September 2011

What are you really worth?

Have to turn the volume down a bit this week due to work responsibilities, but we’ll get the full-blown reports back up and running soon enough.

In the meantime, maybe the most bizarre drill-down on the 2011 Rangers season is this:

As of May 9, Texas had a 1-4 record for the season against Oakland.  And Los Angeles was 2-1 against the A’s (and in first place, a game up on Oakland and two up on Texas).

Since then, against the A’s, the Rangers have gone 10-1 and the Angels have gone 3-8.  And the division has turned.

All told in 2011, Texas is 11-5 against Oakland, and Los Angeles is 5-9 against Oakland, a difference of 5.0 games between two teams separated by just 3.0 games, with 15 to go.

Stated another way, if the Rangers and Angels had identical success against the A’s this season – whether they’d both split with Oakland or were both four games over .500 against them or both four games under .500 against them or whatever else – Los Angeles would now have a 2.0-game edge on the Rangers going into these final couple weeks.

The A’s, in one way of looking at things, have been the difference-makers in the AL West.

Yes, you can also look at the Rangers’ and Angels’ disparate results against the Red Sox, or the Royals, in smaller samples, but those two clubs play Texas and Los Angeles half as often as Oakland does.  Plus the A’s draw the Angels (five games) and Rangers (three games) eight more times before the season ends.

With Cleveland in town, it’s Matt Harrison-Justin Masterson tonight, Derek Holland-David Huff (one career start against Texas: a complete game win [two runs on four hits] on April 15, 2010) tomorrow, and Fausto Carmona-Alexi Ogando on Thursday, a matchup of two struggling righthanders.

Meanwhile, tonight the Angels send Jerome Williams out against Guillermo Moscoso, authors of baseball’s two most shocking starts last week, and Jered Weaver against Rich Harden tomorrow, before enjoying their final day off of the season on Thursday.

Two former Rangers righthanders have the opportunity to do more for the Rangers’ playoff chances in the next two days then they ever did while they were here.

Then Texas is off to Seattle and Oakland for six, with a day off in between, while Los Angeles visits Baltimore and Toronto for seven.

The Rangers then host the Mariners for three, and the Angels host the hated A’s for three, before the three-game finale in Anaheim between Texas and Los Angeles, which could mean everything or nothing.

Oakland may have a lot to say about that part, continuing a season-long story line that won’t have the same 2011 epitaph strength for the A’s as “Moneyball” hitting a theater near you, but which has been colossal for the two teams sitting atop their division.

The tagline for the movie, which opens the day after the Rangers leave Oakland and the day the A’s arrive in Anaheim, reads: “What Are You Really Worth?”

For the A’s themselves, this year, the answer may be someone else’s division title.

Sports.

Seven runs ought to be enough.

Five off Cahill, chasing him after five, ought to mean a W.

Even with your number five starter and number five reliever asked to carry the heaviest load.  It ought to be enough.

But maybe they’re not really your number five’s right now.

Tomorrow it’s C.J. Wilson vs. Josh Outman, the kind of lefthander that often gives Texas fits, and once that game gets underway the Angels will play twice before the Rangers play next.

I’ve said it here before, and I’ll repeat it: Magic numbers don’t mean a thing in this year’s race.  They’re meaningless, and won’t ever show up in this space this season.

All that matters right now is that one loss separates Texas and Los Angeles at the moment, and with three games to finish the regular season in Anaheim, and Dan Haren and Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver slated to start them, it’s fair to conclude that the Angels ought to be favored, objectively, to win two of those three, which would erase the present one-loss difference between the two teams.

Hey, guess what: Since Texas had the Angels down, 8-3, after five innings on July 20, the Rangers have a 26-23 record, and Los Angeles is 29-19, or 3.5 games better.

And since the Rangers were three outs away from completing a four-game sweep in Anaheim on August 18, Texas is 10-12, and Los Angeles is 15-6, a 5.5-game edge.

You can counter all this with the standard “Meh, arbitrary endpoints” response, and point to July 20 and August 18 as nothing more than 2 of 162, and that’s fine.  Whatever gets you through the day.

But it’s real.

All that said, what gets me through the day, and will get me through this spectacular, memorable, emotional, sportsy dogfight, is this:

Texas is going to the playoffs.

