Rangers' Biggest Early Season Surprises and Disappointments
The Rangers' 2014 season is off to a pretty rough start. There a few things going right for the team, but many, more serious things going wrong. As a result, they are 6-7 after their first 13 contests.
As banged up as Texas was coming out of spring training, it wasn't realistic to expect them to be much better than that in the season's first two weeks. An extremely optimistic prediction for them might have been 8-5.
Between everything that's going wrong—spotty pitching in the rotation and more so in the bullpen, more key players heading to the DL, the offense sputtering and playing a relatively tough schedule in the first couple weeks—the Rangers might be lucky to be 6-7.
The goal for them is to just survive April without getting buried in the division. The cavalry is on the way, with reinforcements returning to the lineup, rotation and pen by mid June, when Texas should be at full strength.
With all that said, here are some of the Rangers' biggest early season surprises and disappointments. I'll start with the disappointments and move into the surprises in the second half of the slideshow.
**All stats courtesy of Baseball-reference.com
Right now, the Rangers are losing the Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler trade big time. In 53 trips to the plate, Fielder is carrying an anemic line of .149/.245/.191, with no homers and just three RBI.
I can't remember the last time Fielder didn't hit a homer over a stretch of 53 at-bats. It must have been in high school, because it hasn't happened much since 2006.
And no, I didn't accidentally punch "1" on my keyboard instead of "2". That line is correct as written.
That's .149, folks.
Now let's be fair to the man—it is still early and he will get better. He just may not be the 40 home runs, 120 RBI hitter Rangers fans wanted him to be after his move to Arlington. The silver lining here: Fielder has just six strikeouts in those 53 plate appearances and has also walked six times.
In other words, he's not barreling up the ball but he's making contact, however strong it is. I'd be far more concerned if he were striking out more. It's only a matter of time before Fielder starts to pick it up.
If Fielder isn't producing at the same time that Adrian Beltre is either struggling or hurt, this offense will fall apart until those two turn it around. The Rangers lineup is built around leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus getting on base, and these big boys driving them in. The bottom half of the order is probably average by league standards.
While Beltre is out, Fielder's bat is silenced quickly by a lack of protection. That in turn serves to minimize Choo's on-base ability.
Beltre on the DL
It's very difficult—almost impossible—to make a convincing argument that anyone else in the Ranger lineup is the true centerpiece of the offense.
He just turned 35, but make no mistake: Beltre is the heart and soul of the lineup. He will be relied upon to produce another .300-plus season with around 30 homers and 100 RBI.
According to Richard Durrett of ESPNDallas.com, the Rangers placed Beltre on the 15-day DL, retroactive to April 9, with a Grade 1 quad strain.
In typical Beltre fashion, he was openly unhappy with the team's decision. Normally, manager Ron Washington practically has to threaten his star third baseman into taking an off day. But as Durrett notes, the club is wise to not take any chances this early in the season. There are just too many games left.
Without a healthy Beltre, though, there are all kinds of issues that trickle down the lineup. The Rangers need him playing more than any one other player they have, with the exception of Yu Darvish.
When he returns at the end of the month, expect to see the usual Beltre collecting clutch hits and driving in key runs.
Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross as Starters
Considering how rocky this young season has been so far, it's tempting to be a real "Negative Nancy" by just throwing the entire Ranger rotation under a big, fat disappointment label.
But let's give credit where credit is due. Darvish has been phenomenal with minimal—as usual—run support. Martin Perez has also been terrific and has started his campaign 2-0, including six solid innings at Fenway Park.
It wasn't rational to expect Joe Saunders to allow fewer than four or five runs at best in Tampa on April 4. So for the purpose of this discussion, I'm not even including him as an individual letdown.
No. What is really hurting the Rangers' rotation are the Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross experiments.
Scheppers has made three starts this year, and none of them has been even decent. In 16 innings, he's given up 21 hits while stumbling to a 7.88 ERA and a 1.625 WHIP.
He's had moments—the first innings of a couple of his starts and the first four innings of the game against Houston on Saturday—but he hasn't been able to pitch well for more than a few outs at a time. Consistency and over-reliance on his sinking fastball are issues after his first three starts.
