AL Postseason Preview

Three regular season games remaining for Texas.  

One week until the ALDS begins.  

We know the Rangers are in.  We know that we get to enjoy 162+ once again.

But who else is in?  Who will we see in the postseason?

Here is a quick look at the other postseason teams and what challenges they may present to to Texas Rangers:

 

AL East Champions: Boston Red Sox

Boston has been the hottest team in the AL heading into the postseason, having won 11 straight games before dropping the last two to the New York Yankees.  Boston still holds out hope for home field advantage throughout the playoffs, sitting 1.5 games back from Texas with four games remaining on their schedule.  Boston’s roster mirrors that of the Rangers with a squad that has fun on the field, using excellent young players (Betts, Bradley Jr, Benintendi) who are motivated by the play of their strong leaders, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.  Like Texas, Boston has two strong frontline pitchers in Cy Young hopeful Rick Porcello and ace David Price (whose postseason struggles have been well documented).  After that, the rotation is shaky but supported by a strong bullpen.  Also like Texas, Boston is getting strong play from a veteran player that many people thought was washed up and a head case but was once an All Star (Hanley vs Gomez).

Boston is the current AL favorite in Vegas, and there is good reason for this.  The team is solid, well-rounded, and playing with the constant thought of sending David Ortiz out on top.  I have felt like Texas and Boston have been on a crash course since about the All Star break, and it still seems that way, but most likely not until the ALCS, with Texas and Boston currently sitting as the 1 and 2 seeds, respectively.

Boston’s last four games include tonight against the Yankees and then three games over the weekend against Toronto, so although they have already clinched the East, their remaining contests will play a large part in determining the destiny of the potential Wild Card teams.

 

AL Central Champions: Cleveland Indians

Cleveland is limping into the playoffs, quite literally, due to their rash of late season injuries.  Cleveland has only gotten 11 games from Michael Brantley (making him their version of Choo, not just because of his expected OBP) due to a shoulder injury.  Yan Gomes, the catcher they had in place which prevented Cleveland from viewing Lucroy as their probable starter beyond this year, which resulted in the voided trade, has a broken wrist from a HBP in a rehab assignment.  

The pitching staff is in shambles after Carlos Carrasco, the probably postseason #2 starter, took a comebacker off the hand which resulted in a broken bone.  Danny Salazar, arguably the best #3 starter in the AL, is out with a flexor strain after suffering from a variety of arm related issues throughout the season.  To top that off, staff ace and Cy Young hopeful Corey Kluber left his start early on Monday due to tightness in his right groin.  

The road for everyone in the postseason is a hard one, but this year, the path looks the toughest for Cleveland, particularly if their ace cannot move past his day to day status.  

Cleveland appears to be the most likely opponent for Texas if the Rangers don’t finish as the one seed, and though this is still a solid team, with young talent in Tyler Naquin and Francisco Lindor, I feel like the Party at Napoli’s has to come to an end soon, whereas the lack of depth due to injury will simply be too much for the Indians to overcome.

 

Likely Wildcards:

 

Toronto Blue Jays

I mean, we’re all familiar with this team, right?  Despite the wishes of most Rangers fans, Toronto might be the team best built for the postseason, with an incredibly deep lineup, a solid group of starting pitchers, and above average bullpen.  

Their weaknesses come not in talent, but in the bravado of John Gibbons and the collection of divas in the lineup.  To put this simply, just this month, Toronto has been involved in benches clearing incidents with the Yankees (which resulted in losing a reliever for the rest of the season due to a torn calf), Rays, and Mariners.  The entire world remembers the incident with the Rangers. 

At some point, if your team has a problem with most other teams in the league, then perhaps it becomes time to realize that your team is the asshole, not the entire rest of the league (same realization goes for Madison Bumgarner).  

I mean, if the Rangers win it all this year, it’s only right they go through Toronto, right?  If Texas finishes with home field advantage, they will draw the Wild Card winner, which if I were a betting man, would likely be the Blue Jays.

 

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles went with the bold strategy of putting high K rate/huge HR number first baseman all over the field while hoping that Machado and Adam Jones make every defensive play.  

It mostly worked.  As the season began, I thought that Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, and Pedro Alvarez were all basically the same player.  As the season went on, each filled their roles quite nicely (although Pedro took a bit longer than the others).

