With the baseball season at the symbolic halfway point, we asked former Unfair Parker Sam Merten to root around in his beard and see if he could come up with anything to say. He obliged ... and obliged ... and ...
Sports are unpredictable. That's why we watch. And there's no greater evidence than the first half of this year's baseball season.
Imagine, if you will, what you would have said at the beginning of the year had I told you 37-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who posted a dreadful 5.72 ERA with the Rangers from 2001 through 2006, would be an All-Star and among the best pitchers in either league, while, despite no apparent injury, two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum would be among the worst. Or had I told you the Detroit Tigers would be in third place in the weak AL Central and the Philadelphia Phillies would be 14 games back in the NL East, while the Pittsburgh Pirates would be atop the NL Central.
Better yet: How devastated would you have been if I told you Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando and Mitch Moreland would all spend time on the disabled list; Yu Darvish would be third in the AL in walks allowed; and Michael Young would be on his way to his worst season since 2002?
Of course, that devastation would have been quickly erased when I casually mentioned that Texas would be tied with the New York Yankees for the most wins in the majors (52), with a four-game lead in the AL West over the Angels.
So, yes, it's been a crazy year. When so many things seemingly go so wrong, yet things are ultimately turn out so right, it's hard to get a feel for what to expect in the second half. But before I attempt to do just that, let's talk more about what we've already seen from the back-to-back AL champs and their AL West counterparts. Next: breaking down the lineup. Lineup
Back in March, there's no doubt that the most intriguing storyline for the Rangers offensively was who would play center field. As I speculated before spring training, Craig Gentry has spent the most time there, but I certainly didn't expect him to play this well (.396 OBP), and I doubt anyone else did either. History indicates that his numbers aren't sustainable, but Gentry's lefty-righty and home-road splits are encouraging, since he's not experiencing lopsided success in either situation.
Josh Hamilton has inevitably cooled off after a couple of Barry Bonds-like months in April and May, including a four-homer game. But he still had the best overall first half of any AL hitter (.308 BA, 27 HR, 75 RBI). (I still expect and hope that Texas will balk at his asking price this offseason, based on the injury and substance-abuse risks involved, along with his lack of patience at the plate [although that has surprisingly improved lately] and alarming propensity to swing and miss [often times resulting in his bat flying recklessly into the stands].)
Despite the team ranking at or near the top of MLB in several offensive categories, only Hamilton and Adrian Beltre are having big years at the dish. Sure, Mike Napoli, Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus are in Kansas City tonight as well, but there are strong arguments for A.J. Pierzynski, Jason Kipnis and Alcides Escobar as better selections.
The season-long slump by Young, Moreland's hamstring injury and inconsistency of Napoli and Cruz have provided a lot of uncertainty after the cleanup spot in the order. If Texas is going to keep its distance from LA, at least a couple of those players need heat up in the second half.
Next: the rotation breakdown
After his fantastic second half last year and historic performance in Game 4 of the World Series, I thought Derek Holland just might emerge as a bona fide No. 2 starter this year. That hasn't happened, and sadly there are no signs that he'll be returning to that dominant form anytime soon.
Fellow lefty Matt Harrison (11-4, 3.10 ERA, 1.24 WHIP) has been the team's best starter so far. With the exception of back-to-back rough outings in late April and early May, he has been the one looking like a legit No. 2 and should be in line for a Holland-like contract extension in the offseason.
Prior to their injuries, Lewis and Feliz pitched well. Feliz never looked particularly dominant, though, in any of his starts, and I hope he finds his way back to the bullpen, especially since I thought he should have stayed there in the first place. Their injuries allowed us to get unexpected sneak peeks of Justin Grimm and Martin Perez in the bigs, and although Perez is expected to be sent back down to the minors once everyone returns to health, there's a remote chance he steals the No. 5 spot from Roy Oswalt if the Rangers oust him from the rotation and put Feliz in the pen.
We've seen just four starts by Oswalt, and he's been solid in two (13.1 IP, 2 ER, 14 H) and terrible in the other two (10.2 IP, 14 ER, 26 H). The Rangers need to see more before determining whether he should stay in the rotation, but even if he proves to be too inconsistent, like I said when he was signed, Texas wasn't expecting him to be a top-of-the-rotation starter and knew it was a crapshoot.
That leaves us with Yu Darvish.
After watching his 16 starts closely and digging up virtually all the statistical information I could gather, I'm already convinced he's worth the $100 million-plus investment. (Unfortunate side note: ESPN's Buster Olney reported last week that Texas outbid all other teams for Darvish's negotiating rights by around 35 million bucks. If true, ouch.)
