, against righties, picks up a 30 percent slice of that total 70 percent chunk. I don't want to lose any of you on my proposal, so here's a blueprint of what that might look like:
Versus Left-Handers (30% total)
C: Soto (25%), Napoli (5%)
1B: Olt (15%), Young (15%)
DH: Young (10%), Napoli (10%), Olt (10%)
Versus Right-Handers (70% total)
C: Napoli (45%), Soto (25%)
1B: Moreland (60%), Young (10%)
DH: Young (30%), Olt (30%), Player X (10%)
Under a framework along these lines, Michael Young goes from being an everyday player to someone who starts roughly two out of every three games, but loses the vast majority of that playing time against right-handers, against whom he has been a disaster this year anyway. It's too far-fetched to imagine that his playing time would decelerate from 60 to 0 even with his present struggles, but this is a nice step in the right direction. Napoli, meanwhile goes from being somebody who plays in roughly 85 percent of the Rangers' games to someone who plays closer to 60-65 percent of the time -- which, if you perceive him as somebody who could use a bit less exposure, is probably a good idea, and would still leave him on track to start more games in 2012 than he did in 2011.
Geovany Soto, meanwhile, nets 50 percent (or perhaps more) of the playing time behind the plate, and gets a chance to fulfill his career-long reputation as a lefty-crusher. Moreland continues to receive healthy playing time against right-handers at first base. You still have some available DH at-bats to throw at whomever needs them. And, under this scenario, you actually work Olt into the lineup more than half of the time, where his bat hopefully gives you a two-way upgrade against both lefties and righties. Under this scenario, no single player loses an excess of playing time to Olt, which should help mollify any hurt feelings that might develop as a result of a rookie receiving significant playing time, and the team's run production figures to benefit from the shakeup.
Plus, with Olt presumably replacing Brandon Snyder on the active roster, you have a better, more versatile, and more dangerous bench, and with that comes the ability to buy more rest for Ian Kinsler at second base (using Young) or Adrian Beltre at third base (using Olt) if such measures are deemed necessary. The expected production is improved, but so, too, is the flexibility.
Now, obviously, if Ron Washington and the coaching staff refuse to broach the subject of cutting back Young's playing time, then this is a moot subject, and we might as well move on to something else. But in the last 48 hours, the Rangers cut Yorvit Torrealba loose because they felt Soto constituted an upgrade ... even though Torrealba was, by all accounts, a popular guy in the clubhouse. They demoted Roy Oswalt to the bullpen and kept Scott Feldman in the starting rotation because they felt that gave them the best possible chance to win right now ... even though Oswalt had a stated preference for starting, even though he's close to Nolan Ryan, and even though he's the veteran with far more skins and accomplishments on his career wall than Feldman.
The Rangers correctly recognized that changes were required in light of what had been going on of late, revitalized their meritocratic approach, and sent the long-overdue message that if you don't perform, your role is reduced -- or, in Torrealba's case, obliterated completely. I have absolutely no expectation of the Rangers cutting Young out of their rest-of-2012 plans entirely, and I can live with that ... but it's time to give this team a lift by materially reducing the role of the worst everyday player in baseball this season, and the Rangers have both the upper-minors weapon required to bring that plan to fruition and sufficient justification for doing it. It's time, buddy. It's time.
It's August 1st, and I am not having fun watching Rangers baseball. I want to be careful not to sound like a broken, anger-tinged record here, but this is not fun, this is not enjoyable, and, more and more, watching the Rangers does not feel like a valuable use of my time.
The first two games of this four-game set have been laughers, with the Angels smashing the Rangers in the mouth on Monday night, and with the lone positive sign from that game -- that is, the eight runs that the offense scratched across, which engendered some newfound hope that the lineup was about to turn the corner -- disappearing yet again on Tuesday night, on a night where Jered Weaver flirted with perfection for four-plus innings and the Rangers could plate only a couple of low-leverage late-game runs.