Because Texas is the better baseball team.

Tuesday night from the Twitter Sports Bar.

No energy this morning for a full report – six hours of baseball last night drained me a bit more than usual – but I share this staggering note from Matt Mosley of ESPN 103.3 FM and Fox Sports Southwest before sharing another round of in-game tweets from Tuesday night:

The Angels are .500 against the Mariners and A’s this year (actually 16-15), while the Rangers are 19-7.

Right there is a 5.5-game swing in the division standings.  If Texas and Los Angeles had the same record against the two bottom-feeders in the AL West . . . .

But they don’t.

And after today, Texas has 12 of its next 15 games against Seattle and Oakland, leading up to the final three games of the regular season in Anaheim.

Oh, one more quick note.  The Rangers’ four full-season minor league affiliates kick the post-season off tonight, with Eric Hurley (AAA Round Rock), Robbie Ross (AA Frisco), Justin Grimm (High A Myrtle Beach), and Cody Buckel (Low A Hickory) drawing Game 1 starts.

As we discuss every year, win-loss records aren’t the objective as far as player development is concerned, but you do want your prospects experiencing big games late in the year and learning how to finding that extra gear to win.  Especially considering that this is an organization that regularly pushes its best minor league players aggressively, typically fielding the youngest rosters in their leagues, and that this system, once again, has seen a significant number of productive players graduated to the big leagues or traded away during the season, it’s been another remarkable year on the Rangers’ farm.

Congrats to Scott Servais and the Rangers’ outstanding crew of minor league coaches and instructors, not to mention the scouting department responsible for evaluating baseball talent all over the world and helping the organization decide which players are worth giving a jersey to that says “Texas” on it.

A sample of last night’s Twitter activity:

This is why I reject anyone’s suggestion that Kins ought to be elsewhere in the lineup.

Ha…and then THAT (I’d posted the last tweet after he’d run the count 3-0 to start the game).  #IKHR

That shot of Joe West reminded me of the one lasting memory I have of the Ally McBeal series.  #waddle

It hasn’t been a very good year for Murph but man, he’s gotten in his first groove of the season at a pretty good time.

Money play by Moreland.  I’ve had enough of all the ducksnort hits off @str8edgeracer.

Murph.  Good grief.  #wintertradepiece  #butfirstthingsfirst

Or even if they do.  [@RangersRadioBD  you would have to imagine the Rangers have a plan B if they don’t sign CJ.]

Murph had three extra-base hits in 29 June & July games.  He has three thru five innings tonight.  #realtalk

I’d like to see Uehara, Adams, and Feliz each get 2 or 3 outs tonight.  #Cerberus

I do like getting Hamilton off the turf here.  But still confounded at the pen non-usage.  Nadel notes Leonys’s Dad in attendance tonight.

I wish CJ had finished after eight innings and 108 pitches.  #Lost  #donttellmewhaticantdo  #108

@str8edgeracer  #didwork  #firstproShutout (including minor leagues)

King Felix against Ervin, minutes away.  #3.5or2.5

[lots of Angels-Mariners in-game tweets skipped . . . ]

Scioscia bats Trout for C Bobby Wilson in *5th*.  Still don’t understand why Trout doesn’t play every day.

And Trout, who struck out, simply replaced by Mathis on defense.  Not kept in defensively himself.  Odd usage by Scioscia.  Fine with me.

Phillies lead the league in Cool.  Cliff and Utley may be 1 and 2 in baseball, no?

Raul Ibanez looks like Maya Rudolph.  #realtalk

M’s have now stranded 14 in eight innings, clinging to one-run lead.  I’m getting cranky.

Both SEA runs were unearned.  Poor Angels: *they’re* defense let them down.  #ISeeWhatIDidThere

When the heck am I gonna squeeze in my annual trip to Fall Instructs?  #firstworldpennantracepains

3.5.  See ya back at the #TwitterSportsBar at noon.

Derek Holland in four hours against David Price, who shockingly has an 0-5, 5.85 record in seven career starts against Texas (including the playoffs).  Price has fanned 25 Jays and Orioles in his last 14 innings.  Holland has allowed one run in his last 13.2 innings, facing the Angels and Red Sox offenses.

