Rangers facing postseason obstacles
Seemingly, all is well with the Texas Rangers.
They've got an all but insurmountable lead in the American League West, and they've got a good shot at their first 90-win season since 1999.
In related matters, Josh Hamilton is an MVP candidate, Texas made the marquee addition of the deadline, the rotation — the organizational bete noir for so long — is now a strength, Ron Washington is a steady hand in the dugout and up in the owner's box they've swapped out the hapless Tom Hicks for the enthusiastic Chuck Greenberg and the legendary Nolan Ryan (who, to his enduring credit, prefers to sit in the stands). Again, all seems well.
However, the Rangers, mortal playoff locks though they may be, have concerns — serious concerns — going forward. The goal, of course, isn't merely to make the postseason; it's to do well in the postseason. And that's goes double for this franchise, which, somewhat famously, has never, ever won a playoff series. Having a roughly 100% chance of winning the division is great, but unless things change the larger goals may elude the Rangers once again.
First, there's the health issue.
MVP candidate Hamilton is sidelined with a rib injury, and he also has ongoing knee and back problems.
Cy Young candidate Cliff Lee missed his most recent scheduled start with back pain, and he hasn't logged a quality start in more than a month.
Needless to say, if those two core contributors aren't in vintage form for the postseason, the Rangers probably won't go far.
Elsewhere, Frank Francisco, one of the Rangers' top right-handed setup men, may miss the rest of the season; and shortstop Elvis Andrus has a bad hamstring (not an ideal injury for someone who depends upon his ability to move laterally).
A related concern is fatigue. C.J. Wilson is well past his previous career high for innings pitched — majors or minors — and Colby Lewis will soon join him. In other words, Texas has cause to worry about each of its top three starters.
On the hitting side of the ledger, 35-year-old Vlad Guerrero has slumped badly in the second half. In fact, the Ranger offense as a whole has lost 30 points of OPS since the break.
Is the Texas heat a factor? Playing baseball in Arlington in the height of summer is not unlike playing baseball in a giant, sizzling wok, and that only adds to the existing levels of fatigue. The Rangers can rightly ask whether their players will have as much in the tank as those who have spent the summer in more moderate climates.
And then there are those looming playoff match-ups. The AL playoff fray will almost certainly consist of the Yankees, Rays, Twins and Rangers.
Unfortunately for the Rangers, this season they're a combined 6-15 against those other three teams.
As well, the Rangers almost certainly won't have home-field advantage in the postseason (right now, they'd face the AL East champ in the first round), and that's also a source of worry.
After all, the Rangers are a paltry 33-37 on the road this season. The Rangers are also just 22-30 against teams with a record of .500 or better. So the Rangers are particularly ill-suited to playing good teams on the road, and that's exactly what they'll be doing in the postseason.
And speaking, again, of the postseason, is the Texas roster tailored to that peculiar environment? Baseball has much built-in parity, and in short playoff series blind luck plays a huge role in the outcomes. However, as research by Nate Silver and yours truly has shown, teams that play good defense, strike out a lot of opposing hitters and have dominant closers tend to do better in the postseason than teams that lack those three attributes.
In those areas, the Rangers are comfortably worse off than the Yankees and Rays, one of which is a likely first-round opponent.
To be sure, the Rangers have much to be proud of this season, and despite all the troubling trends it's entirely possible they'll wind up with the belt and the title.
However, given the health of the roster, their recent struggles (a 15-20 record since Aug. 1), and the strength of the AL playoff field, they may not improve upon that 1-9 all-time postseason record.
The organization is positioned to lord over the AL West for the next handful of years, but those championship dreams might go unfulfilled in 2010.