That's a bold statement for someone who spent the offseason detailing the risks involved with committing so much money to someone who hadn't thrown a pitch in MLB, but the 25-year-old has been as advertised.
He's not an ace yet, but he's on his way, even though his stats might suggest that he has been about as effective as former Rangers prospect Edinson Volquez, who was dealt to the Reds for Josh Hamilton and is now with the Padres. Hard to believe, I know, but their stats are almost identical.
Darvish: 3.59 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 102.2 IP, 117 K, 87 H, 53 BB
Volquez: 3.52 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 107.1 IP, 98 K, 85 H, 63 BB
The point here is that it would be foolish to judge Darvish solely on traditional stats.Once we dig a little deeper, there's plenty to be excited about.
Darvish's Achilles has undoubtedly been his walk rate. When he starts an opposing hitter with a ball, Darvish ends up walking them 21 percent of the time. And when the count is full, the batter ends up walking 46 percent of the time.
While that doesn't sound like anything to be giddy about, it's hard for me to believe that those percentages won't drop as Darvish continues to familiarize himself with opposing hitters and umpires, especially considering his performance in Japan, where he walked 17 fewer batters in 2011 (232 IP) than he already has in a half-season in America. The Japanese strike zone is known to be a little tighter than the one here. Darvish has proved he can duplicate his strikeout rate, and I believe he can cut down his walk rate considerably. I can't pinpoint exactly why he hasn't been able to do so already, but my guess is it's a combination of nerves, tweaking his delivery, adjusting to a new culture, aiming at times instead of throwing and, as I mentioned before, getting to know a pool of new hitters and umpires. No matter the reason, I'm sure it's nothing Mike Maddux can't solve.
Darvish has shown an impressive array of pitches and clearly has the stuff to become a true No. 1 starter, as he has shown in five starts this year (April 24 and 30, May 16, June 15 and 20). Perhaps most encouraging, he's proven that he can bear down when he gets in a jam, as opposing batters have just a .194 BA and .552 OPS in 129 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.
He's already an All-Star and on a path to superstardom. The only thing that might derail Darvish is the Texas heat. (Ten of his starts have been in 75-degree weather or cooler; five have been in the 80s; and only one has been above 90 -- 103 against Detroit on July 26.)
Next: breaking down the bullpen. Bullpen
The market was flooded with closers in the offseason. So when Texas pounced early on 37-year-old Joe Nathan, who had yet to reestablish himself as a top reliever after missing all of 2010 and part of '11 recovering from Tommy John surgery, signing him to a two-year, $14.75 million deal was a bit of a head-scratcher at the time. Not a stupid move, mind you, just a little puzzling.
On paper at least, Ryan Madson was the better choice. And when he inked a one-year, $8.5 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds, it looked like the Rangers missed out on a better player for less dough and a shorter commitment.
Andrew Bailey also seemed like a more preferable option. And when the Boston Red Sox landed him in a trade with the Oakland A's, it appeared as though the Rangers had once again missed out on a better, younger and cheaper player.
And then there was Heath Bell, who had been courted by Texas but ultimately inked with the Miami Marlins.
Of course, Madson had Tommy John surgery and is out for the year; Bailey hurt his thumb and hasn't pitched all season; and Bell has been a disaster in Miami. Meanwhile, with the exception of a few early season hiccups, Nathan has been spectacular and earned a trip to tonight's All-Star Game.
No one could have predicted the fates of all four closers, but it represents another feather in the cap of general manager Jon Daniels and his staff. Whatever this front office touches, it turns to gold more often than not. (Heck, even trading John Danks for Brandon McCarthy has turned into a win for Texas, although McCarthy has obviously found success elsewhere.)
Along with Nathan, another big question for the Rangers headed into spring training was who would be the southpaw in the bullpen after Darren Oliver and Mike Gonzalez bolted to Toronto and Washington, respectively. I mentioned then-minor league starter Robbie Ross as a possibility but would have never imagined he'd emerge as a borderline All-Star (6-0, 0.95 ERA, 0.93 WHIP) so quickly. In fact, I now expect him to nab Colby Lewis' rotation spot next year if Lewis isn't re-signed.
When Alexi Ogando and Mark Lowe return from the DL, there shouldn't be a need for Daniels to deal for any bullpen help at the deadline, especially if Neftali Feliz is moved back to the 'pen when he returns from the DL (although the Rangers claim he'll go back into the rotation and will be stretching him out as a starter during his rehab). A potential bullpen of Nathan, Ogando, Adams, Feliz, Ross, Lowe and Uehara would be tough to improve upon.
