May 2012

Go time.

If you were right there with those two folks who thought I might have mailed it in after Tuesday night’s Josh Hamilton Show with my one-photo/one-word send, I’m leaving no doubt today.  A crazy week at work stays crazy for another day, and so this morning’s offering is a 58-foot curve, a pratfall rounding third, a big bag of slack off.

The season hits the one-fifth mark shortly after Yu Darvish and C.J. Wilson get in their first work tonight – or tomorrow, as the weather dictates – and it’s a date that we’ve all had circled for five months, before we even knew whether Texas had bid enough to try and make Darvish a Ranger.

< mail in >

I thought about this day back then.  Here you go.

And here, too.

< / mail in >

Six straight series wins to open the season were followed by three straight series losses, but Texas then went into Baltimore and took three of four and the league’s best record from the Orioles, ending with a day on which the Rangers played two games to neutral results while the idle Angels were the ones to suffer a setback (losing starting catcher Chris Iannetta for up to two months due to a fractured wrist), and here we are.

Here we are.

The first of three is the first of 19.  And it’s only one of 162, of course, Game 33 to be exact.  It counts just as much as Game 3 or Game 50 or Game 153.

Still, it’s Darvish and it’s Wilson, and there’s no other way it could have been teed up and been any more captivating.  Rivalry baseball, in real time and real space.  Appointment baseball.

But yeah, one of 162 and all that.  Three of 162.  Overanalysis in advance of Darvish-Wilson, of Harrison-Williams, and of Feliz-Weaver makes as much sense as breaking down a great film before seeing it.

Grab your tickets, or your couch.  It’s Go Time.

Scoreboard watching won’t be peripheral this weekend.

4.0, 6.0, 8.0, or 10.0.

Bring it.

Bring it so much.

Sorry.

Among the 140 emails I’ve gotten in the last 36 hours about Josh Hamilton are two that suggested I mailed it in, by offering a measly one photograph and one word in the immediate wake of one of the great baseball moments of the last however-many regular seasons.

One photograph and one word, while piles of talk show segments and stacks of network packages and dozens of stories with thousands of words went into full assault on the issue of how much Hamilton will be paid after this year, and for how long, and by whom, and how smart or foolish it will be.

One photograph and one word was all I could scare up.

Sorry about that.

No I’m not.

 

Josh.

 

Fore.

 

Half and half-nots.

The Rangers were on a crazy tear, having won seven straight to run their record to 11-2, capped by a spanking of the Tigers in the first of four in Detroit, 10-3.

Matt Harrison and Rick Porcello were slated to face off the next night, in what would be a rematch of Game Four of the 2011 ALCS, a game in Tiger Stadium that was delayed by two hours before Texas scored four in the 11th inning to take a dramatic 7-3 win and a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Rain interfered with Harrison-Porcello again this time, wiping out the Friday night, April 20 matchup and setting up a Saturday day-night doubleheader.

That April 21 twinbill turned out to be sort of defining, and not the way anyone expected.

Coming off a 19-hit attack in that Thursday night series opener, the Rangers rapped seven hits before making their second out of the game on Saturday afternoon, taking an 8-0 lead against Porcello right out of the gate.  Ultimately, eight different Rangers had  multi-hit games, Harrison was outstanding, and Texas ran its win streak to eight and its margin over the rest of the division to a season-high 5.5 games, just two weeks into the schedule.

The Rangers were 12-2.  They’d played 14 games.

They’ve played another 14 games since then.

In those first 14 games, the Texas rotation had a 2.46 ERA, limiting opponents to a .224 batting average.

In the 14 games since, the rotation ERA is 5.13, with a .286 opponents’ average.

The bullpen’s actually been better (2.43/.232 in the first 14 games, 1.62/.140 in the second 14).  The black cloud there, of course, is that bad starts leads to more relief innings, and too much bullpen use early in the season can have repercussions (though it’s not quite as unsettling as the Angels losing LaTroy Hawkins yesterday to a broken finger, two pitches after closer Scott Downs had buckled to the ground with an apparent knee injury).

