Off base.

Long before Ian Kinsler spilled his bat, head down, a few long seconds before his pop-up settled into the second baseman’s glove a few feet behind the mound for the Rangers’ final out yesterday, I got to thinking.

The Rangers’ team ERA is down a run per game this year.  The team RA is down a run and a half.  The team fielding percentage has improved.  Really, the pitching and defense is as solid as it’s ever been for this organization.  The running game, too, in hard numbers as well as efficiency.

But the batting average and on-base percentage are way down from 2008.  The slug is down, too.  The offense, as a whole, is pushing across nearly a run per game fewer than last year.

It’s arguable, isn’t it, to suggest that a year at the plate anywhere close to what we’ve come to expect from this team – with all the other improvements we’ve seen – would have us holding down a playoff spot right now, or in a dogfight for one at worst?

Texas already has 21 more home runs than it had as a club last year, 36 more than in 2007, 32 more than in 2006.  The stolen base numbers are not even in the same stratosphere.  So why are the Rangers crossing the plate so less often?  Because the Rangers just don’t reach base.  Only Kansas City and Seattle have had fewer baserunners.  

The Rangers are on pace to strike out 1,261 times, which would set a franchise record.  The only other times the team fanned more than 1,200 times?  The previous two seasons.  You sure would like to make more contact to take advantage of the speed weapon the offense now features.  You don’t need to be Elvis Andrus or Julio Borbon to score on a .245/.285/.480 hitter’s round-tripper.

Lots of home runs, yes.  But an inordinate amount of solo shots, I’d guess.  It’s a very inefficient offense, which is almost as foreign for this franchise as its suddenly stalwart work on the mound and in the field.

So where does the base-reaching improvement come from?  The lineup seems fairly well intact.  

Certainly more will be expected at catcher and first base.  

After Kinsler’s first 303 plate appearances this season (.266/.341/.528), he was on pace for a career low reaching base and nearly his career low hitting, but that slash line would be far more welcome than his ensuing 297 plate appearances this year (.231/.298/.429).  But man, if he could lay off the pitch up in the zone (his 1.77 flyball-to-groundball rate is the highest in the major leagues) and find a way to become the .319/.375/.517 hitter he was in 2008 . . . .

Borbon should lead off every day in 2010.

Is it fair to expect Andrus to take the next step offensively?  I think so.

Can Michael Young replicate .322/.375/.523?  I’m not betting against it.

If Josh Hamilton is healthy – certainly not the type of slam dunk odds you’d place on Young being ready to go – he’s not a .318 on-base guy.  Not again.

There’s base-reaching help on the way, too, as Justin Smoak is a lock to arrive at some point in 2010, and I’m still holding out hope that Max Ramirez regains his form, in what will be his final option year – though it’s more difficult to see where he fits in.

But why is it that so many Rangers hitters regressed this year in getting on base?  

I don’t know the answer.  Some will blame Rudy Jaramillo – that comes with the position, just like an offensive or defensive coordinator who units don’t get the job done – and here’s the interesting part.  Jaramillo’s contract, which I believe is the most lucrative hitting coach deal in the league, expires at season’s end.  Will there be a team out there prepared to pay for Jaramillo at an even higher level?  Remember, Milwaukee didn’t want to lose Mike Maddux last winter, either.  If another team comes in with a quick, aggressive offer to Jaramillo, we may find that he’s in a different uniform in 2010 – whether Texas wants him back or not.

What about the Rangers’ other significant free agent, outfielder Marlon Byrd?  Could he end up somewhere else the next three years?  It wouldn’t be because Texas doesn’t want him here.  But he’s a player who, at age 32, has never played under anything but a one-year contract.  The same was true for Mark DeRosa before his career year in Texas, who couldn’t match the Cubs’ offer (in dollars or playing time) when he left after the 2006 season.  (Same was true with Gary Matthews Jr., also in 2006, and Milton Bradley in 2008 – neither had ever landed a multi-year deal before parlaying a huge season in Texas into a monster deal on the open market.)

Byrd’s going to have to take care of his family with this next contract, conceivably his one and only shot at a multi-year deal.  I hope it’s here, not only because of his productivity and ability to play all three outfield positions (including center field to begin the 2010 season) but also because his value as a vocal team leader is huge.

It’s looking like Byrd will qualify as a Type B free agent, so if he does leave, Texas will recoup a supplemental first-round pick in June.  DeRosa and Bradley were Type B’s as well, and the Rangers did well with the compensatory picks, turning them into Tommy Hunter and Tanner Scheppers.

If he fits the budget, I wouldn’t mind at all seeing DeRosa back here.  It would probably mean a trade of Nelson Cruz.

As for Bradley, whose Cubs career seems unsalvageable despite the two years and $21 million remaining on his contract, every national columnist has written since his recent suspension by the club (for publicly criticizing the organization) that a return to Texas would be a natural fit.  Chicago is reportedly hoping to trade Bradley for an equally bad contract – which Texas doesn’t really have – but even if the Cubs were left with no choice but to eat Bradley’s remaining two years (either by trading him for a prospect and sending enough cash in the deal to subsidize Bradley’s contract in nearly its entirety, or simply firing Bradley as the Dodgers did a year ago with Andruw Jones), I’m not sure how good I feel about the idea.