Baltimore has a nice team, but they do not have the pitching depth to survive through the playoffs.  This team can win some games without a doubt, but in a long series, especially after throwing their #1 in a Wild Card play in, the Orioles may have trouble moving on.

 

Holding on to Hope:

 

Detroit Tigers

I’ve written off the Tigers numerous times this season, yet here they are, one game out of the 2nd Wild Card spot with four days left in the regular season.  The Tigers are at the end of a closing window, with an very experienced quality lineup featuring Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Justin Upton, and our dear old friend, Ian Kinsler.  This is still a good team, but the struggle to get in to the playoffs, paired with the age of the lineup, may spell the end for the Tigers very soon.  

But, I have been wrong about Detroit about 7 other times this season, so………..

 

Seattle Mariners

I have to publicly admit something here:  

I have secretly been wanting Seattle to make a run and squeeze into the playoffs.  Partly because I think they are a less dangerous postseason team, and partly because of their collection of ex-Rangers plus King Felix who is impossible to hate. Seattle is two games back with four left, so they need to win out and get some help, but I have seen stranger things happen, and I know they would LOVE to have a chance to get Toronto in the play in game after everything that happened between the two teams last week.  

 

Mostly Dead:

 

New York Yankees

The Yankees were able to use a Mark Teixeira walk off grand slam to stave off elimination for another day, but for all intents and purposes, the Yankees are basically done.  Impressive run by them though when they cut the dead weight and outside of the Rangers, Texas won the trade deadline this year.  The Yankees can force a tie for the second Wild Card by winning out, with one game left against Boston and a three game set with Baltimore, and while that is highly unlikely, their games are very important for the other wild card hopefuls and for home field advantage.

 

Houston Astros


There is no actual chance that the Astros make the postseason, I just wanted to take a moment to point out that this team with superior talent has officially been put to the ground.

Losses

Some losses are much harder to take than others.  Some leave you wondering how, some leave you feeling lost, some leave you seeking understanding.

Throughout the year, the Texas Rangers have had losses that have made most of us question who they are as a team, question the bullpen, question Banister, and question what we are doing as fans (See the June 24th 8-7 loss to Boston in which the bullpen gave up four runs in the 9th).  

There have not been many heartbreaking losses this year on the field, and those gut punch games have been few and far between, mostly due to the team’s success in one run contests.  

Following a win on Saturday in which Yu Darvish returned to form and Elvis Andrus found some champagne based power source, yesterday’s loss was something that I barely even noticed.

To be honest with you, I couldn’t even bring myself to turn on Sunday’s game.

Some losses are much harder to take than others.

Despite having a busy Sunday, full of football, food, and family; my mind was on nothing but baseball without watching a single pitch.  

After working late Saturday night, I awoke Sunday morning to a barrage of messages, with my phone constantly vibrating to the point where I was annoyed enough to arise and start the day.  I often start my day by catching up on the late baseball scores and reading through exasperated texts from my die-hard Dodgers fan friend.  

This time, instead of questioning double switches or celebrating the successes of young shortstops, the message I see from him is “Jose Fernandez?????? What the hell?”.

Upon seeing this, I assume that the young ace has done something to get in trouble, with most of our athlete “what the hell?” moments being based around a culture that often includes drug suspensions, alcohol incidents, and disgusting examples of domestic violence.  I sighed deeply wondering what had happened and opened Twitter, completely unprepared for the news I was about to receive.

24 years old.  Far too young, far too talented, far too in love with life to be gone.  

I’m not going to rehash the story of Jose Fernandez coming to America, but if you are not familiar with it, take time to look it up.  While you are at it, look up the time his grandmother was brought in from Cuba to finally see him pitch.  There are so many amazing and beautiful stories in this young man’s short life that it is simply amazing.

I was not prepared for how crushing the loss of Jose would be.  He seemed so popular around the league, he seemed to have an effect on all of those who met him, from other players, to fans, to members of our military; his smile always seemed to be glowing, happy to be alive and fully understanding what a blessing it is to play this wonderful game.