And the offense?

Nelson Cruz hit .276/.311/.448 in the first 14 games, and .151/.224/.189 since.

Mike Napoli: .279/.373/.721 and .195/.277/.268.

Michael Young: .400/.411/.545 and .232/.283/.386.

Ian Kinsler: .328/.418/.690 and .241/.338/.345

Collectively, the Texas offense hit .313/.364/.527 in helping to build that 12-2 record to start the season.

The Rangers have hit .254/.325/.383 since, a stretch in which the club has gone 6-8.

Just as the bullpen has stepped its game up in this little skid, Adrian Beltre’s productivity has been a bit of an outlier.  He hit .304/.344/.482 in the season’s first 14 games.  He’s hit .345/.367/.724 since then.

The problem, of course, is that he’s only had 29 at-bats in the team’s second 14 games, after 56 at-bats in the first 14.

Beltre pulled up lame on a double in the second inning of that April 21 day game, missing the rest of that game and three more after that with inflammation in his left hamstring before returning to the lineup.  He DH’d in the first of three in Toronto last Monday, coming up big in a 4-1 win with two doubles and a single, but hasn’t made a start since, pinch-hitting in four of five games and sitting the other one out altogether.

The Rangers have missed Beltre’s steady offense a lot.  The effect of his absence defensively doesn’t need any elaboration.

So now it’s on to Baltimore for four, a series that strangely might have been more dangerous if the Orioles weren’t playing as well as they are.  The Rangers have spit it up against Baltimore more often they should have the last few years, and with the Angels at home this weekend there would seem to be the risk of looking past this set of four against the Orioles.

But Baltimore has baseball’s best record at 19-9.  No matter how long that will last, the Orioles are playing well and can’t be overlooked.

And neither, despite a two-week skid, can the Rangers.  It’s an obvious point, but a stretch of bad baseball – especially one in which the starting pitching is scuffling and the offense looks confused – has a way of making things seem a lot worse than they really are, just as that 12-2 record to start the season felt deceivingly invincible.

It’s going to be OK.  Texas (who still sits at number one in ESPN’s Power Rankings, according to Buster Olney) leads the West by 3.5 games, the biggest lead in the American League.  The Angels took a step forward with their bullpen by acquiring Ernesto Frieri on Thursday but may have been set two steps back yesterday with the injuries to Downs and Hawkins.  Chris Davis shouldn’t be able to pitch today, after throwing 23 pitches yesterday.

Davis was actually just one of seven Baltimore relievers to throw at least 20 pitches yesterday, which puts the burden on Brian Matusz (whose lengthiest outing this year is 6.1 innings) to go late into the game tonight, and on the Texas offense to make him throw lots of pitches to bust that game plan up.

Hopefully Cruz can capitalize on a healthy history against Matusz (4 for 7, two doubles and a homer) as he tries to relocate his rhythm, and Beltre can return to the lineup now that Texas has escaped the artificial turf in Toronto and the crisp weather in Cleveland.

It’s early, and things are going to be fine, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d sort of appreciate a good showing in Baltimore while the Angels visit the sad-sack Twins, preferring that when Los Angeles comes to town this weekend, even with more than 130 games to go, the distance between the Rangers and Angels isn’t all that much closer than the 6.5 games that separate the two clubs right now.

Tools of the trade.

The Angels made a trade on Thursday, boosting their beleaguered relief corps by acquiring righthander Ernesto Frieri from San Diego, but not in time to get the 26-year-old to the home bullpen in Anaheim, where J.P. Arencibia’s three-run shot off Dan Haren landed in the third inning to set Toronto up for what would be a 5-0 Jays win, the type of game that Frieri presumably wouldn’t have pitched in anyway, as the Angels offense couldn’t get anything going against Jays starter Brandon Morrow.

