The Rangers crushed the Athletics last night, 10-1, to break a tie atop the AL West. We’re just 20 percent through the season, and plenty can change as the weather gets warmer. The Angels probably won’t play .417 ball for the rest of the season, just like the Mariners, despite a shaky offense, probably won’t finish the season 64-98. Their slow starts have set them back considerably, though. That becomes magnified when we look at the Rangers, a team that has done an excellent job of making minor adjustments.
The Rangers planned to start the season with Taylor Teagarden and Jarrod Saltalamacchia splitting time behind the plate, but an early injury to Salty, among other issues, have kept him at AAA so far. He’s killing it there, and we’ll get to him in a moment. That opened an opportunity for Teagarden, but he did not seize it. Even though his major league season has consisted of just 33 PA, it was clear during that time that something just isn’t working. Teagarden recorded just one hit and four walks in that span while striking out 17 times. He was demoted to AAA, where he, no joke, has a .205 OPS. He hasn’t played since Saturday, and was recently sent to AA so he can get actual playing time.
The Rangers have responded by introducing a new catching tandem, Matt Treanor and Max Ramirez. Treanor is no great shakes, a 34-year-old who found himself as the best among poor options. His .278 wOBA would look bad under most circumstances, but considering the numbers Teagarden posted the Rangers will take it at this point. Ramirez represents the more intriguing option, though he has only played in five games since his recall in late April. Marc Hulet ranked him the 10th best Rangers prospect, a high accolade given the strength of their system. He’s gotten on base in half of his 16 PA, and while that’s clearly not sustainable it is a nice break from the disappointing performances Texas has received from its other catching prospects.
While the makeshift tandem Texas has employed during the next few weeks represents a quality adjustment to early season letdowns, they have some more work to do here. Their catchers currently rank 11th in the AL with a .271 wOBA. Saltalamacchia factors prominently into the Rangers’ catching future. He’s destroying AAA, but as Joey from Baseball Time in Arlington notes, he’s still having trouble throwing the ball…back to the pitcher. His .343/.400/.552 line makes him a prime candidate for promotion, but if he’s pulling a Rube Baker behind the plate, well, let’s just say I’m not sure a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog will necessarily get him back on track.
Chris Davis has shown plenty of promise. Since his professional debut in 2006 he has forced a promotion at every level. He has never posted a wOBA of below .383 at any minor league level, and in 2008 so consummately dominated AA and AAA that the Rangers had little choice but to promote him. In 317 major league PA that year he posted a .371 wOBA thanks to a hefty .264 ISO, though a lot had to do with his .351 BABIP, a rate he probably couldn’t sustain in the majors.
Since then, though, his strikeouts have become an issue. He struck out in 29.8 percent of his 2008 PA, but saw that number skyrocket to 38.4 percent last year. In his 53 PA this season he has struck out 35.4 percent of the time. Those numbers would look a lot better if his wOBA crossed even the .320 mark, but it did not. After an 0 for 3 with two strikeout performance on April 22, the Rangers swapped him for highly regarded prospect Justin Smoak.
Despite a poor batting average, just .194, Smoak has outproduced Davis so far. His walk rate sits at an encouraging 16 percent, and seven of his 12 hits have gone for extra bases. His line drive rate, 25 percent, doesn’t quite match up with his .167 BABIP, and I’m sure we’ll see a correction on that front soon enough. It won’t be long, I don’t think, until the Rangers seek trade partners for Davis.
In some ways, the Rangers got a bit lucky. Surely they signed Colby Lewis with the expectation that he’d be a solid middle of the rotation arm, but so far he’s pitched like someone heading a staff. His 3.15 ERA matches up well with his 3.33 FIP and 3.71 xFIP. C.J. Wilson has been even more impressive, a 1.51 ERA with a 3.13 FIP. He’s allowed no home runs so far, but there’s a reason for that. Opposing hitters have put more than half of their balls in play on the ground.
With Rich Harden rounding into form during his last few starts, the Rangers have just a couple of rotation disappointments. First is Scott Feldman, who remains in the rotation. A few more walks, a few more homers, and a few more fly balls have been the biggest difference between his 2009 campaign and the opening to the 2010 season. Both his FIP and xFIP sit below his ERA, so maybe he’ll come around. But I doubt he’ll be much more than a fourth starter. Which is fine for a staff with the Rangers potential.
The other disappointment comes from Matt Harrison, who recently hit the DL. His 5.29 ERA matches up decently with his 5.59 FIP, though sits a bit above his 4.82 xFIP. His absence might cost him a rotation spot, as the Rangers have replaced him with Derek Holland. After a rough initial run through the majors last season, Holland simply dominated AAA in his six starts. He was the obvious replacement for Harrison and answered the bell, pitching six shutout innings last night, striking out seven (to one walk) and inducing eight ground balls. If Holland is poised to fulfill his potential this year, the Rangers will have quite a formidable staff.
The Rangers currently boast one of the better bullpens in the league, so there hasn’t been too large a need for an adjustment. They took care of one early, though, in demoting Frank Francisco from the closer role in favor of Neftali Feliz. Feliz hasn’t been perfect in the role, but Francisco suffered quite a few meltdowns earlier in the year. The change, as we predicted on FanGraphs Audio, happened fairly early. It appears to have been the right one, the question of Feliz as a starter or reliever notwithstanding.
The Rangers have done a good job of quickly addressing problem areas. In a way, the players forced the issue. Teagarden and Davis hit so poorly that the Rangers had little choice but to demote them. Holland likely wouldn’t have seen the majors just yet if not for Harrison’s injury, though a few more poor starts might caused the Rangers to act.
Right now, things seem to be going well enough. Since they snapped a six-game losing streak they’re 14-6 and have outscored opponents 105-82. They could still use better production out of the catcher spot, which could come from Saltalamacchia once he works out his throwing issues. With the makings of a strong rotation, solid bullpen, and an above average lineup the Rangers could start to run away with the AL West. If they do, it will largely because of the on the fly adjustments they’ve made early in the season.
Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.