And while I'm still in a bitter, excessively irritated, but above all else disappointed sort of mindset, I'd like to point out Derek Holland's curiously upbeat post-mortem of his start (6.2 IP, 5 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 5 K, 3 HR), which marked the first occasion in his major league career where he allowed at least four walks and three homers in the same outing:
"I felt really good about my start. If I had to take anything back, it would be a couple of pitches. I made a great pitch to [Mike] Trout, but I was behind in the count so he was sitting on that. [Albert] Pujols, same thing with the first home run, I tried to change his eye level, and he got it. The next time, I did execute my pitch, but he was sitting on it. But other than that, I did a good job of executing. I felt very strong. Just a couple of pitches got away, and they hit them. This is a good ballclub over there. They’re going to hit your mistakes.”
Here, incidentally, is the pitch in question -- a 91 mph heater that caught the center of the plate on a 3-1 count. The previous pitch was a virtually identical 91 mph heater that was thrown to almost the exact same spot on a 3-0 count. I always try to seek out some sort of legitimate cause for encouragement going forward when things go awry such as they did last night, and I guess I can look at his stellar work early on -- before the wheels totally fell off -- and the fact that he feels "strong" and roll with those, but I guess I'm really having trouble deducing what, if anything, made this a "great" pitch:
I don't want to get further bogged down in what happened last night, though. What I want to do is flip the narrative back a few pages, and, as #gauche as it may sound, shoot a quick glance back at something I wrote on June 7th, at another point in time when it felt as though the wheels might be coming off and the Rangers might be losing their grasp on the division:
I'm not panicking, nor am I considering bailing from what some consider to be a sinking ship. But I am worried. I'm tired of having to rely on other teams to do the Rangers' dirty work and take down the Angels in order to preserve this team's divisional lead (a strategy which doesn't feel very viable in the long run), and I'm concerned by the accumulating injuries and the general malaise that seems to be hanging over this team right now, and I'm frustrated because I know this team should be in a better place right now ... and I'm worried because I can't sell myself on the notion that the Rangers have hit rock bottom just yet. I'm worried because I don't really know when or where this is going to end.
I'm floored by how much of that passage is still applicable as of right now, and here's the thing that especially troubles me -- I'm more worried now than I was then. On the one hand, the Rangers were 33-25 (.568 winning percentage) and boasted a four-game lead on that date, and, as of today, the Rangers are 59-43 (.578 winning percentage) and boast a three-game lead. Very little has changed from that particular vantage point; the Rangers are still winning about 57-58 percent of their games on the whole, and have retained a decent, but not especially secure hold on the division, which is basically exactly where they were last year at this same time. In that sense, I feel like they're still in a pretty good place, and, in spite of everything, still divisional favorites.
During the month of July, however, the Rangers produced their worst single-month winning percentage (9-14; .391 WP) since their miserable 11-18 run back in August 2008, and the not-so-dirty little secret is that they were outscored to the tune of 81-to-110 on the month, with that minus-29 run differential completely wiping out their plus-23 from the month before and then some. I'm also somewhat taken aback by the fact that their Pythagorean win expectancy for the month was actually 8-15 -- and, sure enough, per FanGraphs' clutch statistic, the lack of clutchness of the lineup for the month (-1.2 wins) was actually completely neturalized by the clutchness of the pitching staff (+1.6 wins). In other words, the Rangers were actually somewhat fortunate that their July record wasn't worse.
And here's something that's a little more startling: with that minus-29 run differential in 23 games played during the month of July, the Rangers were outscored by an average of 1.26 runs per game. That's the worst per-game run differential average for the club in nearly a decade, as they haven't fared so poorly from that standpoint since a nightmarish June 2003 run where they went 7-20 and were outscored by an average of 2.3 runs per game. No, you don't expect their recent run of futility with runners on base/in scoring position to persist forever, and you expect things to (hopefully) normalize ... but these numbers validate the perception that this team has been going very poorly of late, and support the notion that this has actually been one of their worst months of baseball in a very long time.