As the day continued, I wanted to make sure that my son, who is six years old and who watches the Rangers with me on nearly a daily basis, saw some clips of Jose doing what he loved, so we sat together on the couch and watched a variety of his highlights, from the famous Tulo liner catch, to some wipeout sliders, to his over the top reaction to a Giancarlo bomb, to his homerun incident against the Braves.  We had fun. We smiled, we laughed, we talked.  

When we watched the clip of Jose hitting his homerun and the Braves benches clearing as he tossed his bat and took his time around the bases.  My son, in the astute manner of observation that he always offers, simply looked up and said, “Daddy, why are they so angry about him just having fun?’.  

Wonderful question, buddy.  

From that question, and those video clips, we sat together and had an incredible conversation, discussing life and death, joy and jealousy, success and failure, fame and fortune, passion and desire, and finally, love and loss.  

My son and I explored so many elements of life, and through the innocent mind of a six year old, I learned far more than he did as we were able to delve into the difficult topics of the day, with an incredible depth of perspective on happiness in life being offered by the youth of Jose Fernandez and the aged experience of Vin Scully.  

As it turns out, there is crying in baseball.

As my conversation with my son ended, MLB Network cut to a live feed of Marlins Park that simply showed Dee Gordon standing in front of the mound, hands on his head, unable to control his emotions.  This is a scene that will remain in my head for some time, but in the moment, I too was overcome with emotions, and a tear ran down my cheek, still unable to fully grasp the loss of the day.

From the seat next to me, I felt my son lean over and put his head on my shoulder, and as I looked down, I could see that he was also beginning to cry.  I apologized to him, telling him that I did not mean to upset him, and he looked up at me and said:

“It will be ok, Dad. Everyone gets sad, but then we get to have more fun next time we are happy.”

Simply and beautifully put.  This wisdom of a six year old far surpasses anything I have to offer.  

I could not find it in me to watch a single pitch yesterday, but today, as the Rangers return home for their first game at Globe Life as the 2016 American League West Champions, I will return to that couch, this time watching the game, fully knowing that the sadness of yesterday will make today’s happiness much more fulfilling, finding solace in Elvis’s smile, Banny’s leadership, Carlos’s passion, and Beltre’s…..well, his Beltre.  

And as we watch tonight, I will hold Nolan (my son) a little closer, thinking about the lessons we learned through the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez, the lessons Vin Scully bestowed on us on a daily basis, and remembering what the game of baseball has meant to my life.

Some losses are much harder to take than others, but in time, they make the victories so much sweeter.  

Here’s to the next month of Rangers baseball and the lessons that the conclusion of the season may bestow upon all of us.

Looking Ahead: The Outfield

To start things out this Monday morning -- things will be in somewhat of a lull for the next week or so as we get a mix of odd lineups for the Rangers -- I wanted to take some time for an exercise in statistics. Below, we have three unnamed players. For each, I'll list their season statistics, followed by their 2nd-half offensive numbers (it seems a bit hackneyed to look at anything but offensive statistics when taking into account recency).

  1. Player A: .299/.359/.438, .797 OPS, 110 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR, 3.5 bWAR
    2nd-half: .306/.374/.461, .836 OPS, 121 wRC +
     
  2. Player B- .221/.290/.361, .651 OPS, 75 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR, 0.3 bWAR
    2nd-half: .228/.303/.409, .712 OPS, 90 wRC+
     
  3. Player C- .285/.336/.451, .787 OPS, 107 wRC+, 3.4 fWAR, 2.7 bWAR
    2nd-half: .234/.281/.352, .633 OPS, 65 wRC+

At a quick glance, it's fairly easy to see that two of those players -- A and C -- have had above-average seasons, offensively speaking. That's discernible if, using nothing else, looking at wRC+, which attempts to capture offensive value on the whole and scaling it to league average, where 100 is average. Player A has been ten percent above league average at the plate, Player C, seven percent.

Player B has had what would appear to be a rough season. However, as a big believer in trends, especially as we head toward the postseason, I think that the more recent numbers could more accurately reflect something of the truest production level we can expect from these players going forward. And for that part, Player B has had the better second half than Player C.

If you haven't figured out by now, Player A is Elvis Andrus, Player B is Carlos Gomez, and Player C is Ian Desmond.