This is good.

Momentum.

Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, quipped Earl Weaver, presumably sometime in the 1970s or the first half of the 1980s, at basically no point during which the Rangers could legitimately concern itself too greatly with the question as late as Labor Day.

Different story this weekend in Boston.

This has been a fascinating Texas Rangers season, one in which the rotation has significantly helped the club along to what stands as the third-best record in the American League, fifth in all of baseball.

One in which the only starts made by someone outside the original five have been three by Dave Bush (once because a doubleheader would have otherwise forced Colby Lewis to make his next start on short rest, and twice because of blisters, one belonging to Alexi Ogando and one to Matt Harrison) and one by Scott Feldman (to give Harrison extra rest), with the second by Feldman coming this afternoon to give Ogando some added time between starts.

One in which the club’s five yearlong starters each have at least 11 victories and fewer losses and none has an ERA higher than 4.32.

One in which the Rangers’ starters have a significantly better collective ERA than any of the other three teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers) zeroing in on AL playoff spots, and a lot more quality starts than any of them, too.

As Rangers fans we’ve learned, since those Earl Weaver days, to live with the inconsistencies of young pitchers whose futures we’ve chosen to throw our hopes behind, and to put up with the occasional clunker from a veteran not what he once was.

The momentum that Texas seems to have right now, as far as its pitching rotation is concerned, is in the direction each of its starting pitchers are heading as the horizon of a return to the playoffs comes into sharper view.

C.J. Wilson has had one bad start in the last month, sandwiched between two outstanding efforts against Boston and Tampa Bay clubs that needed to win.  Game One is his.

Derek Holland leads the American League in shutouts and might have tied Cliff Lee for the big league lead if he’d been left in Friday to finish a 10-0 win over Boston that he exited after seven innings (98 pitches) of two-hit ball.  He has four quality starts in his last five efforts, and six in his last eight.  He’s attacking the zone and stampeding toward a playoff start.

Harrison was brilliant yesterday, silencing a Boston attack that had brutalized (1) the Rangers the day before and (2) Harrison himself two weeks ago.  There have been concerns of late, as he appeared to have hit a wall after a brilliant two-month run from June 12 through August 8 (2.69 ERA, .261/.296/.392 slash, six home runs and 13 ground ball double plays in 11 starts), but after a skipped turn he came back yesterday with fresh legs and put zeroes up for six Fenway Park innings while his offense mounted a 9-0 lead.  The club’s winning percentage is better when Harrison starts (.615) than it is with any of the other four Rangers starters.  Cautious optimism would permit one to conclude that the Harrison arrows are once again pointing up.

Ogando’s stunning run of success lasted four months (2.88 ERA, .217/.271/.327 slash, 3:1 K:BB and 4:1 IP:BB through August 4), with only one effective start out of five since then.  He gets skipped today, with hopes that it rejuvenates and resharpens his game the way the same maneuver did wonders, at least on one day, for Harrison.  For what it’s worth (which is presumably a lot), Ogando has been awful against both the Red Sox and Yankees this year.

Lewis was brilliant (7-4-0-0-2-7) in a loss to Anaheim two and a half weeks ago, the one that nearly finished a stunning four-game sweep before Mark Trumbo turned a Mike Adams cutter around in the ninth to reenergize the Angels’ season.  Since?  Three starts, 16 runs in 15.1 innings, on 24 hits (11 for extra bases) and six walks, good for an obese .369/.419/.677 slash.  Maybe of most concern is that the three games were against the Red Sox, Angels (10 days after he’d stymied them), and Red Sox again.  Lewis has been lousy this year at home (5.70 ERA, .257/.316/.511 slash, 21 home runs in 85.1 innings), worse in Fenway (Saturday), and ineffective in his three 2011 starts against Boston, regardless of site (8.22 ERA, .344/.397/.609 slash).

Lewis hasn’t faced the Yankees this year, after his two brilliant Rangers Ballpark starts against them in Game Two and Game Six of the 2010 ALCS.  Holland was tremendous in the ALCS as well, less so against the Yankees in three 2011 starts (all in the first half).

