Texas overcomes inconsistent rotation, roster turnover to win division
By Richard Justice
This isn't the team the Texas Rangers believed they would have. In these closing weeks, their lineup frequently has included five or six players who weren't on the Opening Day roster and three who weren't even in the organization. That's why this American League West championship -- secured in a 3-0 win over Oakland on Friday -- might be the sweetest of them all.
Oh, and there's All-Star center fielder Ian Desmond. He wasn't in the original blueprint either. But when he was still a free agent at the beginning of Spring Training, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels saw him as a chance to strengthen his team.
At the time, Daniels had come to the conclusion that left fielder Josh Hamilton might not play in 2016 (He didn't.) and was unsure if his top prospect, Nomar Mazara, was ready (He was. He leads all AL rookies with 20 home runs and 64 RBIs.)
Only it really wasn't about figuring out how many at-bats Desmond, a former All-Star shortstop, would get or where he would play. It simply was adding another good player and trusting manager Jeff Banister to figure out the rest of it.
Maybe it's decisions like this that have helped make the Rangers one of baseball's most successful organizations. Five playoff appearances in seven seasons is validation of that.
Or maybe it's how Daniels handled the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
His team needed starting pitching. The Rangers used 11 starting pitchers in the first half, and only Cole Hamels (14-5, 3.42 ERA) had stayed healthy and performed at a high level.
Daniels had a deep enough farm system to acquire almost anyone. But he ended up passing on adding to the rotation altogether because he was uncomfortable with the asking prices.
Instead, he strengthened the Rangers in other areas: catcher (Jonathan Lucroy), designated hitter (Carlos Beltran) and bullpen (Jeremy Jeffress). When the Astros released center fielder Carlos Gomez a few days later, he signed him, too. Lucroy, Beltran and Gomez have 22 home runs and 72 RBIs in 401 at-bats with Texas.
The Rangers are 37-27 since the All-Star break and have the American League's best record at 91-63, just in front of the Indians (90-63) and Red Sox (90-64).
Since 2010, only St. Louis has been to the postseason as often as the Rangers, and only the Cardinals and Yankees have a higher regular-season winning percentage.
Daniels has reshaped the roster again and again since then. It works because Daniels and his staff (a) evaluate players at all levels better than almost anyone and (b) have an understanding that constructing a successful Major League roster is much an art as a science.
To win without great starting pitching isn't the norm. To win with a plus-12 run differential -- third best in the AL West, tied for 14th best in the Majors -- makes this season even more improbable.
The Rangers have won this way:
• 36-11 in one-run games, one of the best such records in history
• Forty-seven come-from-behind victories
• Twenty last at-bat victories
• Fifth-highest scoring offense in the Majors (734 runs) led by Adrian Beltre's MVP-caliber numbers (28 doubles, 31 home runs, .874 OPS, 5.8 WAR).
History says these numbers aren't sustainable. But the Rangers say they reveal the tenacity and competitive fire of a club that has continued to find ways to win games.
Besides, we're constantly reminded that postseason baseball is different, that it's about grinding out at-bats and figuring a way to maneuver through the final innings of close games.
The Rangers have gotten Yu Darvish and Lewis back from the disabled list and will line them up behind Hamels during the postseason. None of them has pitched especially well down the stretch.
The Texas rotation is 4-9 with a 6.07 ERA (71 earned runs in 105 1/3 innings) this month, but the playoffs could provide a kind of reset button. At least the Rangers hope it does.
Regardless, they can celebrate this first step. It was one worth celebrating.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.