Obviously, Elvis isn't an outfielder, but for the purposes of this discussion, I wanted to throw his numbers in for comparison. For much of the season, we've been singing the praises of Ian Desmond, while Elvis's season, to my mind, has gone largely unnoticed. Beyond that, until I actually looked, I didn't realize just how bad Ian Desmond has been since the All-Star break.

Heading into the break, Ian Desmond was slashing .322/.375/.524 with an OPS of .899 and a wRC+ of 137. He was in the MVP conversation within some circles. And while a certain amount of regression was to be expected -- Ian has, throughout his career, been a streaky hitter -- the level of decline that has set in was completely unexpected.

As best I can tell, the downturn started around July 20 (arbitrary start-point alert). From July 20 through yesterday's game, Desmond has slashed .237/.282/.339, an OPS of .621 and wRC+ of 62. That's 38 percent below the league-average mark offensively for well over two months. Current trends haven't been kind to Ian.

While it's easy to look at the numbers of Carlos Gomez and say that, even in the second half, he's not been great, it's important to remember that only part of that has been with Texas. If we look at only his Rangers production, Gomez sports a .255/.342/.480 line (an OPS of .822), a wRC+ of 118, and an fWAR of 0.7 in only 111 plate appearances. Add to the mix that he's been fantastic in the outfield, and it's not exactly a stretch to say that Texas came out looking pretty good on this signing.

Long-term -- as in, after the postseason -- the Rangers will have some decisions to make. Re-signing Ian Desmond has been a hot topic for months, and will continue to be one until he's either back in a Texas uniform or, if things play out as such, in another team's uniform. Carlos Gomez will be a free agent as well. And depending on cost factors, there's a significant part of me that thinks Gomez might be the better signing for Texas going forward. I get that it won't be a popular opinion, but from a value standpoint, it makes sense, especially if Gomez is closer to his recent production -- and that of a significant portion of his career -- rather than the shell of a player he was in Houston.

And while that's a bit down the road, it's also rooted in the looming playoffs. With the impending return of Shin-Soo Choo to the lineup for the ALDS -- and perhaps sooner, according to Jared Sandler -- there's been much debate regarding what the outfield alignment will be.

Obviously, Carlos Beltran is your DH most days, so it's likely that Choo will return to right field. The assumption has long been that Nomar Mazara would head to the bench, Gomez would roam left field, and Ian Desmond remains in center field. And yet, the more I think about it, the less sense that makes.

Don't get me wrong, I love Ian Desmond the guy. Like Prince Fielder, I see the way he interacts with the team, and he's become a fan-favorite in his lone season in Texas. But if we're looking at trends in forecasting the best possible lineups, Nomar Mazara has been the better player.

Setting aside that his full-season numbers aren't quite as good as Desmond's, with a wRC+ of 98, his second half numbers tell a different story. His wRC+ of 100 is better than Desmond's 65 by a significant margin. Since the calendar flipped to September, Nomar has shown signs of once again adjusting to big league pitching with a wRC+ of 111.

While acknowledging that this probably won't happen, I'm not so sure that the best lineup in the outfield doesn't consist of Mazara in LF, Gomez in CF, and Choo/Beltran in RF. Having been a gold-glove caliber CF as 2013, you don't lose too much defensively in the outfield -- if anything at all -- by having Gomez in CF rather than in LF.

Obviously, I'm not the manager of the Texas Rangers. It's a decision Jeff Banister will have to make. And perhaps Ian Desmond can get things going just enough down the stretch to be a valuable playoff contributor. He simply hasn't been a very good hitter for over two months, and it's at least a little concerning. If we see the Rangers make it to, say, the ALCS, it wouldn't surprise me too terribly to see the lineup I just mentioned thrown out there if Desmond can't get his bat going again.

I just never thought, even a month ago, I'd be making any sort of case for Carlos Gomez over Ian Desmond. Isn't baseball crazy?

Off Day Musings

With no baseball to watch today and with the champagne on ice for at least another day, I figured it was an excellent time for me to waste five minutes of your day with my random baseball related musings and idiotic ramblings:

 

First; the obvious.  This team is really damn fun to watch and I have come to terms with the concept that no matter what happens in the playoffs, this year has been an incredible success and it has been a privilege to watch this squad function on a daily basis.  However, I just can’t shake the feeling that this team is special and that simply making the postseason is not nearly enough.

