Rangers better off without Fielder, but need pitching to contend

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Monday afternoon, the Rangers found out that Prince Fielder is headed toward season-ending surgery to repair the herniated disk in his neck. Monday night, they increased their lead in the American League West for the first time in a month, beating the A’s 7–6 on an Adrian Beltre home run to win their third game in a row, their first winning streak of any length since late June. 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 their recent month-long skid.

With regard to Fielder, as big a name as he may be, the Rangers success this season has come despite, not because of his performance. Prior to succumbing to his neck injury, Fielder made 79 of his 88 starts at designated hitter and hit .212/.292/.334, which translates to a 65 OPS+. Put another way in nearly 90 percent 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 says 1.0 wins worse, FanGraphs says a whopping 1.8 wins worse). 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, they could be at least full win better at that spot in the lineup alone over their remaining 62 games.

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With regard to their walk-off win Monday night, the only lead the Rangers had in the entire game was the one they took on Beltre’s final swing of the night. Texas starter Martin Perez gave up a two-run home run to A’s first baseman Danny Valencia in the top of the first and three more runs in the top of the third on doubles by Jed Lowrie, Valencia, Kris Davis and Billy Butler. The Rangers offense chipped away at the A’s 5-1 lead, with Profar picking up a leadoff single to ignite a two-run inning in the bottom of the fifth, but the A’s added a run in the seventh to make it 6-4. That’s when Beltre got to work.

With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Beltre hit a solo homer down the opposite-field line off Oakland reliever John Axford to bring Texas within one run. When he next came to the plate, there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth and Ryan Rua was on first base, pinch-running for Nomar Mazara, who had singled. Beltre only saw one pitch from A’s closer Ryan Madson, a 96 mph fastball right down Broadway, and he deposited it 422 feet away in the visiting bullpen for a walk-off home run.

With the Astros having lost 2–1 to the Yankees earlier in the night, the Rangers’ increased their lead in the AL West to 3 1/2 games. That marked the first time their lead had increased since June 26, when Texas beat the Red Sox as the Astros lost to the Royals, increasing the Rangers lead in the West from nine to 10 games. In the 28 days between those two lead increases, Astros went 15–7 (.682), the best record in the majors over that stretch. The Rangers, 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 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, Texas lost 7 1/2 games off its lead in the division.

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The Texas offense did slump during that skid, but their 4.1 runs scored per game weren’t evidence of a complete offensive collapse. What did collapse, however, was their 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 American League in runs scored per game (the Angels, Twins, Yankees and Royals). Their 7–6 win Monday night may have been exciting and encouraging, but it was not evidence of a change in form with regard to the team’s run prevention.

The Rangers can endure the loss of Fielder, will benefit from it, in fact. However, they can not endure without a meaningful upgrade to their pitching staff between now and the non-waiver trading deadline on Monday. Perez has now allowed 29 runs (22 earned) in 21 2/3 innings over his last four starts (a 9.14 ERA) while striking out just seven against eight walks. Nick Martinez, who will be called up to start in place of Kyle Lohse on Tuesday, last turned in a quality start in the major leagues on July 31 of last year. Sunday’s victor, A.J. Griffin, has shown flashes of effectiveness, but 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 48-day disabled-list stint due to shoulder soreness.

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Wednesday’s starter, Yu Darvish, has shown good stuff in his five starts this season, but his quality start against the Royals on Friday was his first in the majors since 2014, which was also the last season in which he managed to make four starts in a row without landing on the disabled list. There’s certainly room for optimism regarding Darvish, but he’s no sure thing for the remaining two-plus months of the season. However, with Colby Lewis (strained latissimus dorsi) and Derek Holland (shoulder inflammation) not expected back from their respective DL stints until late August, if then, he is by far the best thing in the Rangers rotation behind ace Cole Hamels.

The Rangers can’t win with that rotation, with or without Fielder and with or without Beltre taking matters into his own hands, as he did Monday night. Fortunately for the Rangers, in the similarly nosediving Royals (10-19, .345 since June 20, including a 6-2 loss to the Angels Monday night) and the lowly A’s, they have a soft schedule between now and the deadline, while the Astros head to Detroit after their current series against the Yankees. With the extra game gained Monday night, the Rangers should be able to hold on to first place until those 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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