Two weeks ago the Texas Rangers seemed likely to be shot down by the Houston Astros. A 3-13 slide had cut the Rangers’ lead in the American League West to 2 ½ games. Their bullpen was wobbly on the front end, and their starting rotation was mangled – a devastating combination. They were getting blown out of games after they’d barely begun.
All the news about that ball club was bad news, with the possible exception of Prince Fielder being out for the season. He underwent neck surgery after his 8-homer first half and sending out an unsettling tweet about an unnamed acquaintance – possibly a Ranger, he didn’t say — being a “Douchebag.”
Unproductive as he was, Fielder was still their everyday designated hitter, which tells you there were lineup holes elsewhere.
The conventional thinking was the Rangers would leave the lineup as it was and plunder their farm to acquire a front-line starting pitcher who could make up for deficiencies elsewhere. They joined the global market for Chris Sale, the overpowering, if overly sensitive, lefty of the Chicago White Sox.
But instead, in the final two weeks of Major League Baseball’s trading period, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels gained power, catching, relief pitchers and veteran leadership, while giving up none of his big-leaguers or his most treasured farm holdings.
From Milwaukee he brought in All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy and closing pitcher Jeremy Jeffress, and from the New York Yankees came a likely Hall of Famer, Carlos Beltran, still a power plant at 39, and more than ever a leader in the clubhouse.
A week before those deadline maneuvers, Daniels had dealt with the middle-relief issue by acquiring 27-year-old lefty Dario Alvarez from the Atlanta Braves. He has a 3.00 ERA in 17 games this year. In that same transaction Daniels gained a useful right-hander, Lucas Harrell, who has a 3.57 ERA in six starts.
In Monday’s most hectic deadline day since 1995, the big-league teams made 18 trades.
The New York Mets were the biggest winners in the National League, snatching 29-year-old Cincinnati right fielder Jay Bruce, the league’s leading run scorer. Maybe too late. The Mets have fallen seven games behind the Washington Nationals in the NL East, but Bruce makes them a wild-card force, at least.
Back to the American League, the Rangers turned their team around, while the Astros did nothing significant to improve their position., They seem resigned to hanging six games back of their Lone Star rivals, with more gap likely.
Reflecting on the trade whirlwind, Daniels admitted that his “biggest need was starting pitching.” But he said, “The fit just wasn’t there. There weren’t a lot of starters available. . . . You want starting pitching, but it’s easier to collect hitters.”
The White Sox wanted too many arms and too many legs for Sale. The Rangers would have to give up one of their own starting pitchers as well as their best hitting prospect, Joey Gallo, and more.
In their trades with Milwaukee, New York and Atlanta, the Rangers parted with four first-round draft picks: outfielder Lewis Brinson, second baseman Travis Demeritte and pitchers Luis Ortiz and Dillon Tate. Daniels also shipped minor-league pitchers Eric Swanson and Nick Green.
But as one American League scout put it: “The Rangers gave up first-round picks who haven’t lived up to expectations, except for Demeritte, and there’s always concern when a 21-year-old kid has a PED on his record.”
So the Rangers have remade their ball club without mortgaging much of their future. Their lineup glitters with young, rising stars in Ian Desmond, Jurickson Profar, Nomar Mazara and the unfortunately named Rougned Odor, who is 22 and just hit his 20th homer of the season.
Now they have veteran leadership in Lucroy and Beltran. Lucroy at 30 isn’t quite as agile behind the plate as he once was, but he’s still a fine receiver, and he’s throwing out 38 percent of the base stealers.
The only troubling issue remains the starting rotation, which is strong when healthy. Cole Hamels is an elite starter (12-2, 2.84 ERA) who’s durable, but the next in line, Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland, are off and on disability.
Darvish is 6-foot-5 and throws what may be the game’s snappiest slider. But he’s gingerly making his way back from elbow surgery. He’s pitched well — no more than three runs allowed in any of his six starts. But he has yet to reach the seventh inning. The fact that Darvish has 45 strikeouts in 32 innings suggests he’s not far from his old self, though with Tommy John the aftermath drama can linger indefinitely. See Matt Harvey.
Lewis was having a fine season (6-1, 3.21) before a lat strain, but he’s expected to be fully recovered within three weeks. That’s about the same recovery time anticipated for Holland, suffering from shoulder inflammation. Holland is 29, was 38-21 in a three-year span (2011-2013) but has been interrupted by injuries since.
Harrell should be an adequate fill-in starter, and Martin Perez has had 14 quality starts – same as Hamels.
Manager Jeff Bannister can go earlier to the bullpen with Alvarez bringing left-handed middle relief and Jeffress (27 saves, 2.22 ERA for the Brewers) now setting up closer Sam Dyson.
The Rangers’ main competition for a World Series berth is Cleveland, the latest city of champions. Some irony here: The Indians worked out a deal for Lucroy before Daniels did, but the player exercised his contractual right to veto a move to Cleveland.
Still, the Indians, leading the AL Central, helped themselves by acquiring reliever Andrew Miller, who was posting stunning numbers with the Yankees: 1.39 ERA, 77 strikeouts in 45 innings. He fills the team’s primary need, a left-handed reliever.
The Indians are five-deep in quality starting pitchers, which might make them a more solid bet than the Rangers. But Cleveland’s ace, Danny Salazar, has a sore elbow. He went to the 15-day DL on Tuesday.
In the end, it may turn out that Daniels had the right idea, loading up on hitters and relief pitchers, rather than counting on two or three high-salaried starting pitchers to stay healthy and carry the team.
Alan Truex formerly covered Major League Baseball for the Atlanta Journal and Houston Chronicle.