The trade makes Los Angeles better, and not just in the short term.  The Angels get Frieri for nearly five months of this season, and nearly five years of control.  Though his fly ball tendencies won’t play as well in Anaheim as they did in San Diego, he misses bats.  He’ll help.

The division gap probably wouldn’t be 7.5 games right now if Frieri had been an Angel for the last month.  Give Los Angeles GM Jerry Dipoto credit.  He addressed a glaring need quickly, an unusually early deal in terms of the baseball calendar, and it’s safe to assume that he’s going to keep looking for ways to make his club better.

And that Jon Daniels is doing the same thing, and was doing it even before this last week of baseball that has seen Texas drop consecutive series after winning its first six.

But don’t expect a Texas trade anytime soon.  There’s a need for a right-handed bat who can play left field (and preferably at least one of the infield corners as well), but you typically have to overpay this early in the season to persuade a team to trade present-for-future and in doing so signal to their clubhouse and fan base that they don’t believe in 2012.

No team in baseball was further behind in its division than the Angels and Padres going into play on Thursday, but only one of those two teams was motivated to mortgage a little present just a month into the schedule.

Understand that while the primary reason Jon Daniels was in Round Rock last night was to present American League Championship rings to Michael Kirkman, Mark Hamburger, Julio Borbon, and Leonys Martin, it’s worth noting that Yangervis Solarte played left field last night for the third time in four games (after the second baseman made just three outfield appearances in his first 21 games).  The switch-hitter is in the midst of a 14-game hit streak in which he’s hitting a ridiculous .511/.549/.851 and torching right-handed pitching.

That open spot on the 40-man roster could belong to Solarte soon, because you’re not going to trade Justin Grimm, Miguel De Los Santos, and Rougned Odor to the Twins for the three years and $21 million owed to Josh Willingham, even if he’d be asked to fill more than the limited Brandon Snyder role.

And the Blue Jays aren’t going to try to capitalize on Edwin Encarnacion’s crazy-hot streak when they’re currently holding down the second Wild Card spot, even if you dangled Neil Ramirez and Christian Villanueva, which you aren’t going to do.

Daniels saw Solarte homer, double, and walk last night, and was also on hand to see Tanner Scheppers used on no rest for the second time all season.  He reportedly tripped 100 on the gun, flashed the wipeout slider, and threw eight of his 12 ninth-inning pitches for strikes as he set the New Orleans Zephyrs down in order and locked down a 5-4 Round Rock win.

The last time the 25-year-old pitched on consecutive days (April 16-17) was the last time he was scored on (a single run on two hits on the second day).  Since then: 6.2 innings, three hits, zero walks, zero runs, nine strikeouts.

That velocity and those nine punchouts – all over his last 17 outs – jump off the page, but if you’d paid close attention to Scheppers’s issues the last couple seasons, you know the zero walks stand out as much as anything.

Scheppers may have designs on that last roster spot, too, but the need for relief reinforcement doesn’t seem as immediate as it is with the role Solarte could fill.

Different case in Los Angeles.  If the Angels had Scheppers, maybe they wouldn’t have traded two decent prospects for Frieri last night.

The cost to get Frieri (AAA infielder Alexi Amarista and Class A righthander Donn Roach) wasn’t necessarily prohibitive – I do wonder whether the Padres might have been able to kick their price up if talks had dragged on another day, as the Yankees are now in acute need of another big league reliever for the seventh or eighth inning – but in the case of Roach in particular this trade reminds us to never underestimate one fairly surprising reality that’s been shared with me by baseball people: Farm results really do matter, and in some cases more than they should.

That’s not to say San Diego didn’t have Roach high on its list this winter, or that they didn’t draw a bead on him in 2011 when (as a Low Class A reliever) he coaxed 3.55 as many groundouts as flyouts, but you can bet that his work as a High Class A starter over the last month, in the hitter-friendly Cal League, boosted his value and helped get this deal done.  In 41.2 innings, the 22-year-old issued only three walks, and generated an impossible 6.23 groundouts for every flyout.