I want to believe Bradley can be the brilliant .321/.436/.563 hitter that he was in Texas in 2008, when he led baseball in OPS, but I have a hard time dismissing the idea that the Rangers were fortunate to get a career year out of Bradley not only on the field but maybe also off of it, as his lapses in 2008 were relatively minor given what we know about the rest of his time as a big leaguer.  

Remember these Bradley remarks to Gil LeBreton of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in March, having secured his three-year, $30 million contract from the Cubs?

“If I’m being paid, and I’ve got the commitment to me that I give to [the team], you make more of an effort to be out there every day.

“When you’re on one-year deals constantly, you’ve got to put up as good numbers as you can.  When you have days where you’re not feeling like you can contribute, you’re not going to go out there, because you’re not going to want your numbers to [be really bad].

“So, if you’re in a situation like I am now, if they want me to go out there when I’m feeling a little banged up, I’ve got no problem doing that because they’ve made the commitment to me.”

Nobody’s ever questioned Bradley’s intensity between the lines, but he gave the Rangers some more-than-circumstantial evidence with those March comments that his intensity as a teammate was far less reliable.

That .321/.436/.563 line sure is a seductive, fresh memory, but if Bradley’s year here was a round of roulette that the Rangers escaped, is it a good idea – especially without a contract on the line – to take another chance on him?

Plus, a two-year commitment to Bradley (assuming a trad
e rather than a dump-and-sign), who certainly can’t be depended on to answer the bell defensively, makes no sense with Smoak on the doorstep.

As this team heads toward 90-win territory, there’s one aspect of it heading into the off-season that we couldn’t have expected.  Every fan, every journalist, and even some in the organization acknowledged coming into 2009 that while things were looking up for the Rangers, the idea that they should be viewed as contenders was probably a year away, and that regardless of what happened this year, there’d be room for natural improvement going forward.

But nobody could have guessed that the greatest room for improvement, for this (or any) brand of the Texas Rangers, would lie with the offense.

A few other quick notes:

According to local reports, Nolan Ryan has acknowledged some level of interest in joining the group being gathered by Pittsburgh sports attorney Chuck Greenberg to bid for an ownership interest in the Rangers.  In 2002, Greenberg involved Penguins great Mario Lemieux and Steelers star Jerome Bettis (both active players at the time) in his ownership group with the Altoona Curve, the Pirates’ AA affiliate that Greenberg has since sold.  His relationship with Lemieux was forged when he helped put together the deal that helped the hockey legend purchase the bankrupt Penguins back in 1999.  Greenberg currently owns the High A Myrtle Beach Pelicans (for whom Andrus played in 2007) and Short-Season A State College Spikes (a Pirates affiliate) and formed Greenberg Sports Group, a sports management, consulting, and marketing services provider, last November.

According to a local report, former Oakland, San Diego, and MLB exec Sandy Alderson is apparently trying to put together a group of investors to enter the mix for the purchase of the Rangers as well.

Lefthander Eddie Guardado is considering retirement.

Kinsler has a 1.77 flyball-to-groundball rate, the highest in the major leagues.

Borbon, Cruz, Chris Davis, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, and Neftali Feliz are among those planning to play winter ball.  Surely Ramirez is in that mix as well.

Based on a survey of Arizona League managers, Baseball America ranked 17-year-old righthander Richard Alvarez as the circuit’s number 12 prospect, and 18-year-old catcher Tomas Telis number 16.  Just missing the top 20 were righthander Carlos Melo (who came over with Guillermo Moscoso in the Gerald Laird trade with Detroit) and lefthander Edwin Escobar, with righthander Ezequiel Rijo and lefthander Juan Grullon also earning mention.  

Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald reports that the Rangers are among the teams expected to be in on 21-year-old Cuban lefthander Aroldis Chapman, who has defected and established residency in Andorra.  Nothing earth-shattering there.  All 30 teams will be interested.

The Cubs designated righthander Thomas Diamond for assignment without him ever making an appearance, and got him through waivers.  He’s been outrighted to AAA Iowa.

The Cubs also purchased righthander Ezequiel Astacio from the San Angelo Colts of the independent United League but, after three September appearances for Iowa, released the 29-year-old former Ranger.

Wide receiver Riley Cooper, who signed with the Rangers as the club’s 25th round pick this summer, leads the Florida Gators with 212 receiving yards through three games.

LSU righthander Anthony Ranaudo, who is expected to figure in somewhere in the top five or 10 picks in the first round of the draft in June, has hired Scott Boras to advise him, according to ESPN’s Keith Law.  Ranaudo was the Rangers’ 11th-round pick in 2007, but Texas was unable to convince the New Jersey high schooler to forgo his LSU commitment.  

The World Cup Gold Medal game will be televised Sunday on MLB Network, at 9 a.m. local time.  Lefthander Kasey Kiker gets the tune-up start for Team USA today, and Smoak – hitting a ridiculous .341/.481/1.049 with nine home runs in 11 games, plus 11 walks and six strikeouts in 41 at-bats – will headline the club’s lineup Sunday morning.  

Smoak isn’t going to headline the Rangers’ offensive attack when the 2010 season kicks off, but his anticipated arrival, not so much for his potential to inflict damage as for his ability to get on base, is something that shockingly falls into a category that now ranks higher on the priority list for this franchise than better starting pitching, or tighter defense.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport

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