 

In the last few weeks, there have been some positive signs to go along with the variety of question marks that are still sitting there glaring at us (regardless if you choose to look at them or not).  Let’s dig through a few of those.

 

Tanner Scheppers has been an incredible boost to the bullpen, throwing with confidence and looking like the setup man from 2012 rather than the lost soul that flailed around for a while after another Rangers failed attempt to convert a lights out reliever to a starter.

 

Texas is going to need Scheppers to keep this confidence, because right now, Jake Diekman is throwing as if he has none.  Diekman looks lost up there, he seems to be so afraid of getting hit that he won’t throw strikes, which is not a recipe for success.  I honestly don’t know how to fix this late in the season other than just throwing him out there and hoping something sticks, which seems to be exactly what they are doing with Keone Kela, who I am less worried about than Diekman, because he continues to just look more rusty than anything else.  I’m hoping he gets in enough work between now and the postseason to return to form.  

 

Speaking of form, I love the composure, moxy, and stuff of Matt Bush. What an incredible signing.  At this point, I have more faith in him than anyone else in the bullpen (strangely enough, the 1925 stuff of Alex Claudio might be second).  Bush will work in some important spot in October and I will be interested in how his story is portrayed on the national stage.  

 

It seems like Choo and Barnette are getting closer to a return, which is somewhere between good and interesting.  Before Barnette went down, he might have gotten my vote as bullpen MVP.  It’s simply incredible how the two under the radar bullpen signings have performed this season.  

In regards to Choo, having him healthy and on base is a great additive to the Texas offense, but honestly, what do the Rangers even do with him at this point?  Carlos Gomez is thriving at leadoff, playing like the loves the game again and putting his heart and soul into every inning.  I am not sure I would want to shake that while the team has a good thing going (According to Jared Sandler, Carlos has two more hits than Jose Altuve since Gomez joined the Rangers.  Baseball is one hell of a sport).  Likewise, Nomar Mazara is suddenly hot again.  I have frequently talked about how Nomar’s patience is his best friend and his worst enemy at the same time, whereas he has a great eye and will work counts, but often will watch a good pitch go by to swing at a back foot curveball with two strikes.  However, he suddenly looks locked in again, which very well may be a result of his return to regular playing time and ability to find a rhythm.  So what happens with Choo?  I don’t know, but he seems to be on track for a playoff return and I will never complain about a surplus of weapons (however, they should have a player keeping warm in AFL to take Choo’s spot when he tears his hamstring three games into his return).

One more thought on Mazara; if I told you before the season that a 21 year old would come up and hit .277 with 20 homeruns, you would all be thrilled right?  What if I told you that a 21 and 22 year old would combine for 9 more homeruns than their combined age with 10 games left in the season?  That’s exactly what Texas has gotten from the 51 bombs from Maz and Odor.  The future is bright, ladies and gentlemen.

 

On the the not so bright spots:

Cole Hamels looks like a man battling through an injury.  His recent struggles have been well noted and it seems as if the trend is Hamels being lights out for the first inning and then the wheels fall off of the bus.  I have no information on this, and this is simply an observation, but his discomfort on the mound and difficulty maintaining fundamentals gives the impression that he does not feel right.  I am glad he is getting extra time between starts, but it sure would be nice to see him regain control and confidence before the postseason.

For some reason, I am less worried about Yu Darvish than I am Hamels.  Yes; Darvish struggled last time out, but for some reason, we are ignoring the fact that he looked great the start before.  He will be just fine and we all have more important things to worry about.  

Like all of the starting pitchers after those two.  

I am intrigued as to how Banny will set up the playoff rotation.  Hamels, Yu, Perez, Lewis?  Does Banny go with the splits and throw Perez game two to take advantage of his home numbers (as suggested by Jamey Newberg)?  

Lots of questions over the next few weeks.  What are your biggest concerns heading into the postseason?

Not at Houston's Table, Carlos

.210/.272/.594, 5 homeruns, 85 games, $9 million, one major headache.

.215/.329/.775, 4 homeruns, 20 games, $507 thousand, one major league oufielder.