Don't let Ross' 1.74 ERA fool you: He hasn't pitched quite that well. He's having major control issues and has walked eight batters in his 10.1 innings over two starts. Six of those free passes came in his second start at Fenway.
Ross is under a hit per inning, but he's been able to get out of several sticky situations thanks to some timely and sparkling defense behind him.
Strong performances from Darvish and Perez is a pretty safe bet at this point. But Texas needs at least one of either Ross or Scheppers to start pitching significantly better. Ross has been the more effective pitcher, but both he and Scheppers need to throw more strikes and get deeper into games.
Swiss Cheese Bullpen
Continuing right along with the domino effect: The Texas bullpen has been atrocious so far.
Granted, things probably wouldn't be so bad if Scheppers and Ross weren't forced into the rotation because of all the injuries. Still, the pen has to start getting more outs to help give a struggling offense a better chance to take leads late in the game, or just tie the game.
Here's the current situation.
Combined, the bullpen has a 5.32 ERA and has surrendered 42 hits in 39.2 innings of relief. The only relievers who have really held things together each time out have been Jason Frasor and newly acquired Hector Noesi, who allowed one hit and struck out two in 2.1 innings of work against Seattle on Monday night.
Closer Joakim Soria has been knocked around, as has 2013 sensation Neal Cotts. Alexi Ogando has been average at best.
Everyone else has been awfully spotty. Here again, it's about getting the train back on track, starting with the engine. That's getting Matt Harrison and Derek Holland back into the rotation, moving Scheppers and Ross back into the pen and dispensing of the guys who probably should not be in this pen, like Pedro Figueroa, Shawn Tolleson and maybe Seth Rosin.
Just like everywhere else, things will eventually shore up in the Rangers bullpen. But for now, Texas may just have to roll the dice any given night and get what it gets from this group.
Now on to the surprises. Spoiler alert: There aren't many.
Josh Wilson and Donnie Murphy
Many Ranger fans automatically assumed that a replacement-level middle infield platoon of Josh Wilson and Donnie Murphy would be sure outs in the lineup.
They haven't been fantastic, but they have been better than "replacement-level."
Together, the two utility men have a line of .282/.323/.363 with seven RBI. That's almost one-sixth of Texas' total offensive production. Now that's surprising.
Wilson has been a nice find. He's handling the bat well with a .333 average but is also playing A-plus defense at short and second. Murphy is a slightly better offensive player with a little more pop, but he has also handled the glove pretty nicely.
Between these two, the Rangers are probably not lacking as much as some think without Profar. Sure, the club could use Profar's switch-hitting ability for matchups as well as his stronger overall offensive prowess, but Murphy and Wilson are doing a respectable job.
You just had a feeling that Kouzmanoff would prove to be useful at some point this season, right? After all, he had way too strong of a spring to be completely ignored all year.
Well he sure got his chance with Beltre being out until at least April 25.
So far, Kouzmanoff has carried his impressive spring right over into the games that matter. He's got a .417/.533/.500 line and an RBI to his credit. He likely won't turn into a steady run producer but if he can give the Rangers tough at-bats and play serviceable defense at third, they'll survive a couple of weeks until Beltre returns.
Once Beltre returns, it would be wise for the Rangers to send Michael Choice down to Triple-A to get as many at-bats as possible. Kouzmanoff is equally capable of coming off the bench as a right-handed DH, pinch hitter or just to give Beltre an occasional day off in the field.
Nick Martinez's Major League Debut
I've mentioned this in a previous article, but Nick Martinez's start against the Rays in Tampa Bay on April 5 was a wonderful revelation for the Rangers. Even more so now with the current state of the rotation and pitching in general.
Martinez threw six innings that night and allowed four hits and three runs. He struck out three and walked three, while giving up two homers.
But the most impressive part of his start that night was his composure. He went into that road start against the team that was leading the AL in runs at the time, and he brushed off both homers to keep the Rangers in the lead after his six strong frames.
There's something to be said about one memorable start on April 5 being one of the major positives of the season so far. But that's the way it's gone for the Rangers after 13 games.
It's a long season. So sit down, buckle up, and weather the early storms. Sunny skies are almost certainly on the way. Things can't really get much worse right now.