Maybe the problem is on our end. Maybe the problem is the increasingly unrealistic expectation of health, establishing a psychological baseline no longer supported by the modern game. In this game, pitchers get hurt, and while pitchers have always gotten hurt, because pitching is a dangerous thing, the sense is things are getting worse, and we have to adjust to what that means. Maybe we just need to mentally brace ourselves for the seemingly inevitable blows. Last season, the elbow robbed us of Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez, among so many others. Already this season, we came in nervous about Masahiro Tanaka, and now the elbow might have claimed Yu Darvish and Cliff Lee.
The two have different injuries. Darvish has a slight tear of the UCL, and the overwhelming likelihood is Tommy John surgery that’ll knock him out until into next season. Lee doesn’t seem to have a UCL problem, but he still might have a UCL problem, and even if he doesn’t, he’s dealing with the same discomfort that forced him to be shut down last summer, and if Lee requires a surgical fix, the estimate is a recovery of 6-8 months. Darvish might try to pitch through, but we know how that usually goes. Lee might try to pitch through, but in the best-case scenario, that means pitching through pain. We might not see Darvish until the middle of 2016. We might not see Lee ever again on a major-league mound. It’s too early to know anything for sure, except that the news of the last few days has changed the baseball landscape.
We have to start with one of them, so we might as well start with Lee. When Lee was hurting last summer, he was given a high chance of non-surgical recovery. It remains possible this will just prove to be the breaking up of some scar tissue, but the other possibilities are worse, and the Phillies are understandably alarmed. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that a major Lee injury wouldn’t cost the Phillies an excellent shot at a pennant, since, you know, but that’s like saying it’s okay that your car got totaled because your house burned down. A dark bigger picture is little consolation for a dark smaller picture, and every team wants to win. Maybe more importantly, in the Phillies’ case, every bad team wants to improve the future, and Lee’s now an extremely uncertain trade piece.
The Phillies were already looking at having to include some money, to get a return for a healthy Lee. This setback will deter all suitors, for at least a number of months. No longer is there any possibility of a deal in March, since no team knows what they’d be getting. If Lee gets moved, it’ll be for a reduced package in the middle of the summer. And the odds now are far lower than they were a week ago that Lee can get moved at all. This is probably just an evaporated trade asset.
It’s not quite fair to say this is a reminder of the risk of holding onto Cole Hamels. It’s kind of true, but Lee was already such a reminder when he got hurt last year, so this isn’t anything new. And Cliff Lee isn’t Cole Hamels, in large part because Cliff Lee is significantly older than Cole Hamels, so you’re talking about different risks. An interesting side effect, here, is definitely on the Hamels market. Lee was one of the Hamels alternatives. By probably removing Lee from the available and desirable pitcher pool, you drop the supply without touching demand, so now a team couldn’t call the Phillies and focus on the cheaper acquisition piece. Dave wrote a short while ago about how he might rather trade for Lee than Hamels. Now you couldn’t make the same argument.
Without Lee, the Phillies are bad, but the Phillies were going to be bad. This makes it that much more likely they finish the season with the worst record in baseball. The painful thing is that a healthy Cliff Lee is such an absolute pleasure to watch, and when he’s on the mound, he can genuinely make you forget about a team’s bigger-picture misery. Lee could’ve been one of those bright spots, before potentially moving on to a contender. That’s not totally out the window, but the odds are slim, and of maybe greater concern is whether Lee will decide to try to continue his career.
There’s some more certainty with Darvish. We know what the problem is. We know how the problem is usually fixed, and we know how long that knocks a player out. All that’s left to see is whether Darvish decides to go under the knife right away, or if he tries to manage this and go the rest-and-rehab approach. That hasn’t literally never worked, but it seldom works, and based on his quotes, Darvish sounds like he’s willing to miss a year if he needs to. Though Darvish still gets a few innings in our depth charts, I expect to shortly bump that down to 0.
This is a big deal, and it’s obvious why. Darvish is among the very best starting pitchers in baseball, and the Rangers don’t have another Darvish just hanging around, looking for a chance. It doesn’t get much more significant than going from Darvish to a sixth starter for a whole entire season, and whatever chances the Rangers had of contending in 2015, those’ve been slashed. Without Darvish, the Rangers are probably the worst team in the American League West.
And maybe they’re the worst team in the American League, period. We now have them projected for the worst record, with the worst division odds and with the worst overall playoff odds. And these depth charts still include Darvish for the equivalent of a month or so, just because we don’t know for sure that he’ll be out. Re-distribute those innings and the Rangers would look even worse. Before the Darvish news, our pages gave the Rangers just under a 9% chance at the playoffs. Right now, they have just under a 4% chance at the playoffs, and while maybe that doesn’t seem so significant, that means the odds have been cut by more than half.
PECOTA has been a little more sunny on the Rangers, but even there, they’re basically a .500 team before taking away Darvish’s full season. Maybe they’re about on the level of the Astros; maybe they’re about on the level of the Twins. The Rangers don’t have no shot, and it’s always easy to dream, but this is almost as devastating as an injury can be.
It continues a theme of miserable luck for an organization that not long ago looked like one of the game’s strongest. For sure, there have been bad decisions, as well, but no one deserves the injuries the Rangers have had to put up with, and as recently as 2013, this team won 91 games. In March 2012, Baseball America ranked the Rangers No. 1 in organizational talent. In March 2013, BA ranked them No. 3. The Rangers have just gotten worse everywhere, and two of the potential 2015 bright spots appear lost even before Opening Day. Every spring features skyrocketing hope. The Rangers’ hope has exploded on the platform.
What the Rangers certainly don’t want to do is concede 2015 even before it begins. They know a roster is bigger than one or two players, and I’m sure they’d love to see full seasons from Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. A year ago, those players were deemed worthy of substantial commitments, and the front office will be able to squint and see a contender, even after the bombshell. Nothing is about to be dismantled.
But at the same time, the Rangers are most likely to just go ahead and see what they have. It makes very little sense for them to try to trade for Cole Hamels. Even if they could afford it, they’ll want to know what they could be adding to before they try to add. If a better team lost its ace, Hamels would be an obvious fallback, but the Rangers need to gain some clarity, and the last thing they need to do is shift focus to a short-term that looks worse by the month.
What probably happens is the Rangers soldier on, and they slowly drift out of the race. Which would make them one of few midseason sellers. Adrian Beltre almost certainly wouldn’t go anywhere, but there could be other interesting parts. Maybe Yovani Gallardo becomes available. Maybe Derek Holland even becomes available. Losing Darvish wouldn’t impact just 2015 — it would impact 2016 as well, and maybe the Rangers would go for a fuller re-tooling.
We’ll know what the Rangers have when the Rangers know what they have. The Rangers won’t know what they have until the middle of May or the middle of June. As easy as it is to wonder about Hamels now, it’s an even easier rumor to dismiss. There might be no salvaging this. Losing a pitcher like Yu Darvish can change a whole organization’s plan.
On paper, there are teams that benefit from the Darvish injury, and from the Lee injury. That’s just the truth of the matter. Stepping back, though, these are losses for the game, just as losing Masahiro Tanaka would be a loss for the game. These are some of the game’s most talented artists, pitchers capable of transcending the standings when they go to work, and all this breeds is pessimism and dejection. Dejection over what’s been lost; pessimism over what is sure to be lost, down the road. On the one hand, you want to celebrate the pitchers whose arms haven’t caved in. On the other hand, these stories just make ever louder the ticking of each pitcher’s clock.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.