It wasn't supposed to be this way. The 2018 Texas Rangers were supposed to be fringe contenders, hanging on to probably false wild card hope until mid-August or early September. They weren't going to make the playoffs, but they weren't going to be that bad, either.
Instead, it has been this way. The Rangers have been terrible. They've spent zero days in 2018 above .500 and exactly one day, March 30, at .500. They haven't been in sniffing distance of fourth place in the American League West, much less the division lead, since May. They are locked in the cellar. That doesn't mean the team won't play any more meaningful games in 2018, however. In fact, tonight's game in Baltimore could be the biggest one left on the slate.
The outcome of Friday night's game isn't the important thing. In fact, as is the case for the rest of the season, the Rangers will be better off if they lose, thanks to the way Major League Baseball allocates draft picks. Instead, it's the performance of a single Rangers player, starting pitcher Cole Hamels, that makes Friday night such a big deal.
If the Rangers are to get anything out of what is already a lost season, it will come either from next year's draft or from the bounty the team can acquire at the trade deadline later this month. Several big-name Rangers will be on the block, including future Hall of Fame third baseman Adrian Beltre, Keone Kela and Jake Diekman, but the player who could bring back the biggest haul is Hamels.
While Hamels hasn't been at the top of his game in 2018 — he sports an unsightly 4-8 record and a 4.28 ERA — he has the big-game pedigree and low price tag to attract a number of suitors in a thin trade market for starting pitching. In addition to prospects, all a team trading for Hamels would have to give up is whatever portion of his $20 million 2018 salary the Rangers choose not to pay, as well as his 2019 buyout. Next year, his $20 million salary can be canceled for $6 million, making him a free agent. No long-term commitment required.
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As he makes his last start before next week's All-Star break, it's imperative that Hamels give teams something to think about as they hunker down to prepare for the second half of the year. If he can muster a performance like he did before being traded to the Rangers in 2015 — Hamels threw a no-hitter during his last start with the Phillies — he could earn the Rangers important leverage as they seek to get a deal during the next couple of weeks.
If Hamels follows the path blazed by Yu Darvish in 2017 — the erstwhile Rangers ace gave up a career high 10 runs in his last start with the team before being traded — he could end up hamstringing a move to a contender that would benefit both him and the Rangers.
Despite giving up a career high 1.8 home runs per nine innings in 2018, Hamels has shown flashes of his old self, especially when pitching away from home, where he's given up more than two earned runs only twice in 2018. As recently as June 19, he twirled seven one-run innings against the Royals. He also gave up seven runs to the Tigers in less than an inning Saturday. Whichever Hamels shows up, it's going to be an exciting night for the Rangers. Let's just hope it's the good kind of exciting.