The reality is that we tend to overvalue recent events and undervalue less recent events when forming our expectations (otherwise known as recency bias), and, as such, we're a whole hell of a lot more pessimistic right now about a 59-43 team than we probably should be ... but that's the thing that continues to bother me. Where, exactly, is rock bottom? Did they hit it last night? Do they hit it a week or a fortnight from now? When, exactly, do their fortunes turn around? Sure, you expect regression towards a club's true talent level, but baseball is a fickle b---- and things don't always fall nicely and neatly into place in the way that you might want or expect.
And, no, I'm not "scared" of the Angels or the Athletics, per se, but I'm more worried about both clubs than I was back in early June, given that they both still pose legitimate threats -- yes, you should be taking Oakland seriously by now -- to the division crown as we move into the month of August, and the former boasts the best player in baseball this season and a newly fortified rotation. The two main post-season odds calculators peg the Rangers at 55 percent on the low end (CoolStandings.com) and 80 percent on the high end (Baseball Prospectus) to win the division; those are decent figures, but if you, say, split the difference between those two projections, the Rangers still face the one-in-three possibility of losing the division title and being cast into a one-game playoff. You'll have to forgive me for not particularly liking those odds in light of where this team is right now.
I wish the Rangers would start playing better. I wish this would start being fun again.
The hits just keep coming. According to FOXSportsSouthwest.com's Anthony Andro, Neftali Feliz will undergo Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery to repair a torn UCL in his right elbow, and, obviously, is done for the remainder of the 2012 season, as well as what you would presume to be a substantial chunk of the 2013 season.
The Rangers have already indicated that they believe Feliz is a "perfect candidate for full recovery," and with the high success rate of Tommy John surgery and the ever-shortening length of the required rehab period, the hope on the part of the organization is probably that Feliz can make it back to the major league level within 11-12 months, and hopefully return to the bullpen as a contributing member during the second half of the 2013 season; if not, he'll be back at the outset of the 2014 season. This is terrible news, obviously, but it was news that I feel like we saw coming from a mile away, and, consequently, I don't feel nearly as despondent over this announcement as I probably would if it had just totally blindsided me out of nowhere.
You also figure that Feliz being sidelined for an extended period of time -- and the Rangers' knowledge of the seriousness of his injury prior to today's deadline mayhem --- provided extra motivation for the Rangers to pull the trigger on the Dempster trade, as the starting pitching depth has been whittled down pretty substantially by the respective losses of Colby Lewis and Feliz. After Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Roy Oswalt, and Scott Feldman, the Rangers' only two viable rotation options were Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez, with little in the way of protective cushion in the event that things continued to go horribly awry for the rotation.
And, speaking of Oswalt, we also have word this afternoon that the Rangers have moved him to the bullpen, which now leaves you with a starting rotation of Darvish, Harrison, Holland, Feldman, and Dempster, and Oswalt functioning as the swing man. Oswalt, to the best of my recollection, had made noise before committing to Texas about having no interest in pitching out of anyone's bullpen, and had made it pretty clear that he considered himself a starting pitcher. To that end, we have this cryptic little development in the Rangers' clubhouse in the wake of the Oswalt/Feliz news:
Oswalt was called away from talking to media by Mike Maddux. When he returned, he got on telelphone and then left clubhouse for a while.— Evan Grant (@Evan_P_Grant) July 31, 2012
These are strange, strange times, and while I do have a hard time believing that Oswalt would actually go so far as to stir up a major ruckus about his demotion to the bullpen in light of his current 6.00-plus ERA, you do still wonder if this move is going to sit so poorly with him that he will demand that his agent negotiate his release from the organization. [Update: Apparently not, or at least not right now, as Ron Washington told the press in the clubhouse that Oswalt "took the news [of his demotion] like a pro."]