Feldman?  Let’s revisit how we feel about him after today’s encore against the Rays, who had no chance against him six days ago in Arlington.  (Of course, Texas did nothing against Rays starter James Shields last week, either.)

But for what it’s worth, Feldman shut the Red Sox down over four innings of middle relief obscured amidst a 6-0 Rangers loss on August 25: no runs on two singles and one walk, seven of his 12 outs on the ground, three others on swinging strike threes.

There are still four swings through this rotation to go, a lot of time for momentum to be refracted or reinforced, or fractured altogether.  Plenty can change, and one of the objectives of the club’s selective deployment of the Feldman weapon over these final five weeks is to try and get its rotation a chance to head into the stretch and the post-season refreshed and in a good rhythm.

But the way things look right now, admittedly based on somewhat of a snapshot, but also taking into consideration the way everyone in the mix has fared against Boston and New York, doesn’t it feel at the moment as if the best starting four that Texas can throw out there in October would look something like this?

  • Against Boston (the ALDS opponent if the season ends with the standings in the same shape as they are now*): Wilson, and then Holland and Harrison in some order, with a real thought given to Feldman as an alternative to either Lewis or Ogando in Game Four
  • Against New York: Wilson and Harrison, probably Holland, probably not Ogando, and a decision between Feldman and Lewis for the fourth spot

(* Note: The AL West winner will face the Wild Card as long as it finishes with a better record than Detroit.  Otherwise, the AL West winner will face the AL East winner.  Texas has a 1.5-game edge on the Tigers right now.)

First things first, of course, and if Texas can come out of these three in Tampa Bay maintaining its 3.5-game lead over the Angels while they host Seattle, then the tables turn a bit in terms of remaining schedules, as Texas will have Oakland, Cleveland, Seattle (away), Oakland (away), and Seattle left before the three-set in Anaheim to finish the regular season, while Los Angeles will draw a New York club fighting for home field, Oakland (away), Baltimore (away), Toronto (away, for four), and Oakland before what the Angels are hoping will be a series with Texas that offers something to play for.

If I were writing an Angels blog, the momentum angle might focus on Jered Weaver’s composite 10.64 ERA and .327/.411/.633 slash in the game he pitched against Texas on short rest and the following start against the Twins, and the season-high seven walks Ervin Santana issued against a bad Seattle team in his first start after his short-rest effort in Texas, but since I’m not I’ll leave that for an Angels-centric discussion elsewhere.

There’s still a lot of business to be taken care by two teams headed toward Games 160, 161, and 162, a series in Anaheim that could mean everything, or nothing at all, and what this weekend in Boston made pretty plain was that the magnitude of that series is going to be determined, at least for one of the teams, by the momentum built by the next day’s starting pitcher, and those on either side of him, in what might be the most unique year of rotation pitching in this franchise’s 40 years.

The trades for Mike Gonzalez and Matt Treanor.

One of the crucial aspects to the Mike Adams and Koji Uehara trades, as far as Texas was concerned, was that both relievers would be here not only for the season’s final third and, with any luck, the playoffs, but also for another whole year, as each is subject to club control in 2012.  That fact made it easier to rationalize parting with Robbie Erlin, Joe Wieland, Tommy Hunter, and Chris Davis in order to get those deals done.

Mike Gonzalez and Matt Treanor were acquired a month later than Adams and Uehara, and will both also be free agents as soon as Texas is done playing this year.  Their time commitment to the Rangers will be a fraction of Adams and Uehara’s, but when you look under the surface of yesterday’s deals for the two veterans, the cost makes a good amount of sense.

To get Gonzalez from Baltimore, Texas traded a player who will, by all accounts, be named shortly as right-handed reliever Pedro Strop (likely once the 48-and-a-half-hour period expires on trade waivers for Strop, as the Orioles have claim priority over everyone else in the league since they have the American League’s worst record).

The Rangers sent cash to Kansas City for Treanor, opting to go forward with him as the third catcher on an expanded September roster rather than Taylor Teagarden.

The key: Strop and Teagarden are each on their final options this season.

As a no-compensation free agent, Gonzalez was an easy asset to flip for value for the Orioles, who can re-sign him this winter without draft pick consequences if there’s mutual interest (a real possibility, evidently).  He’s of much more use over this final month, and we hope two, to Texas than to Baltimore.