Next: the competition. The competition
At the end of April, the Angels were just 8-15 and already nine games back of Texas, while free-agent prize Albert Pujols battled a historic slump (.197 BA, 1 HR and 12 RBI in his first 35 games). Then, not only did Pujols return to form (.323 BA, 13 HR and 39 RBI in his next 50 games) but Mark Trumbo developed into an All-Star, and 20-year-old center fielder Mike Trout established himself as the frontrunner for both the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. All of which helps ease the pain of paying Vernon Wells $21 million this year -- and another $21 million in both 2013 and '14.
On the mound, Jeff Weaver continues to be one of the best pitchers in the game; C.J. Wilson earned a second-straight All-Star nod (although a blister will keep him out of the game); and Ernesto Frieri, who was acquired in a trade with the Padres in May for Alexi Amarista, has been one of the best relievers in baseball.
It's hard to imagine a scenario where the Angels don't at least secure one of the two wild card spots. And if Dan Haren (currently on the DL) and Ervin Santana are able to turn their seasons around and the club adds a piece or two at the trade deadline, the race for the AL West title could last until game No. 162.
Next: second-half expectations. Second-half expectations
The Rangers made up for a .500 record (13-13) against the AL West with an MLB-best 14-4 record in interleague play. With no games remaining against NL clubs, Texas simply must do better against its division rivals to capture the West title again.
Texas begins the second half with an eight-game road trip to Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim and plays its final 19 games against those same teams. The Rangers can afford to go 7-6 or even 6-7 in their 13 match-ups with the Angels, but only if they take care of business against the Mariners and A's.
Even if they don't make a significant move before the July 31 trade deadline, the Rangers should hang on to win the West, with Holland back from the DL, Lewis, Ogando and Feliz on the mend and bats like Napoli poised to heat up.
However, the bar has been raised. Winning the West won't be enough. Anything less than a third-straight World Series appearance will be a letdown, and with good reason. The Rangers should be a great team well into the future, but with Hamilton, Napoli, Lewis, Adams and Lowe scheduled to hit free agency in the fall, the time to win it all is now.
That's why Jon Daniels has to be aggressive at the deadline.
Texas needs an ace, and there are two free-agents-to-be that fit that description: Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke. And with the Phillies and Brewers out of playoff contention, both 28-year-olds are expected to be available for the right price.
Adding either pitcher would significantly boost the rotation, much like the Cliff Lee acquisition in 2010. However, unlike when Lee chose to go back to Philly in the following offseason, the Rangers wouldn't recoup draft-pick compensation under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement if Hamels or Greinke aren't re-signed.
Already having committed more than $100 million to Yu Darvish and with a group of pending in-house free agents, the Rangers are unlikely to sign either player in the offseason (nor should they), but that shouldn't stop them from boosting the rotation for another postseason run.
Texas will have to surrender some great prospects at the risk of having nothing to show for it in 2013, but the chance to have a Hamels-Darvish-Harrison-Lewis-Holland or Greinke-Harrison-Darvish-Lewis-Holland rotation is too good an opportunity to pass up.
I could spend a lot of time comparing the two, but no matter how you dissect them, Hamels is the better option. The biggest difference? Experience and performance in the playoffs.
The price will still be high, however, and if the Phillies show some life before the deadline, Hamels might not be available. (But losing 10 of 11 before the break will be nearly impossible to overcome.)
Assuming Hamels is put on the market, Mike Olt would be the headliner to any deal with Texas. Philadelphia has let it be known that it seeks a young third baseman, preferably one with strong defense and plus power, and few prospects fit that description better than Olt. That also makes it that much harder to part with him, but with Adrian Beltre manning the hot corner in Arlington through 2015 and likely until the end of 2016, Olt's expendable.
Olt and a couple other B-plus-type prospects should get the deal done. If not, as hard as it would be, I'd swallow my pride and offer Olt and Martin Perez. Obviously, both are great young players, but they are likely at least a couple years from making a significant contribution in the big leagues.
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It's reasonable to believe Texas could stay silent and conceivably win it all with the roster as-is, but don't the Rangers owe it to their fans to improve if they can? After all, the team has raked in the postseason dough the past couple years and is shattering franchise attendance records, averaging 43,600 fans at each game with a record 27 sellouts.
This is not the time to cling to prospects that may or may not develop into Hall-of-Famers, or even serviceable big leaguers, for that matter. Mike Olt might be the next Mike Schmidt, but history suggests he's much more likely to become Ruben Mateo.
Simply put, Hamels makes a great team even better. All the Rangers need to do is go out and get him.
Follow Sam on Twitter @SamMerten.