 

Line one is 2016 Houston Astros version of Carlos Gomez.  Line two is 2016 Texas Rangers version of Carlos Gomez.

What a difference a clubhouse makes.

Gomez was an All Star in 2013 and 2014.  Gold Glove in 2013. Top 5 fantasy outfielder in 2014.  

What happened?  

The Astros happened.  

Sometimes people just need a change of scenery (See Davis, Chris and hopefully NOT Gallo, Joey).  Sometimes people need to re-evaluate their game (See Puig, Yasiel).  Sometimes, people just need support, comfort, and strong leadership (See Hamilton, Josh).  Sometimes people just need to be reminded that despite all of the glory and drama that surrounds baseball, in the end, it is just a game.

It feels like Gomez falls strongly into that last category.  

By no means is Carlos Gomez the player that he was 2012-2014, and at the age of 30, it would be unfair to think that he would ever be that again.  However, Carlos is aiming to make sure that his new teammates and the Rangers’ faithful immediately know that he is not the shell of a player that appeared in Houston either.  

Does Gomez’s time in Houston suck for that franchise?  Absolutely.  Do I understand why the fan base is upset with him? Without a doubt (however, I do not understand the awful racist things that were apparently being yelled at him from the outfield bleachers at Minute Maid or the person who thought they should interject into the game by throwing a lime, then later a baseball, at him).

I will clearly and openly say that, of course, I have never stepped foot into the Astros dugout and have never experienced their clubhouse firsthand, but it is readily apparent how different the two Texas teams are in their approach to the game.

On one side of the state, you have a team with clear leaders who have more fun than any other tandem in the game, but who still step up when it’s time to face adversity, who know when to embrace the younger players and when to scold them, and who play the game in a fashion that has their teammates working hard to avoid disappointing them.  

On the other side is a clubhouse that often finds themselves in some form of turmoil, with infighting and disparaging quotes, a player negotiating process that is called “dehumanizing”, blocked trades, veterans criticizing rookie contracts, starting pitchers arguing with the manager and starting dugout dustups, and a general manager who, according to the player’s association via Yahoo Sports “wants to set baseball back 50 years”.

As a player, which side of the state would you choose?  Which clubhouse?  Which culture?  

The answer seems obvious.

While it drives many old school fans absolutely insane, the fun aura that surrounds this Texas Rangers team starts with the antics of Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus and trickles down throughout the organization, providing each player with not only a good time on the baseball field, but also role models for achievement, and someone that they never want to let down.  Add that in with Jeff Banister’s “never ever quit” mantra, and you can quickly see why a player seeking a baseball rebirth is blessed to put on a Texas Rangers uniform.  

Just ask Ian Desmond.

Or AJ Griffin.

Or even better; ask either Delino DeShields or Carlos Gomez about the culture change they experienced by moving worlds away in just a 250 mile trip.  

Carlos has quickly gone from a reclamation project after being pulled from a scrap heap to the man who sets the table for the Texas lineup, batting leadoff and rediscovering himself as a confident, and more importantly, happy player.  

“When you have people that believe in you and give you the opportunity and look at you like you’re going to have a good game ... there’s good chemistry in this clubhouse and I’m really happy,” Gomez told Stefan Stevenson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (by the way, if you do not follow Stefan during Rangers’ games, you are missing out. Solid insight with a bit of humor @StevensonFWST).

The man is happy.  Baseball is fun again.  Gomez said in a post-game interview earlier this week about how amazing it is to play on a team where every player arrives at the clubhouse at noon every day, three hours prior to the required time, because they have so much fun together and love the game.  

Here is the thing that I have come to realize about baseball, and it seems as if Carlos might be reaching this point as well; no matter at what point you are in the game, as a professional, as an amateur, as a student, as a coach, as a member of the media, or as a fan, it is still just a game.

Baseball is meant to be fun, and without that fun, it becomes meaningless, it becomes a job, it becomes a nuisance, it becomes something that we get so worked up over, arguing with each other, being mad online, pulling out our hair and yelling at those who are playing it or those who disagree with our thoughts about it.  

In all reality, it’s not that serious.  

Baseball is fun.  

The 2016 Texas Rangers are fun.

Carlos Gomez has realized this and the quality of his baseball life has increased exponentially.  Maybe it’s time many of us do the same.