As much as it defies good sense, hot streaks and statistics do factor into getting deals finalized.  So when you see Barret Loux or Chad Bell or Carlos Pimentel fire off a string of great-looking line scores or notice Hanser Alberto punishing full-season pitching at age 19, allow yourself to imagine that a small sample size of stats really can kick trade value up a bit if the timing is right.

I left Grimm and Cody Buckel off that list, and Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt and others, too.  They occupy a different tier.

The Twins are a mess, without a lot to get excited about in the near future, and you could probably get Justin Morneau right now if you put Olt plus more on the table (there are questions as to whether uberprospect Miguel Sano will be able to stay at third base).  But Texas isn’t going to take on Morneau’s $14 million this year and $14 million next year – with all the contract issues facing the club this winter – and give up Olt in the process.

The Marlins are in last place and Josh Johnson is struggling and is set to make about the same as Morneau ($13.75 million this year and $13.75 million next year), but you’re not going to include Neftali Feliz and Buckel in the discussion, the likes of which you’d probably have to do in early May to even get talks rolling.

Now, either Mitch Moreland or David Murphy, plus either Scheppers or Ramirez, plus a lower-level arm (let’s say Randol Rojas or Zach Osborne) for Morneau, who’s hitting .230/.313/.459 and is sidelined with a minor wrist injury?

Both teams say no.

Martin Perez and Nick Tepesch and Odor for Johnson?

Both teams say no.  With Miami a little more emphatic about it.

Here’s the thing about the Rangers and trades.  The system that Scott Servais oversaw for years has a lot more depth and ammunition than the one he runs now.  Texas can get lots of things done on the trade market that other clubs either can’t get done or can’t afford to get done.

But right now, a month into the season, the only types of players you can pry free at a reasonable cost are the ones the fill a spot on the bench, or a role in the middle of the bullpen.

Texas has players with as much value as Amarista and Roach, and more of them than Los Angeles does.  But Texas also has players like Solarte and Scheppers going well, which could mean you don’t have to trade Engel Beltre or Jake Brigham yet to try and address needs at the back of the roster.

Olt isn’t untouchable by any means – and I’m on record (July 26, 2011 TROT COFFEY) suggesting I’d be open to moving Feliz in the right deal – but the way this team is built, saving your best ammunition for the winter makes more sense.  Trading key assets now to get a little better in 2012 isn’t as good an idea as holding onto them until the off-season, when the offense may need to be retooled through multiple means.

And here’s the other thing about mid-season trades that’s different now.  The new CBA dictates that compensatory draft picks are now available only to teams who lose free agents they had for the entire season.

That means that trading for Zack Greinke this summer gets a little trickier.  Do it and lose him to free agency this winter, and you have nothing to show for it in 2013.  Trading for Cliff Lee in July 2010 had the back-end benefit, if he left for free agency, of two draft picks (which turned into lefthander Kevin Matthews and outfielder Zach Cone).  Trading for Greinke in July 2012, unless you believed you could re-sign him in the winter – and that you would even want to in the first place – would be the definition of a rental.

Do you want to trade Perez, Buckel, Jordan Akins, and Luis Sardinas for two months of Greinke?

Of course not.

And if you’re Milwaukee, would you take less, since you would get the compensatory picks if you kept Greinke and he left in the winter?

Doubt it.

The Rangers will make deals this season.  They always do.  The Angels aren’t going to slink away quietly (in spite of the fact, as Joe Sheehan notes, that they have a 6-3 record against the Orioles and Twins, and a 4-13 mark against everyone else), and even if the division looks safe in July, Texas learned in 2011 that part of the process in building a title contender is putting together a bench built to win games in National League parks.

Maybe Yangervis Solarte will get the next shot to try and earn a role on this team, but even if that happens and he produces, expect the Rangers to go find a couple proven hitters for the bench after mid-season, when more teams are out of the race and more players are available and Texas has a better sense of where its roster holes are.