It is, in any event, a fascinating development in its own right, as Oswalt had rattled off a couple of good starts before his latest back issue, brief layoff, and disastrous start last night (which he attributed to his poor arm slot coming off extended rest), and you would be inclined to think that his leash with the organization would be at least a little bit longer in light of the fact that the Rangers are paying him no less than $5 million guaranteed this season, as well as the fact that Nolan Ryan was apparently an instrumental force in him signing with the Rangers. Instead, the Rangers have relegated Oswalt to Feldman's old role in spite of the previous understanding that it was a rotation-or-bust arrangement, and that strikes me as an unexpected, albeit pleasantly surprising, about-face.
This is also fascinating in that Feldman has executed a complete 180-degree turnaround in his fortunes -- less than two months ago, there were various and sundry cries about how he needed to be released (or sold dirt cheap) because he was pitching so terribly, and then matters only becamse worse when he made the ill-advised decision to air his grievances about his situation to the media. Now, though, Feldman is riding a sizable wave of July success, and is coming off strong back-to-back starts against the Red Sox and White Sox ... and surprising as it is to admit this after his earlier struggles, he did earn the right to keep his rotation spot on the strength of his performance. Things do change all the time, and he isn't guaranteed to keep that spot into perpetuity ... but he earned it. He deserves it. Merit triumphed over veteran status today. I hope we can keep that trend rolling.
It went right down to the wire, and, with less than 10 minutes left before the non-waiver trade deadline was due to pass, it appeared that the Rangers were not going to land anyone ... but the deadline ends at 3:00 p.m. CDT and not before, and, at 2:58 p.m. CDT, ESPN.com's Buster Olney was the first to tweet the news that the Rangers had acquired Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster. Since that point, the return coming back from the Rangers to the Cubs has been announced as consisting of High-A Myrtle Beach third baseman Christian Villanueva and right-hander Kyle Hendricks.
This trade effectively brings Dempster's career full circle, as the Rangers selected him with their third-round selection in the 1995 amateur draft, and moved him to the Marlins one year later -- along with a young Rick Helling -- in a waiver-period deal for John Burkett. He has since enjoyed a 15-year major league career, logging five seasons with the Marlins and two more years with the Reds before pitching his last nine seasons with the Cubs, and has enjoyed a career 2012 season, posting a monster 177 ERA+ -- albeit with somewhat less impressive peripherals that wouldn't seem to support such an extreme degree of run prevention going forward -- in 100-plus innings. Here, in fact, are his last five seasons and career statistical averages:
I don't think this is a game-changing acquisition, because, as I already stated above, Dempster's peripherals don't augur well for him sustaining this degree of run prevention going forward -- but I do view this as a nice acquisition, in that the Rangers are obtaining a healthy, stable mid-rotation arm for the stretch run, or somebody that should reduce the variance in the expected performance of the starting rotation as we move forward. He has pitched like a three- to four-win asset over the last five years, and while I don't know that he's as good as Colby Lewis was before he succumbed to a torn flexor tendon, he's a pretty reasonable facsimile thereof.
As far as the acquisition cost is concerned, Hendricks and Villaneuva are both solid, but not spectacular prospects -- Hendricks, 22, was the club's eighth-round pick in 2011 out of Dartmouth, and after being deemed one of the 20 best prospects in the Northwest League last year by Baseball America, he had enjoyed a strong 2012 campaign at Myrtle Beach (130.2 IP, 2.82 ERA, 7.7 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9). Jason Cole lauded his pitchability, intelligence, and composure on the bump in his scouting report on Hendricks back in January, but also indicated that he was more of a lower-ceiling, higher-floor type -- that is, a polished product who could advance quickly through the bottom rungs of the system, but might encounter more difficulty as he moved up into the higher ranks of pro ball.
Villaneuva, 21, earned recognition as Baseball America's 100th-best pre-season prospect going into 2012, and has fared comparatively well at Myrtle Beach thus far this season, going .285/.356/.421 after his breakout campaign at Low-A Hickory last season. The skill set isn't elite, but he showcases decent hit/power tools, along with an above-average defensive projection at third base and high-quality makeup that portends well for his chances of fulfilling his ultimate upside as an offensively solid, defensively above-average major league third baseman. Like Hendricks, though, you're talking about a good, but certainly not great prospect in the near term; I'm inclined to think Villanueva has more long-term bite-you-in-the-ass potential, but I don't believe that potential is so immense that it should have put off the Rangers from pulling the trigger on this deal.