Strop, on the other hand, is of much more use to Baltimore, who can audition him for a month – and next year when he must be in the big leagues from the start – than to the contending Rangers, who wouldn’t be in a position to entrust him with any key situations in September, and who are set up in such a way that any chance he’d have had of earning a spot on the staff on Opening Day 2012 would have to be considered extremely remote.

Put another way: Texas was going to lose Strop, who has shown some of the 4-A tendencies that defined his new teammate Davis’s tenure with Texas, at some point before the start of the 2012 season.  Baltimore had a chance to add a power arm project in exchange for a veteran on an expiring contract.  The only real variables were whether Texas felt it could use Strop in a different deal, either now or in the winter, that would have a bigger impact than this one, and whether another club could have made the Orioles a better offer for Gonzalez.  Roch Kubatko (MASNSports.com) reported Wednesday that the Yankees were in on Gonzalez as well but that Baltimore GM Andy MacPhail preferred the Texas offer.

As far as the catcher situation is concerned, with Teagarden on his final option, the only truly conceivable way he’s going to make the Opening Day roster next year will be if either Mike Napoli or Yorvit Torrealba – both under club control in 2012 – starts the season injured, and that assumes that Texas would be comfortable assigning Teagarden semi-regular duties in the first place.  Like Strop, and in a sense like Davis as well, chances are that Teagarden isn’t going to be back next year because of his options status, and so what the club was looking at was September alone (with some chance of an October spot as well, since a shortened rotation and built-in off-days allow for a deeper bench): Do you want to go with Teagarden as your third catcher in the final leg of a pennant race, or a veteran like Treanor?  (Teagarden isn’t eligible to return to Texas until Sunday, needing to spend the requisite 10 days on the farm since he was last optioned, but that wasn’t a factor – surely Texas knew when it sent Teagarden to Round Rock last week that the Treanor trade would be available.)

Not a difficult decision, given Treanor’s history here and the modest cost to reacquire him.  He’s an ideal fit.  Even if playing sparingly, he proved last year that he can be a positive influence in the clubhouse, someone who knows the Rangers staff for the most part (more so than Teagarden) and knows American League hitters and can help game-plan certain matchups as Texas tries to outlast the Angels this month.  His presence gives Ron Washington a little extra comfort in starting both Torrealba and Napoli on nights that he wants both right-handed bats in the lineup.  And we should also remember that Treanor was C.J. Wilson’s personal catcher for much of 2010.  He’ll get some starts.

As Jon Daniels said yesterday, Kansas City had a bigger need for Treanor than Texas did coming out of spring training, and the Rangers wanted to do right by Treanor at that point and get him in a situation where he’d play . . . but right now Texas has the bigger need for him, and the Royals wanted to do right by the veteran and stick him back in a pennant race.

Treanor sustained a concussion in a home plate collision a month ago and has been rehabbing for two weeks with AA Northwest Arkansas (an assignment that started with the Rangers’ Frisco squad in the road dugout).  He’d hit .226/.351/.306 for the Royals this season and had cut down 26 percent of opponents attempting to steal.

I’ve seen that Treanor is projected to fall just short of Type B free agent status this winter, and that some sort of statistical spike this month could vault him into Type B territory and net the Rangers a supplemental first round pick should they offer him arbitration and he signs elsewhere this winter.  A huge windfall, potentially, but don’t count on it – first, I wouldn’t expect the boost in his ranking, and second, even if he were to end up as a Type B, I’m not sure Texas would take the chance of offering him arbitration unless it was with an assurance that he’d decline it.  Plus, if he signed a non-roster contract with another club, something he’s probably relegated to at this stage of his career rather than a big league deal, Texas wouldn’t get the compensatory pick, I’m pretty sure.

And if Treanor can’t find a big league opportunity going into camp, wouldn’t it make some sense that if he were going to take a non-roster deal with a club that was set on the big league roster, he might hook up with the Rangers and report to Round Rock to work with Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez and Tanner Scheppers and the club’s other top pitching prospects, waiting for his own opportunity to come up and help in case of injury?  Remember, the only way Teagarden can be assigned to Round Rock in 2012 will be if he first clears league-wide waivers and is outrighted.  Texas is going to need a AAA catcher capable of coming up and playing.  And conceivably, an assignment to the Express could be a way for Treanor to start phasing into what most expect will be a coaching career.

