With Nelson Cruz suspended, Rangers hope pitching can pave path to October
As I wrote on Thursday, the Rangers stand to suffer the most of any team in the short term from the Biogenesis suspensions, as Nelson Cruz, who has been suspended for the remainder of the regular season, has been a crucial source of production in their underperforming lineup. General manager Jon Daniels failed to reinforce his team's offense at last week's non-waiver trading deadline, yet, just as its postseason outlook began to look bleakest, Texas has gone on a run. The Rangers have won eight of their last nine games, taking a game-and-a-half lead on the Orioles and Indians for the second American League wild-card spot and pulling within a game of the AL West-leading A's.
Cruz was a key contributor of the first part of that run, going 7-for-20 (.350) with three home runs in the first six wins, but Texas continued winning without him earlier this week. A close inspection reveals that its recent success has had more to do with pitching than hitting.
Over those last nine games, the Rangers have averaged 6.0 runs per game while allowing just 3.1 per game, excellent numbers on both sides of the ball. However, if you take out their wild 14-11 10-inning win over the Angels early in that streak we get a better picture of what Texas has been up to. In the remaining eight games, including the one loss, the Rangers have scored 4.4 runs per game and allowed a mere 1.9. The former figure looks a lot like what they've been up to on the season as a whole (4.3 R/G, a tick below league average despite their run-friendly home ballpark). The latter, however, is something new.
The Rangers have allowed 4.0 runs per game on the season, a solid showing that is comfortably better than league average, and once you adjust for their ballpark, you find that they have the second-best staff ERA+ in the American League at 116. They've done that despite needing 33 starts from rookies Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch, who combined for a 5.63 ERA over 174 1/3 innings. However Grimm, since traded to the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal, and Tepesch, on the disabled list with elbow inflammation, have been replaced in the rotation by Garza and Alexi Ogando, who made just one start between May 15 and July 23 due to a shoulder injury. That's a significant upgrade, and one that could help Texas prolong its current run.
Indeed, the Rangers without Cruz (or Josh Hamilton or Lance Berkman) appear to be recasting themselves as a team built around pitching and defense, a last resort of sorts but not one for which they are ill-equipped. Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler form three-quarters of an outstanding defensive infield; Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry, both of whom could see more playing time in Cruz's absence, cover a lot of ground in centerfield; and Engel Beltre, the 23-year-old rookie who has replaced Cruz in the lineup in two games since his suspension, is an outstanding defensive outfielder and thus represents a massive upgrade in rightfield, though he can't carry Cruz's bat. With solid work from David Murphy in left and A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate, the Rangers' only weak spot in the field is first base.
With that defense behind that reinforced rotation and one of the league's best bullpens (only the Royals, A's and Twins have a lower 'pen ERA among AL clubs), the Rangers aren't going to go away easily. What's more, the rehabbing Matt Harrison (back surgery) and Neftali Feliz (Tommy John surgery) lurk as potential September reinforcements for the pitching staff. Still, even with all of that run-prevention ability, the Rangers aren't going to hold their opponents to fewer than two runs per game the rest of the way. So, while there is a path forward for Texas, its margin of error, already slim given its position on the cusp of the playoff picture, has disappeared completely. Barring a significant waiver-wire addition to replace Cruz, such as the Twins' Josh Willingham, who could return from the disabled list this weekend, the Rangers seem unlikely to be able to take control of their own destiny.