The remaining prorated obligation on Dempster's $14 million salary for the remainder of this season is roughly $5.3 million, and there's no immediate word of the Cubs sending over a cash subsidy to help cover any portion of that. If that proves to be the case, then I think you look at this as a trade that really does cut pretty fairly both ways, that imparts real benefit to both teams -- the Rangers get their veteran, mid-rotation stabilizer (albeit while praying that nothing goes awry in his transition to a tougher league/ballpark), and the Cubs receive a couple of nice young assets who stand fairly decent chances of contributing at the major league level at some point down the line and contributing chunks of cheap surplus value.
I'm not ecstatic about this deal to the extent that I think it's a monster win for the Rangers, but I do like it on the whole, and I'm glad that this got done just under the wire.
The 2012 non-waiver trade deadline is now less than three hours away, and the Rangers, at this point, don't appear to be close on any particular deal, with the major news of this past hour being (a) the Cubs and Dodgers closing in on a deal that will (finally) send Ryan Dempster to the west coast, and (b) the Phillies preparing to pull the triggers on two separate deals that will ship Hunter Pence to the Giants for an undisclosed return, and Shane Victorino to the Dodgers for reliever Josh Lindblom and AA-ball reliever Ethan Martin. None of these deals look to be completed as of yet, but all three of these deals appear to be very close and likely to be completed ahead of the deadline.
As far as the Rangers are concerned, however, there doesn't seem to be much of real substance happening, as their pursuit of a starting pitcher appears to have slammed into a wall -- the Cliff Lee discussions fell apart yesterday, the Josh Johnson discussions disintegrated in the face of the Marlins' reportedly excessive demands and Johnson's problematic medicals, and the James Shields/Josh Beckett discussions never seemed to go much of anywhere, with today's fringy Matt Garza/Dempster trade rumors also slowly fading into nothingness. Lots of sexy, titillating rumors, and apparently one almost-trade (Zack Greinke), but nothing else to show for it at this point, aside from last night's Geovany Soto deal (which I've already written about at some length).
Texas has also put in some work on outfielders in the vein of Shin-Soo Choo and Josh Willingham, and in the relief market as well (with Jonathan Broxton being the most prominent name linked to the Rangers), but, again, as of the first half of the 12:00 p.m. CDT hour on Tuesday, there's no real indication that the Rangers are close to swinging any major trade -- or, for that matter, any trade at all.
The Rangers entered this trade market with legitimate aspirations of bolstering their roster in anticipation of embarking upon another deep post-season run, and the fact that nothing has really come together to this point indicates that they've largely been put off by the demands of potential trade partners, with the contractual situations of guys like Lee and Beckett further complicating matters on those fronts. I speculated about this a little bit on Twitter earlier today, but I'm beginning to wonder if both points (1) and (3) from my trade market manifesto have been major factors for the Rangers this month -- that is to say, that they're reluctant to overpay with young talent because it's becoming increasingly difficult to reload the farm, and that they're not as well-positioned to take on a lot of year-2012 payroll as some of us might have thought to be the case.
And, of course, another issue here is that you can't really extract full benefit from a deal for somebody like Shin-Soo Choo, or even from a promotion of Mike Olt to the major league roster, with Michael Young still receiving everyday playing time.
In any event, I expect that we'll see the Rangers make some sort of move, but I don't know that such a deal will necessarily go down today. The likeliest outcome at this point is that the Rangers acquire a reliever and/or a bench bat, and you don't have to trade for one of those lower-impact types today; waiver-period deals centered around those types of players transpire every August. As far as any legitimate hope for a blockbuster, high-impact trade is concerned, though ... yeah, there's still time, and something could still happen, and I have no doubt that the Rangers are trying hard to make something happen, but a deal along those lines probably isn't going to materialize.
