It’s amazing the difference seven days can make in a 162-game baseball season. The Rangers appeared to be falling to the wayside as a playoff contender after dropping six straight games to the Indians and Blue Jays.
In fact, it was the Rangers who helped jump-start the Blue Jays’ 11-game winning streak that was finally snapped by the Rays on Monday. But the Rangers managed to take 3-of-4 games against the A’s and swept the best team in baseball, the Cardinals, at Busch Stadium over the weekend.
Rangers manager Ron Washington admitted his team could’ve been “buried” during that difficult stretch, but that’s not what happened. They once again sit atop the A.L. West standings with a half-game lead over an A’s team that just dropped two of three games to the Mariners. I believe the team basically gave general manager Jon Daniels his marching orders over the past week. The Rangers are going to stay in this race until the end, and it’s up to Daniels and his staff to trade for either a frontline starting pitcher or a corner outfielder with some pop.
The Rangers’ offense stabilized over the past seven games thanks in part to the return of second baseman Ian Kinsler. After briefly hitting Kinsler third in the order, Washington moved him back to the leadoff spot. His presence has calmed shortstop Elvis Andrus, who went into one of the worst slumps of his career during Kinsler’s absence. Right fielder Nelson Cruz has taken Lance Berkman’s spot at No. 3 in the order, and he may never give it up. He leads the Rangers in both home runs (19) and RBIs (55). Berkman is having trouble with his back and knees, which shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone.
Of course, you can’t bring up Cruz’s name without thinking about the Biogenesis investigation hanging over his head. There were indications last week that Major League Baseball wanted to move quickly in order to avoid having suspected players participate in the All-Star game. But that’s not the read Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan is getting from Bud Selig.
“We realize that the players’ association has to be brought in and any other investigations and then they’re going to have to do interviews with the players they suspect, so I think it’s going to be a long drawn-out affair,” Ryan told us Monday on KESN-FM 103.3 . “I don’t really expect, as had been rumored from ESPN, that they might do something right after the All-Star break.”
The Rangers should still be proactive in shopping for a corner fielder, but perhaps the situation isn’t as dire as we’d thought. And this might be a good time to discuss a long-term contract with Cruz. Even if he has to serve a 50-game suspension, the Rangers shouldn’t be in a hurry to distance from him. Cruz has been an extremely productive player who’s excelled in the playoffs. It’s not like there’s anyone in the minor-league pipeline ready to take his place next season. Mike Olt’s bounced back nicely from a vision problem that forced him to leave Triple-A Round Rock temporarily, but it’s too early to say he’d be the definite replacement for Cruz.
Cruz could play right field for another year or two and then spend the rest of his career as a designated hitter. And he’s such a beloved player that a 50-game suspension isn’t going to alienate him from teammates. The A’s were so upset with starting pither Bartolo Colon’s suspension that they didn’t waste any time bringing him back for another season.
The Rangers found out the hard way not to place their trust in building through free agency. They’ve done a good job signing core players such as Kinsler and Andrus to long-term extensions. And based on his production this season, you have to also consider Cruz a core player.
It’s easy to become enamored with young players such as Leonys Martin and Jurickson Profar. But neither of those players will ever have the power that Cruz brings to the order. The Rangers can live without Josh Hamilton’s monster numbers because he was such a drain on his teammates and fans. That’s not the case with Cruz.
It’s a good sign that Ryan, who knows MLB commissioner Bud Selig very well, doesn’t sound worried about losing Cruz anytime soon. The Rangers went in the tank without Kinsler, and losing Cruz might have a similar impact on this team.
“I don’t know that there’s a time frame that [MLB] dealing with,” Ryan said. “I know that they are in a fact-finding mode right now, so we’ll just have to wait and see how that plays out. But do I worry about losing Nellie here shortly? No, I don’t. I really think he’ll be with us and we’ll just have to see where that goes.”
We saw how Josh Hamilton faded during a contract season. Well, Cruz is dealing with even more distractions than Hamilton had…and he’s flourishing.
Now’s the time to start negotiating with him on a new deal.