On the subject of draft pick compensation, the system is somewhat flawed, and one example of that is that Treanor straddles the line between Type A and Type B status while Gonzalez, a recent big league closer who has been one of the best southpaw relievers in the game in the second half this year, won’t come close to even a Type B ranking.  He’ll be a no-compensation free agent, so the Rangers won’t recoup anything if and when he goes elsewhere in the off-season.

There were repeated references yesterday to the numbers Gonzalez put up in August, but go a little deeper than that.  Add in his final three July appearances, and the 33-year-old has put together a run of 12.1 scoreless innings over 13 appearances in which he has scattered five hits (four singles and a double) and one walk, striking out 15, stranding all six runners he inherited.  And only four of those games were against teams with a losing record.  The slash over that period: .122/.143/.146 – not that there’s anything wrong with his .154/.200/.173 slash (zero home runs) over the entire second half.

For the year, left-handed hitters are hitting only .211/.253/.322 against Gonzalez in 2011, and we talked yesterday about the lefties that the Rangers’ possible playoff opponents would run out there (Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford; the Yankees’ Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, though they aren’t necessarily vulnerable to southpaws; and Detroit’s Alex Avila).  Notably, Gonzalez pitched the last two years in the AL East, from which the AL West’s LDS opponent will emerge.  He’s been healthier in 2011 than in 2010 with Baltimore, and comes with good reviews from Mark Connor, who was the Orioles’ pitching coach the first half of this season and has since returned to the Rangers in a consulting role.

The former Pirates and Braves closer may not be as filthy as he was a few years ago (I found a July 2008 TROT COFFEY report in which I passed along this note: “If the Braves and Rangers did discuss Mike Gonzalez for an outfielder, talks went nowhere because Atlanta would only consider such a deal if it were for Josh Hamilton”), but he’s been very effective lately, and especially with an expanded roster where matchups can be exploited more so than usual, he’ll have the chance to get some big outs as the Rangers push to return to the playoffs.

(Incidentally, Baltimore recalled lefthander Zach Phillips to fill Gonzalez’s vacated bullpen spot.  The former Rangers prospect made his big league debut in the Orioles’ 13-0 loss to Toronto last night, allowing two hits and a walk in a scoreless eighth, fanning one.)

Texas will owe Gonzalez about $1 million of the two-year, $12 million contract the Orioles gave him before the 2010 season, when they expected him to settle in as their closer.  That assignment lasted about as long in 2010 as Frankie Francisco’s did in Texas.  He blew two save opportunities in Baltimore’s first four games, and was shut down for three months with a shoulder strain.  Orioles closer duties went first in his absence to former Rangers farmhand Alfredo Simon, later in the season to Gonzalez’s new Rangers teammate Uehara.  Gonzalez was very good upon his return in the second half (.165 opponents’ average, 28 strikeouts and seven unintentional walks in 22.2 innings, one home run), a run of effectiveness that he’s found again over the six weeks leading up to yesterday’s trade.

If Gonzalez pitches as well in September as he did in August, Texas will make room for him in October.  But keep in mind that you typically have a bullpen at full strength most nights in the playoffs, given the frequency of off-days for travel, and the Rangers might have a second lefthander to go along with Darren Oliver in the pen if Matt Harrison or Derek Holland is bumped from the rotation.

But we probably shouldn’t assume that Oliver is a post-season lock, in the event that Gonzalez clearly outpitches him in September.

Playoff roster decisions don’t need to be made until the end of this month, however, and to speculate too deeply on that right now feels like bad karma.  For now, it could be that yesterday’s deadline trades for Gonzalez and Treanor, perhaps like last year’s move for Jeff Francoeur, will provide a moment here or there in September that brings the Rangers closer to the instant when those magnificent, exquisite decisions on how the 25-man roster will look in October get to be made.

In that sense, the trades have almost no downside, especially when you consider the diminishing shelf life in Texas of the two players whose careers as Rangers were most directly compromised as a result.

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