2:00 p.m. Update: Ryan Dempster has reportedly made it known that he will waive his 10-and-5 no-trade rights in the event that he is traded to the Yankees, Dodgers, and Rangers, and the Dempster-to-L.A. deal appears to be slowly dying on the vine. Jeff Wilson reports that the Rangers are working on obtaining reliever Jared Burton from the Twins, that they never made any progress on Shin-Soo Choo, that they never contacted the Rockies about Rafael Betancourt, and, perhaps most interestingly, that they thought they had a deal in place for the Red Sox' Josh Beckett over the weekend, but the deal fell through near the very end of the process.
It's not immediately clear what led to that deal collapsing -- Beckett's remaining contractual obligation is north of $35 million through 2014, so we can hazard a reasonable guess that the Rangers and Red Sox couldn't agree to terms on the amount of cash that Boston would send over, but that's really nothing more than an educated guess at this point. I'll be interested to see if the details on the Rangers' offer end up being leaked by one source or another within the next couple of days. Dempster, meanwhile, continues to dangle out there as an interesting mid-rotation possibility, and the one thing you still wonder about is whether the Rangers perceive their pitching situation as being dire enough to pull the trigger and meet Chicago's asking price.
I'll be running a live chat to take us the rest of the way home beginning at 1:00 p.m. CDT, so, uh, there's that:
● 11:35 a.m. CDT: Per Jon Paul Morosi: "As I said on MLB Network, Rangers are most likely landing spot for [Shin-Soo] Choo IF he moves. No momentum toward deal as of one hour ago." (Twitter)
● 11:25 a.m. CDT: ESPN.com's Jim Bowden tweets: "Cubs and Dodgers finally closing in on the Dempster deal, according to a source close to the negotiations" (Twitter)
● Per Jon Paul Morosi: "Rangers not optimistic about chances of trading for [Shin-Soo] Choo or [Josh] Willingham" (Twitter)
● Hunter Pence has reportedly been traded to the Giants (Jon Heyman, Twitter)
● 11:15 a.m. CDT: Per Jon Heyman: "[Hear Rangers] definitely out on [Cliff Lee and Josh Beckett]. In talks with [Cubs] about Matt Garza. A chance there, but one person said "doubtful." (Twitter)
● 10:45 a.m. CDT: The Rangers have reportedly expressed some degree(s) of interest in Cubs right-handers Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster; the former, however, is presently sidelined with a triceps problem and has not pitched since July 21st (with the Cubs additionally asking for Mike Olt in exchange for Garza, which is obviously a non-starter), whereas the latter invoked his no-trade rights to kill a deal that would have sent him to the Braves for young right-hander Randall Delgado (a fairly steep price for a non-elite rental arm) (Bruce Levine, ESPNChicago.com; David Kaplan, CSNChicago.com)
● For what it's worth, Jeff Wilson reported earlier in the 10:00 a.m. hour that the Rangers were "not making much headway" on acquiring a starting pitcher, as they see Garza as a risk given his current triceps problem; however, the extra year of club control -- Garza has one final year of arbitration eligibility remaining in 2013, albeit for a price north of $10 million -- could prove attractive to the Rangers if they are troubled by the prospect of Neftali Feliz missing time into next year (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
● Per Ken Rosenthal: "Source: Rangers consider quality of available starting pitchers to be "minimal." May wait until August waiver period to see if that changes ... As of early this [morning], Rangers did not think they had a match for Cubs' Garza. Obviously, that can change." (Twitter)
● Last night's Jake Brigham-for-Geovany Soto deal has been formally approved by the commissioner's office (the cash subsidy coming the Rangers' way required approval from the league), and with Yorvit Torrealba now designated for assignment, the word is that the Rangers and Nationals are expected to discuss Torrealba today (Adam Kilgore, Twitter)
The first Rangers trade of this year's deadline season has apparently come down, and it's an interesting, albeit unfulfilling, sort of a trade, as Texas has reportedly traded 24-year-old Double-A Frisco right-hander Jake Brigham to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for catcher Geovany Soto. The deal carries no 40-man roster implications for the Rangers, as Brigham already occupied a 40-man roster spot, and thus can simply be swapped out for Soto; as far as the active roster is concerned, the immediate scuttlebutt seems to be that the Rangers are going to cut Yorvit Torrealba loose, but that has not yet been confirmed.
