• The Rangers will be better off without the struggling Prince Fielder, but they need pitching if they want to remain contenders down the stretch.
By Cliff Corcoran
July 26, 2016

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On Monday afternoon, the Rangers found out that designated hitter Prince Fielder is headed toward season-ending surgery to repair the herniated disk in his neck. That night, they increased their lead in the American League West for the first time in a month, beating the A’s, 7–6, on a walk-off, two-run homer by Adrian Beltre to win their third game in a row. Those two pieces of news are neither as bad nor as good as they sound for the Rangers, but they do set the stage for a meaningful reversal of the team's recent month-long skid.

As big a name as Fielder might be, Texas's success this season has come despite, not because of, his performance. Fielder made 79 of his 88 starts this season at DH and hit .212/.292/.334, which translates to a 65 OPS+. Put another way, in nearly 90% of his games this season, Fielder’s only job was to hit, and he did that at a rate 35% worse than the average major leaguer, after correcting for ballpark effects. According to baseball-reference.com’s numbers, Fielder was 1.2 wins worse than a replacement-level player this year (Baseball Prospectus had his WAR at -1.0, and FanGraphs rated it a whopping -1.8). The Rangers would be better off without him even if they didn’t have Jurickson Profar available to devour his at-bats. With Profar now able to play every day in Fielder’s place, Texas could be at least one full win better at that spot in the lineup alone over their remaining 62 games.

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Profar helped spark the Rangers' comeback win Monday night, when his leadoff single in the fifth inning ignited a two-run rally that chipped away at Oakland's 5–2 lead. It was 6–4 in the seventh when Beltre hit a solo homer down the rightfield line to bring Texas within one run. When he next came to the plate, there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth and a runner on first base. Beltre only saw one pitch from A’s closer Ryan Madson—a 96-mph fastball that he deposited it 422 feet away in the visiting bullpen for a game-winning home run.

With the Astros having lost 2–1 to the Yankees earlier in the night, the Rangers increased their AL West lead for the first time since June 26, when it was a season-high 10 games. In that 28-day span, Houston went 15–7 (.682), the best record in the majors. Texas, meanwhile, went 8–15 (.348), the second-worst record in the AL over that period, and one marked by a 4–15 (.210) stretch from June 29 to July 22 in which the Rangers failed to win consecutive games even once but never failed to follow a single loss with a second. In that stretch of 19 games—15 of which were started by Fielder—the Rangers lost 7 1/2 games off their division lead.

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The Texas offense did slump during that skid, but its 4.1 runs scored per game weren’t evidence of a complete offensive collapse. What did collapse, however, was the team's pitching. During that 19-game slide, the Rangers allowed 7.1 runs per game—an eye-popping total, particularly when one considers that 13 of those 19 games came against teams currently in the bottom half of the AL in runs scored per game (the Angels, Twins, Yankees and Royals).

The Rangers can not only endure the loss of Fielder, but they will also benefit from it. But they still need a meaningful upgrade to their pitching staff between now and the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline. Martin Perez has now allowed 29 runs (22 earned) in 21 2/3 innings over his last four starts (a 9.14 ERA) and struck out just seven against eight walks. Nick Martinez, who will start in place of Kyle Lohse on Tuesday, last turned in a quality start in the majors last July 31. Sunday’s victor, A.J. Griffin, has shown flashes of effectiveness, but he hasn’t turned in a quality start since May and has posted a 5.40 ERA with seven home runs allowed in six starts since returning from a long disabled-list stint due to shoulder soreness.

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Wednesday’s starter, Yu Darvish, has shown good stuff in his five outings this season, but his quality start against the Royals on Friday was his first in the majors since 2014. That was also the last season in which he managed to make four starts in a row without landing on the disabled list. But with Colby Lewis (strained latissimus dorsi) and Derek Holland (shoulder inflammation) not expected back from their respective DL stints until late August, Darvish is by far the best thing in Texas's rotation behind ace Cole Hamels.

The Rangers will have a hard time repeating as AL West champions with their current rotation, but fortunately for them, they play the lowly A's and the similarly nosediving Royals (10–19, .345 since June 20) between now and the deadline, while the Astros head to Detroit after their current series against the Yankees. With the extra game gained in the standings on Monday night, the Rangers should be able to hold on to first place until those potential rotation reinforcements arrive via general manager Jon Daniels’ deadline wheeling and dealing. If Daniels fails to deliver, however, the Rangers’ sinking ship may be sunk.

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