For now, the club has no hole as great as those the Angels started to address with last night’s trade.  While it’s unquestionable that the Rangers are better equipped than the Angels or the Tigers or the Phillies or the Giants to trade prospects for immediate help, it’s also true that the needs in Texas aren’t as great in 2012 as those most teams are saddled with, and as a result we should probably be looking more at the second and third tiers of the organization’s deep stable of prospects than the top tier as we handicap what the club might look to do, focusing with as much interest on the progress of Barret Loux and Jake Brigham and Nick Tepesch, and Engel Beltre and Christian Villanueva and Hanser Alberto, as we tend to do with players like Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt and Martin Perez.

Triste.

The lineup was watered down due to injury.  The game pitted a fifth starter making his fourth big league start against a fifth starter making his third.  The offense was down to its final strike before delivering three straight singles and extending the game.

But for me that was the worst of the Rangers’ seven losses this season, Joe Nathan’s meltdown against Seattle notwithstanding.  Bullpen hiccups will happen, but walks and errors and plays unmade are killers.

And the biggest question mark for this team going into 2012 was put right back in the frame last night: Neftali Feliz’s fitness to be a reliable Major League starting pitcher, even in the long term.

Still, one of the losses has to be the worst.

Win the series.

The death of a thousand streaks.

It was bound to happen eventually.  Another streak seized up and fell.  Ran its course.  Died.

Actually, several streaks came crashing down last night, which may be just as well since a good friend told me a couple days ago that he’s tired of reading happy stuff in this space.

After a run in which Yu Darvish’s Game Scores did nothing but improve, last night’s effort dropped off a bit from his previous start.

Even ignoring the Bill James metrics, on the most basic levels Darvish’s game in Toronto didn’t live up to the gem he threw last week against the Yankees.  He didn’t pitch into the ninth.  He didn’t fan 10.  He didn’t keep the Jays off the scoreboard.  For the first time in the big leagues, he didn’t even cross the 100-pitch threshold before Ron Washington turned things over to the bullpen.

Either Darvish’s streak of homerless baseball or Toronto DH Edwin Encarnacion’s run of games going deep was going to fall, and Encarnacion won that battle.  The former Rangers draft pick, chosen when Darvish was 13, homered for the fourth straight game, and in doing so became the first big leaguer to circle the bases on a Darvish pitch.

It broke up a no-hitter with two outs in the fourth.  That wasn’t cool.

The Texas righthander’s draw of opponents had gotten more formidable each time out, and that streak, too, was snapped.

But, man, one streak that’s still alive is that Yu Darvish is awesome at baseball.

The 25-year-old saw the Jays lineup three complete times last night.  Twenty-seven batters.

Twenty of them saw strike one.

When your arsenal includes seven or eight different pitches, strike one is a particularly beautiful thing.

In his Rangers debut, Darvish delivered strike one 47 percent of the time.  His next time out, he improved to 50 percent.  Next time: 50 percent again.  The time after that, last week’s start against New York: 64 percent.  Last night: 74 percent.

Finally.  A streak that survived.

Of Darvish’s 21 outs last night, three were made by outfielders.  Two were infield pops.  Seven were recorded on the ground.  Nine were strikeouts.

Punching out nine and needing only 97 pitches to do it is sorta crazy.

Think back to Darvish’s debut.  He had given up four runs having recorded only one out.  His ERA stood at 108.00.

Since then, he’s given up four runs in 32.2 innings.

That’s a 1.10 ERA.

Stated another way?

Darvish permitted four runs in his first eight big league batters faced.

Darvish has permitted four runs in the 138 batters he’s faced since then.

Texas is now 17-6, good for its second-best April ever and good for baseball’s best record at the moment.  Darvish has started five of the seventeen wins and none of the six losses.

But he’s failed to contribute to 12 of the Rangers’ victories or done anything to prevent those six losses, and that’s something I’m just going to have to get over while I continue to put in the work to try and come up with some negativity to satisfy my buddy and those others among you in need of a little baseball angst.

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