Soto is a odd sort of player, in that he actually logged major league playing time during each of his age 22-24 seasons (spanning 2005-07), but didn't really get a legitimate shot at the big league level until 2008, when he delivered a huge .285/.364/.504, 23-homer campaign and netted National League Rookie of the Year honors; since then, however, he's been a fluctuating offensive quantity, and has actually done less from a park-adjusted offensive standpoint this year than even Torrealba (182 PA, .236/.302/.342, 70 wRC+), as evinced by his statistical line:
So, on the one hand, Soto isn't hitting this year; on the other hand; Soto actually is kind of hitting this year, as he does -- for whatever it's worth -- boast a sturdy 22.9 percent line drive rate, and, per ESPN Stats & Info, a "well-hit average" rate of .282. That latter mark ranks 11th in baseball out of 304 major league players who have amassed at least 150 plate appearances this season, which seems indicative of a fair amount of poor luck on Soto's end, and you wonder if the Rangers viewed Soto as a buy-low candidate -- somebody whose fortunes could change for the better in a new environment, and who has demonstrated the ability to hit for power and draw walks at the major league level. In that sense, Soto is an interesting, albeit uncertain, asset to bring into the fold.
The other big thing worth mentioning about Soto is his contractual situation -- his 2012 base salary is $4.3 million, which works out to a rest-of-season obligation of about $1.6 million, and while the Cubs are reportedly sending cash over to cover most or all of that commitment, his situation for 2013 remains up in the air. Soto is controllable through the end of next season, and that's attractive to an organization that has/had two catchers eligible for free agency after the end of this season, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could be a non-tender candidate. If he doesn't hit and/or doesn't perform up to snuff upon his arrival in Texas, I don't know that the Rangers are going to want to make a one-year, $4-5 million commitment to a subpar backstop.
Brigham, meanwhile, makes his exit from the Rangers organization after a six-year run in its minor league system; the 2006 sixth-round selection had battled his way all the way up through the ranks to Frisco, where he had compiled a 4.28 ERA and some decidedly mixed peripherals (8.4 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9) over 124 innings thus far this season. Jason Cole's pre-season scouting report characterized Brigham as an enticing, but not elite, power arm, with mid-90s velocity and two breaking balls that he could bust out in short bursts out of the bullpen; however, he moved back to the Frisco rotation in a full-time capacity this year, and I'm not entirely clear on whether the scouting report has materially changed, or whether the Cubs plan to continue grooming him as a starter as opposed to utilizing him as a potential late-inning power arm.
I'm cautiously optimistic about this deal, but I think we're talking about a pretty marginal upgrade in terms of impact on the rest-of-season standings, and, from that standpoint, this just isn't a very exciting trade. There's sizzle in the name coming back the Rangers' way, but not very much steak. Soto does have a nice pedigree and a history of being an impact player working in his favor, and I'm hopeful that his above-average hard-contact rates this season augur well for a bit of a career resurgence in Texas ... but I'm not going to spend too much time hoping on that possibility.
Update: Per MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan (and others), Torrealba will be formally designated for assignment tomorrow, and the prevailing belief seems to be that he will be traded as opposed to being released outright, which should at least net the Rangers a marginal prospect. Torrealba had struggled with the bat and, more recently, while his defense behind the plate, and while I felt he had been okay in a backup capacity (or at least okay enough to merit maintaining the status quo), the Rangers clearly felt that a change was in order. Torrealba had earned some praise and recognition from his pitching staff earlier in the season for his vastly improved game-calling, and I'll be interested to see how Soto ends up faring in that regard, given that he's been thrown into an entirely new situation.